Voices from Oaxaca

Submitted by cathy n on 21 January, 2007 - 9:09

In December twenty human rights lawyers, journalists, authors, students and activists from the United States and Canada went to Oaxaca to investigate violations of civil and human rights since 14 June 2006. Here are extracts from their report (prepared by Robin Alexander). An activist from the Oaxaca struggle will be touring England from 12 February. The full report can be found at www.nosweat.org.uk

Oaxaca is one of the largest states in Southern Mexico, with eight cultural and geographic regions, eighty micro-regions, and a population of approximately 3.5 million. It is home to sixteen indigenous peoples as well as to African groups on the coast.
Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico, with 76% of its people living in poverty or extreme poverty, and many homes lacking basic services. Educational levels are low. The lack of employment, especially in agricultural areas, has created a crisis for many families. One response has been migration, with approximately 150,000 people migrating each year to the north or to the United States.

Oaxaca has long been a stronghold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed Mexico for 71 years, until defeated in the federal elections of 2000. Until the 2006 election the PRI had maintained absolute control in Oaxaca through a system of local caciques and pervasive corruption. Opposition was treated harshly by the PRI.
However, Oaxaca is also home to a democratic tradition which was practiced in its many indigenous communities, and is rooted in communal organisation.

The teachers' struggle

The Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educaci—n (SNTE), the Mexican Teachers Union is the largest union in Latin America. As with the other "official unions" it is characterised both by corruption and by close historical ties to the PRI.
The struggle of teachers in Oaxaca began in May, 1980 as a fight to democratise their union, Local 22. The size of the union made it an important part of the corporatist political system, where the union turned its members out to vote for the PRI and local union leaders were imposed by the Ministry of Education during conventions policed by armed thugs. Thus, democratisation of the union meant not simply confronting an employer, but taking on the local and national political establishment.

Large mobilisations in May 1980 in Oaxaca were followed by the establishment of an encampment in Mexico City. After several months of conflict, intervention by the federal government resulted in recognition of the new Oaxaca leadership by the SNTE, wage increases of 22%, a special bonus for rural teachers, and payment of lost wages. The local also developed new democratic forms for the union.

However, it was only after many more years of mobilisations, marches and hunger strikes that the Local succeeded in winning the right to hold its own conventions and govern its own affairs.

Local 22 also forms part of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educaci—n (CNTE), a democratic movement within the SNTE.

The emergence of a strong popular movement

Between 1978 and 1992, the Mexican government, under pressure from the World Bank and USAID, decentralised the Ministry of Public Education (SEP). The process culminated in the signing of the Basic Education Modernisation Agreement (ANAM), transferring the previously federal system to the states.

In Oaxaca, the PRI governors and their Secretaries of Education, found they had to negotiate with the PAN President, Vicente Fox and his Secretary of Education. Local 22 used its tradition of mass mobilisation to get the attention of both. In May of each year the teachersÕ union presents its demands and authorises a strike. This year there were 17 general points, as well as others having to do with shoes, uniforms and school supplies for low income students. The central demand was for re-categorising the teachers from zone 2 to zone 3, based on high costs in the area.

Dissatisfied with the response of the government, the teachers went out on strike on 22 May, and with support from others established an encampment in the z—calo, or main square. The government's response was a harsh media attack, and after five days an offer of slightly more than half of what had been agreed upon the year before.

When its offer was rejected by the union, the government continued its media campaign and threatened to file a law suit against the teachers for having abandoned their posts and with replacing them. Then, on 14 June, at 4am, armed police, accompanied by dogs, attacked the teachers who were sleeping with their family members and other supporters in the encampment and assaulted them with tear gas. They took over the offices and the hotel of the union, detaining a dozen people including those who had been operating the union's radio station known as "radio plant—n."

The police, supported by two helicopters, threw grenades of pepper smoke and tear gas which affected not only the strikers, but neighbours and guests in nearby hotels. The tents were destroyed and burned by police. This also resulted in various detentions and disappearances as well as one spontaneous abortion due to exposure to tear gas.

