Reports from Oaxaca, Oct. 15–17

APPO protesters commandeered four city buses on October 11 and drove throughout the city in “mobile brigades” to take over more state government offices and cover walls, buildings, road signs, other buses, and pretty much any available surface with graffiti calling for Governor’s ousting.

October 15, 2006 by John Gibler, ZNet

In the past week, gunmen have killed one and wounded four protesters from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). The recent killings heightened tensions as the conflict again enters into a critical moment with the Minister of the Interior threatening to withdraw the federal government’s settlement offer if teachers do not end their strike by Monday, October 16.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Senate is poised to make a definitive decision this Tuesday, October 17, on the APPO’s central demand that the state government be dissolved.

The teachers union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, stated that they will not return to classes on Monday, but will wait for the Senate’s decision the following day.

The conflict in Oaxaca began as a teachers’ strike five months ago, but exploded into a massive, statewide civil disobedience up-rising after a failed attempt to violently lift the striking teachers’ protest camp during the pre-dawn hours of June 14.

Since then the teachers union and the APPO, which formed in response to the failed police raid and groups together hundreds of local organizations, have held onto their occupation of Oaxaca’s historic central plaza; blocked state government office buildings; painted most of the city with graffiti calling for Governor Ulises Ruiz’s ousting; led a march of several thousand people over 250 miles from Oaxaca to Mexico City; taken over television and radio stations; and built thousands of barricades throughout the city.

Since August gunmen and civilian-clad police have shot at protesters in marches and at their camps, killing six people and wounding fifteen.

Paramilitaries have also abducted movement leaders and participants and held them incommunicado for days before being taken to jail or released. Those abducted testified to having been tortured—with visible scars still covering their faces and bodies. (See ‘Pistol Policy’ ZNet, August 16, 2006)

The recent shootings began on October 11, the day that a “sub-commission” of three senators from the Senate Committee on the Interior was scheduled to arrive in Oaxaca City to analyze whether or not the state government has ceased to function. Since June 14, Section 22 and the APPO have conditioned all their demands upon the renunciation or ousting of the Governor. Ruiz has refused to resign, and the only legal mechanism for the protesters to force his ousting is to request that the Senate declare that the state government has already, in effect, disappeared, a process known as the “desaparicion de poderes” in Spanish.

Hence the APPO’s strategy has been to “create ungovernability” by blocking government buildings and shutting off highways and roads.

In anticipation of the sub-commission’s visit, APPO protesters commandeered four city buses on October 11 and drove throughout the city in “mobile brigades” to take over more state government offices and cover walls, buildings, road signs, other buses, and pretty much any available surface with graffiti calling for Governor’s ousting.

The protesters had nearly concluded their mobile brigade when, shortly after 4 in the afternoon, outside a police station, un-uniformed police and gunmen shot into a crowd of protesters who were preparing to get back on their bus and move on.

The gunmen fired for several minutes, wounding four people, who were taken to the hospital and released later that evening.

A photographer for the local newspaper, Noticias, and the national newspaper, Excelsior, captured clear images of one of the gunmen firing into the crowd. Gunmen fired over 60 rounds, forcing the protesters to seek shelter under fire. Three hours later a caravan of police trucks arrived to “rescue” the gunmen, allowing them to escape without being apprehended by the APPO protesters. As a result of the violence, the sub-commission suspended their visit until the following day.  

The senators’ visit was an exercise in contradictions. Inside the empty state legislature, surrounded by a few hundred protesters, state legislators told the federal sub-commission that they had not stopped working and had passed four laws in the past five months of the conflict.

The Governor, accompanied by his entire cabinet, testified that he had continued to work “as normal,” and presented the sub-commission with box-loads of documents to support his claim.

Most poignant however, was the location of the Governor’s meeting with the sub-commission: a gated and guarded hangar at the Oaxaca City airport a few miles out of town. Ulises Ruiz has not been able to walk freely in the capital city since the June 14 raid.

During a four-hour meeting with organizations from the APPO, people gave testimony about the police raid and paramilitary violence.

Instead of handing over boxes of documents, the protesters submitted bullet shells, exploded gas grenades, and police batons and helmets that they have gathered during the months of conflict as proof of the impunity with which the state government and paramilitaries beaten, shot, and killed protesters.

The senators repeated in the meetings with state government officials and protesters that they would not be “deciding” to dissolve the state government, but merely reporting their findings as to whether the government had already lost control or not. The sub-commission will turn their report into the Senate Committee on the Interior on Monday, October 16. The full Senate will vote on the matter on Tuesday, October 17.

