Defending People, Not Cases

Cristina Hardaga Fernández

These days, Cristina Hardaga Fernández lives in Guerrero, one of the most impoverished and militarized municipalities in Mexico. But her journey as a human rights activist began in Mexico City as a university student protesting alongside the women of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez about the rise in femicides and the disappearances of women on the border. After university, Cristina worked for Congress as an advisor to the human rights legislative division. 

Three years ago, Cristina chose to leave Mexico City and join Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, a pioneering human rights group working with the mostly indigenous people of Guerrero.

Working with Congress, I witnessed first-hand how gender inequality is entrenched in the structure of the state. From this experience I came to understand both the possibilities and the obstacles for making change through government structures."

Through her experiences, Cristina has learned to navigate a context in which those who raise their voices are threatened and attacked, as civil controls have been replaced by the armed forces. She has witnessed how important it is in risky situations like Guerrero for people like her to accompany women and men on the frontline in order to speak out.

Cristina first encountered JASS during the Mesoamerican Gathering of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) in 2010. “Even though I came representing a mixed organization, they invited me to participate. I had considered myself a feminist, but getting to know JASS, its work and staff was a defining moment for me on a personal level and for my work in defending human rights.”

Since I joined Tlachinollan, a turning point for me came when I accompanied an indigenous woman from the Me’phaa community, Valentina Rosenda Cantú, to theInter-American Court for Human Rights in Washington,DC in 2010. In 2002, Vale was raped and tortured by soldiers. Despite great risk and threats to her life, she continued to demand justice for all those years. Working closely with Vale has led me to profound insights. I cherish my friendship with Vale and her family.”

This regional gathering, which took place in April 2010, had a profound effect on many of those who attended it. It was organized by JASS together with the five other organizations that make up the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IM-Defensoras): Consorcio Oaxaca, la Colectiva Feminista; Central American Women’s Fund; AWID; and UDEFEGUA. At the gathering, Cristina forged links for future collaborations. In particular, she sought JASS’ involvement in the case involving Valentina and another indigenous woman from Guerrero, Inés Fernández. “JASS’ support was vital, unconditional and generous,” says Cristina. “JASS also got the Nobel Women’s Initiative involved and together we brought visibility to the issue of military jurisdiction, which the authorities had used to prevent Inés and Vale from accessing justice, and appeal their decision to try the perpetrators in a military court instead of a civilian criminal court.”

Later, Cristina joined the National WHRD Network in Mexico. As fellow members, Cristina’s organization Tlachinollan worked with JASS to prepare for the JASS-Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation and mission to Mexico in early 2012. Cristina appreciates the space that JASS creates for activists and their organizations to be self-critical as well as develop better strategies to pursue a common vision. She says, “I’ve seen how women-only spaces are one crucial element that makes JASS different,” noting her amazement at the sisterhood that is generated and the sincere desire that exists, across marked differences, to act together.

We are told that the ideal way of working in the defense of human rights is to not personally involve yourself, but how is this possible, given that our work is about trust, mutual interests, shared concerns? With Valentina, through Tlachinollan, I learned that this is exactly what accompanying means – defending people, not cases.”


Based in Tlapa de Comonfort, the Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan has fought poverty, discrimination, and abandonment of indigenous communities in one of the poorest regions in Mexico for over 18 years. During its first ten years (1994–2004), Tlachinollan documented 68 cases of human rights violations by the Mexican military involving torture, forced disappearance, and the rape of indigenous women. Numbers have escalated since then: in 2009 alone, Tlachinollan dealt with 14 cases of military abuses. As well as speaking out against militarization in Guerrero, Tlachinollan has promoted access for indigenous communities to education, health services, and justice. In 2007, with two other Mexican organizations, the Center co-founded an innovative Civilian Monitor to document abuses by security forces operating in the region and seek resolution for the victims, including defending members of the police whose rights have been violated.