At approximately 8 a.m. the teachers and other supporters re-grouped and armed mostly with sticks and pipes from the tents confronted the police and by 10 a.m. the police fled, leaving the teachers once again in control of the z—calo where, the following day, they re-established their encampment.
The violence of the police attack was broadly condemned by the population, which came together on June 17-21 to form APPO, an alliance which came to include some 365 organisations, with common demands that the local Governor Ulises Ruiz step down, and for a reform of the state.

In the months that followed, the movement grew, characterised by mega-marches of tens of thousands of people. On 1 August 2006 hundreds of women marched through the streets, and infuriated at the denial of an hour's air time to express their concerns, took over the state-owned radio and television stations, opening the airwaves to opinion, discussion, and the generation of proposals for what was needed for the reform of Oaxaca's institutions, musical programs and coordination of the movement.

Barricades were set up to protect the radio station and in neighbourhoods after 9 or 10 pm every evening to protect against the police in civilian dress who circulated in vehicles and engaged in shootings at night. They were erected every evening out of branches, stones, and cars.

On 28 October four people were killed, including Indymedia journalist Brad Will and a teacher, Emilio Alonso Fabian. The following day, the federal preventive police were sent into Oaxaca.

On 25 November the federal preventive police in full riot gear responded to provocateurs by firing tear gas into the crowd. The police had encircled the area some six to eight blocks away, so when people ran to escape the police and tear gas, many were picked up who had nothing to do with the march or with APPO.
Men and women were beaten, thrown face down and stacked on trucks. Of the 170 detained that day, 141 were subsequently transported to an airfield where they were taken by helicopter to Nayarit, some 745 miles away, far from their families for whom it was an expensive bus ride from Oaxaca. Of those arrested, 34 were women and five were minors (one 14, one 15), who were taken to the same adult-male facility.

Similar actions were taken against people coming from outside of the city to join the mega-marches; buses were stopped and passengers taken into neighbouring fields where they were beaten before being loaded into trucks and taken to jail.

The following week, some teachers were arrested in their classrooms, and people were dragged from their homes.
On December 3, the APPO issued a communique which called for a mobilisation on December 10. It also stressed that the violence unleashed since November 25, "has not weakened our desire to be free men and women. Nor has it made us change our minds about whether our struggle should continue to be a political, peaceful, and mass movement, despite the fact that 17 people have been killed during this stage of the struggle, dozens of people have disappeared and hundreds are political prisoners."

The testimony

A student leader was detained by police wearing civilian clothing when leaving a movement radio station. He was hit on the head with a pistol, which left a gash in his face. He was told to write a false confession that he had a pistol and coke and was kicked and hit until he did so. He was also given the names of three activists and told to write that two had burned trucks and the third was the boss of the other two. He heard someone take off his belt and was asked if he had ever been fucked and how it felt. They subsequently sprayed something on his back which he understood they were going to set on fire, although they did not actually do so. Six days later he was finally released on bond and charged with theft.

The director of a boysÕ boarding school was kidnapped near the university. He was hit and subjected to abusive language, and eventually taken to a military base. Although he wasn't blindfolded, when he raised his head he was hit. He was kept on his knees with his hands tied, which was very uncomfortable. They kicked him four or five times and put a gun to his head. Eventually he was put on a helicopter and taken to a prison. While in flight, police threatened that they would open the back of the helicopter. He told us that he knew that he wouldnÕt be killed but that others were really afraid, and that for him the hardest part was that his son was also picked up. He still has problems with his kidneys and ribs. He was detained for eight days.

A fifty year old widow was detained as she left her place of employment where she worked as a maid. She had just been paid and her money was taken and she was tied up and put with other women in a truck. It was really cold and one of the police said: "Die old ladies, there are lots of garbage cans where we can throw you." She was detained for 21 days.

