The National Catholic Review
Last May in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, members of the national teachers’ union began a strike for higher salaries, which led to an encampment in the city’s central square. The Mexican government initiated a repression of the teachers’ struggle, which then expanded into a large coalition of more than 900 groups and organizations called the A.P.P.O., which in Spanish stands for Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka). The A.P.P.O. demanded the resignation of the conservative governor, Ulisés Ruiz. After months of protests, the tensions escalated and led to government-backed violence.

On Nov. 25, 2006, on the pretext of controlling a peaceful demonstration organized by the A.P.P.O., a Mexican federal police force executed a well-planned, highly coordinated attack designed to crush the people’s legal right to assemble and voice their opinions. Fully armed and armored, wearing gas masks, shields and helmets, the Federal Preventive Police (P.F.P.) responded to provocations initiated by infiltrators identified by professional journalists as non-uniformed, off-duty policemen. As the police stormed the area just north of Oaxaca’s Zócalo (main square), they fired tear gas canisters at a fleeing crowd that included street vendors, workers, passersby, women and children.

Testimony to a Human Rights Delegation

A 50-year-old single mother of three, just leaving work, testified on Dec. 18 before the Rights Action emergency human rights delegation: I couldn’t see, I was trying to find my son. They [the federal police] grabbed me, shoved me against the pavement, handcuffed my hands behind my neck and hurled me onto a pile of other women. They kicked and beat us if we moved and kept us that way for almost two hours. Along with 140 other men and women, she was charged with sedition, instigating a mutiny and destruction of public propertyall federal offensesand was taken by helicopter a day or so later to a prison in the state of Nayarit hundreds of miles away.

All of the 141 detainees transported to Nayarit and federal facilities in the state of Taumalipas and Estado de Mexico had been handcuffed, beaten, stripped of most of their clothing and robbed of all their personal possessions. Yet according to testimony before the human rights delegation, more than 80 percent of them had no connection whatsoever with the A.P.P.O. Those incarcerated included a man who had come to the center of town to pick up his daughter from dance class, a man walking down a side street to a bus stop because his car was locked in a parking garage and a woman shopping for Christmas gifts who, in trying to flee the tear gas, broke the heel of one of her shoes and fell. Like the others she was handcuffed, beaten and thrown into the pile of detainees. The federal police made no attempts to identify any of those they detained.

The tear gas was so thick we were all crying and trying to run away. All of a sudden there were police in front of us as well as behind us. They’d surrounded us. The only ones to escape were those who hid somewhere, a 40-year-old housewife who had come to the Zócalo to meet her teenage son told the civil rights delegation.

The police brutality did not end with the apprehensions. The armed P.F.P. continued to beat and kick those piled together outside the convent of Santo Domingo. As temperatures dropped to near freezing, the police stripped those they had apprehended of their sweaters, coats and shoes and hurled them face-down into the beds of trucks to haul them to the state prison in Tlacolula, near Oaxaca City. They spit on us, kicked us, tortured us. They slammed our heads against the truck bed, they told us to say our prayers, we’d never see our families again. I was covered with blood, a tearful 19-year-old college student told the human rights delegation.

Treatment in Prison

In the prison, 40-some miles from the capital city of Oaxaca, the federal police and state prison guards photographed the detainees. Finally, nearly 24 hours after the apprehensions had begun, the police let their prisoners have food and water before transporting them in military airplanes and helicopters to federal installations in the states of Nayarit, Taumalipas and Estado de Mexico. Several observers who managed to evade being arrested reported seeing at least three persons slain, but federal and state authorities denied that any deaths had occurred.

Throughout the city of Oaxaca and neighboring communities, residents desperately sought information about those who had disappeared. A caravan of family members, friends and relatives drove or took buses to Tepic, where 91 of the people who had been arrested were locked up. Most of those arriving were not allowed to visit the prisoners because they lacked proper identification, nor were the prisoners allowed access to legal representation. Nayarit officials protested that the federal government had no right to bring Oaxaca’s problem to Nayarit, but families in Tepic opened their doors to the distraught visitors and fed and housed them.

Before the alleged rioters were released under bond (reportedly paid by Ulisés Ruiz’s state government), they were forced to sign confessions that no longer included the crimes of mutiny and sedition, but did include robbery and destruction of public property. The signers included a widow who can neither read nor write and Pedro Valdez, a Mixtec Indian who not only cannot read or write, but who neither speaks nor understands Spanish.

Records Destroyed

During the police attack several buildings were burned, including the government archives that houses financial and tax records. For reasons that neither the Oaxacan state nor the Mexican federal government has explained, all of the archives had been moved except those detailing the current and previous governors’ financial dealings, which were being audited because of allegations of multibillion dollar fraud. Spokespersons for Oaxaca’s Governor Ulisés Ruiz told the Mexican press that the fire had been started by A.P.P.O. protesters hurling Molotov cocktails into the building. Physical investigation of the burned out facility, however, verified that even Joe Namath in his prime could not have thrown a Molotov cocktail far enough to start the conflagration, leading some to conclude that it had been set from inside.

Although the federal police force is under the jurisdiction of Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón and Government Secretary Francisco Ramírez, neither has made any effort to investigate the violent apprehension and assault of innocent civilians. Various officials from President Calderón’s Partido Acción Nacional, including Senator Felipe González, applauded the federal police actions, citing the need to show a firm hand against lawbreakers like the coalition protesters.

The A.P.P.O. was formed after Oaxaca municipal police raided a sit-in organized by Section 22 of the statewide teachers’ union. The coalition includes participants from a variety of nongovernmental and indigenous organizations. Since its formation, police and paramilitaries allegedly acting on behalf of the state government have assassinated at least 20 persons, including the American photographer Brad Will. At least 100 other persons have disappeared and are presumed to be either imprisoned or dead. Teachers have been dragged out of their classrooms, handcuffed and arrested; and persons associated with the Popular Assembly have been detained and beaten. A government-sponsored radio station openly encourages Oaxacans to burn buildings associated with the Popular Assembly and to attack assembly members in their homes.

Propaganda issued by both state and federal authorities insists that calm has returned to Oaxaca and that the state is now safe for touristsfor tourists perhaps, but not for Oaxacans. The arrests, the beatings and the disappearances continue. So does the resistance. I never was part of the blockades; I never took part in the marches, the 50-year-old widow quoted above told the human rights emergency delegation. But now I’ll be in the marches, she said, I’ll support A.P.P.O. Innocent people suffered terribly. I don’t want things like that ever to happen in this state again!

Robert Joe Stout was a member of the Rights Action emergency human rights delegation to Oaxaca in 2006. His most recent book is The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives (2003).

Comments

Richard Salvucci | 3/2/2007 - 9:43am
When the North America Free Trade Act (NAFTA) was passed, many of us argued in its favor. A principal justification was that NAFTA would somehow turn Mexico into a "normal" nation in which organized political thuggery could no longer survive. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," we said, expecting that "open markets" make "open societies." I wonder, after the near debacle of the recent Presidential election and the murderous violence in Oaxaca, how many of us would say the same today?

Good fences don't make good neighbors, and, apparently, neither does free trade. But Oaxaca isn't "modern" Mexico you say? And what is? Nuevo Laredo?

Richard J. Salvucci