Sterilization of Indians in Mexico

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Posted by Jim on Marzo 28, 2000

This very interesting article appeared the other day in the Toronto Star

Mexico’s Indians target of sterilization `sweep’
Villagers recall threats, gifts by No. 3 Brigade
By Linda Diebel
Toronto Star Latin America Bureau

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AYUTLA DE LOS LIBRES, Mexico – Jose Toribio, a Mixtec Indian from the Sierra Madre mountains, says he can’t walk properly because of pain in his groin and left leg.

He can’t work to support his family.

He attributes the pain to a vasectomy he had two years ago after visits to his remote village by No. 3 Brigade, a state medical team working in the western Mexican state of Guerrero in 1997 and 1998.

Toribio now says he had the operation because of threats made to him by No. 3 Brigade.

His claims are supported by the official Guerrero Human Rights Commission, which carried out a seven-month investigation into allegations of “forced sterilization” of 17 Mixtec men and concluded they were improperly sterilized.

These cases from Guerrero come amid increasing allegations of a pattern of abuse across Mexico. Human rights groups cite evidence that unilingual Indians are being targeted by government sterilization brigades in several states.

Recent reports include women given tubal ligations without their knowledge following Caesarean sections; women being paid with a kilo of beans or tomatoes for sterilization procedures they don’t understand; and a woman who couldn’t conceive because an IUD (intrauterine device) had been implanted in her womb without her knowledge and was embedded in her flesh.

Certainly there is a push to sterilize people in Guerrero, where one-seventh of the state’s 3,000,000 people is pure Indian.

In the past five years, the state sterilized 35,079 people, 95.8 per cent by tubal ligation and 4.8 per cent by vasectomy, according to a government health report released in January.

The state human rights commission believes the Mixtec men were tricked into the procedure, contravening the most basic principles of global human rights, as well as the laws of the republic of Mexico.

In a tough report, its legal team describes “artifice and deceitful measures” taken by members of No. 3 Brigade to coerce the Indians. It accuses them of preying on people’s “precarious poverty” by threatening to stop government food, health, and agricultural payments.

“Moral pressure was brought to bear, making them fear the loss of those economic means necessary for them to survive,” it says.

The report recommends, among other points, an immediate investigation into No. 3 Brigade, with a view to taking legal action “in accordance with the gravity of the acts committed.”

It was tabled with the state health ministry in December. Since then, a wall of denial has gone up from both state and federal officials.

“In the beginning, I did not want to accept the operation,” Toribio tells The Star through an interpreter. “But they told me I had to have it. They said if I didn’t, my wife would die the next time she became pregnant.

“They warned me they would cut off (government) programs if I didn’t agree. They said if I had the operation, they would pay me $1,500 pesos ($250) every two months and give us food, clothing and shoes.”

`In the beginning, I did not want to accept the operation. But they told me I had to have it. They said if I didn’t, my wife would die the next time she became pregnant.’ – Jose Toribio

And so, Toribio, 31, who lives in extreme poverty with his wife and six children, agreed to the procedure. He joined 16 men from three villages who were trucked by state health authorities to the regional hospital here in Ayutla de los Libres to undergo vasectomies.

The issue is whether they were forced. The Indians believe they were and say the government “wants to annihilate” them.

There has been no concerted federal investigation into these reports of abuse. And even though the state of Guerrero has not completed its investigation of the human rights report, its attitude is clear.

“There has been no violation of human rights,” Daniel Pano Cruz, chief spokesman for Guerrero Governor Rene Juarez Cisneros, told The Star.

“There is no evidence the decision-making (abilities) of the sterilized people were in any way abused. These accusations have a political basis. . . . No one can prove this has happened here.”

On a recent March morning, some 40 Mixtec Indians arrive at a small community centre in Ayutla de los Libres, a three-hour drive into the Sierra Madre mountains from Acapulco. They have come in flatbed trucks and rickety buses, leaving their villages at dawn.

