Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 307 | Febrero 2007



Oaxaca: Unwavering Grassroots Resistance

For the past several months, the people of Oaxaca have marched in the streets against the repressive forces sent first by the PAN’s outgoing government, then by its fraudulent new government. The movement in Oaxaca is emblematic of a new kind of resistance that has arisen from the grass roots and overcome its fear. The recent events there have further discredited the neoliberal economic model imposed in Mexico.

Jorge Alonso

Recent political events in Mexico recall Hannah Arendt’s classic text,The Origins of Totalitarianism. And although one of the leading founders of the National Action Party (PAN), Efraín González Luna, was a harsh critic of Nazi and Franco style fascism, many of its other founders were fascist sympathizers or admirers, a tendency that can still be found among more than a few party members.

Parastate and parallel state fascism

Hannah Arendt warned that totalitarian solutions emerged when people saw no hope of alleviating economic, political and social misery through means worthy of human beings. Meanwhile, Portuguese scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos warned of the danger of social fascism, a new kind of fascism that has no need to eliminate other parties, as did the original form. Instead it aims to segregate the excluded, to establish a parallel state fascism through the selective application of the law and a parastate fascism in which powerful social actors usurp the state’s attributions with its complicity. Then there is the fascism of insecurity, which involves the manipulation of insecurity and fear.

There are clear signs of all of these forms in the conflict in Oaxaca. The powers that be and the spurious PAN government are trying to shore up their support there by using the powerful communications media to convince broad sectors of the population to turn against the grassroots movement in that state, which is waging a passionate fight against the abuse of power.

Power and despotism

Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and has long suffered from marked social, political and economic inequalities. It has Mexico’s largest indigenous population, with 16 ethnic groups spread out over 7 regions, has been run by economic and political strongmen and is plagued by all kinds of abuses.

Economic and social crisis
and a political mafia

Any real understanding of the dramatic situation in Oaxaca must take into account the Mexican government’s plans to privilege the transnational investments that monopolize wealth. Plan Puebla-Panama, for example, includes several huge projects in Oaxaca: the trans-isthmus train, which will serve as a new “dry canal” between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico; the La Venta wind-powered electricity project; the Pinotepa Nacional-Huatulco tourist corridor; and the privatization of mineral resources in the Sierra Sur mountain range. Public opposition to all of these projects has been growing, adding to the more long-standing opposition to the La Parota hydroelectric project.

In addition, the free trade agreement with the United States has disrupted the domestic market, aggravating the crisis in traditional agriculture, especially maize. It has also intensified agrarian conflicts, while the natural and cultural wealth of Oaxaca’s communities is being destroyed by severe soil erosion and the loss of water sources. Because of the lack of local opportunities, Oaxaca sends more workers to Mexico City and the United States than any other region of the country. All this makes the already serious problems of poverty, unemployment and migration even worse.

In addition to the economic crisis and rising social rebellion, the corrupt authoritarianism of successive Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governments has triggered a serious political crisis. They have fostered violence nd ungovernability, denied justice to indigenous communities and other extremely poor sectors of society and exploited public resources with no accountability, favoring only their allies. A voracious oligarchy dominates Oaxaca.

A single voice: Down with Ruiz

Things only got worse when Ulises Ruiz, an ally of outgoing governor Roberto Madrazo, then-leader of the PRI, was imposed as governor in the fraudulent 2004 elections. His despotic exercise of power soon earned him the enmity of much of the population. The human rights situation in the state grew even worse, and Ruiz was frequently accused by both national and international human rights organizations of orchestrating the jailing and death of his opponents.

The new governor attacked dissenters and harassed anyone in the media who questioned his plans. At first, his victims turned to the courts and public ministries, denouncing thefts and murders, but to no avail.

In May 2006, Oaxaca’s teachers called for better wages, and when their demands met with no response they set up camp in the center of the state capital. In mid-June the local government tried to crush them with a violent eviction in which one person was killed. This led to the birth of a broad-based movement united around a demand for Ruiz’s resignation. Although Oaxacans know they have many problems to solve, they see removing Ulises Ruiz from his post as an indispensable condition to begin to remedy their ills.

Birth of a broad-based
opposition movement

Oaxacans have a rich community life. Many communities and student, peasant, and neighborhood organizations came together to form a coalition known as the Grassroots Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) to challenge all abusive leaders, but especially Governor Ruiz, whom they describe as criminal.

APPO organized its own communications channels with the public. From June to November 2006, students controlling the university radio station placed it at the service of the movement.

Then on August 1, hundreds of women marched with pots and pans, demanding time on the state government’s television station. When no one met with them, they decided to take over the state radio and television stations, transforming the television station’s parking lot into a vast kitchen. They didn’t occupy the offices to avoid later being charged with theft.

