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The Dirty War of Oaxaca

Latin Americas’ ¨dirty war¨ of the 70s and 80s has reemerged in its most blatant form in the case of Oaxaca, Mexico in the final days of November.

The APPO, the Popular Assembly of The People of Oaxaca, whose struggle to oust the PRI party governor Ulises Ruiz and to replace power with that of popular assemblies began on June 14th with an attempt to violently evict a sit-in of striking teachers. Six months later they find themselves living clandestinely with federal warrants on their names and on the run from the police.

In this past week, the government of Mexico has adopted a ¨gloves off ¨ policy and has clearly stated in the press its plans to do away with the popular movement in Oaxaca before Friday, the 1st of December, when PAN party Felipe Calderon was to take presidential office despite protests by millions of voters around the country amidst the fraudulent summer elections that stole the vote from PRD (Democratic Revolution Party) candidate Lopez Obrador.

Thousands of Preventive Federal Police, PFP, forces who entered the city of Oaxaca on the 28th of October, prompted by the death of Indymedia journalist Brad Will, are now in control of the local, state, and investigative police branches, and have expanded their operations to outside of the capital, Oaxaca City. A special operations department of the PFP joined the existing force there, and armed patrols circle the city.

The past week has resulted in over 171 detained, a number that rises everyday. 142 of those detained during weekend clashes were transported to a high security prison in Nayarit, a state over a hundred miles north of Oaxaca. The majority of these prisoners are out of communication with the outside and are assumed to be suffering torture. Human Rights organizations in Oaxaca and Nayarit say that they are aware of at least 36 cases of torture, and the few families who have been able to speak with their detained relatives say that they are badly beaten and that women are being threatened with rape. There is at least one report of a prisoner being tortured in order to sign a false confession of having participated in the damages to the capital under the pretext that the APPO paid him. Amongst those detained there are many accounts of arbitrary detentions, and prisoners who have nothing to do with the APPO. Human Rights organizations in Oaxaca say that the combined number of women raped by police or disappeared is over 60.

Participants in the Oaxacan social movement only expect the conditions of repression to worsen, especially with the entrance of Felipe Calderon of the PAN (National Action Party) into presidency today. A week and a half ago Calderon stated that upon entering into office he would do away with all social movements, no matter how many dead would have to fall.

During the Saturday night roundup, which resulted in at least 3 people killed and another 25 disappeared in the same twenty four hours, a hotel worker said that he came across a group of PFP officers who boasted to him that they had already killed 13 people, and that the press would never know because the bodies had been disappeared.

A Week of Hunting

The form in which the government is carrying out the operation to do away with the movement makes it apparent that it is not only an operation, but a spectacle of repression meant to cause psychological trauma and a widespread fear to prevent further uprising.

The government has banned marches in Oaxaca, and promised severe repression if mobilizations of any kind are carried out, making it impossible to rally for the 200 political prisoners arrested over the weekend, or to demand that the upwards of 25 people disappeared on Saturday and Sunday be returned alive. Despite this, a small number of family members of the detained and disappeared carried out a march in Oaxaca City today.

Moreover, the last APPO radio, Radio Universidad, was handed over to Benito Juarez Autonomous University officials on Wednesday. The APPO sympathizers said that the reason for their withdrawal was because of the lack of people wiling to protect the radio under the threat of arrest or disappearance, and because of the rumor that the Federal Preventive Police would enter before five that night. Indeed, different police forces operating in the city had been patrolling near the Cinco Señores barricade at the entrance to the university for days, and on Monday arrested three people leaving the radio, including a French woman, Mille Sarah Ilitch Welch, who faces deportation on Friday. Apparently there were many warrants out on the radio hosts as well.

The radio was the artery of communication and coordination for the movement in Oaxaca. Without the radio, disappearances and arrests can go unnoticed, and Oaxacans are left without a forum in which to organize and distribute information. For the past month in Oaxaca, the only other radio operating was Radio Ciurana, a PRI (Industrial Revolution Party) supported radio whose hosts and callers often threaten APPO sympathizers. In the days leading up to the “Mega Marcha” on the 25th of November, the radio was calling for PRIistas to throw hot water and hydrochloric acid on marchers. The radio often calls for movement offices to be burned and blatantly threatens violence against many of the participants.

And while PRD and PAN parliamentary representatives exchanged punches inside the Congress to gain a space for governance in the days leading up to the inauguration of Calderon, police forces in Oaxaca continued to carry out “cateos”, or house raids in Oaxaca, a regular practice that has gained speed in the past days.

On Thursday November 30 there were house raids throughout the city and in surrounding towns, and 8 anarchists from the Ocupa Oaxaca collective were arrested in Colonia Reforma.

Police claim that they have a list and photos of 100 foreigners that they are searching to arrest for their participation in the movement. Immigration officials arrested an Argentinean. Beatriz Ana Livinter, and a Spaniard, Alfonso Gutierrez Ferrando, yesterday.

The PFP also entered Zaalchia on Thursday, a town 11 kilometers outside the capital where the people ran the mayor and the local police out of the town months ago, in protest of neoliberal policies threatening their land and water. The invading PFP were ran out of Zaalchia, but not before arresting 4 teachers.

In Ocatlan, the PFP entered schools and suspended classes, leaving the school children terrified.

On Monday Frederick Carmona Splinkter and a student were forcibly taken at gunpoint and tied up in a neon red car outside the Faculty of Medicine and shots were fired at the building of the faculty. The two kidnapped later turned up in a detention center on Oaxaca.

People have seldom left their houses this week in Oaxaca, and those involved in the movement have only left to buy food, others have attempted to leave the state to find refuge in other parts of the country. However, police have set up roadblocks on highways leading to Mexico City, and there are reports of people being taken off of buses, to be searched and arrested.