This meeting with The Star was arranged over two months, through indigenous leaders in Ayutla and surrounding villages who have only sporadic access to phones. One by one, they file in and pull up plastic chairs, waiting for interpreters to translate from Mixtec to Spanish.

They don’t speak Spanish. Most sign with a thumbprint.

The men wear dusty work pants, open shirts – often with a crucifix around their necks – and shabby sandals. They carry intricately woven bags.

The women, none over five feet tall, wear brightly coloured skirts and long braids. Their feet are bare. They sit quietly, eyes cast down, hands clasped, and speak only when spoken to.

These people are from nearby La Fatima and Ocotlan, which were investigated by state human rights officials, along with Ojo de Agua.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to support my family if they cut off the programs,” says Toribio, from La Fatima. “I have never felt well since and I can’t support my family.”

He says No. 3 Brigade specifically threatened to cut off Progresa and Procampo federal aid programs administered by the state. Progresa covers health and family planning. The men say there was no follow-up treatment.

Martin Garcia, 34, is also from La Fatima.

“They said it was an order of the government and that we would lose our programs,” he says. “I believed them. But now I think the government is doing this because it wants to annihilate Indians. They are tired of the problems of us poor people.”

Juan Garcia, 40, was village health president when No. 3 Brigade came to La Fatima.

“When the nurses arrived, they already had the names of five people. We don’t know how they got the names or why they wanted the information,” he says. He adds the medical team told people “they already had enough children.”

The men talk about how they were told they had a “sickness” and how they would be “cured” by the procedure.

The report says it has “fully proven” the complainants were not duly informed about sterilization because proper release forms would never use words such as “sickness” to refer to a vasectomy. It adds: “We conclude their decision could not be responsible because it lacked free choice and truly adequate and effective information.”

Some men say they received a kilo of beans and a kilo of cornmeal for their vasectomies.

They say the government never kept any promises to pay them money.

Agapito Cornelio, 57, is an elder from Ocotlan.

“This happened because of ignorance, because people can’t read and they don’t understand Spanish. So the villagers believe what the doctors say,” he explains. “It is very bad what has happened.”

The Star couldn’t locate No. 3 brigade members Dr. Ernesto Guzman, nurse Mayra Ramos and organizer, Rafael Almazon.

State health officials refuse to say whether they are still working in Guerrero.

However, the three denied in a joint interview with the human rights commission to having duped people. They said they relied on a translator and were “unaware whether the translator . . . had offered them something in exchange for having the vasectomy.”

The commission concludes that “it is illogical that three translators, belonging to different communities . . . would have offered the same conditions for the operation in similar terms (including identical terms in the communities of Ojo de Agua and La Fatima).”

“What is most worrisome is that those who were sterilized are in bad health,” says Filemon Santos, co-founder of the Independent Organization of Mixtec and Tlapaneca Peoples.

“The programs are meant to heal people, but on the contrary, they were destructive. It’s the reverse of healing. They have changed people’s lives for the worse – and the government has washed its hands of the problem.”

Benito Morales, the indigenous group’s other founder, says the villages took their allegations to the health ministry in 1998.

“They wouldn’t accept the complaints,” he says. “They say they have nothing against indigenous peoples, but they haven’t delivered on their promises. They think if the people are indigenous, they won’t complain.”

The Mexican constitution protects people’s right to decide “in a free, responsible and informed way” about the number and spacing of children.

That right is guaranteed in international conventions signed by Mexico, including accords on indigenous peoples.

There are global sanctions for abuse. The most prominent is the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which cites “imposing measures intended to prevent births within (a) group” as a definition of genocide.

In recent months, there has been widespread coverage in the Mexican media of allegations of forced sterilizations, including ground-breaking reports by Gloria Leticia Diaz in Proceso magazine.

Officials from federal and state governments say claims are political, and that no such activity occurs in Mexico.

“We reiterate the policy of the Mexican government: full freedom for women, men and couples to be well-informed whether they . . . want contraceptive measures, but it should never be obligatory,” federal health minister Jose Antonio Gonzalez told reporters last week.