Soon afterwards, they formed the Oaxaca Women’s Coalition. Pooling their strengths and overcoming their fears, they again marched together, this time to Mexico City, where they took over a radio station called The Law, which they renamed The Law of the People.

Under the wing of a
united PRI and PAN

One solution to this steady, organized public repudiation of Governor Ruiz would have been for the legislature to dissolve the government and call new state elections. But since an immediate result of the movement against Ruiz was that Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Coalition for the Good of All won a large share of the vote in July’s presidential elections, the PRI sought an alliance with the PAN to protect Ruiz.

It must be remembered that the glue that now binds the PRI is impunity. Its members protect each other backs, defending themselves like a mafia. Abandoning its own principles, the PAN also defends the PRI’s most discredited members in exchange for that party’s support in Congress.

This explains why an APPO petition presented at the end of July 2006 calling on the legislature to dissolve the government of Oaxaca made no headway in the Senate. A judge later determined that the Senate erred in failing to respond to the petition, thus violating the constitutional guarantee of the right to petition. APPO then took another legal route, calling on Mexico’s House of Representatives to file suit against the governor, but again to no avail as he has found shelter under the protective wing of a united PRI and PAN.

The murder of Brad Will

In August and September, APPO organized several marches and hunger strikes, setting up barricades over much of the city of Oaxaca. The federal government initially believed the protests would peter out on their own, but as they continued, the local government’s response grew increasingly violent.

In mid-October a demonstrator was killed by state police, an event documented by US reporter Brad Will, who was covering the conflict for an independent media outlet. On October 27, police and PRI members attacked several barricades and this time it was Will who was killed.

APPO blamed the governor and the federal government for refusing to recognize that the conflict in Oaxaca was more than just a localized labor dispute. The Senate also bore a share of the responsibility for ratifying Oaxaca’s government out of partisan interests. APPO again demanded that the governor step down and rejected the use of force as a solution, while human rights organizations denounced a growing wave of repression.

A state of siege to crush the resistance

The federal government responded to the killing of the US citizen by declaring that it would agree to the teachers’ wage demands but would not discuss Ruiz’s resignation. To support its decision, it sent the federal police to Oaxaca, which carried out searches and detentions.

The movement announced that it would confront this military occupation with passive resistance. The Mixtec communities declared that they had no weapons, just the need for the federal government to listen to their demands and put a stop to the repression. At the end of October, the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights and over a hundred civil and social organizations issued an urgent statement in response to the “de facto state of siege” that was persecuting a peaceful resistance movement.

The federal police retook the city center. Although the federal government publicized it as a “clean operation,” it was in fact a violent act of repression, supported by military helicopters and planes. The first results of the federal police’s participation were two dead and dozens wounded and detained. One person died after being hit in the stomach by a gas canister.

Citizens groups from around the world protested the savage repression. Amnesty International demanded that the government respect the demonstrators’ human rights, while other human rights organizations denounced the arbitrary detentions and reported that they had information on forced disappearances.

Those behind the election fraud in July’s presidential elections—big business, the powerful communications media, the top Catholic Church hierarchy—and its beneficiary Felipe Calderón all pressured outgoing President Vicente Fox to crush the uprising.

Rocks and fireworks against guns

The occupation of Oaxaca by federal troops only exacerbated the crisis. The federal government again miscalculated: it thought that with the federal police in Oaxaca, the movement would come to an end, but people overcame their fear and the struggle continued. Falling back to the Santo Domingo Plaza, the people bunkered down in the university. APPO now demanded the withdrawal of the “occupation army” and the freeing of political prisoners in addition to the governor’s resignation. Unlike the position expressed by the Mexican Bishops’ Conference, priests from the archdiocese of Oaxaca also called for an end to the repression.

There were striking images of young people, women, the elderly and children facing off in the streets against the federal police, who launched gas and fired their guns while the people threw rocks and set off firework rockets. With each passing day, more people were wounded, detained, tortured or disappeared.

In October, the movement—made up of teachers in Section 22 and APPO—suffered a setback when the teachers’ leaders caved in to the government, although most of the rank and file stood firm. Despite this division and the ongoing repression, APPO organized a march against the occupation army on October 31 in which 10,000 people participated.

A “response to neoliberalism”

In November, the federal police destroyed the barricades and took back the state television station, by then held for two months. By the time the reached the last barricade at the university, the movement had gathered over 20,000 people, who faced off against 4,000 officers. They defended their bastion with sticks, stones, Molotov cocktails and firecrackers. The police reported 10 officers wounded, while APPO said 200 civilians had been injured.

