Letter From - Spring 2008

Oaxaca: No End in Sight

By Robert Joe Stout | March 1, 2008

The replacement kindergarten teacher in suburban Oaxaca, Mexico, shouted “¡A la chingada los profesores guëvones!” as she rattled the locked gates of the school that had employed her for the previous four months. “Go to hell, you gutless teachers!” As the insults shouted back and forth between parents and teachers grew more hostile, she climbed atop a fence and beckoned the school principal and other replacement teachers to follow her.

“We’re not going to suspend classes!” she shouted to one of two groups of angry parents. “Hoist the children over the fence!”

Some parents responded instinctively. Others surged forward to stop them. As adults lashed out at each other, children trembled, cried, and clung to skirts and pant legs. The hostilities on this day, in January 2007, lasted almost an hour, with both sides threatening each others’ lives, homes, and children.

Similar confrontations between unionized teachers and replacements hired by the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) continue to the present throughout Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca—the aftermath of the bitter and violently repressed teachers’ strike of June 2006. Angered by the refusal of Ulises Ruiz, Oaxaca’s PRI governor, to negotiate a higher base salary, protesting teachers reacted with a six-month takeover of the city of Oaxaca’s central business district. They occupied two spacious plazas, the Zócalo and the Ala­meda, and spilled into nearly 50 surrounding city blocks. They erected tents and lean-tos and improvised kitchens, portable bathrooms, and first-aid stations.

Complete with children, dogs, guitars, simmering bean pots, and pickup soccer games, the summerlong campout resembled an extended neighborhood picnic. By day, protesters would converge to chat with tourists and central-city residents and sing new lyrics for songs they’d composed; at night, they’d return home to outlying districts. Businesses closed, tourists canceled hotel reservations, and vehicles were diverted from the area.

When Ruiz set an early June deadline for the teachers’ return to classes, the teachers blockaded highways and Oaxaca’s international airport. Two days after the deadline passed, they rallied 150,000 supporters to parade through the city demanding not only approval of the higher salary, but the release of the more than 40 political prisoners detained by the government since Ruiz came into power in 2004.

And then, one week later, some 3,000 heavily armed municipal and state police stormed the teachers’ encampment. Skirting building tops, a helicopter blanketed the area with tear gas as cops on foot surged through the teachers’ temporary shelters. “They clubbed everybody they came across—women, children,” a retired federal official named Navarro told me. (His daughter was one of the striking teachers.) “There were gunshots. People were screaming. Nobody could see anything.”

The defiant teachers and their supporters reunited and retook their demolished campsites. Outnumbered and weakly led, the police withdrew. “We could have shot and killed hundreds, but we had no orders,” a member of Oaxaca’s municipal force confided to me later. “We never thought the fools would try to return.”

“That day was the parting of waters for Oaxaca,” veteran newspaper correspondent Pedro Matías told the visiting Rights Action Emergency Human Rights delegation (of which I was a member). “There was only going forward, no going back.”

For more than a century, Oaxaca has been known as one of Mexico’s most corrupt states. A privileged minority holds power, and there is little trickle down of the money these people manipulate; not surprisingly, Oaxaca’s ex-governors are among the wealthiest landholders in the state. Meanwhile, more than 45 percent of its 3.5 million residents are indigena, 76 percent of them earning less than 70 pesos a day—slightly more than six U.S. dollars.

Most rural families subsist on money sent to them from relatives working in the United States. “At first only the men went, and they returned every winter. Then they started staying longer,” rural teacher Thelma Leger explained to me. “Now the women are migrating too. Often a girl of 12, 13, or 14 is left to take care of the younger children. Instead of going to school, they work. It is very, very sad.”

The expectation is so great that young people will seek work in the United States, according to another teacher, Malena Sorhouet, that parents of some of her indigena students asked that she teach them English instead of Spanish. Miguel Vázquez, the cofounder of Oaxaca’s Services for an Alternative Education, confirmed that every year since 1990 approximately 150,000 Oaxacans have migrated, most of them to the United States, some to other parts of Mexico. Over a 15-year period more than one million have stayed in the United States, others returned after one, two, or more years.

Ruiz and his predecessors in office have voiced dismay about Oaxaca’s massive out-migration, meanwhile quietly defunding government social programs. Instead Oaxaca has invested in marinas and aircraft, and the governor and select PRI party members take state-funded trips abroad. Of the more than $1 billion a year Oaxacans receive from those working in the United States (of whom many lack legal documentation) 95 percent goes for food, housing, clothing, and the medical care that the state no longer subsidizes.