“We have said in reaction to these allegations (in Guerrero) that there is no proof which shows it happened and, if there were, we would want to be the first to know if there had been any crime committed under the law.”

He declined to be interviewed by The Star. So did Guerrero Gov. Juarez Cisneros and state health minister Carlos de la Pena.

A spokesman from President Ernesto Zedillo’s office failed to get back to The Star, as promised, about allegations of forced sterilizations across the country.

The international community has a link to these cases.

The Guerrero vasectomies (which nobody denies took place) were covered under a federal health program, funded by a $465 million loan from the World Bank (which is supported by member nations, including Canada). The loan is slated to improve conditions among 15 million impoverished people in nine states.

“It’s absolutely false from our point of view,” says World Bank spokesman Chris Neal from Washington, referring to allegations of “forced sterilization” in Guerrero. “These are informed programs by which individuals or couples decide the method of family planning like everybody else in the free world.

“We don’t support forced sterilizations. That’s ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, similar reports continue to surface across Mexico, particularly in states where the country’s 12 million Indians are concentrated.

For example:

Elsewhere in the Guerrero mountains, health officials performed tubal ligations in 1998 on 11 Nahuatl women, without proper consent, according to the Human Rights Centre of Tlachinollan, a non-governmental group.

Their report describes cases in which women were either told the operation was free and would prevent cervical cancer (and given a litre of oil and a kilo each of tomatoes and green chilies), or operated on without their knowledge after Caesareans and found out much later.

In the eastern state of Veracruz, community groups have urged a federal investigation into what they say are “forced sterilizations.”

In the Sierra Norte mountains of Puebla state, east of Mexico City, there are reports some 200 women have been improperly sterilized since 1994. Some women say the state promised 30,000 pesos ($4,600).

Dr. Rodolfo Cardenas, former director of four state hospitals, recently told reporters that squads went into isolated areas “where they improvised places, without proper hygiene or lighting, in which to perform tubal ligations.”

At the Ayutla meeting, Mixtec women say they, too, were pressured.

They are not part of the state’s human rights report and they don’t want to speak. They do so only when this reporter keeps asking through the translators.

They are so timid, it’s easy to understand the clout medical authority figures, sweeping into villages in big trucks, would have had with them.

Several women from La Fatima say No. 3 Brigade lined them up when the village elders were away and treated them at a clinic. They were not transported to hospital in Ayutla like the men.

They describe a painful gynecological procedure – but they don’t know what it was.

“I was very frightened,” says Toribio’s wife, Maria Feliciana Faustino, 31. “They said I had no choice. They said I would die if I had another child.”

As the meeting winds down, Vicente Lauro, 25, from Ocotlan, stands up in the back.

He says he can’t sow maize since his vasectomy.

“When the people of Canada find out what is happening to us,” he asks, “will they make the government keep its promises?”

Posted by Richard Ferguson on Marzo 28, 2000

Unfortunately, this report fits in with the general pattern of Indians in Mexico being discriminated against at almost any level that you care to view, whether income, education, etc. It is not a coincidence that the armed revolutionary groups in Mexico (EZLN, EPR, etc.) have a base of indigenous people. Occasionally Mexicans will claim that they do not have racial discrimination in Mexico. Anyone who doubts the race consciousness of Mexican society has only to watch any TV program with a studio audience. The people on stage will invariably be very white, (gueros), while the audience will be obviously mixed race (mestizo). There is no Indian counterpart of Oprah Winfrey in Mexico, unless you want to count a comedienne who plays a dumb Indian for cheap jokes.

Richard Ferguson

Posted by Bill on Marzo 29, 2000

After spending more than 6 years living in Mexico I must admit that I don’t feel qualified, or comfortable, taking a stand on something like this with any degree of certainty. There is a great deal of complexity involved, and I really don’t know enough of the facts. There is probably nothing that upsets Mexicans more than foreigners commenting on internal matters when those same foreigners may have similar, or more serious, situations that exist, or that existed, in their home countries. That’s not to say that those of us who are not Mexican comment. It’s just that many of us do so with an attitude of superiority, as if the places we come from are free of such situations.

