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Mexican woman wrongly imprisoned is freed -- 3 years later

Middle-aged woman jailed on charges of kidnapping six federal police officers is released without apology. Her case illustrates the failings of a judicial system that seems stacked against the poor.

September 19, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — The charges, her defenders maintained, were absurd from the start: An unarmed middle-aged indigenous woman who stood barely 5 feet tall was accused of kidnapping six federal police officers.

Jacinta Francisco Marcial said she was innocent and had been railroaded. This week, after spending three years in prison, she was set free. The Mexican judiciary that had handed her a 21-year sentence decided she probably wasn't guilty after all.

She received no apology, and was bundled out of prison Wednesday before dawn on Mexican Independence Day, when much of national attention was diverted by holiday frolic.

Her case illustrates the most egregious failings of a sclerotic judicial system that seems to readily mete out punishment to the poor while letting the world's biggest drug traffickers rampage unhindered.

"As far as I am concerned, I forgive them," Francisco Marcial, a 47-year-old Otomi Indian and mother of six, said after her release.

She had become something of a cause celebre, championed by Amnesty International, which declared her a "prisoner of conscience," along with other human rights groups here and abroad.

The charges against Francisco Marcial stemmed from an incident in March 2006 in the central state of Queretaro, when six federal police agents cracking down on the sale of pirated CDs descended on an open-air Indian market.

There, they were cornered by a group of angry -- but unarmed -- street merchants. Authorities said the group refused to release the agents until they paid a "ransom" of about $6,000. Townspeople denied that the agents were taken hostage.

Although several witnesses testified that they did not see Francisco Marcial at the clash, a single newspaper photograph appeared to show her on the margins of a group of protesting merchants. Enough, in the judiciary's eyes, to convict her. And not on a lesser charge such as interfering with police, but on the far more serious crime of kidnapping.

Francisco Marcial and two other women were arrested a couple of months after the incident and quickly convicted. Francisco Marcial's defenders argued that she never got a fair hearing, was without legal representation for much of the proceedings against her and was never provided an interpreter. She speaks basic Spanish, but her reading and writing in the national language is limited.

"When I heard that [the charge] was kidnapping, I didn't know what kidnapping was, I didn't know anything," she said in one of a series of interviews this week.

The 21-year sentence hit her like a bucket of cold water. Initially, it caused her shame, as though she was somehow at fault. "I didn't want anyone to know," she said.

Later, she realized that only by letting the world know might her case be reviewed.

Human rights organizations finally persuaded a judge to reopen the case in April and to hear Francisco Marcial's appeal. As domestic and international pressure mounted, the attorney general's office concluded this month that there were enough contradictions in testimony from witnesses and the federal agents to constitute reasonable doubt about Francisco Marcial's guilt.

A judge ordered that she be freed.

A local group, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, which represented Francisco Marcial pro bono, said that although it celebrated her release, Mexico "has many Jacintas."

"We want to point out the grave deficiencies in a justice system that primarily hurts women and people who are in situations of poverty," said Luis Arriaga Valenzuela, an attorney who heads the organization.

Francisco Marcial and human rights groups are now turning their attention to the two women arrested and convicted with her, Alberta Alcantara and Teresa Gonzalez. Attorney general officials made it clear that Francisco Marcial's exoneration did not affect those cases.

Francisco Marcial is also deciding how to pursue compensation for her three lost years.

"The worst part," she said, "was being so far from my children, from my family, for a crime I did not commit. . . . That hurt me a lot."

She said she planned to return to her husband's side, selling ice cream and soft drinks in a stall in the same market where she got dragged into trouble three years ago.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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