August 2020

Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

Thursday, February 25, 2010

O'odham Ofelia Rivas Imprisoned in Mexico

O'odham Ofelia Rivas imprisoned for four days in southern Chiapas while supporting Zapatistas

By Brenda Norrell
Human Rights Editor
UN OBSERVER and International Report
Photo: Tapachula prison in Chiapas near Guatemalan border.

TUCSON -- O'odham human rights activist Ofelia Rivas was imprisoned in southern Chiapas for four days and crossed safely onto O'odham lands Wednesday night.
"There are inhumane border policies all across the world. My personal experience at home dealing with the Border Patrol helped me deal with confinement in the prison cell," Rivas said after crossing the border to her home.
Rivas was imprisoned in the Tapachula Immigration Prison in southern Chiapas near the Guatemalan border on false charges of crossing the border of Guatemala without documents. Rivas, however, had not crossed into Guatemala.
"Throughout our travel, by plane and bus, federal authorities reviewed my documents and allowed me to pass without problems. The federal police in Tapachula saw that an American was traveling with an Indigenous woman and arrested us.
"They wouldn't talk to me directly because I don't speak Spanish," said Rivas, who speaks O'odham and English.
Rivas was not provided with a translator when charged or during the four days she was imprisoned. "I signed papers without a translator when I was released. I still don't know what I was charged with."
"I was not read any rights," Rivas said. "When they were doing the paperwork, they said we were not being arrested. When we got to the detention center, they said 'You're not being arrested, you're not in handcuffs.'"
However, she had been arrested. She was taken to her cell, which she shared with a family from Colombia, which included a four-month-old baby and nine-month-old baby. They had been there for two months.
"What struck me was the powerful Somalian women that had walked across Central America and were in prison for two months in Panama. They have been waiting in Chiapas for two months for refugee status to be released to the United States. One Somalian woman said, 'I lost all my family, my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters, all killed in front of me. I only know of one uncle who survived.'"
"The strength of those women, everyday they sat together and sang their songs and told their stories, and it kept us all together. We were a community. We all took care of the babies and watched out for the rest of the children to make sure they ate when it was time to eat."
Rivas became ill from the chemicals used for cleaning the prison, which was done at night when she was locked in her cell. One morning, she felt too ill to get out of bed.
"I couldn't get up, but the women insisted that I get up and go eat."
The women's and men's cells were separated only by partitions and the noise was loud throughout the night.
At night, she could hear a man screaming in English and rattling his cell gate, "Get me out of here! Get me out of here!" he would scream, yelling for a bathroom.
"It was the jungle by the sea, so it was hot and sticky and there were mosquitoes."
"Everyone is sitting there waiting for papers. Someone somewhere is delaying those everyday."
After four days of imprisonment, and the intervention of the American Embassy in Mexico City and family members in the United States, Rivas and her traveling companion were released.
"We cancelled the rest of our trip and came directly home, since we don't know what we signed." "This severe enforcement of borders is because of the militarization of the Zapatista communities which continue to face threats."
"My entire trip was to build solidarity with the Zapatistas and to tell the story of the O'odham on the border. We were received with great respect and were honored to be invited to the communities to share our story. They made a statement to acknowledge our story and that our struggles are the same. They said they were honored to hear from the traditional O'odham people."
Ofelia Rivas is founder of O'odham Voice Against the Wall. She lives on Tohono O'odham land on the US/Mexico border and exposes the human rights abuses of the US Border Patrol and ongoing militarization of the border and O'odham land. She exposed the digging up of O'odham ancestors' graves by Boeing during construction of the border wall in Arizona. She has been held at gunpoint, harassed, threatened and detained by the US Border Patrol on O'odham land in Arizona.
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