Last week, CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer detailed the culture of impunity that hinders the protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Mexico. In this post we put a human face on the effects of the government’s inadequate response to violations of FoRB, showing what happens to individuals when authorities delay or neglect their responsibilities to protect religious minorities.
One case which illustrates the
deep rooted culture of impunity that surrounds attacks on religious minorities
in Mexico is that of the community of Yashtinin in San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality in
Everything began in 2012, when several
people converted away from the majority religion. Some members of the community
were afraid that this new religion would damage their customs and traditions
and negatively affect their children. On 10 June 2012 a large group from the
community went to the house of a Santiago Hernández Vázquez, one of the men who had converted, and took everyone that was meeting there to prison,
insulting them and threatening them with violence and even death in the
After imprisoning 16 men and boys in a space normally meant to hold a single individual, local teachers employed by the government falsified a document stating that the families had voluntarily decided to leave the community. The victims were forced to sign it and given three days to leave. Upon the expiration of the ultimatum, 12 families were expelled after villagers destroyed all of their homes and property. By 2015, a total of 28 families had been expelled.
While Mexico’s drug trade is far from vanished, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recently stated that “there is no longer a war.” He has a new strategy. The president says they are no longer trying to arrest drug lords, but instead want to look at the causes of violence.
“We have not detained the bosses [of criminal gangs] because this is not our main function. The government’s main function is to guarantee public security…What is important to me is lowering the number of homicides, robberies, that there are no kidnappings. This is what is essential! Not the spectacular, because we lost a lot of time in this and it resolved nothing.”
To achieve this, AMLO appears to be looking
to religious groups.
While the Mexican constitution provides strong protections for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), moderate to severe violations of this right are regular occurrences in many parts of the country, particularly the states of Chiapas, Hidalgo and Oaxaca. Often these violations take the form of local authorities attempting to enforce conformity on religious minorities, for example, by denying access to basic services to Protestant families in majority Catholic villages.
CSW’s latest fact-finding visit to Mexico revealed a number of cases where Protestant families have been presented with an ultimatum to either renounce their faith or leave their village before a specific deadline.
To take one example, last year in Colonia Los Llanos in the San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality, Chiapas, several Protestant families were forced to leave their village after they defied orders to renounce their religious beliefs. CSW also found evidence of similar experiences in two more communities in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca during the visit.
These ultimatums do not come out of nowhere and tend to follow years of religious tension.
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.