COVID-19’s impact on indigenous women in Mexico

10/09/20 (written by vrice) – While COVID-19 has affected various sectors of the Mexican population, indigenous communities—and especially women—have been particularly impacted in the wake of pandemic austerity measures. Budget cuts to Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Women’s Shelters (Casas de la Mujer Indígena y Afromexicana, CAMIs) have led indigenous women to mobilize and increasingly accuse the government of negligence. This unrest challenges claims in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) recent government report that his administration has effectively supported women and indigenous communities during the pandemic.

Members of the “La Abuela Sabia” CAMI in Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero. Photo: La Dekonstrucción
Members of the “La Abuela Sabia” CAMI in Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero. Photo: La Dekonstrucción

Coronavirus rates in indigenous communities

Approximately 21.4% (25 million) of Mexico’s 120 million citizens are indigenous. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, 1,882 deaths and 15,390 cases of the coronavirus have been registered in Mexican indigenous communities. This data translates into a 12% mortality rate from COVID-19 for indigenous Mexican communities, compared to the national average of 10%. The country currently has the fourth highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world (79,088). 

Indigenous women face disproportionate vulnerabilities 

Health and Education 

The lack of hospitals in indigenous communities, coupled with pandemic travel restrictions, make seeking medical care even more difficult than for the non-indigenous population. These factors further threaten indigenous women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Indigenous women already have higher infant mortality rates, at 3.3 deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared to 2.2 deaths for non-indigenous women. Given these rates, the prenatal care and birthing assistance provided by CAMIs becomes even more indispensable. In addition, 19.9% of indigenous populations lack access to water and 24.6% do not have sewage systems. Compliance with COVID-19 safety measures, like frequent hand washing, is unfeasible without access to these resources. Further threats to indigenous women’s health arise from gender based violence. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) México, the rural location of most indigenous communities impedes the ability of women to escape increasing domestic violence rates during pandemic lockdowns. 

COVID-19 is also having a significant effect on the education indigenous women receive. In indigenous communities, 23% of individuals are already illiterate, compared to 4.2% in the general population. Women in indigenous communities also have even fewer years of schooling than indigenous men, whereas the inverse is true amongst the non-indigenous population. While the average woman in Mexico receives 9.1 years of schooling, indigenous women receive only 6.2 years. School closures due to COVID-19 may increase the rates at which indigenous children abandon their studies, particularly indigenous girls, as has occurred during past pandemics according to UNESCO México. The government is currently pursuing a “Learn from Home” (Aprender en casa) program where students can watch classes on television or access them via the internet. It is also worth noting that only 40% of indigenous communities have 4G coverage, meaning the majority of individuals cannot attend online classes. 

Income and Employment 

Studies by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (El Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social) indicate that 80% of indigenous Mexicans work in the informal economy. As a result, they do not have access to benefits like unemployment insurance or labor protections. Coronavirus lockdowns have also hindered activities in the informal sector, leading to a loss of vital income for survival. UN Women and UNESCO identify how this diminution of income disproportionately impacts the food security of indigenous single mothers. 

Closures exacerbate the already disproportionate access of indigenous women to the labor market compared to non-indigenous women. Only 26% of the former participate in some form of labor compared with 46% of the latter. Moreover, stay at home orders have increased the amount of unpaid, domestic labor with which indigenous women are tasked. Nearly 65% of indigenous women 12 years of age and older perform this uncompensated labor, compared with only 35.3% of indigenous men. Financial vulnerability is heightened by how even before the pandemic, indigenous individuals earned monthly wages 45.5% lower than non-indigenous individuals. Indigenous women earn less than their male counterparts, making 3,840 pesos ($171.30 USD) each month compared to males’ 4,155 pesos ($185.35 USD).  Indigenous communities are also more susceptible to financial burdens from medical treatment for COVID-19 and other health ailments. Approximately 82% of the non-indigenous population possesses social security, which provides healthcare, while over 77% of the indigenous population does not. Thus, the 69.5% of the indigenous population currently living in poverty is likely to increase due to COVID-19.

