Why Are Mexico’s Indigenous People Over-represented in the Prison System?

Barbed wire isn’t the only thing keeping Mexico’s indigenous population behind bars
Barbed wire isn’t the only thing keeping Mexico’s indigenous population behind bars | © mitchell haindfield/Flickr

Northern England Writer

The indigenous peoples of Mexico are statistically far more likely to be imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit or left languishing in cells for transgressions they’re yet to be convicted of than their non-indigenous Mexican counterparts, but why?

Indigenous people in the Mexican prison system

According to reports from 2017, some 8000 indigenous people across the country are imprisoned despite not yet having been convicted of a crime. A vast majority of these are alleged to be indigenous men, jailed for minor offenses.

The flip side of this is the fascinating case of the Guachochi prison in Chihuahua, opened in January 2015, which is entirely populated by indigenous inmates and apparently free of drug abuse and corruption. Most of the inmates, many of whom are said to have walked miles to the prison to own up to their crimes and be incarcerated for them, are those convicted (or accused) of committing serious crimes like assault, rape and murder.

No one has been prosecuted for the ‘disappearances’ of 43 students in 2014, yet indigenous people are not provided with proper legal support.

However, this idealistic prison is not the reality of most indigenous people in Mexico when faced with entry into the prison system. Nor is the landmark apology that was issued by the Mexican government to three indigenous women from Querétaro, who were wrongly imprisoned for three years for the alleged kidnapping of seven police officers and carrying cocaine.

Instead, of the 2773 indigenous people freed from prison in 2015 due to the intervention of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI, in Spanish), it was asserted that all of them had been unfairly jailed in some way, according to Mexico News Daily.

Furthermore, even not being convicted can be devastating for Mexico’s indigenous population, as many of those accused of crimes (wrongly or rightly) actually spend more time in prison waiting for a resolution to their case than they would have done were they convicted and sentenced in the first place.

Why are Mexico’s Indigenous people over-represented in the prison system?

The answer to why Mexico’s indigenous people are over-represented in the prison system principally hinges on two crucial factors; poverty and language barriers.

Indigenous peoples’ lack of funds often leads to a lack of access to legal counsel or an inability to pay bail, which implies that they must remain in jail until the justice system gets around to dealing with their case. If we take the case of Zapotec prisoner Adán Cruz Gallegos as an example, this could take anywhere up to or beyond seven years.

Barbed wire isn’t the only thing keeping Mexico’s indigenous population behind bars

Furthermore, and despite the fact that the Constitution enshrines the right to an interpreter, many monolingual (and sometimes illiterate) indigenous people, are forced to sign documents they don’t understand and interpreters are rarely provided. This is said to especially impact female indigenous prisoners and can sometimes lead to confessions being coerced from them under duress. Alternatively, as is alleged to have happened in the case of Oaxaca’s Loxicha prisoners, the accused are tortured into signing blank pages which are then filled with false confessions.

So, for the indigenous population of Mexico, the justice system is really anything but.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.