Governor Ruiz earns more than the president or prime minister of any European country; the state over which he presides is practically bankrupt.

After the attack by police in June 2006, there was an immediate rally of support for the strikers. A member of a group that became known as the women’s coordinating committee, or COMO (Coordinadora de Mujeres de Oaxaca), described an explosive growth of support: “One day there was nothing; the next day there was this huge organization.” Starting as a legal protest, the opposition soon grew into a massive resistance movement. Within two weeks, representatives of more than 300 civic organizations throughout the state formed the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO). Participants included indigena federations, radical student and youth groups that espoused revolutionary overthrow, human rights organizations, and many Catholic priests. Demonstrating unity and singularity of purpose, the APPO staged more marches that jammed Oaxaca’s streets with hundreds of thousands of participants. Perhaps a million marchers overflowed into the Zócalo and surrounding areas during the fourth of these marches, near the end of June.

Driven out of the city that was supposed to be his center of operations, Governor Ruiz did not set foot in the Centro Historico for more than five months. He functioned from his limousine, hotels, and, not infrequently, a state-owned helicopter, while his administrator, José Franco, ran the day-to-day operations. The police started wearing civilian clothes and driving through the city in unmarked vehicles, said Sara Méndez, the director of the Red Oaxaqueña de Derechos Humanos. Government-paid sicarios (hired gunmen) validated arbitrary arrests by charging the APPO leaders and sympathizers with carrying concealed weapons or trying to sell drugs. Through Channel 9, which they controlled, and radio stations, Ruiz’s government aired counter-APPO propaganda. The broadcasts so angered women who had just participated in a March of the Cacerolas (cooking pans) that they commandeered taxis and buses and invaded the Channel 9 studios.

“We asked for half an hour of air time to explain what APPO was about,” one of the participants told me. “They said ‘no’; we insisted ‘yes’ and wound up taking over the station.” For nearly a month, the channel broadcast the APPO news and various documentaries acquired from a local university. Those programs ended when heavily armed paramilitaries destroyed the station’s antenna and transmitter.

“‘What are we going to do?’ those of us involved with Channel 9 asked each other,” recalled one activist, Lela Senteno. “It was the dead of night, but we got on our cell phones and talked to each other. Somebody suggested taking over a radio station. Somebody else suggested taking over all of them. In cars, in cabs, we careened through the city; there must have been hundreds of us. By five that morning we’d taken over all 12 of the city’s radio stations!”

To impede excursions by vigilante escua­drones de la muerte (death squads), the teachers and the APPO supporters selected one station to keep as the voice of the APPO and barricaded the streets surrounding it.

Photographs taken in the city of Oaxaca during August 2006 show burned-out buses and trucks positioned across intersections, mounds of burning tires, huge stones topped with tires, canastas filled with rocks and other debris stacked on top of each other, private cars parked across roadways, sheets of corrugated sheet metal propped against oil barrels, bonfires heaped with old lumber, and barbed wire strung from lampposts. Almost all the blocked intersections were manned by the APPO supporters, most of them women. And though these measures prevented nightly depredations, they didn’t eliminate attacks by paramilitaries.

Sicarios paid by PRI could do things the police legally couldn’t do—grab people without cause, beat them, torture them,” Méndez said with a wince. “The only authority they had was the money they were getting, but who was going to stop them? The government? The government was paying them!”

Snipers hiding in the Hospital Santa María shot and killed José Jiménez during an APPO-sponsored march in August. The husband of an activist teacher, Jiménez had taken part in a number of anti-Ruiz protests. Although hundreds of march participants saw Jiménez fall and autopsies showed that he’d been hit by bullets of two different calibers fired from two different directions, Oaxaca’s attorney general reported that he’d died during a drunken fight he had instigated.

Two months later armed off-duty municipal police attacked a barricade in Santa Lucía del Camino, a suburb of Oaxaca, and shot and killed American photographer Bradley Will. International news of his killing triggered a violent response by Mexico’s federal government. Outgoing President Vicente Fox sent 4,000 soldiers and federal preventive police (PFP), along with dozens of armored vehicles and helicopters to Oaxaca. Two days after their arrival, the solders and PFP launched an all-out assault, destroying the barricades and occupying the center of the city.

