Scapegoated: Mexico’s Broken Justice System and its Impact on Women

By Emily Crain

Michael Mariaud contributed to this article.

On March 2, 2010, Miriam Carbajal was arrested in Mexico for a federal crime: human and organ trafficking. She was detained along with 12 colleagues from the Cancun airport, where she worked as an administrator and occasionally operated the customs stand.

She was held for three days, unable to contact a lawyer or her family—including her 8-year-old son—before she received any information about her arrest. On the third day, her sister visited and told her the charges. After five days, Miriam was moved from Cancun to a detention center, or arriago, in Mexico City, where she was held for 82 days.

There she was given a public defender, but soon Miriam was sent to prison in Tamaulipas state—without a trial. Miriam’s lawyer told her, “Everyone knew that we were scapegoats and we had to pay.” He said that if she simply had missed work that day, “I would not be here.” She added, “Freedom for people in this country does not depend on justice or a judge, it depends on your luck.”

Miriam’s story of pain and confusion, told in the documentary Tempestad directed by Tatiana Huezo, is not unique within Mexico’s justice system. According to the Mexico Peace Index (MPI), created by the Institute for Economic and Peace (IEP), over 70,000 people were incarcerated without a sentence in Mexico in 2016.


Photos from Documentary La Tempested. PHOTO CREDIT: Ernesto Pardo and Tatiana Huezo

People like Miriam are known as the “semi-disappeared”: those taken from their families for crimes they did not commit. The most vulnerable are often the poor, without resources or knowledge of their rights. They are the scapegoats, or chivos expiatorios.

The Unique Challenges Women Prisoners Face

In Cedes Matamoros—about 1,300 miles away from her family—Miriam entered a hell controlled by organized crime. She recalls, “It was a mixed prison. And I never went to the side of the men. It was a prison with self-government, there was no law, there was no police, no one cared.” When she arrived, she was told that she had pay $5,000 in order to protect herself. “They feed on fear, that is their most powerful weapon. The fear of the families that will do anything, sell everything. My sister sold her apartment and my car. When I returned home it was completely empty down to the fan, so we could save my life.” And what would they do if you don’t pay? “They kill you,” she says. MPI data shows that 58 percent of the women at Cedes Matamoros are there without due process—no trial and no sentence.

Paty de Obeso, local coordinator for the MPI, says women often must resort to prostitution to pay for protection: “Organized crime is running the prisons, so people inside get extorted, them and their families. So you actually have to pay a fee to be there and not get killed or injured. So prostitution is actually a means of staying alive.”

Miriam also talks about the abandonment women experience in prison. “When men go to jail, yes, their women will go to see them. But for the women, their men abandon them, so women in prison also face forgetting, forgetting for their families, forgetting their husbands and their children.” She also witnessed several pregnant women and children in the prison, noting that it was more than likely that some of those women got pregnant in the mixed facility. However, she says she does not probe for details of the women’s experiences. “There is always a line of respect. You respect the pain, you never ask,” says Miriam. On her part, Consuelo Bañuelos, director of the organization Promotion of Peace, says that “the biggest issue for women is violation of their human rights, and that “the majority of women deprived of their liberty committed a crime motivated or forced by their partners.”

Detention centers in Mexico are also home to numerous children living with their imprisoned mothers—a result of lack of resources to care for children while their mothers are detained if their fathers are out of the picture. This is also due to cultural norms that designate women as sole caretakers for children, without accountability from the fathers. As Miriam mentioned, this is connected to the abandonment issue for these women.

One major obstacle to identifying the severity of the problem of women in detention centers is a lack of data. According to Talia Hagerty of the MPI, “The big thing that the IEP is calling for in Mexico is the improvement of data quality. We don’t have a specific policy solution that we’re calling for to deal with violence and the high rates of incarceration in Mexico, but we can tell you that whatever the solution is, it’s obscured by the lack of information.”

In cases like Miriam’s, we see the human aspect of a broken system: a system that frequently detains people without due process, and imprisons the wrong person for a crime. Her experience shows how Mexican women pay a heavy price when they become caught up in the country’s broken justice system.

Top photo: Police officers in Tamaulipas. Photo Credit: Ernesto Pardo and Tatiana Huezo


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