José Ramón Aniceto Gómez and Pascual Agustín Cruz, indigenous community members from Pahuatlán in the state of Puebla, were unjustly arrested in 2010 and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison in retaliation for their legitimate and successful defense of their community’s right to water. Center Prodh and the Ignacio Ellacuría Human Rights Institute (part of the Ibero-American University) took on the legal defense of the two community defenders in 2011 and they were finally released after nearly three years of unjust imprisonment.
José Ramón and Pascual had been elected as traditional indigenous authorities due to their recognition as honest representatives of the community. They carried out their assigned duties without receiving any financial compensation and were able to advance the community’s rights by providing free access to drinking water and thus reversing the abuses to which their families had been subjected by the local power group that controlled the water system (including the obligation to pay up to 5000 pesos for accessing water). However, servants of the local strongman (or cacique), after carrying out a failed physical attack against José Ramón and Pascual, accused them of an invented car theft. Despite the lack of any evidence and the contradictory accusations against them, the local justice system sentenced the water defenders to prison.
While José Ramón and Pascual have regained their freedom, their case remains paradigmatic of the vulnerability of human rights defenders and indigenous community members to criminalization and unjust imprisonment in Mexico.