Oaxaca on Edge

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is once again in the grips of heightening tension as the famous Guelaguetzla festival approaches and a large segment of the population is planning a boycott and some fear that disgruntled activists hope to sabotage it. Oaxaca was once again in the news on Monday after an attempt to celebrate a “Guelaguetza Popular” was violently put down by police. But the unrest here is about much more than just rescuing an indigenous festival from corporate cooptation. Thousands of Oaxacans are still fuming about their corrupt governor and the impunity of those who killed more than a dozen protestors last year.

Many people are convinced that governor Ulises Ruiz stole the election of 2004 and has mismanaged the state ever since. Posters in the center plaza of Oaxaca called for the resignation of the governor and at several points during a demonstration, protestors shouted “If Ulises doesn’t leave, peace will never come.” One sign read “There is no worse form of robbery than the way this Oaxacan government exploits its people’s traditions for money.”

Part of the people’s frustration that is boiling over now is the perception that the government along with major corporations such as Banamex and Telemex earn enormous amounts of money by operating a perverted and commercial form of the Guelaguetza. Tickets to enter are about $40–far out of the price range of most Oaxacans–which means that a local tradition now mostly benefits rich tourists. A third of the tickets are free to the public, but they are in such high demand that they are difficult to come by.

There is also fear that what is being presented as “tradition” is really a bastardization put on for the sake of commerce. Eduardo Mendoza Mora, a member of APPO (the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca)–one of the organizations leading the protests–gave an example. “There is one dance where the indigenous women have to kneel down in front of men to show submission. But this never happened in the Zapotec culture. They just made it up. But the government can’t have it both ways. They can’t say on the one hand they’re promoting equal rights and then sponsor this fake dance which degrades women.”

Nevertheless, not everyone agrees with the attempt to boycott the Festival. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and many people are depending on the influx in tourism to make ends meet. Adriana Morales commented, “I don’t support what the protestors are doing nor the way they’re going about it, because the people they are hurting are the small business owners and street vendors.(1) A tour guide I met named Alberto agrees and believes that organizations like APPO are simply trying to exploit the year old conflict between the teacher’s union and th government to promote their own narrow interests. Governor Ruiz claims that ninety percent of Oaxacans want the Festival to go forward, though several people I interviewed believe that a much larger segment of the population support the protests.(2)

Deeper than the frustration related to the Guelagetza is the continuing anger about what happened between June and November of 2006 as over a dozen people were killed during the teacher’s union protests which led to violent clashes with police. Many Oaxacans are still waiting for justice, and the situation was exacerbated on Monday when police once again were accused of using excessive force. Thirty three people were detained and have now gained “political prisoner” status in the eyes of thousands of Oaxacans who marched in the central plaza yesterday.(3) Furthermore, ten people have been hospitalized as a result of the conflict. The most infamous case is that of Emeterio Cruz Vasquez, a 46 year old plumber and spouse of a striking teacher, who is now in critical condition. The Oaxacan daily Noticia: Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca published photographs showing Cruz peacefully cooperating with police, then being brutally beaten, and finally, being taken to the hospital on a stretcher.(4)

Abuse at the hands of police has been a constant theme in Oaxaca for the past year. Among the demands of the 22nd Section of the national teachers union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion) puclished in a statement yesterday are the release of all political prisoners, punishment for those guilty of planning and executing the murders and attacks on the Oaxacan protestors and all those working for social justice. (5) One man I interviewed at yesterday’s march, Angel Julian, was frustrated because his friend had recently spent three months in jail and suffered torture despite committing no crime. He described prisoners forced to stand still for hours at a time who are then clobbered if they move. While stories like this are anecdotal, they are not uncommon.

With the Guelaguetzla about to commence in a few short days, it is difficult to predict whether more violence will ensue. I asked one member of APPO if they were truly committed to peaceful demonstration. He replied, “We have always been peaceful. But at the same time we’re not going allow ourselves to be stepped on. If the government treats us like this, we have to respond.”


1. Ruiz Jaimes, Eliza. “Pese a violencia, piden Guelaguetza.” Noticias: Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. July 18, 2007. p. 16A

2. Matias, Pedro. “Guelaguetza garantizada con medidas de seguridad.” Noticias: Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. July 19, 2007. p. 1

3. Ibid.

4. Matias, Pedro. “Lo detuvieron sin lesiones; lo hospitalizaron casi muerto ” Noticias: Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. July 18, 2007. p. 16A

See also: Velez Ascencio, Octavio. “Seguro eres maestro. Verdad cabron?” Noticias: Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. July 19, 2007. p. 16A

5. “Al Pueblo de Oaxaca de Los Trabajadores Democraticos del Estado” Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion. July 18, 2007