Resistance from Indigenous Communities

On May 11, amidst rising COVID-19 death rates and AMLO’s announcement of austerity measures, indigenous artisan women gathered outside the National Palace in Mexico City to protest for government assistance. Demands ranged from potable water to economic aid, as lockdowns have shut down the informal economy on which many of these women rely for income. Francisca de la Cruz, coordinator of the CAMI of Ometepec, in the state of Guerrero, reflected the demonstrators’ frustrated sentiment, stating that the government does not prioritize the problems of indigenous women. Global NGOs like Amnesty International rallied behind the rights of indigenous women during the pandemic, by releasing a letter template to send complaints about the suspended CAMI funding to Mexico’s Minister of Interior. AMLO’s failure to issue government assistance to indigenous communities, while simultaneously advancing construction on the Maya Train (Tren Maya) during the pandemic sparked additional unrest and civil resistance.

Indigenous artisan women protesting outside of the National Palace in Mexico City on May 11, 2020 to demand financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: The Washington Post.
Indigenous artisan women protesting outside of the National Palace in Mexico City on May 11, 2020 to demand financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: The Washington Post.

The Government’s Response 

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) announced COVID-19 austerity measures at the end of March, which included the indefinite suspension of the Indigenous Rights Program (Programa de Derechos Indígenas) budget. This program is managed by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, INPI) and helps fund 35 Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Women’s Shelters (CAMIs). These spaces are often the only sources of legal and medical aid for indigenous and Afro-Mexican women. A third of the CAMIs were forced to shut down in May due to a lack of funding. They have since received only half of the 30 million pesos ($1,373,445 USD, approximately $25,000-40,000 USD per shelter) originally earmarked for them. The National Network of Shelters for Indigenous Women denounced the budget cuts for reducing the amount of resources available to women amidst increasing rates of domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns. According to Mexican federal authorities, the first three weeks of lockdown saw a 30-100% increase in violence against women.

On September 1, AMLO issued his second government report, which cited significant support from his administration for indigenous communities and women during the COVID-19 pandemic. News outlet Animal Político critiqued how the report did not mention that only half of the original budget was distributed, or that one-third of CAMIs were forced to close. Echoing the sentiment of feminist activists, Animal Político argues that the government’s failure to financially support CAMIs contradicts AMLO’s statements that services for women experiencing domestic violence are “essential” during the pandemic. Moreover, the report fails to cite any statistics to justify its claim that government support was provided to CAMIs to continue providing aid for indigenous and Afro-Mexican women experiencing gender-based violence (e.g. consultations, translations, case follow-up). The report claims that 30,430 women received such support through CAMIs during the pandemic (from September 1, 2019-June 30, 2020), even though a footnote on the document reveals this data is solely from the last quarter of 2019. Thus, the statistic provides no insight into the care women received via CAMIs during the outbreak and augmentation of COVID-19 rates. 

The government defended itself against these accusations of neglect by promoting its “Guide for Assistance to Indigenous Communities and Afro-Mexicans during the health emergency created by the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus” (Guía para la Atención de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas y Afromexicanas ante la emergencia sanitaria generada por el virus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)). Initially issued in Spanish on May 8, the guide was released on May 21 in 35 indigenous languages to make information about COVID-19 and safety precautions more widely accessible. These indigenous language versions were released almost three months after the first COVID-19 case was registered in Mexico. During a press conference in the National Palace at the end of August, Adelfo Regino Montes, the head of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, INPI), praised the guide for its crucial role in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous communities. However, as there are 68 recognized indigenous languages in Mexico, the report is only available in a little over half of these.

As COVID-19 rages on, inadequate government assistance threatens to amplify the obstacles indigenous Mexican women already face in regard to education, health, income, and employment.

Sources

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Arteta, Itxaro. “Gobierno presume en Informe apoyos a indígenas y mujeres que tuvieron recortes o subejercicios.” Animal Político, Sept. 2, 2020. 

“Indigenous communities in Mexico have no access to healthcare amid the pandemic.” The Yucatan Times, Sept. 1, 2020.

“Segundo Informe de Gobierno; conoce el documento completo: PDF.” El Heraldo de México, Sept. 1, 2020. 

“Patrocinan extranjeros a ONG anti Tren Maya.” El Universal, Aug. 27, 2020.

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Suárez, V. et al. “Epidemiología de COVID-19 en México: del 27 de febrero al 30 de abril de 2020.” Revista clinica espanola, (20)30, May 27, 2020.

Gobierno de México & Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas. “Guía para la atención de pueblos indígenas y afromexicano ante el COVID-19, en lenguas indígenas.” May 21, 2020. 

Castellanos, Laura. “México atropella los derechos de indígenas y defensores ante el coronavirus.” The Washington Post, May 13, 2020. 

