MEXICO CITY -- Human rights activists and leftist leaders reacted with outrage yesterday to 67-year prison sentences handed out to three leaders of an uprising last year in a suburb of this capital.
The three men were sentenced late Friday after being found guilty of kidnapping charges related to the disturbances that swept through the rural community of San Salvador Atenco from February to May of last year.
The protests turned violent on May 3, 2006, when a group of flower vendors resisted a government order to remove them from a local market. Five police officers, part of a large force sent to restore order, were kidnapped by community members and released unharmed after a few hours.
The three defendants were charged with the earlier kidnapping of five state officials. The officials were held for two days in February 2006 as local activists and residents pressed the government to meet demands related to continuing disputes over land and government resources.
Judge Blas Hernandez said there was sufficient evidence to prove that defendants Ignacio Del Valle, Hector Galindo and Felipe Alvarez organized the kidnapping.
An official inquiry into the conflict in San Salvador Atenco found that police in the state of Mexico had committed gross human rights abuses in restoring order. The 207 protesters and others arrested included 26 women detainees who were sexually abused, according to a report by Mexico's Human Rights Defense Commission. Two protesters were killed.
State officials say some officers involved in the clashes received administrative punishments. However, none was relieved of duty and no criminal charges were brought against any officers.
"Now we see that those who defend their rights deserve jail, while those who truly commit crimes deserve to be free," Trinidad Ramirez, the wife of defendant Del Valle said in a telephone interview.
The three defendants' case became a cause celebre to the Mexican left. Leaders of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said the tough sentences showed that the government of President Felipe Calderon was hardening its stance against dissent.
Some pointed out that even the most notorious of Mexico's drug cartel bosses have rarely received sentences longer than 20 years for their crimes.
The most prominent defendant sentenced Friday was Del Valle, a leader of a community assembly in the town.
Yesterday, Humberto Benitez, government secretary for the state of Mexico, rejected calls that the state government grant Del Valle and the other leaders amnesty.
"We live according to a system of laws and institutions," Benitez told reporters in Toluca, the capital of Mexico state. "We don't consider it excessive, we consider it a correct sentence And yes, I consider Ignacio Del Valle a delinquent, because a judge found him to be so."
In Mexico City, writer Elena Poniatowska called the sentences a "crime" and said she would help lead a public campaign to "express our indignation."
On Saturday, prominent guerrilla leader Subcommander Marcos told a rally for the defendants at a prison near Mexico City that the three men would not have to complete their full sentences "because this system of justice won't endure for 60 years longer."
America del Valle, the daughter of Ignacio, evaded arrest on charges similar to those presented against her father. Mexico state officials said this month that she is living with Marcos and his guerrillas in Chiapas.
Barbara Zamora, an attorney for Ignacio Del Valle, said her client was sentenced under new, strict anti-kidnapping laws designed to fight the wave of kidnappings for ransom that have swept through Mexico. She says the prosecution never presented evidence that Del Valle sought a ransom for the detained official.
Hector Tobar and Carlos Martinez write for the Los Angeles Times.