Barbarous Oaxaca

“The real Mexico I found to be a country with a written constitution and written laws in general almost as fair and democratic as our own, but with neither constitution nor laws in operation. Mexico is a country without political freedom, without freedom of speech, without a free press, without a free ballot, without a jury system, without political parties, without any of our cherished guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico, 1910

Just over 100 days since his inauguration as governor of the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has been internationally condemned for his regime’s acts of political revenge; for its violent suppression of protests; for its imprisonment and murder of dissidents; for its attacks upon the press; for its manipulation of votes; for its miscarriages of justice; and for the numerous ways it has abused human rights

Ulises is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a group that has ruled the Oaxacan state for the past eighty years and had controlled the Mexican nation until the 2000 election of Vicente Fox Quesada. Like the 1876-1910 dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, the PRI rules Oaxaca through a cabal that impoverishes and terrorizes its indigenous population to serve the interests of foreign capitalists and PRI political bosses. With the PRI controlling all branches of government, there exists no separation of powers in Oaxaca. General Secretary (GS) Jorge Franco Vargas manipulates internal affairs to silence dissent and to impose PRI sovereignty over politically and economically important terrains. Attorney General (AG) Patricia Villanueva Abraham has turned the justice department into the executor of executive power, applying justice selectively to imprison indigenous activists and other political dissidents. Public Security Director (PSD) Jose Manuel Vera Salinas mobilizes his armies of municipal, preventative, special operations, undercover, and riot police to execute arrest orders and to put down protests. Ombudsman of the State Commission of Human Rights (SCHR) Sergio Segreste Rios regulates information about human rights abuses, effectively authorizing the government’s many infractions.

As a recent leaflet explained, “commentaries on the cruel violation of human rights exceed the imagination, yet can not capture all this sad reality.” This situation has grown so desperate that international groups such as Amnesty International and the United Nations are interceding. One hopes that their work will finally begin to bring justice to Oaxaca’s majority indigenous population.
Freedom of Press

From the outset, Ulises has violently attacked those who express dissent, both in the press and in the street.

For years, Oaxaca’s leading newspaper Noticias: Voz y Imagen de Oaxaca had criticized the repression and corruption of Ulises’ predecessor, Jose Murat Casab, and had documented the vote-buying, ballot-box tampering, and cybernetic fraud that secured Ulises’ illegitimate election. As revenge, Murat instructed GS Franco Vargas to promise the land where Noticias keeps its printing supplies to the PRI president of a nearby municipality. On November 28 at 11:30 AM, a group of hooded and armed invaders knocked down the doors of the warehouse, leaving behind a teenage corpse when they left the next morning.

Ulises renewed the attack on December 1, his first day as governor. One hour before he pronounced his inauguration speech promising absolute respect for human rights, a new group of 40 people led by local PRI officials invaded the warehouse a second time, protected by police officers under the command of PSD Manuel Vera Salinas. They have remained the occupying power. The state has contested that the invasion stems from a land conflict, so agrarian laws prevent them from interceding.
Freedom of Assembly

Along with selling its natural resources to foreign investors, the PRI cabal that runs the Oaxacan government gets much of money from its lucrative tourist industry. Ulises has been converting the governmental palace located in the zócalo, Oaxaca City’s downtown plaza, into a commercial center, thereby appealing to local businesses and preventing the public from petitioning the government in view of tourists. Indeed, Ulises’ government severely punishes anything that gets in the way of commerce or detracts from its public image.

One of the many coalitions for indigenous peoples, Consejo Indígena Popular Oaxaqueño “Ricardo Flores Magón” (CIPO), had been camping in the zócalo to protest for autonomy in their villages; for removal of multinational corporations that have ransacked their natural resources; for elimination of paramilitaries; and for freedom of political prisoners jailed on September 14, two days before Mexican Independence Day. In the early morning hours, 150 police invaded the CIPO encampment, severely beating and arresting those present. The Human Rights observer from the SCHR did nothing to stop the abuse, later helping the police manufacture charges to maintain the demonstrators in prison.

On December 23, Oaxaca City celebrates the Night of the Radishes, one of the most spectacular Christmas season events, drawing large crowds of Mexican and international tourists. In response to pressure from the hotels and restaurants that encircle the zócalo, PSD Vera Salinas led a squadron of 120 special operations officers at 6:30 AM, December 22 to evict the CIPO encampment. Police verbally abused the protesters, threatening to beat and imprison them as during the previous eviction. As before, the SCHR reported the action was perfectly legal. On behalf of Oaxacan businesses, secretary of Tourism Beatriz Rodriguez thanked Ulises for cleaning up the zócalo and asked him to prevent any future encampments.