In this context, the Minister or the Interior threatened to withdraw the offer to increase teachers’ payments and open the way for institutional reforms in Oaxaca if the Section 22 does not return to classes by October 16. The teachers responded that they would wait for the Senate vote. The Minister or the Interior’s ultimatum once again fueled rumors that a federal crackdown is imminent.

Then, at about 2:30 in the morning on Saturday, October 14, soldiers in civilian clothes who tried to make their way through a barricade on the outskirts of the center of town, opened fire on APPO protesters guarding the barricade. One soldier, 22 year-old Johnatan Ríos Vázquez, dropped his wallet before fleeing, thus leading to his identification and later apprehension by local police.

Ríos Vázquez fired upon the protesters with a 22-caliber pistol, hitting Alejandro García Hernández twice in the head. García Hernández, a nearby resident who nightly took coffee to the APPO protesters guarding the barricades, was serving coffee with his wife and son when the soldiers opened fire.

“My father was bleeding from the head. I held him and they kept shooting, but now at me,” his son Johnatan Halil told a reporter from the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada. “A compañero (Joaquín Benítez) jumped in the way to protect me. That is why they shot him in the shoulder.”

García Hernández languished in the hospital for over 8 hours without receiving medical attention. When the surgeons finally attempted to aid him, he had already gone brain dead. He died a few hours later. García Hernández was the sixth person to die in paramilitary shootings against protesters in Oaxaca.

This number does not include one teacher who opposed the strike, Jaime Rene Calva Aragon, who was hacked to death with ice axes two weeks ago.

His colleagues immediately blamed the Section 22 and the APPO, while these organizations denied the accusations, in turn blaming Ulises Ruiz for trying to create the conditions necessary for a federal intervention.

While APPO protesters have beaten people caught stealing in the city center and, on one occasion, a local journalist, there have been no cases of premeditated or targeted violence against strike opponents.

The coming days will be decisive for the conflict in Oaxaca, with the federal government withdrawing their settlement offer with one hand and voting on the dissolution of the state government with the other.

The APPO has called for national strikes and marches in solidarity with the Oaxaca movement. On Sunday, October 15, some 40 members of the APPO will begin a hunger strike to be carried out until Ulises Ruiz leaves office. The hunger strikers will join a protest camp in front of the Senate in Mexico City where several thousand teachers arrived on foot from Oaxaca this past Monday, October 9.


“The Popular Assembly Of The Peoples Of Oaxaca Has Been Reproduced In At Least Eleven States”

October 17, 2006 By Nancy Davies, [Excerpts]

Let’s look at ten recent developments here:

1. Oaxaca’s interior secretary issued another ultimatum for the teachers to return to classrooms today or face the consequences. This is the fourth such ultimatum. Each one has carried a threat – either for loss of contract pay for the school year, loss of future pay offers (including rescinding an increase in base wages for Oaxacan workers, which the teachers had fought for and which would benefit all salaried workers), the firing of every teacher who doesn’t show up, or the use of armed forces.

2. Over the weekend in the capital city of Oaxaca, during a forty-eight hour period, ten different marches took place. They followed a public funeral in the zocalo’s central pavilion for Alejandro García, who died from a gunshot wound to the head while he was at the barricade in Colonia Alemán, bringing coffee to the night team.

A car with four military men in civilian clothes, recently seen leaving a local cantina, tried to beak the barricade. During the ensuing scuffle two members of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO in its Spanish initials) were shot, the second victim in the arm.

3. The federal senators who visited Oaxaca to check on the state government’s “loss of powers” opined that there seems to be increased rancor in Oaxaca. According to Noticias of October 16, the senators, Alejandro González Alcocer (PAN), Tomás Torres Mercado (PRD) and Ramiro Hernández García (PRI), though not drawing conclusions about ungovernability, nevertheless reached that astonishing conclusion.

As I understand it, the Mexican constitution says that the Senate can declare the state “ungovernable” by observing that the three branches of government are no longer functioning. In other words, with state powers having disappeared, the Senate sees that basic functions are no longer being carried out.

This is not the same as declaring that powers which exist should be nullified. Hence why Ulises Ruiz Ortega showed up with boxes of papers that he claims prove state functions are continuing.

4. The state director of the National Action Party (PAN in its Spanish initials), Jorge Valencia Arroyo, opined that the governor should consider resigning or taking a leave of absence, because if the National Senate decrees that there is an absence of powers, the shit will eventually hit the fan for him. No, he didn’t say that. Excuse me. What he said was, that once there is an effort to call on people to be accountable for their crimes, there are crimes aplenty to go around – including the really nasty ones like assassination and torture ordered by the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (“URO”).

The crimes of the APPO consist of delinquencies such as damaging the cultural patrimony with spray paint and blocking the free transit of citizens. They have been trying to maintain a peaceful movement and, with some exceptions (like beating up firemen who tried to destroy a barricade over the weekend of October 13), they have succeeded.

