Oaxacan political prisoners released after nine years without conviction | Courthouse News Service
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Oaxacan political prisoners released after nine years without conviction

After the judge postponed the hearing last week, supporters worked to ensure that no excuses could be made to delay Thursday’s ruling.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Activists for a group of five men held in prison under Mexico’s mandatory pretrial detention mechanism for almost nine years received bittersweet news Thursday when a judge announced that two of the men were to be released. 

Oaxaca state Judge Luis Salvador Cordero ordered that Jaime Betanzos and Herminio Monfil be removed from mandatory pretrial detention during a hearing that lasted more than five hours. 

“We are very happy for their release,” said Argelia Betanzos, daughter of Jaime Betanzos, in a video streamed from outside the courthouse in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca. “But as you might be able to tell, in our hearts we miss our other three companions.

Three others in a group of political prisoners from nearby Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón — Alfredo Bolaños, Francisco Durán and Fernando Gavito — remain under the preventive measure. Two others who were arrested on the same charges last May also remain in mandatory pretrial detention. 

“While they remain in prison, no one is free yet,” Argelia Betanzos said, but added that she and other supporters will not stop advocating for their release. “If we got this done, no one will stop us.”

The released men were still in prison at the time of the announcement.

She noted that the ruling did not determine the men’s guilt or innocence of the crime for which they were arrested, but was a cessation of Mexico's mandatory pretrial detention mechanism.

Mexico is the only country in the Western Hemisphere with such a broad automatic preventive measure as its mandatory pretrial detention. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled earlier this year that it violates human rights.

A hearing scheduled the previous week was canceled and postponed after Salvador Cordero determined that the prisoners had not filed all the proper paperwork and that the case could not be seen without one of the men’s attorneys present. 

Federal public defenders representing the men said that the postponement was “without motive” and that the judge should have allowed the hearing to take place.

The men were arrested in December 2014 after a politically-motivated skirmish in their small Mazatec community in a mountainous area in the north of Oaxaca resulted in the death of a brother of local politician Elisa Zepeda. 

She accused the men and dozens others of murdering her brother, which led to the charges that put them in mandatory pretrial detention.  

Argelia Betanzos leads a march of around 300 supporters in Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, on Nov. 21, 2022. Her father Jaime has been a political prisoner since December 2014. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The men remained imprisoned far longer than the constitutionally mandated two-year limit to mandatory pretrial detention, despite over a dozen writs of amparo — similar to habeas corpus in U.S. law — that found no evidence to support Zepeda’s claims. 

After the cancellation of last week’s hearing, Betanzos and other family members accused Cordero and others in Oaxaca’s court system of corruption, believing them to have been influenced by Zepeda, who now serves as Secretary of Women in the state government. 

Zepeda did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s deplorable how far corruption goes and the tricks they’ll pull to impede the prisoners’ release,” Argelia Betanzos said. 

Her advocacy group Mazatecas por la Libertad (Mazatec Women for Freedom) filed an official complaint with Oaxaca’s public defender's office on Monday, accusing state public defender Sixto Misael Coronel Díaz of having intentionally misrepresented his client Fernando Gavito Martínez. 

Coronel’s reported absence the day of the Sept. 18 hearing was one reason for its postponement. In the complaint, Betanzos and others claim they saw Coronel leaving the courthouse just minutes before the hearing was set to begin. 

They also accuse Coronel of visiting another political prisoner, Francisco Durán Ortiz — whom he does not represent, and speaks only Mazatec and cannot read or write beyond signing his own name — several times in prison and taking advantage of Durán’s illiteracy and lack of knowledge of the Spanish language to get him to sign papers revoking his representation by federal public defenders and transferring it to Coronel.

These acts “offer the possibility of the collusion of defense council Sixto Misael Cornel Díaz with the accuser Elisa Zepeda,” Mazatecas por la Libertad said in their complaint.

The Oaxaca public defender's office did not respond to a request for comment.

In the face of what they see as a corrupt court system that holds all the cards in the situation, Betanzos and her fellow advocates were determined to not let the judge delay justice again. In addition to filing the complaint, they worked tirelessly over the last nine days to transfer the necessary documents that court employees either refused to send or were hindered from doing so by a superior.

“They make it clear that if you as a family member don’t take action, nothing is going to get done,” Betanzos said. “We’ve been experiencing this for nine years, but we never fully gauged how serious it is. It’s incredible how the courthouse employees know that their hands are tied.”

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