Jailed in Mexico: Thousands of Indigenous Behind Bars Due to Language Barriers

Rick Kearns

There are more than 8,000 indigenous people in prison in Mexico who do not know the charges against them due to a lack of bilingual personnel in the criminal justice system according to human rights activists who addressed this issue in a seminar in late February.

The Director of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (NCDIP), Nuvia Mayorga, hosted a seminar in Mexico City entitled "The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Inter-American System" aimed at training bilingual attorneys to work on defending and freeing imprisoned indigenous people, especially indigenous women.

In 2014 the NCDIP sent researchers across the country to interview indigenous prisoners and discovered that over 8,000 of them did not speak Spanish, did not receive help from a translator or bilingual attorney and that the majority of them did not know why they were in jail.

Mayorga pointed out that the indigenous prisoners were from the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Chihuahua, Guerrero and the Federal District (Mexico City), and her colleague Lia Limon, Undersecretary of the NCDIP, underscored the severity of the situations confronting the indigenous men and women.

"Any violation of human rights is serious, but when one is dealing with denying access to justice or due process to people who already are confronting social and cultural discrimination it is doubly grave," Limon asserted.

"Not only are they in a vulnerable position with constant violations of their rights, but that they end up being deprived of their liberty for the fact that they may not have had an adequate defense or simply that they did not understand the legal procedure due to not having a translator who can explain to them what are their fundamental rights," Limon said.

Mayorga added that currently there are only 28 bilingual public defenders in the judicial system in a country with 68 indigenous communities, 11 linguistic branches and 364 variations on those languages, making it "an enormous task" for the federal government.

She noted that in 2013, the NCDIP assisted in freeing 1,089 indigenous prisoners, and 1,693 indigenous people in 2014, all of them innocent of the charges leveled against them.

The seminar brought in close to 160 bilingual attorneys according to Mayorga.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
This is one reason why I don't venture into Mexico. If the drug cartels don't get you, the police will. There is even a name for police corruption there called "La Mordida" which means The Bite. You can be "arrested" for nearly anything, but if sufficient cash makes it's way into the hand of the arresting officer all can be forgiven. The cartels are less forgiving. ____________________________________________________________ Cartel brutality in Juarez, Mexico (about 40 miles south of my home) is legendary and it only takes a suspicious "finger man" to peg you as a rival cartel member. Those instances usually end in death. This is the reason that Juarez was the murder capital of the world for several years running. The best way to keep Natives out of jail in Mexico is to warn them NOT to go there!

Alyson Reed's picture
Alyson Reed
Submitted by Alyson Reed on
The Linguistic Society of America will be sponsoring a free webinar on the topic of language, science and human rights on March 20th at 12 noon (eastern time). We invite all readers of this article to participate. More details can be found at: