Central American Parents Look for Clues in Prison

By Itzel Porras and Maya Averbuch  

The XII Caravan of Central American Mothers arrived at The State Center for Social Reintegration of the Sentenced No. 3, which is also called the prison of Tapachula, Chiapas. They climbed the austere steps to display photos of their disappeared children to inmates in both the male and female sections of the building.

The searchers run into the same problem each year: people use false names when they enter prison, records remain incomplete, photos of prisoners are left out of files, all of which prevents families from determining through official databases whether their kids are in prison.

Of the thirty-three people incarcerated into the relatively small women’s section, only seven are Central American, according to Diana Córdoba, the director of legal affairs. Since it is a minimum-security prison, the maximum sentence for any individual is fifty years.

A small number of organizations work for the release of individuals who have been falsely accused, or those who have been waiting for a trial for years, according to Lilia Iñiguez, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights Fray Matías de Córdova. Though the justice system was reformed in 2011, people with older cases present them in written form, instead of giving the oral arguments required under the new system.   

“During police raids in places where there’s sex work, women are often arrested for the crime of trafficking, even if they are actually the victims,” said Iñiguez. “When we reviewed the files of Central American women, we came across an incredible number of errors in the investigations.”

In their meeting with representatives of the caravan, the inmates spoke of how the authorities mistreated them for being migrants. Alberto Gómez, who is originally from Peru, has spent seven years behind bars for homicide, though he insists he did not commit the crime. “There are many injustices in here, and my case is one of them,” he said.

The mothers also found prisoners who had been unable to communicate with their family members in Central America. Rosalba, who chose not to give her last name because her case is still in process, said she has spent a year and four months in prison. During the time, she has been unable to inform her mother and grandmother in Guatemala of her whereabouts, because she does not have their phone numbers or an exact address. When he saw the families’ photos displayed between the dormitories, she said, “My mother does not know that I am here. She must think I’m dead.”

Eva Ramírez, the coordinator of Love and Faith, the Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said that in many such cases the individuals are innocent, but the system is particularly harsh toward migrants. “[The authorities] make them sign a letter in which they incriminate themselves,” she said.  

Several prisoners approached the mothers to share information about people they recognized in the photographers. The coordinators wrote down the details by hand in their notebooks, since it could be invaluable for the search in the coming days.  

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