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Mexico’s chief justice pledges action over abuse of pretrial detention

Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar Wednesday met with over 200 female inmates, many of whom have spent years in prison without being convicted of a crime.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The letter was signed by over 600 inmates at the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison. In it they pleaded with Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar to visit the facility located in southeast Mexico City, saying they considered him an ally of women struggling to find justice. 

In an unprecedented move for a member of the Supreme Court, Zaldívar heeded their call Wednesday when he visited the prison and listened to their stories. A group of over 200 women conveyed the disturbing truth of their confinement: more than half of the prison’s nearly 1,500 inmates have spent years there without ever being convicted of a crime. 

Zaldívar expressed his sympathy for the women during a press conference following his visit.

“All the cases that they told me about are sad, moving and dramatic. We will try to help in what ways we can to see if we can review those cases,” he said, attributing such cases to an abusive culture of pretrial detention in the Mexican justice system.

Zaldívar said pretrial detention should be the exception, not the rule, used only in cases in which the accused is considered a flight risk or could put victims or witnesses in danger. 

“Apart from those suppositions, it isn’t only unjustified, it’s unconventional. It violates human rights,” he said. “It destroys lives, it destroys families, and many of these people are innocent.”

The excessive application of pretrial detention combined with poor legal representation and the slow-moving bureaucracy of the justice system has led to women being locked up in Santa Martha for years without ever being sentenced. Zaldívar said he was told of inmates spending as many as 15 years there in pretrial detention. 

Some are there due to crimes committed by their partners, unfortunate victims of bad circumstances. 

“This could happen to anyone. We sometimes think that these horror stories are remote cases, but anyone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s why due process is fundamental,” said Zaldívar. 

But the Santa Martha Acatitla facility is not the only place where such injustice is taking place, according to Daniel Ancira, cofounder of La Cana, a social rehabilitation nonprofit that provides support, professional training and other services to women in Mexico’s penitentiary system. 

“There are hundreds of women in prisons across the country who had inadequate defenses or who are in pretrial detention for many years, and it isn’t talked about, people hardly know about it,” Ancira told Courthouse News. “These women are pretty much invisible to society.”

Ancira sees the chief justice’s visit as an important step to bringing attention to the issue.

“If it weren’t for Zaldívar raising his voice about this, we wouldn’t be talking about it today,” she said.

The entrance sign to the Santa Martha Acatitla women's prison. Officially named a "Reintegration Center," many inmates say they have spent years in pre-trial detention. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Ancira described conditions in Santa Martha as “precarious.” It is not uncommon for inmates to go without water or electricity for days, and hygiene on the inside is not good. Also, there are children living here, as it is one of the few prisons in the country with installations like a playground and library for children. 

“That doesn’t mean that it’s an optimal environment for children, of course, but it at least has these spaces where the children of women deprived of their freedom can live and play together,” she said.

Precarious conditions are not unique to Santa Martha, but rather the norm in facilities across the country, Ancira said. La Cana also works in five other prisons in neighboring Mexico State.

Nicole, 43, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was in Santa Martha Acatitla for two and a half years after spending two decades in a women’s prison in Ecatepec, in Mexico State. 

She described conditions of rampant drug use and extreme violence in the Santa Martha. Drugs like crack cocaine, crystal meth, marijuana and inhaled solvents are widely used among inmates. Many use the locks they are given to close their cells as makeshift brass knuckles to carry out acts of violence. 

“There is so much violence in Santa Martha,” she said, describing the problem as “three times worse” in that facility than in the one in Ecatepec. 

Nicole was not in pretrial detention. She was convicted of kidnapping, but as Zaldívar noted, that conviction should not justify her being subjected to such a life.

“Remember, even those who commit a crime and are sentenced deserve to be treated decently, and they need that sentence to follow the law and the constitution,” he said in Wednesday’s press conference. “The state cannot apply the methods of criminals, because if we do that, we become the same as them.”

Now free, Nicole has work as a seamstress thanks to the training and support La Cana gave her both in and out of prison. She said she hopes Zaldívar’s visit can make a change for the women she knows who are still locked up. 

“We really need this. Hopefully this touches people’s hearts and we can give those girls on the inside what they need,” she said.

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