During Oaxaca’s popular celebration of Semana Santa, Easter Week, CIPO led a demonstration to call for the deposition of the governor, attorney general, and secretary general and to protest the incarceration of political dissidents. They were shadowed on their march by state police, undercover army officers, and intelligence officers taking photos at every corner. They delivered a petition to the SCHR, but when they tried to enter the zócalo to spread their message, they were blocked by hundreds of heavily armed riot police with attack dogs. Rather than erecting barricades as they usually do, officers brandished their weapons and insulted protesters, trying to provoke a fight.


Political Prisoners

Not only does Ulises’ government attack the press and intimidate protesters, it regularly imprisons opponents of the regime and of economic exploitation.

During the December 3 solidarity march for Noticias, Agustin Sosa, an activist from Frente Union Huautleco (FUH), spoke of the PRI-terror in his community of Huautla de Jimenez. Huautla had been especially tense since the summer. On July 27, members of the FUH and the left-centrist political party PRD blockaded the road, preventing Ulises from making his final campaign speech. During this confrontation, a friend of Sosa’s, retired Professor Serafin Garcia Contreras, was beaten so severely that he died of craniofacial trauma. Photographs and videos have plainly identified the material authors as three PRI militants, and the intellectual author is known to be the PRI deputy of Huautla.

Nevertheless, on November 11, 120 police agents violently entered the home of Agustin Sosa to arrest him for the death of his friend Professor Serafin. Sosa’s attorneys solicited federal judges, who ruled that the charges are illegitimate. Nevertheless, a state judge rejected the federal ruling, and AG Villanueva Abraham invented new charges of robbery to maintain him in prison. On April 7, after receiving numerous statements of support from international human rights groups and federal judges, Sosa received his fifth order of apprehension. GS Franco Vargas affirmed the state’s determination to keep him behind bars: “the law is not negotiable in Sosa’s case. It is not subject to the bargaining table.” A member of FUH responded, “The government is manipulating the law to sequester him as revenge for his opposition to Ulises.”

Many NGOs, including the High Commissioner of Human Rights Anders Kompass, have protested against the frequent use of torture in prisons. As Yessica Sanchez Maya of LIMEDHH stated, “Torture is the government’s preferred method of collecting information, extracting confessions, and gaining political concessions.” Prisoners from San Agustin Loxicha, accused of being anti-government terrorists, have been coerced physically with beatings, submersions in water, asphyxiation, electric shocks, and starvation into signing declarations of responsibility for acts they never committed. Members of the popularly-elected municipal council in San Juan Lalana were psychologically tormented into accepting the imposition of a state-imposed government. Medical attention has not yet been given to Margaret Garcia’s severe headaches nor to Habacuc Cruz’s loss of hearing, aftereffects of police brutality during the September 14 crackdown on CIPO.


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

“I found Mexico to be a land where the people are poor because they do not have rights; where peonage is common for the great masses.”

John Kenneth Turner

On March 11, UN Commissioner Kompass stated that, in a nation with so many natural resources, the fact that the vast majority of Mexicans live in extreme poverty constitutes a violation of human rights. He added that, in order to change this situation, the people would need to be informed about their rights and to have responsible, democratic leaders who could be held accountable to voters.

Throughout Oaxaca, many indigenous villages have been dominated by caciques, local political bosses who have robbed their populations of state and federal funds, leaving the people without potable water, clinics, schools, or other basic social services. These almost-feudal despots have aided in and profited from the encroachment of foreign capitalists who further degrade the people and despoil the land. Oaxaca is rich in agricultural, lumber, and mineral resources that foreign companies and government syndicates wish to exploit. Being one of the most ecologically diverse places of the world, others hope to transform indigenous lands into spaces for ecotourism. Further south, international capital is implementing the Plan Puebla Panama, constructing a new superhighway to connect the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.

Like the state government, local cacique families have maintained their power through corruption and violence. Political bosses manipulate voting to install their lackeys, and the PRI-run State Electoral Institute enforces these rigged elections. When villagers protest against the imposition of a leader, GS Franco Vargas typically sends in police to break up the demonstrations and arrest the leaders. Both local and state governments have freely used police, army, and paramilitaries to imprison and murder those who resist their authority. One villager explained “they kill their opponents or jail them. It’s that simple.”

The indigenous population in Santiago Xanica has revolted against the imposition of cacique Sergio Garcia Cruz because he has not complied with local usos y costumbres, the myriad indigenous rules for maintaining social order. On January 15, while they were doing tequio, community mutual aid, to fix the road outside the cemetery, 80 indigenous were ordered to vacate the area by a convoy of police going to work on one side and a convoy leaving on the other. Officers fired on the villagers who refused to leave until their work was finished. Two kilometers away, a group of police were ambushed and an officer was murdered. Three young men, affiliated with the indigenous rights coalition Coordinadora Oaxaqueño Magonista Popular Antineoliberal (COMPA), were arrested. PSD Vera Salinas reacted in a predictable fashion: adding 200 police to set siege to the town, preventing free transit and freedom of expression.