Gobierno de México & Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas. “Guía para la Atención de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas y Afromexicanas ante la Emergencia Sanitaria Generada por el Virus SARS-CoV2 (COVID-19).” May 8, 2020. 

Arteta, Itxaro. “Hacienda retiene los recursos para atención a violencia contra mujeres indígenas.” Animal Político, May 4, 2020. 

García, Carina. “Hay 11 millones de alumnos registrados en el programa Aprende en Casa: SEP.” El Universal, April 27, 2020.

Gómez Mena, Carolina. “Organizaciones piden cancelar el Tren Maya por Covid-19.” La Jornada, April 21, 2020.

“Pueblos indígenas y COVID-19: una mirada desde México.” UNESCO, April 8, 2020.

Ortiz, Alexis. “Estiman aumento de hasta 100% en violencia de género por confinamiento ante coronavirus.” El Universal, April 4, 2020.

ONU Mujeres & UNESCO México. “Mujeres indígenas en contexto: Covid-19 ¿Cómo les impacta?” 2020. 

Reveles, César. “Mujeres, indígenas, personas LGBTI y adultos mayores tienen los peores salarios en México.” Animal Político, Nov. 26, 2019. 

Vega, Andrea. “Solo 40% de las localidades con población indígena tiene cobertura 4G.” Animal Político, Aug. 13, 2019. 

Canedo, Ana. “Labor Market Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples in Mexico: A Decomposition Analysis of Wage Differentials.” Iberoamericana: Nordic Journal of Latin America and Caribbean Studies, 48(1), March 1, 2019.

“En México la población indígena y la hablante de lengua indígena registran una mayor tasa de analfabetismo y un menor nivel de escolaridad: Sylvia Schmelkes.” Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación México, Feb. 25, 2019. 

Vega, Margarita. “Aquí no hay clínica, ni médico, ni medicinas…” Animal Político.

Civilians call for Prison Reform in Nuevo Léon

09/24/20 (written by mlopez) – Nuevo Léon’s penal system has been facing critique as the protocols and adherence of inmate rights are being questioned by locals and authorities. The prison system in Mexico has long had its issues with overcrowding and gang violence, as well as recent complications with COVID-19. These factors are making the cells inhabitable for Nuevo Léon’s inmates. Families of the detained are now calling for a fair and impartial investigation into these prison environments. 

In September 2020,  two respected human rights watch group organizations — Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Ciudadanos en Apoyo a Los Derechos Humanos (CADHAC) — co-authored a letter demanding the investigation into the suspicious deaths of three inmates. HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco and CADHAC’s Hermana Consuelo Gonzales addressed the letter to Nuevo Leon’s governor, JRC, “El Bronco.” In it, they ask for clarity on the prisons Apodaca 1 and 2.

In these jails, there are allegations of gang violence and corrupt payoffs, unsafe and unhygienic social distancing and safety guidelines pertaining to COVID-19, and a lack of medicinal support for any COVID-19 cases. The three deaths mentioned in the letter by HRW and CADHAC add to the complaints made by other inmates’ families and have raised suspicion among the public. The first involved Estanislao Aguilera Escamilla, who died of electrocution on July 14, within a day of being detained. The second victim was Modesto Martínez de la Cruz who died of pneumonia on July 24, within three days of being detained. Just two weeks later, Óscar Hugo de León Martínez was also found dead after having allegedly committed suicide. HRW and CADHAC are urging Governor Rodríguez Calderón to take action in these prisons and to protect prisoners’ rights.

Nuevo Léon’s prisons

One of the nine banners hung in Monterrey, NL’s plaza. The banner directly calls for the governor to look into these two commanders who allegedly protected an inmate for the sake of being hostile to other prisoners and to trafficking drugs. Photo: Especial

The prisons themselves have been harshly critiqued by authorities and by the families of inmates. El Norte’s Christian Lara reported on the display of mantas (banners) in Monterrey Plaza. This public display was an attempt to bring the conditions of the prisons to the forefront of the issues that Nuevo Léon is facing. These issues include penitentiaries that are overcrowded, influenced by gang activity, and unsanitary. Overcrowded prisons have a low guard to inmate ratio, there is supposed to be 1 guard per 3 inmates, yet realistically there is one guard per every 5.91 prisoners. Due to this imbalance of guards, riots and gang violence persist through the detention centers. Two notorious such riots were those of Topo Chico in 2012 and 2016. While authorities have promoted cutting the lifeline of gangs in detention facilities, there are still allegations of families having to pay off gang leadership in prisons to protect their families that are incarcerated. Carlos Jáuregui, former public security secretary, stated, “the problem is that the majority of Mexican prisons are out of control. They are run by organized crime and the prisoners themselves.”

