The Case of Alberto Patishtán Gómez and the Culpability of the Mexican State: “We are Governed by Injustice”

Alberto Patishtán Gómez is a basic education teacher from the indigenous Tzotzil community of El Bosque, in the highland region of the state of Chiapas in South-east Mexico. Known as ‘the Professor’, he has now served nearly 13 years of a 60 year sentence for, as his supporters say, “struggling for social justice among the poor and indigenous.” There are many questions surrounding the reasons for his conviction for a crime he quite clearly did not commit, and the reasons for the extraordinary reluctance of the Mexican state and legal system to release him despite overwhelming juridical reasons to do so.

Alberto was detained following an ambush, on June 12, 2000, in which seven police officers were killed, a crime no one, from the state governor to the bishop, believes he committed. He has always had the full support of his community, who know very well he was elsewhere when the attack took place, as many witnesses testify. The true perpetrators of the crime remain unpunished.

As so often with cases of political prisoners, neither Alberto’s obvious innocence, nor the many violations of his human and legal rights, will be enough to secure his liberation, only with pressure from national and international solidarity will he be able to return to his family and community.

His time in prison

The Professor has suffered innumerable violations of his human rights and his rights to judicial guarantees and due process during his time in various prisons. He was arrested without a warrant, denied access to a lawyer or translator, and tortured physically and psychologically, all common practices in the treatment of poor indigenous prisoners. It is this remarkable man’s profound concern for the denial of basic rights to these prisoners that has led him to becoming an organizer for justice and human rights and for better conditions and treatment within the prisons, inspiring the organization of groups of prisoners who participate in prayers and fasts, implement semi-permanent sit-ins, hold large annual events for their anniversaries and write powerful letters, all of this as adherents to the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle. Alberto has organized, acted as spokesperson for, and participated in several hunger strikes, leading to the release of hundreds of indigenous prisoners. As a result he is greatly respected and has become the best-known, and the most iconic, political prisoner in Mexico.

Despite his almost universally acknowledged innocence and there being no credible evidence against him, despite having nearly lost his sight due to an unidentified brain tumor after years of being denied proper medical treatment while in prison, and despite having thousands of national and international supporters calling for his release, it seemed Patishtán had now exhausted all avenues of legal appeal when the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation refused to consider a motion for the Presumption of Innocence in his favor, in March 2013. But the appeal has been delegated to a local court, and those working for his release have launched another campaign. This may be the last chance.

Innocence does not Count

Just one week after it refused to hear the motion for the recognition of Patishtán’s innocence, which asked for his release on account of a profusion of violations of due process, the first hall of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Mexican Nation decreed the immediate liberation of Marcos Arias Pérez, accused and convicted of participating in the Acteal Massacre, in which 47 Catholic pacifists praying for peace were brutally slain on December 22, 1997. The reason given for his release was due process violations. “Impunity spreads like a bad weed in our country,” declared the Civil Society Las Abejas, victims of the massacre. “What we are seeing now in Mexico confirms what we have always said: the bodies for the procurement and administration of justice in Mexico are serving not justice, but the interests of the powerful.”

“Justice is upside down, since those who have committed a crime, like those sentenced for the Acteal case, are released, and the government keeps those who, like myself, are innocent, imprisoned”, said the Professor. “It seems that you have to kill to get out of prison.”

The reaction to both of the Court’s decisions was one of outrage. Arias Pérez is only the most recent of a large number of the paramilitary perpetrators of the Acteal Massacre to have been released. Their guilt is not in doubt; the reason for their release is failings in the legal process. On the other hand, Patishtan remains incarcerated, even though, as his lawyer Leonel Rivero Rodríguez points out about his case, “there is no controversy, no sector is opposed to his release or doubts his innocence.”

Who really committed the crime?

We are now in a time when killings and mutilations fill the news in Mexico. It was not so in 2000, and the events of the morning of June 12, in Las Lagunas de Las Limas, Simojovel, shocked the nation and grabbed the headlines. It appeared that a truck carrying eight police officers and a driver had been ambushed at a sharp bend on the road from Simojovel to El Bosque. It was said that a commando force of between ten and fifteen individuals, carrying high velocity firearms, had constructed trenches and barricades along the roadway in order to carry out the ambush. A great many shots were fired – 85 bullets from AK-47 and R-15 rifles were counted – and seven police were killed. One officer, and the driver, survived, both seriously wounded. It was in the period of the run-up to the elections, and tensions were already high.

The day following the ambush, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee, General Command of the EZLN declared in a communiqué: “According to information, the attack was carried out using the tactics of drug traffickers, paramilitaries or the military….The attack took place in an area saturated with government troops (Army and police), where it would have been very difficult to mobilize an armed group without being detected and without the complicity of the authorities. The attacking group had inside information about movements and the number of people ambushed. This information could only be obtained by people from the government or close to it……Everything points to those who carried out the attack being from the government (or under governmental auspices), since this would give them a pretext for increasing the militarization of Chiapas, and for justifying an attack on Zapatista communities or the EZLN. It is noteworthy that this act reinforces the climate of instability, with which the official candidate threatens [the state] if he doesn’t win.”

