The Trauma of a Young Tseltal Woman Imprisoned without Evidence for the Murder of the Man who Raped Her

Juanita spent a year in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Her defense assures that the Prosecutor’s Office did not investigate “the feminicidal rape” that she suffered and is guilty of the mental and physical damage to the 19-year-old girl

Juanita leaving prison

She doesn´t know how to read or to write. She only speaks Tseltal, the language of her people. She was accused without evidence of killing the man who raped her. She spent a year and two months in prison after a invalid investigation, her legal defense denounces, and a trial riddled with negligence and irregularities. This week a judge released her and acquitted her of all charges, but the damage to her had already been done: the sentence served, despite her innocence; her psychological trauma; the abuse of which she was the victim of.

Juanita was born in San Juan Cancuc, a small municipality in the mountainous region of the Chiapas Highlands, mostly populated by members of the same ethnic group as hers, the Tseltals. Her story is by no means unique. She follows the patterns of an rugged reality that repeats itself. A systematic dynamic that “criminalizes and makes invisible” indigenous women and results in “concealment by the justice system of the feminicidal sexual assaults of which they are victims,” in the words of Colectiva Cereza, a human rights organization defense that offers “legal and psychosocial accompaniment” to imprisoned women.

“There are many Juanitas in prisons, but Juanita’s case is emblematic, it is a femicidal sexual assault that was covered up by the Indigenous Justice Prosecutor’s Office, which is very serious. They did it to accuse her of qualified homicide”, protests Patricia Aracil, a member of Colectiva Cereza, one of the people that accompanied that Juanita has had in her trial. The young Tzeltal woman moved from her rural community to the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, months before everything happened, “like many migrant women who come looking for work and a better life,” continues Aracil. She was 18 years old and found a job as a childminder with her sister.

One day she met Juan in a park. He was a street vendor of cigarettes, candies, sweets. Like her, he came from San Juan Cancuc, but they belonged to two worlds separated by a gender gap, explains Aracil: “There is a difference between the two culturally. An indigenous woman submits to a man.” Juan was also 56 years old and had two wives, spoke Spanish and had a high school education. “It is likely that what he did he had done before,” says the activist.

Juan began to harass Juanita. He called her dozens of times a day, he told her that he wanted to be her partner, that he was going to give himself completely to her, that she was not going to have to go back to work. “He tried by all means to win her over,” summarizes Aracil. Juanita rejected him each time. She was aware that he already had two wives and she didn’t want to be with a man who was so many years older than her. But he did not accept the refusals and the insistence turned into threats.

Nobody helped her

Juan assured her that she knew a sorcerer who could curse Juanita if she did not accept him. She panicked and stopped answering his calls. He vanished and things calmed down for a while, but Juan reappeared. He told her that he had been in San Juan Cancuc and had brought her a sack of freshly harvested corn as a gift. “Culturally, this is very important, she had not had access to corn from her region for a few months, so she said yes”, says Aracil.

It was all part of Juan’s plan. He tricked Juanita into going to the room where he lived, on the second floor of a kind of guest house where dozens of people stayed, in the Guadalupe neighborhood. “You have to come to my room for the sacks, it’s now or never, if not, I´ll sell them tomorrow at the market.” It was four in the afternoon on March 14th, 2022. She agreed to go get the corn, but she planned to get in and out as fast as possible. Her sister said goodbye to her with a: “Be careful.”

Juan sent a taxi to look for her. He received her in her room. He wanted them to eat the corn together. She wanted to get out of there but she accepted, according to the story she told Aracil. After eating, he proposed to drink alcohol. She had never drunk before and she refused, but Juan closed the bedroom door and put the key in his pants.

Juanita began to cry. He poured her a glass of white liquid, a liquor that she would later remember as “very strong.” It made her want to vomit. He mixed it with a soda to make it taste smoother. He forced her to drink one, two, three glasses. Juanita cried harder and harder. She started to feel nauseous. Juan sniffed a white powder “like flour” and wanted her to sniff it too, but the young woman refused. When she finished the third glass, he pushed her down and raped her. “Juanita tried to get him off her all the time,” Aracil narrates. She finally managed to. John fell to the ground. “From then on, she doesn’t remember anything.”

During all this time, Juanita screamed and asked for help. In the trial it was proven that at least 15 people entered and left the guest house while everything was happening, witnesses who could hear it. The landlady even confessed that she heard the crying of the young woman, but she did not want to interfere in the affairs of her tenants. Nobody did anything. “No one came to her aid,” laments Aracil.

Traumas, injuries and confusion

After that everything is confusing. Juan was found dead with signs of violence that could not be linked to Juanita. She woke up on the ground floor of the house, with different clothes from what she was wearing before she passed out and policemen who did not stop asking her questions. She did not understand Spanish, she could not defend herself. “She was in a situation of considerable inferiority”, says Aracil. A doctor from the Prosecutor’s Office itself confirmed that the young woman was “in a state of confusion.” She was disoriented, she had dilated pupils, wounds and bruises all over her body, she did not understand how she had got to that place.

A subsequent expert opinion, commissioned by Colectiva Cereza, determined that Juan had raped Juanita. “In addition, there are testimonies from the same professionals from the technical area of Cereso 5 [Social Reintegration Center, the prison where she was imprisoned], a nurse, a psychologist, one of the lawyers, they listened to her and saw that she has traumatic symptoms” , argues Aracil. The diagnosis, says the activist, is clear: post-traumatic stress disorder due to “femicide sexual rape concatenated with a temporary mental disorder.” Juanita was in such a state of “shock” that every time she appeared before the judge, she would start crying.

“The Prosecutor’s Office did not investigate and hid the rape. During the initial hearing, they did not present any evidence of her participation in the death of Juan [which remains unresolved]. It is unclear who killed him. The criminal expert says in his report that the space was contaminated, that it was not preserved and cannot guarantee whether Juan’s body had been tampered with. When he arrived there were three people from the Prosecutor’s Office inside the space taking photographs and that he does not know what they were for”, Aracil adds.

The activist takes the opportunity to denounce the situation of justice in Chiapas, where, she assures, judicial independence is conditioned by external interests. However, Aracil believes that thanks to the pressure of the media and Colectiva Cereza, this case was made different: “We expected another type of sentence with a gender perspective that would have put forward all the omissions of the Prosecutor’s Office in this regard, the responsibility they have for having concealed the feminicidal rape, but it does acknowledge that there was sexual violence.”

Juanita was cleared of all charges and released. Now “she is much better,” says Aracil, back with her family in her community, but the damage is still there. “For a woman from an indigenous town, it is very hard and difficult to admit that she has been raped, especially if it is denied by authority”, she points out. And she reiterates that cases like this are not exceptions, that in Chiapas they are repeated all too normally. There are still many Juanitas.

Original article by Alejandro Santos Cid at Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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