MEXICO CITY — Yolanda Alvarez, 55, recalls the moment her husband was thrown in jail 12 years ago, she can barely hold back the tears.
“I felt as though life had ended,” she says. “I felt that everything had ended. It was worse than if I’d died. Or if he had died.”
Alvarez’s husband, Lorenzo Sanchez, was one of six indigenous Nahua people from the community of San Pedro Tlanixco, not far from Mexico City, who were arrested over the death of a businessman in 2003 following. The death and arrests followed years of conflict over water use between local indigenous landowners and a group of horticulturalists in the adjoining municipality of Villa Guerrero.
“We’ve lived a life of terror,” Alvarez says. “All indigenous people who fight for what’s theirs are persecuted by justice, thrown in jail, disappeared, and sometimes even killed, just for defending what they own.”
The plight of Mexico’s more than 12 million indigenous people, who often face inequality, injustice and persecution, has been thrown in the spotlight by the election of leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July. Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on a platform of “first the poor,” has held ceremonies with indigenous leaders and vowed to bring meaningful change to these impoverished rural communities. But as the President turns his focus to major infrastructure projects, there are fears that all the rituals and rhetoric may end in broken promises once again.
“It’s a government that is showing some signs of advancing the relationship of the state with indigenous peoples,” says Cesar Pineda Ramirez, a political scientist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM). “And on the other hand, showing signs of not just continuity, but of regression in matters of territorial recognition.”
A History of Violence, Poor Health and Education
Various international studies have chronicled the dire living conditions for Mexico’s indigenous peoples, considered among the most diverse in Latin America.
A report delivered in September at the U.N. Human Rights Council found “extremely serious violence faced by indigenous peoples as a result of disputes over their territories,” and that indigenous Mexicans suffered “economic, cultural, linguistic and geographic barriers, as well as racism and discrimination.”
“They have been totally persecuted by the Mexican state,” Pineda says. “The lack of respect for their development and their territories have caused not only economic and material inequality, but essentially a political, legal, and organizational inequality, which leaves them defenseless, and therefore, in absolute poverty.”
The same Human Rights Council report found that while 40 percent of Mexicans live in poverty or extreme poverty, the rate among indigenous people was nearly double. The life expectancy of indigenous people is also seven years lower than the national average, according to the report, and the indigenous infant mortality rate is also higher than the national average, due largely to preventable diseases.
A 2014 study in the International Journal for Equity in Health found that malnutrition among indigenous Mexican children stands at 44 percent, versus just 17 percent among their non-indigenous peers.
Indigenous children also face tremendous difficulties when it comes to access to education. A report from UNICEF released in 2011 found that more than half of indigenous sixth-graders placed in the lowest level of reading and comprehension, while illiteracy among indigenous people was four times higher than the national average.
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“There is a very strong situation in terms of marginalization, in terms of discrimination,” says Alberto Solis Castro, executive director of Serapaz, a Mexican advocacy group. “We still see the dynamics of a lot of abuse and repression towards these communities.”
A President’s Promises
Throughout his campaign and in the weeks since he took office, Lopez Obrador has promised to put the needs of indigenous Mexicans front and center of his new government.
“Everyone will be respected, and preference will be given to the most needy, to the poorest,” he said at a recent news conference launching the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, which replaces the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples as the government entity overseeing indigenous affairs. “Therefore, all government actions will have as their preferred population indigenous communities and peoples of all cultures in Mexico.”
As if to underscore his commitment, Lopez Obrador took part in a traditional cleansing ceremony during his inauguration on Dec. 1, a first for a Mexican president, and even kneeled before the shaman who performed the ritual.
“It was a spectacle,” says Paula Lopez Caballero, an anthropologist at UNAM. “It was a very folkloric representation. But it’s not innocuous and it’s not insignificant that very impressive activist leaders also participated.”
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Among the more well-received promises from the Lopez Obrador government are officially recognizing the 68 different indigenous tribes in Mexico, as well as implementing the San Andrés Accords, a 1996 agreement between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and Mexico’s government recognizing the right of indigenous people to self-determination, which the Mexican state has yet to fulfill.
Lopez Obrador also has promised to increase financial aid to impoverished communities, and support education among indigenous children, while respecting and preserving their own languages and traditions.
But other proposals have proved more controversial. Arguably Lopez Obrador’s biggest infrastructure projects is the “Maya Train,” a railway line that would run across the Yucatan peninsula, connecting some of Mexico’s tourist destinations such as Cancun, Tulum and Palenque.
The four-year project, which has sparked serious concern from environmentalists, is expected to cost between $6 billion and $8 billion, and, according to the president, generate 20,000 jobs across some of Mexico’s poorest communities.
“It is a very important work because it’s going to connect one of the most culturally important regions in the world,’ Lopez Obrador said recently. “There is no other part of the world with as much cultural richness as this region where the great Mayan culture flourished.”
But for the Maya people themselves, the project has become contentious: Many argue that local indigenous groups have not been properly consulted on the ramifications of the development project, in violation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“There should have been a prior consultation,” says Alberto Velazquez Solis, a Mayan activist from Yucatan state. “A consultation that was free, informed, in good faith and culturally appropriate to the Mayan language, to Mayan culture. We haven’t seen that.”
Lopez Obrador put the project, along with nine others, to a nationwide vote in November. But the poll has been criticized for only consulting a tiny percentage of the population (around 0.7 percent). On the eve of the vote, the country’s national human rights commission called on the president to properly inform and consult the local indigenous people that would be most affected.
“These projects have to be a decision made with the communities themselves, respecting the guarantees that the international standards of consultation require,” says Castro, from Serapaz.
“We don’t need to sprint: We have to work with communities, to work out if it is what they want, and if not, understand what it is they do want.”
In response to the criticism, the Lopez Obrador government released a statement saying there will be an indigenous consultation at a later date. However, the project has already begun construction. On Dec. 16 the president also held a ritual with leaders from 12 different indigenous groups requesting a blessing from Mother Earth at the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
But for for Alvarez, the Nahua woman whose husband is still in jail, all the promises and ceremonies aren’t enough. After decades of disappointment, she doesn’t believe Lopez Obrador will keep his word.
“All the leaders who’ve gone before have treated us very badly,” she says. “When they’re campaigning, they say nice things, they say they’ll help us, that they’ll protect us, that they’ll respect us. But once they’re in power, they forget all about us.”
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