17-year old Valentina Rosendo Cantú lived in an isolated village in Mexico’s impoverished Guerrero state. One morning, soldiers surrounded her as she washed clothes in a shaded stream. An indigenous woman whose first language was Me’phaa, she spoke little Spanish - when she couldn’t answer their questions she was tortured and raped by two of the soldiers while the other six watched.
Despite knowing the serious risks of fighting back against impunity, Valentina reported the crime. She was referred to the military courts but she was too terrified to speak with the army - the case was shelved.
That was in 2002. From that day on, Valentina fought to have her case heard in the civilian justice system.
As a result, she began to receive death threats. Her young daughter was attacked and two of her supporters from the Organisation of Indigenous Me’Phaa People (OPIM) were abducted, tortured and murdered. OPIM's leader, Obtilia Emanuel, had to leave the region for her safety.
Threats also forced Valentina’s lawyers from the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center to close one of their offices. PBI provides security support to the Center to enable them to continue their vital work representing survivors such as Valentina in their struggles for justice.
Despite the danger, Valentina persisted, her story representative of so many indigenous women who have been forced to suffer such abuse.
She said: “I don’t want the same thing to happen to my daughter, or to other women. That’s why I seek justice.”
In May 2010, Valentina took her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and won. The court found her rights had been violated and ordered Mexico to end the use of military justice in cases where soldiers commit crimes against civilians. It also ordered the investigation of Valentina's case in a civilian court, taking into account a gender and cultural diversity perspective in the identification, judgement and sentencing of those responsible.
It would take Valentina another eight years to secure justice. Finally, on 1st June 2018, a local court in Guerrero emitted a guilty verdict against the military members responsible for the rape and torture Valentina suffered.
Thanks to sentences such as that of the IACHR, Mexico modified its Military Justice Code in 2014, determining that civilian courts will investigate human rights violations committed by military members against civilians.
This is a paradigmatic case on a national and international level as it recognises the testimony of the victim as a fundamental probatory element and signals that crimes of this nature often occur without the posibility of access to witnesses. It sets a precedent for the development of the term "sexual torture" and "military institutional violence" and consolidates Valentina as a reference point in the defense of women's rights.