The disappearances, arrests, and rapes seem to be part of a government plan to force the popular movement into a state of fear by causing the movement’s thousands of participants into geographical dispersion and into a state of living clandestinely. Under these conditions, it is difficult for people to organize, mobilize, or even communicate.

Night Terror

The heavy repression came after a mega march on Saturday, November 25th. The APPO had called for a peaceful march from a town outside of Oaxaca city to the Zocalo, the center square occupied by the federal police since their entrance into the city a month ago. The vision of the march was to surround the police by creating a chain of marchers in the streets around the Zocalo, essentially to reoccupy the city by closing in on the occupying federal forces. The marchers planned to camp in the streets for forty eight hours, to demand the exit of Ulises Ruiz from power and the PFP from Oaxaca City.

Only an hour after the march had arrived and surrounded the Zocalo, protesters built barricades in the streets, handed out food, and yelled insults at the police a block down. Not soon after, the first rounds of tear gas could be heard on Acala Street, near the APPO sit-in of Santo Domingo Plaza. This set off a six hour battle between protesters and police, in which both sides retreated and advanced on the downtown streets of Oaxaca City. The APPO stole city buses and cars and drove them into police lines or burned them to create barricades to defend Santo Domingo. Police shot continuous rounds of gas at the heads and bodies of protesters.

During the course of the confrontation, 36 buildings were burned, Among the targets were; the Benito Juarez Theatre, the Secretary of External Relations, the Superior Tribunal of Justice, a number of banks and upscale hotels and dozens of cars and busses to use as burning barricades.

Around eight o’clock that evening protesters finally retreated from Santo Domingo, after PFP water tanks began to advance from parallel streets and it seemed that it was no longer possible to defend the space that APPO had occupied for a month.

During the retreat, hundreds of protesters ran up a narrow street in the direction of Benito Juarez Boulevard. At least three gunshots rang out, and a young man was shot in the leg, presumably by paramilitaries on the roof. Upon reaching the boulevard, a few hundred protesters attempted to regroup, while blocking the street with 18 wheelers and buses. In other parts of the city, groups of protesters sought refuge in houses or attempted to fend off police and paramilitaries circling the city.

In the course of the night, police beat and arbitrarily arrested almost anyone they found on the street, including people who were in neighborhoods far away from the conflict in the center of Oaxaca City.

Unmarked cars could be seen passing through the same streets over and over again, presumably containing PRI party supporters and government paramilitaries who were carrying out disappearances.

At approximately 11 o’clock at night, automatic weapon gunshots were heard for ten minutes straight. The shots were fired towards the Faculty of Medicine, just north of the Center, where protesters ran to seek refuge. According to a witness, when teachers and other protesters attempted to leave the faculty, a group of porros (government backed paramilitaries) ordered them to stop at gunpoint.

The group refused and the porros opened fire, killing three people.

Some of the teachers began to fire back in defense as they were retreating.

And at 7 am on Sunday morning, as APPO sympathizers hid out in houses around the city and the police and PRI paramilitary groups disappeared people off the streets, PRI party outlet Radio Ciudana was naming out neighborhoods and houses where protesters could be found.

¨We know of one house where there are six Americans who have been helping the APPO¨, the host said, creating a fear for anyone who had an American in their house that paramilitaries would arrive to massacre everyone inside.

How to Continue?

Many people wonder what the past week’s repression will mean for the movement in Oaxaca and what its effect will be on a national scale.

Comparisons have been made to the siege of Atenco in the first days of May this year, where 3,500 PFP police entered the town to quell an anti-neoliberal movement. The Atenco siege resulted in two deaths, 40 unconfirmed disappearances, and 218 political prisoners, 35 of which were women who suffered rapes at the hands of the police.

Indeed Oaxaca has prompted many contextual questions on part of both the movement and the government. On Monday, as the PFP in Oaxaca patrolled Santo Domingo plaza, the APPO encampment lost during the Saturday battle, popularly ousted Governor Ulises Ruiz appeared at the scene to assess the damage to the burned buildings downtown. He said that the detentions carried out in the previous nights meant a step towards stability. For months the federal government has been calling the “ungovernability” of Oaxaca a local problem that has no significance to Mexican society as a whole, even so, paradoxically Ruiz blamed outsiders from other states for the damages in Oaxaca.

Activists in Mexico have had the task of assessing the situation in Oaxaca in comparison to the rest of the country, and there remain many questions of how different movements can relate to that of the APPO in terms of coordination and solidarity. While those suffering repression in Oaxaca remain isolated by the mainstream Mexican media, who have hardly reported on deaths, disappearances and torture, there is also a danger coming from some of those on “the left” in Mexico who isolate the Oaxacan movement as a protest against the governor Ulises, and not a broader struggle against neoliberalism and capitalist exploitation whose context is surely national. Despite this, at the moment there are still organizations and collectives around the country who are strategizing their modes of solidarity for Oaxaca, particularly concentrating on the grave human rights situation for those incarcerated and those remaining inside the city.

Calderon took presidency today in a veritable coup d’etat, accompanied into the parliament by military and PAN party supporters. Meanwhile, social movements around Mexico brace themselves for the “mano duro”, or hard-hand, of repression that is sure to come.

Yet an APPO member from the Section 22 teachers union, the same union that set off the Oaxaca uprising when the government violently attempted to evict their sit-in in June, said on Thursday night outside of a human rights coordination meeting, “What they don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter who they arrest, who they disappear in Oaxaca. There will always be more that come from behind and rise up, after all, they can’t detain the whole state.”

BARUCHA CALAMITY PELLER can be reached at:

Counter Punch readers in the Bay Area: BARUCHA CALAMITY PELLER will be giving a presentation on the situation in Oaxaca on December 6th in San Francisco. For more information go here:



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