November 26th, in Oaxaca’s city center, the sun rose after a long night of clashing protestors and police. In front of the cathedral Santo Domingo, state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz held a broom, smiling in front of the cameras as he passed it back and forth a few times across the pavement. Until last night this spot had been the headquarters for thousands of protesters that make up the Peoples Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO). Around Ulises stood important figures of the state government, smiling approvingly and trying to suppress their coughs from the remnants of tear gas in the air. PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and Ulises Ruiz` political party supporters joined in on the opportunity for good publicity and swept their brooms back and forth in front of the press. City employees had worked all morning to clear the glass, rocks, bullet shells, and blood from the streets. The fire department finally put out the smoldering remains of the Supreme Court and the Secretary of Tourism. The city centers` walls remain an odd mess of white paint blotches that attempt to hide the thousands of messages that have been scrawled during the last six months, which reveal the true feelings many Oaxacans harbor towards their governor and government. Helicopters and federal police patrolled the area, arresting those who got too close, to ensure that nothing interfered with Ulise’s public statement that Oaxaca had “returned to normal”.
Meanwhile, porros (thugs hired by the government) freely roam the streets in pickup trucks armed with Uzis and AK-47s, hunting down those who have been active in the APPO, sympathizers, and, in many cases, anyone who seems slightly suspicious. The illegal PRI radio station, self-proclaimed “La Ciudadana” (The Citizen), calls for “the real” Oaxacans to burn the homes of APPO activists, the offices of Non-Governmental Organizations and newspapers, and to turn in sympathizing neighbors.
3,000 more Federal Preventative Police (PFP) had arrived in the city to supplement the 4,000 already stationed in Oaxaca. Thousands had gone into hiding, afraid to leave and afraid to stay. People are wary of one another, as the evidence of infiltration leaks everywhere. Many have been bribed by the government to betray the movement. The number of detained is around 200 and rises every day. Many of the detained have been sent to a high security prison outside the state of Oaxaca without any means of communication.
Oaxaca has escalated into an extreme state of terror and violence from what started out as a peaceful teachers protest. Every year, the Oaxacan teachers union goes on strike for better wages and better government funding for schools. Many southern Mexican schools (especially in rural, indigenous areas) have become privatized due to lack of government funding. These schools, now owned by companies like Ford or Coca-Cola, are argued to be maleficent and function as training facilities for future employees.
This year, Ulises refused to negotiate with the union, and as a response, on May 22nd, 70,000 teachers occupied the city square. On June 14th, 2006, the state government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz sent in thousands of police, armed with clubs, rubber bullets, dogs and tear gas to violently displace the peacefully protesting Oaxacan teachers. Bertha Elena Muñoz, a prominent voice of Radio Universidad (APPO’s main source of communication with the people) emphasizes the degree of corruption in the government: “From the moment Ulises Ruiz took office, there were political assassinations, political prisoners and blatant robbery of public resources- practically in front of our faces.”
Oaxaca is the second poorest state of Mexico with almost two thirds of the population (largely indigenous) living under the poverty line. Oaxacans have a long history of exploitation, poverty and a future full of the same with the implementation of neoliberal free trade policies (such as Plan Puebla Panama). These free trade policies often result in the displacement of communities from their land in order to exploit the rich natural resources from their land as well as abuse a cheap and unprotected labor force. The inability for the majority of Mexicans (as well as many Central and South Americans) to earn a living wage due to such free trade policies has resulted in massive immigration to the United States.
The Mexican government has been quite consistent in its brutal, repressive responses to social movements that complicate the implementation of these free trade policies and seek to remove their often corrupt and fraudulently elected leaders. It is no surprise that Oaxaca ranks number one in Mexico for human rights violations. Muñoz adds, “The breaking point was when Ulises violently displaced the protesting teachers from the Zûcalo (the city square). That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The violent repression of the striking teachers served as a wakeup call for many Oaxacans who decided now was the time to organize themselves for the creation of a just, democratic and peaceful future. A few days after June 14th, the APPO was formed, whose main demands today include the removal of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and the PFP from the state of Oaxaca, the release of all political prisoners and answers for the hundreds disappeared. More importantly, the APPO recognizes that Mexicans can no longer survive under the current political system that has shown them no end to corruption and repression. Thus, the APPO works to establish a new social pact moving towards popular self-governance, the creation of a new constitution and to unite struggles against corporate globalization and social injustice.
Until the month of November, the city protected itself from common and state violence with a network of all night neighborhood watches and the establishment of over 2,000 barricades around the city. Ulises Ruiz and fellow PRIistas responded by committing endless acts of strategic violence, such as bombings in the guise of APPO to encourage the entrance of military force. Oaxaca became a mess of porros, paramilitaries and corrupt police in civilian clothing terrorizing the city. These groups are believed to be responsible for numerous murders. Indigenous elementary school teacher, Panfilo Hernandez, for example, was shot and murdered by men in an unmarked car as he left a neighborhood APPO meeting.
Since the events of October 27th, 2006, Oaxaca has moved rapidly into the spotlight. On this day, the APPO called for a statewide strike and the day ended in four murders. One of those murdered was United States Indymedia journalist Brad Will, who had been filming a documentary about the APPO and the teachers strike. Two Oaxacan municipal police who were filmed shooting at the place and time of the victims’ murders were arrested for the crime, but were released due to the protection they receive from the government.