By mid-November most of the downtown hotels had shut their doors. Area restaurants laid off 9,000 workers. Schools throughout Oaxaca closed; those that remained open hired teachers who lacked both credentials and skill. Meanwhile, experienced teachers hustled jobs as repairmen, street vendors, and musicians. Throughout the state, graffiti labeled Ruiz “assassin,” “Fascist,” “thief.” Arrests of Popular Assembly leaders and night-rider harassment and intimidation of others failed to deter continuing protests and denunciations.

As an anti-Ruiz march was breaking up in late November, the federal police and their paramilitary associates swept through the streets surrounding Oaxaca’s Zócalo. “It was like killing pigs in a slaughterhouse,” a 60-year-old engineer told me several days after at least three people were killed and many more injured. He said he piled furniture against his front door to prevent the marauding police from entering his home. “I tried to get as many people who were trying to flee into my house as I could. Most of them were bloody and blinded from the tear gas and weeping and cursing.”

Neither the PFP nor their local cohorts made any effort to identify those they had apprehended or to ascertain whether those arrested had committed any wrongdoing. They detained nearly 200 Oaxacans, most of whom had no connection with the APPO, and the PFP flew 141 of them to federal prisons in other Mexican states.

“The situation has been normalized,” Ruiz announced the day after the armed assault as work crews with power hoses scrubbed blood off the cobblestone streets surrounding the historic former Convent of Santo Domingo. Apparently the governor had instigated the PFP assault—with the blessing of many of the business owners—to prepare the center of the city for the December tourist season. Very few tourists came, however. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other European countries warned would-be tourists to avoid Oaxaca, and museums, restaurants, and tourist agencies stayed closed. Even churches and the cathedral were virtually abandoned.

State authorities ordered the arrest of hundreds of persons involved with or sympathetic to the popular movement and accused human rights workers and Catholic priests of inciting citizens to revolt. The arrests continue to this day, and vigilante police in civilian clothes routinely sequester and physically manhandle the APPO leaders.

“The biggest danger is that the government follows a doctrine that no changes should be prompted by popular movements, only by political parties,” Father Manuel Arias, the spokesman for Oaxaca’s Catholic presbytery, told me. “They are criminalizing any attempts at changes. Every group that supports these movements becomes, by definition, criminal.”

Despite the federal government’s attempts to dismiss the repression in Oaxaca as a local matter and Ruiz’s pronouncement that “Oaxaca is safe for tourists,” news of the brutal incidents has worked its way into international awareness. The International Civil Commission for Human Rights Observation released a highly condemnatory account in March of last year after spending nearly two months interviewing government officials and victims. The directors of both Red Cross International and Amnesty International have taken their concerns about flagrant human rights violations in Oaxaca directly to Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón, but neither he nor any cabinet or congressional officials have acted upon their accusations.

Forced underground after the repressions of late November 2006, the APPO nevertheless continued to meet and hold demonstrations. The November 25 Committee, primarily funded by Oaxaca artist Francisco Toledo, has paid bail and legal services to obtain the release of a number of “prisoners of conscience,” and the women of COMO have defied state authorities and scheduled public forums on violence against women and formed advocacy groups to demand the release of those still incarcerated. Teachers throughout the state continue to battle—sometimes physically—to regain jobs from which they were displaced by scabs hired by the PRI party.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has aligned itself with the state government, exerting pressure on individual priests to limit support and encouragement to the APPO. The Archbishop of Oaxaca, José Luis Chávez, forced the renunciation of Leoncio Hernández from his position as parish priest of the town of Santiago Apoala just before last Christmas because he had been seen at the appo marches and demonstrations. Father Hernández was one of several who responded to the APPO requests for blessings and benedictions. Father Arias also reported being pressured by church officials to limit his support of those involved in “anti-government” processes.

As a U.S. citizen, I am frequently asked why my country has done nothing to help the people of Oaxaca. Indeed why is the United States ill-treating and deporting poor workers who are only trying to keep their families from starving?

“We are poor, and your country supports our president and all the criminals who work for him. So we don’t count,” a teacher who spent seven months in Mexican federal prisons told me.

Despite the repressions, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca continues to meet, march, and demand that Governor Ruiz be deposed. In the meantime, thousands of small businesses have folded, tourism is the lowest it has been in 40 years, and entire communities—men, women, and children—risk their lives to cross the border into the United States, where already an estimated one million Oaxacans live and work.

“Here there is no justice,” said journalist Pedro Matías, who wiped at his eyes and sighed as he gazed past bougainvillea at clouds puffed above the mountains that encircle the city. “Here there is only pain. And hope that somehow things will change.”

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