Dispatch from Oaxaca
Running as fast as I can, surrounded by hundreds of others, I can hear screams behind me. Glancing back, through the darkness of night I can only differentiate between the masses running with me and the federal police by the light reflecting off their shields and face masks. They are still advancing. A hand pushes my left shoulder and I realize there are medics behind me trying to run from the police while carrying a man on a stretcher clasping a bloody cloth to his head. The medics are trying to reach the makeshift clinic that the movement set up in a building just a few feet ahead. I continue to run block after block as more people pour in from side streets. The police are obviously advancing on multiple streets simultaneously. Panic is starting to set in. Rushing through my mind are the stories I have listened too over an over in the past two weeks while interviewing those who have suffered human rights violations at the hands of the federal police; the stories of sexual assault, of beatings, of psychological torture, of death threats. A few men duck in to an alley, I follow unsure if I am escaping the danger or running directly into it. A woman and her daughter, who recognize me from the internet cafe, motion us into their home. Inside I lean against the wall and slide to the floor. Immediately I think of those who were unable to find a place to hide, of those who could not run, people of all ages had been in the streets all day. I hear gunshots.
7th Mega March Turned Confrontation
Saturday, November 25th, had begun with the 7th Megamarch. Thousands had marched from the outskirts of Santa María Coyotepec to the Oaxaca City center. It was yet another incredible showing of support for the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). The march was calling for the removal of both the corrupt governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) who have been in Oaxaca for almost a month now. The demonstrators were a highly diverse group, including people of all ages, from various indigenous groups, unions, social organizations and rural villages. People gathered along the streets applauding as the march passed. Many handed out tangerines, water and sandwiches to the crowd.
When they arrived in the city the plan was to encircle the center square for 48 hours. This is the square where striking teachers from all over the state of Oaxaca created an encampment which led to the beginning of the movement over 6 months ago. The federal police have occupied it since they entered Oaxaca on October 29th. As the people began the circle, the police in full riot gear, refined their formation at each of the entrances backed by a police officer armed with live ammunition on top of an armoured vehicle. Although APPO had made it clear that the plan was to remain completely non-violent, within half an hour street battles broke out between the movement and the police in at least two of the entrances. Some members of the movement, armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks, faced off with the police who used an incredible amount of tear gas, rocks and marbles shot with slingshots. Also, according to LIMEDDH, the Mexican League in Defense of Human Rights, state government backed paramilitaries were seen on the roofs of buildings helping to provoke the confrontations. Earlier in the day the radio station affiliated with Ulises political party (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI) had called for people to dump boiling water and acid on the demonstrators.
Federal Police Advance
After awhile the police pushed the people north up the hill, at one point taking over the Santo Domingo plaza where the movement has been centered since the police forced them out of the main square. The police continued to fire teargas into the crowd and burnt the tarps and other belongings of the movement and vendors in the Santo Domingo plaza. The report from APPO’s most recent Constitutive Congress were scattered all over the ground. During this time plain clothed police were detaining people in the streets. After the police retreated back to the main square, many movement members regrouped in Santo Domingo as night was falling.
Suddenly the police advanced over eight blocks forcing the crowd to continue running north of the main square. Paramilitary groups also arrived on the scene shooting into the crowd as people ran for their lives. Movement members attempted to set up barricades, I witnessed many women scrambling to gather rocks for defense, breaking stones off the fancy plazas were Ulises has squandered the states money. Cars and government buildings were lit on fire. Throughout the next few hours federal police and plain clothed gunmen continued to attack members of the movement who had taken cover in various locations. Three movement members were killed, 39 disappeared, 149 detained, and over 140 injured (20 with live ammunition), not including the hundred people the medics assisted who were overwhelmed by the gas and pepper spray. And this is just on November 25th.