5. The Alliance of Business Owners and Civil Society states that they are not with URO, that violence is not the right solution to a problem that reflects 70 years of authoritarianism and abandonment. Thus, URO’s presumed base is coming out against him.

6. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca has been reproduced in at least eleven states, among them Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacan, Veracruz, Jalisco, Puebla and Quintana Roo. Each assembly has its own name, but more or less the same social problems. Twenty-three states signed on to send people in defense of Oaxaca should there be a federal intervention. Four assemblies have formed in the United States: in Chicago, New York, Texas and California.

7. An indigenous Nahuátl and Mazatec community radio station, Nandia, was attacked and destroyed by government agents. The women who ran the station belong to an organization of Mazatec indigenous women.

After the attack they tried to leave the small northern town of Mazatlán Villa de Flores to travel to the capital, hoping to make known their outrage (non-licensed indigenous radio stations are presumably guaranteed in the Oaxaca state constitution), but the only road out of town was blocked by people identified only as Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) loyalists.

The Mazatec women were planning a hunger strike in the atrium of the Cathedral in Oaxaca. La Jornada of October 7 indicates that the attack was called for by the state interior secretary and was carried out by the local PRI. Now the women are calling on international support for the community.

8. In other areas of the state, rumors and threats abound, not only in small towns but also in the larger cities such as Tuxtepec, Matías Romero and Miahuatlán, as reported in an October 16 article written by Carlos Beas Torres, the leader of The Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Zone of the Isthmus (UCIZONI).

In Matías Romero, PRI loyalists burned the radio station La Consentida. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, operators of the indigenous radio stations have been held hostage and have received death threats, along with their families. Radio Huave, the most powerful community radio in the Isthmus, was first to be threatened, followed by the coordinator of Radio Ayuuk, and now the mayor of San Dionisio del Mar has threatened the directors of Radio Umalalang. This is the communication war, Beas Torres says, which has attacked the newspaper Noticias and reporters. The “dirty war” also encourages groups like PRI members and police in civilian clothes to open schools by force on the Isthmus.

The mainstream media, Beas Torres observes, place their emphasis on the big events such as the helicopters flyover and the massing of marines at Salina Cruz and Huatulco.

In Oaxaca there are two wars; one has the aspect of military invasion, and the other is carried out by local political bosses (known as caciques) and local government officials who are desperate to hold on to their seventy-seven-year-old privileged role.

9. In order for the Oaxacan people, authorities, and indigenous organizations to come together for discussions, the APPO and other various sponsors held the Dialogue for Peace on Friday October 13 in Oaxaca City. The importance of that meeting is that the former bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, once again showed up and spoke for five minutes.

This indicates that Ruiz – who has come three times that I know of – has put his whole moral weight behind the Oaxaca movement, most likely because of the movement’s importance for indigenous peoples.

The inauguration was celebrated with a band and several speeches, including the brief address by Bishop Ruiz, who said, “Oaxaca is like the body of all the nation, where something new is being born. We are celebrating with happiness, music and singing because we understand that a new world is coming; not only for the state of Oaxaca but for the very nation… In this new stage of our history we are beginning by having respect for our differences; the world is watching our peaceful construction of a new participatory government and dialogue.”

In addition to the well known public personages, the event was attended by sociologists, academics, campesinos, women, men, children, and representatives of national and international civil organizations, as well as statewide indigenous authorities and the Triqui women, who are always so visible in their red beribboned overdresses. More than 1,000 people signed up as participants.

The opening hour unified the crowd with symbols, such as blowing conch shells to summon the people, wafting incense over the plaza and offering prayers in several languages. The leader of the religious ceremony told the people, “we align ourselves with nature, from which we take our dual representation of god and goddess, of heaven and earth, male and female. We call the forces of the universe to aid and support our road.” As the woman lead the prayer, the audience turned to salute each of the four cardinal directions. Directly in front of me stood three older women who expressed their private prayers in a low undertone. Then began the drumming – a spontaneous light tapping that rippled across the entire audience. The women near me had taken out small plastic compacts and were tapping a steady rhythm with their fingernails.

After the ceremonies the meeting broke apart to several tables where serious discussion took place. Just how serious we don’t yet know because they will not report until later this week. The best hope is that whatever they decide will be included in the November constitutive meetings to establish a State Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (a new, permanent state government based on the APPO model) .

10. Stress, fatalities and tension abound. Neither the APPO, nor the teachers who belong to the APPO, are backing down. The departure of URO is not negotiable. The indigenous communities are organizing, as well as the nation. We’re all drumming with our fingernails.