By Kathy Price, Mexico campaigner with Amnesty International Canada
How often do you get the chance to sit down with a hero whose courageous actions make change happen where it is least expected? I got just that opportunity when I travelled to a small town in Mexico (unnamed for security reasons) to meet up with Valentina Rosendo Cantú.
Like other Me’phaa Indigenous women from beautiful Guerrero State, Valentina is small in stature. But I can tell you that she has the courage of a giant.
In 2002, Valentina was washing clothes in a stream when an army patrol arrived. They demanded information about people they accused of subversion. Valentina knew nothing about what they were asking. She barely understood the Spanish they spoke. She was just 17 years old. The soldiers proceeded to torture and rape her.
Valentina’s first act of incredible bravery was to report what had been done to her, given the reality that women survivors of sexual torture face stigmatization and questioning of their story that exacerbates the suffering they have already experienced. In Mexico, that pattern is compounded by the power of the military.
Valentina soon saw her criminal complaint about the soldiers transferred to military investigators and the intimidation began. At one point, her home was surrounded by soldiers. Amidst fear and pressure, Valentina’s community was less than supportive. She had no choice but to leave.
Faced with such horrendous realities, Valentina’s determination to carry on her quest for justice is truly inspiring.
With the help of local Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, she sought justice outside of Mexico, testifying to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and then to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The response back in Mexico was death threats that forced Valentina to move in search of safety. Throughout those difficult years, Amnesty activists in Canada and around the world provided steadfast support in the form of countless letters of concern to authorities and mountains of messages of support to Valentina – some in the form of maple leaves.
But this story does not end in fear and impunity. As Valentina told me with shining eyes: “We have achieved justice – much more than we ever expected at the start!”
In 2010, the Inter-American Court ruled in favour of Valentina and found Mexico accountable both for the sexual torture she suffered at the hands of soldiers and for failing to provide access to justice. The Mexican government accepted the court’s verdict and promised to implement all its recommendations. Top Mexican government ministers made good on the promise with actions that included a full apology to Valentina in a public ceremony that was organized according to Valentina’s wishes. Equally important, her criminal complaint was transferred from the military to the civilian justice system and two soldiers identified by Valentina are now behind bars awaiting prosecution.
Valentina is the first to recognize that international support helped to make this possible. “Thank you so much to everyone with Amnesty International who has supported me for so many years,” she says. “We have shared this struggle for justice and together we have achieved these victories.”
But Valentina also knows that torture is far from being eradicated in Mexico. Since former president Felipe Calderón deployed the army to combat drug cartels, reports of torture by state agents have skyrocketed. Women who are picked up are routinely subjected to sexual violence by security forces who see women’s bodies as the battle ground on which to break their will.
“It is so important to refuse to be defeated by fear,” Valentina told me, a message she sewed into a handmade, beaded bag she gave me as a thank you to Amnesty International Canada. “We survivors need to find the courage to speak out. But you in Canada can help us. Your letters are so important. They ensure that the government pays attention and feels pressure to act for justice.”
“Please keep on writing,” said Valentina, her request accompanied by a beautiful smile. “It gives us so much strength and hope here in Mexico to know that you share our quest for human rights and stand with us.”