A mechanical engineering student had gone with his family to participate in the march. The police began to fire rubber bullets and both police and people in civilian clothing on roofs began to throw tear gas. The police were beating people, his friend had fainted, and the only air was near the police. The police were beating them, so he thought the best thing to do was to turn himself in. The police took his money, cell phone, bag and shoes and threw him on a pile of people. The police started kicking the soles of their feet, saying it was to keep them awake. Those on the edge received the worst treatment, as they were stepped on and their hair and ears were pulled. They were put in trucks, and questioned by police who kicked them, whatever they answered. The police also stood on top of them and jumped on them.

Around 600 people were going to Oaxaca by bus for the fourth march when they were stopped by the federal highway police. They were taken down one at a time and threatened and beaten. Their cell phones and cameras were taken from them. Molotov cocktails were found, which the person we spoke with believes to have been planted by the police. He was photographed with a gun that did not belong to him. Although he kept insisting on the right to make a phone call, he was not permitted to do so. He was interrogated, asked who paid him, financed him, what organisations he belonged to. He was subsequently told that the charges against him included robbery of the buses and having weapons: sling shots, marbles and Molotov cocktails.

A university student who was arrested affirmed that they did not have weapons, only papers, and that these were illegal arrests. He said two people were arrested for having union credentials, another for being the group's spokesperson, one for wearing a Tai Kwan Do jacket, and that he believed that he was arrested for objecting, for having papers where he had written something about what was going on in Oaxaca, and for having UNAM identification. He said that some 200 armed Federal Highway Police stopped them, and hit them for three hours. They put blankets over them and kicked them, he explained, in order not to show marks. They brandished loaded weapons and told them they had three seconds to run.

A woman spoke about how the police touched her breasts.

We were given this account by a friend of the victim: he had gone to work and his friend went to a meeting. Afterwards his friend was shot by three men in a truck. He was hit by fourteen bullets, but four did the most damage. They leave, thinking he is dead. There were more than 200 bullet holes in the truck (we were given a xerox of the photograph of truck). He was a leader of his community and active in APPO and CODEP. He has had two operations, but needs two more.

Pablo Madhouse, a veteran reporter was caught up in the violence, along with a group of international journalists. He began to cry while telling us what he saw on 25 November : "I have seen attacks by the EPR, various people killed in land disputes, but this was different. I felt impotent, terrified. We didnÕt know what to do... The international reporters had never seen anything like it. They were terrified. I think they left the next day. We could hear screams for five blocks... The city was all lit up. There were abuses, excesses."

A bus driver had his window broken by a tear gas canister. He was surrounded by police, and beaten on his legs and head, pushed on the ground, dragged, and verbally abused. He was then put on a bus with five other people, who were made to sit for about an hour with their hands on their heads while they were kicked and beaten. They were then stacked in the back of a truck, where the police sat on top of them, kicking them and making fun of them. He told us that the police threatened them, saying "your time is up" and "we are going to throw you out of a helicopter." He vomited and was crying. It was only after he was put in jail that he received medical attention, food, a shower and a blanket. He remained in jail for over a month.

A woman told us of her brother, who was picked up with a friend getting in a taxi, after he had gone shopping. For more than a week he was unable to communicate with his family. He had been taken to Nayarit, where he was beaten, but fortunately not too seriously. Many were seriously beaten, she told us, some with internal injuries. Her brother remains in jail at Tlacolula.

A young woman told us of her boyfriend: he was from another state, and had come to ask for her hand. On 25 November they had gone to the park and wanted to return to her house. There was no transportation because of the march, so they went downtown to catch a bus. When they got to Santo Domingo, people started yelling, "Run, run, the federal police are coming!" She told us that the police were throwing tear gas and they were choking, so that they couldn't run. Her boyfriend fell and some people helped him up. But the police got closer, and they couldnÕt move fast enough, so they captured him. She told of searching for him for two days in hospitals and on the lists of the detained.

Almost a month later she saw him for the first time. He told her that he had been beaten, that the prisoners had been put on top of each other and driven around for three hours. When they were moved to Nayarit, they were still being beaten and were told that they would be put in a common grave and burned. It was only after he got to Nayarit that the beatings and threats stopped. He is still in jail.

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