Nevertheless, on June 19, in the El Bosque municipal headquarters, the Army and the PFP detained the teacher Alberto Patishtán Gómez, without showing an arrest warrant. He was held for one month without charge. No one explained how one man, without experience of firearms, was supposed to have conducted this attack on his own. On July 10th, two Zapatista support bases were also arrested, but they were subsequently released; Alberto alone was to be punished for the ambush. In March 2002, he was finally given the maximum sentence, one of sixty years in prison.

Situation in El Bosque

When Patishtán was arrested, “nobody believed it,”say his friends in El Bosque. People went into the streets, and occupied the City Hall. They knew that he was teaching at the time of the ambush, many witnesses had seen him, so they knew he could not have done it. There was great concern in El Bosque at this time about the corruption and the abuses being committed by the mayor and the local authorities. As a well-educated and respected member of the community, and an actively practising Catholic, the Professor had helped to document these abuses and to write a letter denouncing them.

By a remarkable coincidence, the main witness to identify Alberto as having been involved in the ambush was Rosemberg Gómez Pérez, the son of that same mayor, who happened to have been the driver in the convoy, and who said he recognized Patishtán’s voice. Rosemberg is said to have later admitted, when drunk, to have fabricated the charge in return for a pickup truck from his father, Manuel Gómez Ruiz. The mayor, according to Patishtán’s fellow-teacher Martín Ramírez López, quoted in Mexican newspaper La Jornada, “was at the point of falling, the protection of the Deputy was no longer enough; nor was that of the Albores Guillén government…. So the massacre saved him, and even more so did the apprehension of his principal critic and denouncer….The danger was Patishtán, not the opposition movement; once he was a prisoner, the protest collapsed.”

Why does Patishtán remain a prisoner despite his obvious innocence?

“Since at least 2007, a question has been making the rounds among lawyers, bishops, human rights activists and observers of the legal process of Alberto Patishtán Gómez: if the evidence is so overwhelming that he was not involved in the ambush, then why is he still in prison, sentenced to 60 years? If more blatant cases resulted in the freedom of criminals who were caught in the act or who even confessed, when confronted by the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN), what walls prevent the Professor from going free? Who benefits from his imprisonment? Who would be affected by his acquittal?”

This is the question asked by an article in La Jornada on March 24, 2013, which highlights “the ‘special interest’ of the current Secretary of Government in Chiapas, Noé Castañón León, in the case”. “Noé Castañón León….presided over the Supreme Tribunal of Justice of the State (STJE, its initials in Spanish) during the capture, processing and final imprisonment of Patishtán….. Having been at the head of the Chiapas tribunals both before and after the acts, Patishtán’s lawyers question whether any conflict of interest is implied by his current position of being responsible for the internal policies of the state, especially as the review of the case will soon be decided by a collegiate tribunal in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.”

“What is prohibiting Patishtán’s release?” writes the Chiapas Support Committee from California in its recent newsletter, “speculation is mounting that influential politicians in Chiapas may be to blame.”

Amnesty International calls for a “fair and exemplary decision”

On March 20, 2013, Amnesty International wrote to the magistrates of the First Appellate Court of the Twentieth Circuit in Tutla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, who are due to soon make the final decision on Patishtán’s case, calling for “justice without discrimination.”

“After thoroughly reviewing the case of Patishtán, Amnesty International has concluded that there were serious flaws in the process, including irregularities and inconsistencies in the testimony of the witness who identified Alberto Patishtán as responsible for the crimes. This testimony was taken into account, while evidence indicating that Patishtán was elsewhere during the ambush was discarded.

“The organization also believes that Alberto Patishtán did not have access to an adequate defence…. Amnesty International has documented several times how the justice system in Mexico fails to ensure fairness and equality of process, especially when the accused is an indigenous person with scanty economic and social resources.”

Take action

The Court has been asked to make a decision before the end of April. In March, Alberto’s supporters launched a new campaign “Fighting for Patishtán’s Freedom, let’s celebrate his birthday, April 19 – 4,686 days in prison”. They called for 4,686 letters to be written in his support, to the local court in Chiapas, to the Mexican President, and to Embassies and Consulates throughout the world. They also called for actions on Facebook and Twitter. Protests are taking place in his support in many countries in the lead up to his birthday, April 19.

April 17 is International Political Prisoners Day, when we remember and call for the release of political prisoners everywhere. Along with Bradley Manning, Mumia Abu-Jamal and numerous others, Alberto Patishtán Gómez has been unjustly imprisoned for his belief in true justice and in a fairer world for all. As he said in a telephone interview from prison last week, “We must all join the calls for truth and justice because justice is essential to build a new Mexico where there is room for everyone.”

For further information:

The main source for most of the information in this article is the investigative reports of that most tireless and committed of journalists, Hermann Bellinghausen of La Jornada, without whose reports much of this story would not be known.