The existence of forced sterilization, of men and women, in the United States, is widely known. Recently, I think it was the ABC 20/20 program that told the story of mental patients (who were really not mentally ill at all) that were forced to undergo sterilization against their will. We also know that many poor black women in the South were subject to forced sterilization, until recent times. The victims of these acts were all minorities, in one way or another, either by race or by assumed condition.

Today, in the United States, we live in one of the most racially segregated countries, yet we are quick to point the finger at other countries without cleaning our own house first. The record of abuse against indigenous peoples by the majority in the United States is hardly in dispute. Our own record is shameful. Yet today, few people raise their voices in defense of the American Indian. My experience has been that discrimination based on race per se is not common in Mexico. Class distinction is present, and there may be discrimination based on economic level, but I don’t often hear someone comment negatively about someone’s color. The Costa Chica area of Guerrero, where some of these sterilization stories are coming from, is governed by Mexico’s first Afro-Mestizo “Black” governor, Rene Cisneros. I have traveled to many places and I’m not certain I’ve come across a country where just about everyone is accepted for who they are.

I see no grand plan by the Mexican Government to sterilize the indigenous. The average Mexican is appalled at these stories. And, our Mexican friends need to understand that we are not people living in glass houses who are throwing stones at them. The forced sterilization reports are indeed disturbing. Let’s not judge Mexicans and the society in Mexico solely on these reports.

Posted by Jeff Pearson on Marzo 29, 2000

Good point. The modern term for the historic treatment of indigenous people in the US is “ethnic cleansing.”

Posted by dumois on Marzo 28, 2000

I think Mexico’s record on this issue is not perfect, but definitely far ahead of other so-called first world, civilized nations. Benito Juárez was president of México in the 19th Century. He was a pure Zapotec Indian. I’d like to see something comparable taking place a bit up north. Not 130 years ago. Now.

Saludos from Guadalajara,

Posted by Bill on Marzo 28, 2000

In January, there was a report issued on legal complaints being filed by women in the Costa Chica area of the state of Guerrero, complaining of forced sterilization. Apparently, somewhere around 500 women filed complaints in 1999, from this area alone. The women were reported to have said that government health officials threatened to remove them from various government assistance programs unless they consented. Many of the people in this area are Afro-Mestizo, descendants of African slaves brought to Mexico by the Spaniards (at one time, there were more residents of African descent living in Mexico City than there were Spaniards). I had not heard of the forced sterilization by government health agencies before. I expect that some of the world health activist organizations will be moving forward with these stories in the coming months. This could turn out to be a big story, depending upon media coverage outside of Mexico.

Posted by dumois on Marzo 28, 2000

¿Sí? ¿Cuándo?
Saludos from Guadalajara,

Posted by Bill on Marzo 29, 2000

I’ll have to pull the information from my records, but I don’t think it was in the 20th century. The census figures are widely circulated in and out of Mexico by demographers, and those who are studying the presence of blacks in Mexico. I’m in the process of moving this week, but when I find my files I’ll pass along the sources.

Posted by Eduardo on Abril 06, 2000

Although it seems brutal and evil, there might be good intentions behind the sterilizations. I don’t think the Mexican government is trying to wipe out the Indians, they just want them to have fewer children. Why bring children into this world if you don’t have the resources to care for them? It’s ok to have 2 or maybe 3, but many in that region, like the man in the story, already have many more kids. People in that area have to arrive in the 20th century, although we’re already in the 21st. There is no need to have large families. Having large families and knowing that you’re not able to care for them, is and should be considered abuse.

P.S. I live in the United States and a few years ago a woman was forced to have some rods (I think they were called Norplant) that would prevent her from getting pregnant. So it even happens here in the “human rights haven.”

Published or Updated on: March 28, 2000 by Discussion Thread Forum © 2009
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