IACHR Files Case Concerning Mexico with IA Court on Rape of an Elderly Indigenous Woman by Members of the Army

August 24, 2023

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Washington, D.C.—On June 11, 2023, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted Case 13.425 to the Inter-American Court (IA Court) regarding the rape of Ernestina Ascencio Rosario by members of the army in 2007 and her subsequent death due to lack of medical attention, as well as the impunity over these events.

Ernestina Ascencio Rosario was a 73-year-old indigenous Nahuatl woman who resided in the community of Tetlalzinga in the Sierra Zongolica, Veracruz. In 2007, she was raped by soldiers from the army base operating in her community and died as a result of the injuries she sustained during the attack and the lack of timely access to adequate medical care.

The Sex Crimes Unit at the Attorney General's Office (AGO) of the State of Veracruz opened an investigation into these events and conducted forensic tests. These confirmed that Ernestina Ascencio's death was caused by cranioencephalic trauma, cervical fracture, and dislocation, as well as recent injuries consistent with sexual assault.

On April 30, 2007, the AGO of Veracruz decided not to prosecute on the grounds that there was no proof that the crimes had been committed. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) drew attention to the seriousness of the irregularities in the criminal investigation and the actions of the Public Prosecutor's Office. At the same time, an investigation was opened by the military justice system, which was closed in June 2007.

After analyzing the case, the IACHR found that Ernestina Ascensio was a victim of rape by the Mexican army, which constituted torture and violated her rights to personal integrity, honor, dignity, and the right of women to live free from violence. In its decision, the IACHR emphasized the gravity of the crime, given the number of aggressors, the fact that they were state agents, and the advanced age of the victim.

It also noted that the State violated the victim's rights to health and life by not providing adequate medical care before her death. The IACHR also stressed that the absence of interpreters in health centers in an indigenous area prevented the victim from accessing medical care on equal grounds.

The IACHR also concluded that the minister's decision not to prosecute was not the result of a diligent, impartial investigation, much less the enhanced investigation that the Mexican State was obliged to conduct, given that the victim was a woman, an indigenous person, and an older person. It also pointed out that the investigation was characterized by bias and a lack of impartiality, as well as by the restriction of evidence and the exclusion of the victim's family from the process. These circumstances revealed a lack of diligence and seriousness on the part of the Mexican State, resulting in a violation of the rights to equality, nondiscrimination, and access to effective justice.

The IACHR also found that the right of access to public information was violated to the detriment of Julia Marcela Suárez Cabrera, the family's attorney, who was denied access to the case file and other relevant documents.

Finally, the IACHR deemed that the loss of a loved one under these circumstances caused great suffering to the victim's immediate family, affecting their psychological and moral integrity. During the investigation, restrictions to participation and the right to appeal were also noted, which led to the conclusion that the State had violated the right to psychological and moral integrity established in article 5.1 of the American Convention in relation to article 1.1 of the same instrument, to the detriment of Ernestina Ascensio Rosario's next of kin.

Based on these findings, the IACHR concluded that the Mexican State is responsible for the violation of the rights to life, health, personal integrity, honor and dignity, judicial guarantees, judicial protection, and equality and nondiscrimination established in articles 4, 5, 8, 11, 24, 25.1, and 26 of the American Convention in relation to article 1.1 of the same instrument, as well as the duty to prevent and punish violence against women established in articles 7 of the Convention of Belém do Pará, and the duty to prevent and punish torture contained in articles 1, 6, and 8 of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture (IACPPT), to the detriment of Ernestina Ascensio Rosario. It also declared that article 13 of the American Convention had been violated to the detriment of Mrs. Julia Marcela Suárez Cabrera.

The IACHR recommended that the State take the following reparation measures:

  1. provide comprehensive individual and collective reparations for the violations described in the report, taking a gender and ethnicity-sensitive approach;
  2. initiate a thorough, prompt criminal investigation to clarify the events and identify who is responsible for them;
  3. provide Julia Marcela Suárez Cabrera with a simple copy of the public version of the investigation file, protecting personal data;
  4. guarantee the safety of family members and people who have taken part in the investigations and the trial; and
  5. take steps to prevent similar incidents in the future by implementing human rights training programs and preventing gender and ethnic discrimination in investigations. The importance of ensuring access to indigenous language interpreters in the health and justice systems was also highlighted.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate stems from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has the mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as an advisory body to the OAS on the matter. The IACHR is made up of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 195/23

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