Shutting down of Topo Chico

The 2016 closure of Topo Chico, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, was in response to how inoperable the facility was and due to all the violence that erupted in this facility. Its closure meant the relocation of 2,000 inmates to Apodaca 1 and Cadereyta with the caveat that they would be under surveillance. Some lawyers saw this move as dangerous as it would be a mezcla — or mix — of gang leadership, which could result in more violence. Many inmates have detailed that certain cartels and gangs controlled various aspects of Topo Chico, signifying the prison officials were out of the loop. Yet, Carlos Martín Sánchez Bocanegra, Director of prison reform group Renace, claimed Topo Chico was primarily shut down because it no longer met national standards, citing a shortage of custodians. Meanwhile, others claim that it was the prison’s infrastructure that posed a threat to the guards, visitors, and inmates. 

Topo Chico was the home to the largest penal massacre due to gang violence between Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, two of the most notorious organized crime groups in Mexico. This resulted in 49 dead and the escape of 37 gang leaders. Nevertheless, despite the massacre, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel were still believed to have had influence within the prison. Governor Rodríguez Calderón responded to these prison riots saying “The self-governance (of prisons) will not return because we made the decision: no more extortion of prisoners, of depriving people’s liberties, to their families that have lost heritage as well as tranquility. Imagining and building are what is best. I imagine that Nuevo Léon will recover its happiness.” [author’s own translation]

COVID-19 as a new factor in prisons

The latest challenge to the livelihoods of prisons is the novel coronavirus. Although Governor Rodríguez Calderón encouraged all of the state’s businesses to implement the proper guidelines to reduce the virus’ spread, prisons have fallen through the crack with reports of minimal social distancing measures in place.  In fact, 37% of Mexico’s detention facilities report having overcrowded cells. “Our main aim is to depressurize the prisons in the face of the overpopulation we have,” Maribel Cervantes, the security secretary for Ciudad de Mexico, told EFE. She further highlights that the state’s prisons are designed to house 13,500 inmates but currently contain 31,000 prisoners. With the lack of COVID preventative measures, there is also a lack of proper testing for inmates. Citizens in Monterrey Plaza called for intervention from “El Bronco” by means of the banners they displayed in May of this year. Since then, prisons reportedly have had 100 cases of Covid-19, 79 suspected cases, nine deaths, and three riots linked to the virus since the outbreak of the pandemic according to Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Los Derechos Humanos, CNDH).

There has yet to be a response from “El Bronco” on this specific letter from the HRW and CADHAC. However, Mexico has responded to the inefficient health measures in prisons by asking the judicial branch to release at least 380 prisoners who are serving under five-year sentences or are chronically ill to minimize the crowding in prisons. Penitentiaries are notorious for having substandard living conditions, yet Mexico has been attempting to rebrand the prisons in the country. The 2016 reform of Article 18 in the Mexican Constitution, for example, further defines the mission of detention centers as a resocialization effort to promote work, education, sport, health, and basic human rights. The overcrowding, lack of gang control, and inefficient prevention of disease present serious challenges to upholding this mission.

Sources: 

Malkin, Elisabeth. “At Least 49 Inmates Killed in Mexican Prison Riot,” New York Times. February 6, 2016.

Barrios, Adrián Franco. “En Numeros: Características de la población privada de la libertad en México,” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. March 2018. 

“Nuevo Léon opens its doors to reveal 76 years of history,” Mexico News daily. September 2019.

Carrizales, David. “Topo Chico Cierra Penal Incontrolable,” El Universal. September 9, 2019.

Campos Garza, Luciana. “Termina la era de Topo Chico, uno de los capítulos más oscuros del sistema penal,” Proceso. September 30, 2019. 

I Admetlla, Eduard Ribas. “Mexican Prisoners at serious risk for COVID-19,” La Prensa Latina. May 14, 2020. 

Lara, Christian. “Aparecen mantas; reportan ‘abusos’ en penales,” El Norte. May 24, 2020. 

Vivanco, José Miguel. “Letter to the Governor of Nuevo León regarding abuses in state prisons,” Humans Right Watch. September 2, 2020.