The people of Oaxaca who are facing this fate are guilty of the crime of demanding justice and trying to organize a democratic alternative to the corrupt and repressive leadership that governs their state. The Mexican federal government’s response, supposedly to restore order, has instead attempted to maintain the exploitive status quo through further repression and with no regard for the true root causes of this conflict, the extreme poverty and unjust government policies that benefit a few at the cost of the majority. According to Yessica Sanchez of LIMMEDH, "It is clear that the PFP are not interested in instilling peace, what they come to do is intimidate and try to criminalize the social movement in Oaxaca." If the federal police had come to Oaxaca with the true intention of restoring order, those who have committed the violence in the last 6 months of the struggle would be brought to justice. Nowhere are movement members safe from the threat of armed attack. Members of the movement have been killed while handing out coffee to late night barricades, while participating in a march, or while leaving a neighborhood APPO meeting. Their murderers still walk the streets, now with the added protection and assistance of the PFP.
Ulises Claims Victory
On the morning after the mass repression, standing in the very spot where hundreds had run for their lives less than 18 hours before, Governor Ulises claimed victory. It had been months since he had been able to show his face in the city. As helicopters flew overhead, Governor Ulises, surrounded by plain clothed police, explained that now Oaxaca belongs to the true Oaxaqueños. "We who love Oaxaca, its history and its traditions feel profoundly offended and attacked by the vandals’ actions on Saturday. The responsible are being arrested and should be held accountable for their actions in the face of justice. Today with the help of the PFP and the state forces we have recuperated the heart of Oaxaca for the Oaxaqueños and for all Mexicans." For hours prior to this press spectacle workers had cleaned up the remains of the police repression, they has picked up the tear gas canisters, the graffiti and stencils had been painted over. A large water truck has sprayed away the dried blood and burnt remains of the movement from the square.
Since November 25th the federal police have surrounded the Santo Domingo plaza and most large parks in the city, they are routinely patrolling the streets of Oaxaca. Reports of people being taken out of their homes or picked up off the streets by armed gunmen are being called in to Radio Universidad regularly. The station has once again called for support in fear that the police will manage to ignore the autonomous nature of the university and destroy the station, the primary means of communication remaining for the movement. Students of the College of Medicine at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University organized a press conference to share their testimonies of witnessing municipal police kill three demonstrators during Saturday’s repression, taking their bodies with them. During the press conference armed gunmen fired into the building and took one student. There were 60 more detentions on November 27th. The PRI radio station has called for the burning of EDUCA offices, a well respected social organization that operates throughout the state. The station has also been reading on the air the addresses where suspected movement members and internationals are hiding. Over 140 of the movement members detained by the police have been transported far from their families, out of the state of Oaxaca, to federal prison.
Those in power continue to try to suppress this movement with intimidation, with violence, with murder because change is in motion. According to Cesar Chavez, "once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours." On November 10th-12th, the movement held a Constitutive Congress where they elected 220 representatives from all seven regions, formalizing the popular governance structure of APPO. 3000 people attended the forum further defining their program of struggle and creating a true bottom up alternative to the corrupt political parties that run the state. I still fear for the people, how much suffering they will have to face. On November 20th there were an incredible number of actions worldwide in solidarity with the people of Oaxaca but there needs to be an even larger outcry. Please consider getting involved in solidarity actions. This is not simply to support the people of Oaxaca achieve self determination and social justice. They are providing a model for the rest of Mexico to also stand up in the face of poverty estimated at over 50 percent of the population, of losing their land and resources to foreign corporations, of having to flee to the US illegally to be able to provide for their families.
On the national level, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador held his own swearing in ceremony on November 20th as the "legitimate president" of Mexico in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters. Two days prior he told his supporters "Those neo-fascist reactionaries better not think they’ll have room to maneuver, we’re going to keep them on a short leash." Massive civil disobedience is planned for December 1st, the date of the inauguration ceremony for Felipe Calderon, who "won" the presidential election by less than one percentage point with clear evidence of fraud. The trend of electing leftist leadership continues in Latin America, confronting the injustice of neoliberal policies and beginning to unravel the exploitive policies that have left the majority of their population in immense poverty. At the same time, President Bush has quietly dropped the ban on training the militaries of Latin America. As our country readies itself to carry on our legacy of genocide to prevent the much needed changes the people are demanding, we must become active. Not only for the people of Oaxaca, or Mexico, or Latin America but for the global struggle that is taking root.
ROCHELLE GAUSE lives in Olympia, Washington. She can be reached at email@example.com