The international attention Will’s death received influenced the decision of Vicente Fox to send in 4,000 PFP troops he had stationed around Oaxaca. Since the arrival of the PFP troops, arrests, disappearances, abductions, shootings and street battles have become commonplace. Human rights organizations have released reports of the brutal torture occurring against detainees. Over 600 arrest warrants have been issued and many who have participated in the movement do not sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. Numerous tear gas and blood drenched street battles have taken place since the arrival of the PFP.
On November 2nd, the religious holiday Day of the Dead, the PFP attacked the city’s most important barricade, Cinco Señores which defends Radio Universidad. However, the people managed to repel the troops after seven long hours, establishing a significant victory of hope for the people. The most recent and significant battle took place November 25th. It started with a mega march of hundreds of thousands of people (the seventh of its kind) making their way into the center of the city planning to form a peaceful human chain around the PFP in the city square and hold it for 48 hours. However this quickly took a wrong turn as rocks started flying from the side of the APPO. The PFP responded with a storm of tear gas then quickly upgraded to 9mm gunfire. Soon the PFP had the APPO surrounded on three sides, grabbing and beating those they could reach. Chaos broke loose, and numerous cars, buildings and houses were set on fire. While some of the destruction was carried out by members of the APPO, a significant part is suspected to have been perpetrated by infiltrators and porros. According to several resources, police waited at hospitals, dressed as paramedics, and arrested several wounded as they were brought in. All night the government worked with determination to completely erase and destroy the movement, including chasing, beating and arresting all of those who had been present on the streets.
The next day, the entire city was occupied by police, the street-based headquarters of the APPO cleared, and the dozens of elaborate murals and street art that had once painted the streets were covered with ghostly layers of white paint. PRI supporters and police are now free to roam the streets committing arrests, shootings, beatings, fire bombings and other attacks. The offices of APPO spokesman, Flavio Sosa, were burned and he was later detained in Mexico City. Another two APPO spokesmen, Cesar Mateos and Jorge Sosa Campos, were seen abducted by men in a car without license plates. Human rights workers are now facing arrest warrants for vague offenses. The thousands of barricades once seen throughout the city have been removed and Radio Universidad has been silenced. The Mexican government has made itself clear in its unwavering determination to silence Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico. The tactics the government uses in Oaxaca, (reminiscent of the 1968 repression of a massive student protest) have again proven successful with the majority of the APPO either in hiding or behind bars. International corporate media reports stories of youth in Oaxaca rioting and destroying the city but nothing more, thus twisting perspectives in Fox’s and Ruiz’s favor.
Oaxaca and the APPO represent the failure of the United States implemented neoliberal development model carried out in Mexico. In light of this, caravans from all over Mexico had arrived in Oaxaca to join the struggle against an obsolete, oppressive government. The EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army), who struggle against corporate globalization and for indigenous rights, blocked off streets in Chiapas in solidarity. Since the formation of the APPO in Oaxaca, very similar organizations have formed in seven other Mexican states as well as in the United States. The struggle of Oaxaca, has proven the potential for an alternative to the growing dominance of neoliberal policies. It achieves this through active citizen participation in the formation of concrete proposals regarding land, natural resources, education, state reform and cultural heritage.
On December 1st, fraudulently elected Felipe Calderon was inaugurated as Mexico’s new president. At the same time, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Calderon’s opponent, announced himself “legitimate” president in Mexico City’s Zocalo, in front of millions of supporters. The country erupted into massive demonstrations and politicians broke out in fistfights at Congress. As Ulises Ruiz and the federal government evade serious negotiations or dialogue with the APPO, Calderon similarly evades adressing Obrador or his supporters. State brutality remains as the preferred solution to conflict.
While the brutal repressive violence of the federal government temporarily disbanded the APPO and keeps many of its members behind bars (along with a large population of indigenous workers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) or in hiding, Oaxacans hold strong in the struggle and are unafraid to take to the streets with their demands. The city remains occupied by police and the Zocalo has become an eerie holiday display of red poinsettias wielding thank you notes to the PFP and Ulises Ruiz Ortiz for reinstating “peace” to Oaxaca.
December 22nd saw a worldwide day of action (called by the EZLN) with Oaxaca where around 40 different countries took to the streets in solidarity. Calderon faces a continuous massive resistance of the people which is thoroughly ignored as he makes even more cuts to the dwindling education and culture budgets.
Mexico faces a serious political and economic division. With the government avoiding negotiation, collapse looms in the future.
Oaxaca unites with southern Mexico as an example of hope and promise in the global struggle against oppressive free trade policies and corrupt illegitimate government regimes; it also shows us that these regimes will not hesitate to use whatever violent means necessary to silence those that stand in their way.
For more info check out Centro de Medios Libres, cml.vientos.info, Centro de Medios Independientes de Oaxaca, mexico.indymedia.org, Oaxaca Libre, oaxacalibre.net, APPO, www.asambleapopulardeoaxaca.com, Narco News, www.narconews.com, Radio Zapote Mexico D.F., zapote.radiolivre.org, Radio Pacheco, www.radiopacheco.org, El enemigo comun, www.elenemigocomun.net