The Bishop of Saltillo—who has always stood at the side of the oppressed—condemned the use of force, noting that the events in Oaxaca demonstrated how Calderón’s new government would act upon taking office in December. Independent journalists and artists distributed a statement expressing their alarm at the government’s actions: instead of taking steps against the violent paramilitary groups linked to local government, it was attacking the people of Oaxaca. Meanwhile, the National Indigenous Congress repudiated the violence and repression against APPO and the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center denounced at least 84 arbitrary detentions and 59 disappearances.

The movement set up new barricades and on November 5 held another big march to show that it hadn’t been defeated. Around this time, it was disclosed that Ruiz’s government had not clearly accounted for some $9 billion received from the federal government. Pablo González Casanova described the movement as a “response to neoliberalism” and urged its members to beware of infiltrators. On November 9, an indigenous caravan left Chiapas for Oaxaca to express its solidarity.

In an effort to counter the massive grassroots mobilization against it, the Ruiz government organized demonstrations of PRI members and public employees, but they were always smaller than the movement’s demonstrations. The government also promoted violence against APPO members through an unidentified radio transmitter to counter information broadcast by the movement, particularly on the university radio station.

No peace with Ruiz

APPO organized a congress that issued a statement against neoliberalism, explaining that the profound crisis in Oaxaca was caused by an authoritarian, corrupt, illegitimate power that denied justice to indigenous peoples and the poor. It also explained that the new form of grassroots struggle that has arisen to reject this power aims to rebuild the social fabric, which necessarily implies punishing those responsible for the killings, tortures and disappearances in the state.

In mid-November, there was another huge march with several thousand participants. In response, the local government used the media in another attempt to blame the movement for the death of the US reporter. There was so much evidence against groups linked to the government, however, that this ploy failed. The governor stepped up his persecution of movement members and some leaders sought political asylum from the church to avoid detention, which the local hierarchy rejected. Not even all this dampened the protests.

The day before the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, an assembly of the Zapotec, Mixe and Chinateco people of the Sierra Juárez issued the Declaration of Guelatao. It said there would be neither governability nor peace in Oaxaca as long as Ruiz remained in his post and demanded profound transformations to redress the marginalization and neglect.

It also condemned violence and repression as means of addressing these problems and once again demanded the withdrawal of the federal police, the release of political prisoners, presentation of the disappeared, the cancellation of arrest warrants, respect for university autonomy and an end to all forms of aggression against the movement. A day later, with the tacit approval of the police, paramilitary groups set fire to a camp set up by movement members, and the federal police and APPO groups squared off for nearly four hours.

Sowing terror in the march

On November 25, APPO returned to the streets with its seventh huge march. The local government also took another step: it infiltrated plainclothes police into the march, who committed acts of vandalism and set fire to public buildings, conveniently destroying the files that would have verified the local government’s misuse of funds. The government accused APPO members of starting the fires, but APPO demonstrated that those responsible were linked to the governor. Some commentators drew a parallel with the burning of the Reichstag in Germany, a ploy Hitler used to blame the communists and justify their repression. That day, dozens of people were wounded and over two hundred detained, three-fourths of whom were sent to prisons in other states so their family members could not visit them. In the following days, the police continued to sow terror as they searched for movement leaders.

On November 28, participants in a State Forum of Indigenous Peoples declared that the conflict had led to a profound human rights crisis. They accused the government of using old instruments to respond to a new kind of social organization that is demanding its rights as the country’s economic and political model is unraveling. They also charged it with sowing terror to prevent a political solution. That same day, APPO turned the university radio station over to the rector to keep the police from entering the university, and left the last barricade that had been set up at its doors.

International support for
the people of Oaxaca

As the days went by, human rights organizations began to report physical and psychological torture of detainees, many of whom had not even participated in the events and were being held on trumped-up charges. The police searched houses without court orders and many of the detained, both women and men, were subjected to sexual abuse. More people disappeared and there were reports of secret burials. The government responded by harassing and persecuting human rights activists. Shots were fired into a church where members of the movement had taken refuge and the office of a social organization was set on fire and a priest was attacked; yet people linked to local government who had been accused of killing Brad Will were set free.

People from 35 countries expressed their repudiation of the Mexican government and support for the grassroots movement in Oaxaca. At the beginning of December, the movement again overcame its fear and organized demonstrations demanding the governor’s removal, release of the prisoners and presentation of the disappeared.

