REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- For a moment, Valentina Rosendo Cantu seemed overwhelmed. Nine years after she was raped and tortured by Mexican soldiers, she stood before a packed auditorium Thursday to hear top government officials accept responsibility for what was done to her.
She stared at the paper with her prepared remarks, pausing long before she could get out the words. Afterward, she hugged her 10-year-old daughter, and the two wiped away tears.
For the second time in a month, the Mexican government has formally taken responsibility for military abuses committed years ago, a step demanded by a series of international human rights court rulings. The gestures come at a time of heated debate over how to investigate and punish murders, torture and other violence committed by military personnel against civilians, abuses that are on the rise amid a raging war against drug cartels. The military has enjoyed relative impunity where such crimes are concerned, activists maintain.
The Rosendo case is especially compelling because indigenous women are among the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups in the country as a result of poverty and language and social exclusion.
A member of the indigenous Me'phaa community in Mexico's southern Guerrero state, Rosendo, then 17, and another woman, Ines Fernandez, were raped by soldiers patrolling the region in 2002. Backed by human rights groups, including Mexico's Tlachinollan organization and the U.S.-based Robert F. Kennedy Center, both women pressed the case for years, turning to often-dismissive officials and government agencies until the case finally reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The court ruled in favor of the women, and, in two sentences late last year, ordered the government, among other steps, to publicly recognize the atrocities committed. The ruling cited the particularly insidious discrimination and violence faced by indigenous women and their lack of access to healthcare and justice, and it called for more civilian control over military accountability.
In Thursday's ceremony at the downtown Museum of Memory and Tolerance, Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said the government accepted its responsibility and said justice would be served only by strengthening the institutions that protect citizens' rights.
"To you, your daughter," Poire said, turning to Rosendo, "I extend the most sincere apology for what happened nearly a decade ago, when your rights were gravely damaged."
Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales also spoke at the ceremony, pledging a full investigation of the crimes against Rosendo. The investigation will be handled by a multidisciplinary task force including anthropological, psychological and criminology experts, Morales said.
A separate ceremony will be held for Fernandez, officials say.
Rosendo noted that the soldiers who attacked her are still at large. She said she hoped her crusade would encourage other women to come forward, adding that she had suffered rejection from her community, abandonment by her husband and ridicule and insults from government officials.
"I continue fighting," she said. "I continue with my head held high, with the dignity of an indigenous woman. I am proud of who I am."
The audience gave her a standing ovation.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Valentina Rosendo Cantu, right, and her daughter, Yenis Bernardino Rosendo, talk during a ceremony Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, in Mexico City, in which the government accepted responsibility for Rosendo's 2002 rape by soldiers. Credit: Christian Palma / Associated Press