In Mexico, a victory for indigenous liberation

    After 13 years of unjust imprisonment, Mexican political prisoner Alberto Patishtan is freed in a victory for the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere.
    Alberto Patishtan (right) smiles after receiving a special pardon. He is accompanied by his son Hector (left) and Pedro Lopez (behind) who organized with Patishtan in prison and was freed this past summer. (WNV/Marta Molina)

    After 13 years of unjust imprisonment, Mexican political prisoner Alberto Patishtan Gomez walked free on October 31.

    Over the course of his incarceration, the 42-year-old indigenous Tzotzil professor became one of Mexico’s leading voices protesting the unjust imprisonment of indigenous peoples, a widespread problem in a country where racism and violence against the indigenous communities is still rampant. From behind bars, he organized for the liberation of many of his indigenous companions. His final victory is his own freedom — although he often said that he has always felt free, even when imprisoned, because he knew he was innocent.

    His first public appearance after gaining his freedom was not in his home state of Chiapas nor at the entrance of Prison Number Five in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, where he had been held. Instead, he was in Mexico City with his son Héctor, his daughter Gaby and his niece Génesis. While still imprisoned, he had been transferred to Mexico City to receive treatment for the brain tumor that has been causing him to lose his vision.

    “Who is Patishtan?” he asked in front of dozens of cameras angling for the best photo. “I am Patishtan,” he said, “a person who not only hears, but listens. Patishtan is someone who is losing his vision because of his sickness, which doesn’t let him see very well with his eyes, but I can see much more clearly in my heart.”

    No one pardoned Patishtan 

    Supporters from across Mexico and from around the world have been organizing for Patishtan’s freedom ever since he was arrested and convicted of murdering Mexican police officers in a trial that was filled with flaws and corruption. Earlier this year, a Chiapas court denied his appeal, a significant setback in the case. His supporters then began to explore other possibilities, including a push for amnesty or for release on humanitarian grounds due to his illness. But neither of those two possibilities moved forward.

    Finally, the path to his freedom came not through the judicial system but through the legislative branch. On October 23, the Mexican senate modified the pardon rules in the federal penal code. It became known as the “Patishtan Law,” and President Enrique Peña Nieto used it to grant him a “special pardon” — distinct from the standard “presidential pardon,” which would have left Patishtan free, but still guilty in the eyes of the law.

    “No one pardoned Patishtan. The organized people achieved his freedom,” shouted activists upon seeing Patishtan finally free after 13 years of struggle.

    In addition to achieving Patishtan’s freedom, the campaign represents a victory against the Mexican judicial system, which is now forced to admit its error. “What is now being recognized is that Patishtan suffered grave human rights violations, violations of due process, and that his innocence was not presumed,” said Sandino Rivero, Patishtan’s lawyer.

    To many who have been working for Patishtan’s freedom, the passage of this law is evidence of the widespread injustices in the Mexican legal system.

    “This is a victory that resulted from the sad failure of Mexican justice,” said Patishtan’s 17-year-old son, Hector, who has become a human rights activist during his father’s incarceration and has vowed to continue fighting for the freedom of other political prisoners still behind bars.

    Victories from behind bars

    Early in his incarceration, Patishtan saw many indigenous prisoners who did not know how to defend themselves, didn’t have money for lawyers, didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t have access to interpreters. He began organizing prisoners to fight for their basic rights and to prove their innocence.

    At the first prison where he was held, everyone he organized with was freed, expect for himself. Later, when he was transferred to another prison, he organized an action to burn the prisoners’ uniforms, since the imposition of this clothing meant the further loss of one’s individuality and personality. He also proposed camping in the prison’s patio, and over the years many prisoners stopped sleeping in their cells and organized a permanent occupation of the patio. These acts of resistance made them feel more free.

    In 2006, when the Zapatistas launched the Other Campaign to unite with resistance movements across Mexico and in other regions, Patishtan and other prisoners decided to join the campaign. Through this broader network, the group was able to increase the visibility of the injustices faced by indigenous political prisoners in Chiapas. Over the years Patishtan also organized a series of hunger strikes, which, despite his current illness, strengthened him physically and mentally. These strikes won freedom for many of his fellow prisoners, but it only brought him increased punishment. He was sent to a maximum security prison in the state of Sinaloa, thousands of miles away from his home state of Chiapas. There, for the first time, they cut his hair, which represented a loss of his indigenous identity. One’s hair acts as protection when working in the milpa, the cornfield. Around that point, Patishtan also began to write letters to himself.

    With the support of the People’s Movement in El Bosque for Patishtan’s Freedom and a number of human rights organizations, Patishtan was relocated to a prison in Chiapas after 10 months. There, after years of organizing, hunger strikes and outside campaigns, eight more of his companions were released. Once more, all of Patishtan’s companions were freed, except for himself and Alejandro Díaz Santís, who remains incarcerated.

    Organizing for many

    Patishtan’s release is heralded as a victory for the millions of indigenous people in Mexico, who continue to face discrimination in the media and the judicial system. It is also an example of how to use one person’s struggle to organize for many, such as Patishtan’s companions Pedro López and Juan Collazo who were freed earlier this summer.

    Upon hearing about Patishtan’s release, they said that he taught them how to read, write, speak Spanish — and, most importantly, how to organize. “For me, it opened a door to living when I met Alberto,” said Collazo. “I learned to defend my rights and teach others to do the same.”

    Despite the freedom of their teacher, the two intend to continue organizing.

    “For Alejandro Díaz Santís, Miguel Demeza Jimenez, Antonio Estrada Estrada, and for all of the political prisoners in this country, we will continue fighting,” said Pedro Lopez.

    This weekend, after finishing his medical treatment, Patishtan turned to his hometown, El Bosque, where he plans to continue organizing for the rights of poor and indigenous communities. In his eyes, the reverberation of his campaign is the most inspiring part of his own freedom.

    “They wanted to stop my struggle, but what happened is it multiplied. They wanted to hide it, but they made it glow.”

    Translated from the original Spanish by Lela Singh.

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