“Oaxaca has changed,
we’re no longer afraid”

Felipe Calderón took office on December 1, 2006. His new attorney general was the man in charge of the federal police during the Atenco case, in which people had been harshly repressed and arbitrarily detained, and arrested women had been raped. As head of the Government Ministry, Calderón named a former Jalisco governor, a man the Spanish newspaper El País described as a “hawk,” who had ordered the repression of the “other world” movement in Guadalajara in May 2004. The new minister had already been involved in the Oaxaca case for several days, having told Governor Ruiz not to resign and promising him the government’s full support.

On December 4, the government invited several of the movement’s spokespeople to a meeting, only to arrest them and send them to maximum security prisons as if they were dangerous criminals. But the government miscalculated once again. Because the movement grew out of the grass roots, rather than being organized from the top, the arrest of some of its leaders did not snuff it out, but instead fanned the flames. Hundreds of other community leaders met to confirm that the peaceful struggle would continue. As one indigenous leader said, “Those who thought the citizens’ movement could be put down through the exaggerated and illegal use of the public forces and institutionalized violence got it wrong again, as a very broad sector of Oaxacan society has shaken off its fear and is clear that PRI shock groups were behind the provocation. The government’s maxim has been ‘divide, attack and conquer,’ but Oaxaca has changed and they can’t make it go back to what it was.”

The balance of terror

The families of those detained stressed that their only crime had been to participate in a peaceful civil movement to publicize the abuses that the people of Oaxaca have suffered for too long. Rosario Ibarra, founder of the Eureka Committee of families of the disappeared, declared that the repudiated practices of the dirty war of the 1960s and 1970s were being used again in Oaxaca.

Along with members of the movement, the federal police also arrested some of the state police infiltrated into the movement by Governor Ruiz. To prevent this information from getting out, Calderón sent many of those who had been detained and illegally imprisoned in the state of Nayarit back to jails in Oaxaca, while a third party paid the bonds to free the infiltrators. The government also attempted to bribe or pressure those arrested and their relatives by offering them freedom in return for signing papers blaming the PRD for the violent events.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the International Human Rights Commission in Oaxaca encouraged independent human rights organizations to continue their fight against impunity. The federation warned that the same kind of repression applied against the “other world” movement was being used in Oaxaca, and that the torture, repression, beatings, sexual abuse, arbitrary detentions, fabrication of crimes and other abuses violated the human rights treaties signed by Mexico. Dominican priest Miguel Concha noted that the new government’s rhetoric about a rule of law law was belied by what was happening in Oaxaca.

Seven months into the conflict

The movement still refused to give in and on December 10, International Human Rights Day, it took to the streets again, demanding the freeing of political prisoners. The voices of the women were particularly strong. Some said that what they had been through made it feel like they were living under Pinochet.

The third week in December, the National Human Rights Commission released some preliminary information, reporting 349 detained, 370 wounded and 20 killed. It had received 1,211 charges of human rights violations including undue use of force, illegal searches, arbitrary detentions, people being held incommunicado and forced disappearances. It had also received information on the use of weapons against APPO members by subjects identified as local police officers dressed in civilian clothes. Its information was based on over 2,700 testimonies.

The director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center responded that the National Human Rights Commission should not limit itself to verifying the facts, but should also issue recommendations. The Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, which also claimed that over 30 people were disappeared, noted that the commission failed to mention either the degrading and inhumane treatment and torture, or the serious responsibility of both the state and federal governments in the events. The commission responded that it was drafting a final report that would be released soon.

Given the intensity of the situation, APPO decided to halt its actions for the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, to give the anger over all the injustices time to cool down.

Striking testimonies of repression

In January the struggle heated up again with repeated demands for the fall of the tyrant, withdrawal of the federal police, the freeing of political prisoners and the region’s economic, political and social transformation. The Trique communities announced the creation of the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, explaining that they wanted a just government that was neither repressive nor corrupt. A human rights activist denounced government threats to imprison her for publicizing the documentation of serious and systematic human rights violations, while an APPO activist who had worked as an announcer on the university radio station had to go into hiding after receiving death threats. Another radio announcer charged that the government had put a $10,000 price on her head.

On January 6, APPO held an event to distribute toys to children, which the government tried to prevent. Denouncing the criminalization of the social movement, APPO demonstrated that those imprisoned were social activists, not murderers, drug traffickers or kidnappers.

Over 100 of the 141 people in the prison in Nayarit had been freed on bail, but remained subject to legal proceedings under false accusations and dozens remained in jail. When the federal government reneged on a promise it made during its last round of negotiations with APPO in December to free all remaining prisoners, relatives of those imprisoned, killed or disappeared organized protests and demonstrations. Many people stepped forward to testify about abuses and injustices in a National Forum for the Defense of Human Rights in Oaxaca, held in the House of Representatives. Again, the women’s testimonies were very powerful.

On January 13, the police violently attacked a demonstration of relatives of political prisoners, using obviously fabricated evidence to imprison eight people. They were later released on bail by an organization created to address the problem of the prisoners of Oaxaca. The arbitrary exercise of power kept the political atmosphere tense.

International response mounts

Brazil’s Landless Movement sent a letter of support to APPO, promising to denounce the cruel and murderous repression of Ruiz’s government, the federal government and the PRI and PAN. In mid-January, the Latin American leftist political parties in El Salvador for the 13th meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum called on the Mexican government to stop repressing APPO and demanded punishment for those guilty of “crimes against humanity” in Mexico.

In New York, Human Rights Watch denounced that torture, excessive use of force by the authorities and official impunity are among the main human rights problems in Mexico. The International Human Rights Commission released part of the report it will present to the European Union, stating that the movement in Oaxaca is peaceful, not subversive and has legitimate demands; that the conflict will never be resolved if its causes are not justly addressed; and that APPO has been a civil, peaceful movement and thus cannot be blamed for the violence, except in a few isolated, individual cases.

It reported that the federal and Oaxaca authorities, in contrast, have committed serious violations of the individual rights of APPO members and sympathizers, including their freedom of movement, demonstration, expression and use of public space. They have made illegal, arbitrary arrests and are guilty of inhumane and degrading treatment and extrajudicial executions. They have also violated the presumption of innocence and the right to defense. Those detained have not been given due process and the death of APPO members resulted from “direct aggression and not confrontations.” The commission concluded that Oaxaca’s citizens were in an extremely vulnerable situation, subject to serious human rights violations and the suspension of constitutional guarantees.

Dictatorship on the horizon

The “Grupo Sur,” made up of prestigious journalists and academics, issued a statement calling on the government to put a halt to these dictatorial tendencies. They noted that the rightwing forces that supported Calderón’s presidency have demonstrated authoritarian tendencies that if not kept in check by social resistance, would soon lead to an openly totalitarian regime. The imposed government was behaving as though it had obtained a landslide victory and the illegitimacy of the violence it was unleashing could lead the country to dictatorship.

As evidence of this authoritarian tendency, the statement mentions the criminalization of social protest; the misuse of laws and institutions to threaten social leaders and the rest of the population; the deployment of armed forces in the country’s streets; the dishonest and partisan control of the media, which eliminates dissident voices and persecutes reporters who dare to air any criticism; the inclusion in the Cabinet of human rights violators; judicial branch collusion with the country’s real powers; and the budgetary attack on education, science, culture, and social development.

A broad based, fearless movement

After his first six weeks in office, Felipe Calderón declared himself very happy with the situation in Mexico. But how does the majority of the population feel? In addition to the severe repression in Oaxaca, most people’s economic situation has been deteriorating because of sharp hikes in the price of basic goods like tortillas, milk, meat and eggs. Does the imposed government not understand that it cannot play with people’s hunger?

The powers that be are pushing a new kind of fascism in Mexico. Since the PAN government won through electoral fraud, it has apparently decided to bolster itself through repressive force. The television duopoly reinforces this social fascism.

But there are also new features to the resistance against this model. Previously, repression would defeat social movements by cutting down their leaders, obliging what remained of the movements to focus all of their efforts on getting their leaders out of jail. The use of force spread fear, and it took people a long time to return to the streets. A movement like APPO has shown that repression isn’t capable of stopping movements that feed off people’s own energies and demands rather than leaders.

Instead of being sidetracked by efforts to free its prisoners, this movement has added that struggle to its original demands. It is part of a new class of movements, characterized by globalized resistance, constant and renewed international support, and above all, the presence of local and international human rights organizations.

For human dignity

The persistent resistance of the grassroots movement in Oaxaca recalls novels like Land, Land, by Slovak writer Sándor Márai. Identifying the reasons behind the kind of institutional cruelty that humiliates people, he said that torture cannot annihilate defensive movements. And if terror attempts to oblige people to accept human atrocity, something incredible happens once they understand that those in power are not only pillaging material goods but also trampling human rights: they overcome their fear of tanks and weapons, because they understand they cannot allow the annihilation of their human condition.

Mexico’s new regime is marked by inhumanity and cruelty, characteristics it has learned from the former authoritarian regime of its alliance partner, the PRI. Reneging on its founding doctrine, since it has seen that it cannot exercise power without degrading what is human, the PAN is trampling on human dignity and hypocritically invoking the law to defend the use of terror. But in Oaxaca this new fascism has come face to face with a movement that has overcome fear in its struggle for justice.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and ENVÍO correspondent in Mexico.

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