The 55-year-old pastor arrested for aggravated rape was given punishment consistent with ‘traditions and customs’ in some indigenous communities
In situations of sexual violence ‘a lot of cases are settled this way: with a bottle of liquor’, said Graciela Zabaleta, director of the Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Centre in the city of Tuxtepec. Photograph: nixki/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Human rights activists in Mexico have reacted with fury after a man accused of sexually abusing an eight-year old girl was ordered to buy the victim’s father two crates of beer as compensation.
The perpetrator, identified as a 55-year-old former pastor, was given the sanction after the victim’s parents complained to the municipal government in Santiago Quetzalapa, a remote indigenous community without road access or cellular phone coverage some 450km south-east of Mexico City.
He was only arrested after local media coverage of the fine prompted widespread outrage in the state. In a statement to the Guardian, the Oaxaca state attorney general’s office said that police arrested a man on Friday morning on charges of aggravated rape.
The case has highlighted both Mexico’s poor record at investigating sexual crimes, and a unique form of government in Oaxaca state, where many indigenous communities are ruled by an idiosyncratic system popularly known as usos y costumbres (“traditions and customs”).
Helder Palacios, editorial director of the Ruta 135 website which initially reported the case, said that Santiago Quetzalapa has a history of abuses which have been handled locally and not attracted the attention of outside authorities.
“There are cases in which there was impunity, there’s no investigation and local prosecutors never receive a criminal complaint,” he said.
The system is supposed to enshrine the traditions of local populations in a state with diverse indigenous populations, but it has been criticised for allowing local leaders to settle disputes according to their own beliefs rather than the written law.
“The argument in these municipalities is that they are governed by their own traditions and customs, but they ultimately end up committing human rights abuses,” Palacios said.
Many of victims and their families, she says, never report the crimes committed against them or bring their cases to the attention of judicial offices.
Officials in usos y costumbres communities have previously used the framework as a pretext to exclude women from local government.
In one notable case, an indigenous woman named Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza won the mayoral election, but was denied office by local leaders because of her gender. Cruz later went on to serve as speaker of the Oaxaca state legislature.
A constitutional amendment in 2015 mandated that women be given equal say in electing and participating in governments in indigenous communities, which have the right to run their own affairs.
Zabaleta, whose human rights centre works on gender equality issues in indigenous communities, says she has seen other improvements over the last 25 years.
“When I started, girls were sold for a piece of land or donkeys or for money,” she says. “Things have gotten better.”