To protest this “fascist” environment, Xanica residents marched with COMPA to demonstrate before the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) in Mexico City. Dr. Jose Soberanes, president of NCHR, arranged a meeting with Ulises, instructing prominent members of COMPA to return to Oaxaca City. On February 3 at 11:30 AM, Alejandro Cruz Lopez, Samuel Hernandez, and Jacqueline Lopez Almazan met with Ulises’ secretary at a stylish restaurant to set the agenda. A squadron of police waiting for them in the parking lot arrested Cruz. Hernandez and Almazan ran to their car and headed towards the office of CODEP, an indigenous rights group, to contact international organizations and the press. While they were meeting with a NCHR representative, Ministerial Police entered without a search warrant, breaking down the door, apprehending Hernandez and Almazan without arrest warrants.

The detention of their activists only caused COMPA to intensify their lobbying in Mexico City. On March 16, NCHR president Soberanes issued an open letter criticizing Ulises government for its violation of human rights, citing the cases of COMPA, Noticias, CIPO, Agustin Sosa, and other acts of violence. Dr. Soberanes further protested against the “maltreatment and aggression” shown to the NCHR representative in the CODEP office. On March 17, Ulises responded with an open letter asserting that NCHR was confusing firmness with repression, arguing that Oaxaca must bring to justice all those who attempt to disturb its peace and tranquility. He further reprimanded Soberanes for exceeding his constitutionally-granted sphere of authority. The same day, the PRI-led state legislature issued a point of accord telling Soberanes to abstain from “meddling in local affairs.”
Human Rights and the State of Right

Oaxaca’s “local affairs” have become not just national issues, but, as one activist stated, have turned the state into the center of international attention “for its climate of repression, persecution, and violation of human rights.” Within days of each other, the US Department of State, the European Parliament, and the Organization of American States issued separate reports that detailed the human right violations in Oaxaca, condemning its maltreatment of indigenous populations and political prisoners. After visiting with several oppressed groups, Amnesty International on March 16 cited the lack of separation among the branches of government, the unfair administration of justice, and government negligence as causes for the systematic violation of human rights.

The government has responded to this international criticism with utmost cynicism. Three unknowns threw bricks at the windshield of one of the first indigenous rights defenders to visit Oaxaca City while she was driving away from a meeting with CIPO. Ulises has mocked appeals from abroad, reminding the British and US representatives from Amnesty International that “I know you have a lot of work to do in US, England, and Iraq to address violations of human rights.” Since signing an accord with the UN on February 22 to review the incarcerations of indigenous prisoners, the state government has been insincerely professing their profound concern for human rights. Ombudsman Segreste Rios gushed that the SHRC has “retaken the interest in protecting the rights of persons who are deprived of their liberty; they will not be abandoned for that reason.” After learning that the UN would review incarcerations case by case, Ulises released over 300 indigenous prisoners, perhaps to prevent the UN from conducting certain interviews.

In response to those who have criticized it for violating individual and communal human rights, the Oaxacan government has perversely appropriated the word “right” to justify repression. As proof that he was “neither an authoritarian nor a repressor,” Ulises proclaimed that “it is forbidden to transgress the State of Right, affecting the rights of other Oaxacans and damaging the cultural patrimony.” GS Franco Vargas told UN Commissioner Kompass that the government would make sure the rights of society were respected, refusing to let any individual to stand above the law. AG Abraham clarified the point, announcing that even political activists would not enjoy impunity for their crimes.

This punitive rhetoric has exploded into the paranoid ranting of Segreste Rios On March 29, the SHRC ombudsman announced that the groups who incorporate the Collective for Democracy — including CIPO, COMPA, as well as Catholic, environmental, and feminist organizations ­ were part of a “sinister web”, manipulated by CIPO member Raul Gatica, to promote the political interests of the Mexico City Human Rights ombudsman. Segreste Rios presented an internal document from a Collective meeting as proof of this conspiracy, prompting its members to protest this act of espionage and to petition for a new, democratically-elected SHRC ombudsman, autonomous from the government and responsible to the citizenry.

Given the government’s intransigence, indigenous rights groups have renewed the call for civil disobedience. On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, Dolores Villalobos Cuamatzi, a CIPO member recently released on bail from her September 14 incarceration, declared “Even though they say Zapata has died, it is not true: today, more than ever, Zapata is living in the hearts of each of us who struggle to reclaim the lives of our brothers and sisters and our mother earth. … We must unite so that no more of our innocent brothers and sisters are put in prison, so that no more are persecuted, so that no more are murdered. So we say to Dictator Ulises Ruiz Ortiz we are not going to let this continue; we are going to defend justice with our lives.”

MITCHELL VERTER is editor of Dreams of Freedom: a Ricardo Flores Magon Reader, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: