Casto Hernandez Hernandez and Fidel Lopez Hernandez are from indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico, speak Spanish as second language and live in remote, subsistence farming communities. Both were forcibly displaced because of their religious beliefs. This year, they made an unprecedented trip to Washington DC, facilitated by CSW, to give their testimony to Congress in person – the first time victims of similar offences from Mexico have done so.
Their stories are depressingly similar. Fidel Lopez Hernandez was one of a group of 47 protestant Christians violently expelled from their village by the Roman Catholic majority in July 2012. In March 2015 the group were able to return to their homes and only then under an agreement which included a fine of 10,000 pesos per family (equivalent to 530 US dollars). Additionally, in their absence, the villagers had used their homes as rubbish dumps and the government did not follow through with promised funds to restore their houses.*
Casto’s case will be familiar to regular readers of this blog; read more about him here and here. Casto and his cousin were illegally arrested in their town in Hidalgo State in March 2015 by the local authorities and held for 30 hours with no water, food or access to sanitary facilities in an effort to pressure them to renounce their faith. Although an agreement established by the Hidalgo State Public Ministry allowed the men to return home in February 2016, they, like Fidel, are still subject to illegal restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in their hometown.
“Maybe you who came from the cities to see us can tell us, where did mass displacement come from? Where did this Clan Úsuga come from? Where did any of these things come from? Can you tell us? We do not know.”
The Protestant pastor held his Bible tightly to his chest as he stood and said these words. He and his wife had been forcibly displaced along with a large group from their church, forced to flee their rural village to the relative safety of an urban centre, after receiving threats from Clan Úsuga, a neo-paramilitary group also known as the Urabeños, one of the largest and most powerful violent criminal groups in Colombia.
We were at a meeting with about 15 church leaders who had travelled from across the region which was infested with left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups. They all had similar stories to share. Most, like the pastor who asked these questions, were humble people from the countryside who had dedicated themselves to subsistence farming and their ministry. They are far, far away from the centres of power in Colombia both in terms of geographic distance and influence. Yet, as he expressed, they and the people in their communities are the ones who live and cope daily with the consequences of the decisions and agreements brokered in those centres.
Casto Hernández Hernández (right) with his pastor
Casto Hernández Hernández and his cousin Juan Placido Hernández Hernández were first imprisoned and then forcibly displaced in March 2015 after they refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Despite the open admission by a village leader in early court hearings that he had attempted to force the men to change their religious beliefs, the case dragged on for almost eleven months, with the Public Ministry repeatedly cancelling or postponing hearings [See more].
Agreement on religious freedom allows the men to return home
On 2 February, the Public Ministry in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, reached a decision and put in place an agreement between Casto Hernández and Juan Placido Hernández and authorities from the village of Chichiltepec.
The agreement – drafted by the lawyers affiliated with CSW’s Mexican partner Impulso 18 and endorsed by the Public Ministry – guarantees total freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the village of Chichiltepec and Casto and Juan Placido’s right to return, with their full religious rights recognised.
According to the director of Impulso 18, Jorge Lee, the village authorities came to the meeting prepared to fight. When they realized they were ‘one step away from going to jail’, however, they changed their position, signed agreement and promised to uphold religious freedom in Chichiltepec.
While none of the village authorities spent any time in prison despite their criminal actions, we, and most importantly Casto and Juan Placido, feel that this agreed outcome is the right course of action.
It establishes their constitutional rights in a very clear way but also allows them to re-join their community in as harmoniously a way as possible. The concern was that if the authorities were thrown in prison, the levels of hostility would be so high, and the rupture in the indigenous community network so profound that it would be impossible for the two men to ever return home.
Casto sat at the table with other Christian leaders from the Huasteca region of Mexico. In April he had been talkative and his face had been animated. Now, in October, he was quiet and rarely looked up. One of the other leaders approached me privately and expressed concern about him. During the five-hour road trip to attend the workshop, he had told the other participants that he was so depressed that he hadn’t been able to attend church in a month.
This was the same man who, seven months earlier, had energetically defended his right to practice his religious beliefs at great cost. In March, he was summoned from his fields to appear at his community assembly in the village of Chichiltepec. Casto stopped his work and went to the assembly, accompanied by his cousin Juan. There, the village delegate (leader), Jesús Domínguez Hernández, told him to sign a document obligating him to renounce his Protestant beliefs – in violation of Mexico’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief, and its international obligations, including the Inter-American Covenant on Human Rights which explicitly upholds the right to maintain or change ones religious beliefs.
Casto refused and Juan stood with him. The community assembly took the two young men by force and put them in a rustic jail cell carved into the side of a hill, with the bars of the door open to the chilly and damp weather. The two men were held there, with no sanitary facilities, for 30 hours. Casto was removed periodically to see if he would sign the document. He continued to refuse. Finally the village delegate realised their pressure tactics were not going to work, released the men, and gave Casto eighteen hours to leave the village – declaring it to be a ‘Catholic-only village’.