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Awakening in Oaxaca: Stirrings of the People’s Giant

Robert Joe Stout (mexicoconamor@yahoo.com), former resident of Ireland, France, and Guatemala, now resides in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he freelances for a variety of trade and literary publications. He is the author of Why Immigrants Come to America, the award-winning poetry chapbook They Still Play Baseball the Old Way, and The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, a creative nonfiction mosaic of Mexican faces, places, and experiences.

“Oaxaca never emerged from the Middle Ages. Living here is like living in a medieval kingdom,” Sara Mendez, director of the Oaxaca, Mexico Human Rights Network, told a human rights delegation in December 2006. Although she was speaking figuratively, Mendez nevertheless expressed the feelings of many of us who have had to deal with the corruption, abject poverty, and law enforcement impunity that vitiate the state.

The medieval kingdom that is twentieth century Oaxaca has imprisoned hundreds of citizens arbitrarily and unjustly. Dozens more have disappeared, victims of paramilitary escuadrones de muerte (death squads). Thousands have been beaten, tortured, and robbed, lost their jobs, or have been forced into exile because they objected to government wrongdoing.

For six years (2004-2010), this medieval kingdom was ruled by a political adventurer named Ulisés Ruiz. His principal executioner was “El Chucky,” nee José Franco, who, in the minds of many residents, bore a remarkable resemblance to the homicidal Hollywood thriller figure. Chucky (Franco) functioned as King (Governor) Ruiz’s Secretary General until he became head of the state of Oaxaca’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Ruiz’s supposed heir to the throne. Ruiz and Chucky controlled a compliant legislature, the judiciary, and the state’s finances. (Management of the latter was not subject to audit and only Ruiz and Chucky know where the money went.)

Vesting so much power in the executive branch of government, Mendez contends, “has killed dissent.” It has also nourished large-scale corruption in business, the judicial system, and political elections. Like many other observers, Mendez insists that Ruiz fraudulently won the governorship in 2004. Among irregularities reported by Oaxaca’s daily Noticias and various human rights and election observers were precincts whose eligible voters numbered fewer than the reported votes cast for Ruiz; stolen bags of ballots favoring Ruiz’s opponents; physical intimidation; and precincts crediting every participant with voting for Ruiz, despite assertions from many claiming that they had marked their ballots for opposition candidates.

Once in office, King Ruiz (like many rulers before him) tightened his hold by expanding the size of the state police force and denying services to communities that voted for his opponents.

“You could feel the decomposition everywhere,” Mendez remembers. “It was like living in occupied territory, like some foreigners had taken over the state, foreigners who didn’t care what the people felt or thought.”

Oaxaca artist Hugo Tovar described Ruiz’s first two years on the throne as a time of constant repression. Government agents raided indigena autonomous communities, arresting and/or disappearing those who spoke out against or did not cooperate with local authorities.

Helped by a legislature that rubberstamped his granting huge contracts to construction firms, Ruiz moved many government offices out of the city of Oaxaca’s historical district, had the hundreds-of-years-old stonework in the city Zócalo (main square) ripped out and replaced, and ordered the cutting of many of the huge flowering trees that shaded the Zócalo and Alameda (a park in downtown Mexico City). His disregard for public opinion and the favoritism he showed to entrepreneurial supporters put his government at odds with large segments of the population, including Oaxaca’s Section 22 of Mexico’s national teachers union.

In May 2006, the teachers threatened to stage a sit-in in the capital unless Ruiz’s government agreed to their demands for a reclassification of their salary base (which would have raised the minimum wage for workers throughout the state). Claiming inadequate finances, the King offered to fund a portion of what it would cost to effect the reclassification.

The union rejected this proposal and organized a protest march that drew over 110,000 participants, including members of the national electricians union, various indigena groups, and members of the coalition, the Democratic Organizations of Oaxaca’s Social Front. The demonstrators hoisted papier mâché representations of URO (short for Ulisés Ruiz Ortiz, using his initials), which they hanged and burned in the Zócalo at the end of the march. Ruiz responded by pulling his offer off the table and announcing that salaries owed teachers participating in the takeover were cancelled.

As they had threatened, the teachers took over the Zócalo. Their massive encampment overflowed across the adjacent Alameda and filled some fifty blocks in the heart of the city with tents, huts, tarpaulins, spouses, dogs, and children. Businesses throughout the central part of the city closed, tourists cancelled hotel reservations, bus and auto traffic ceased to function or had to be diverted to other parts of the city. Ruiz demanded that the teachers stop their sit-in; the teachers demanded that their requests be honored.

Like kings of old (and Mexican caciques of more recent times), Ruiz responded by ordering the state and municipal police to “clear the bastards out.” A primary school teacher who was in the Zócalo on June 14 remembered: “The helicopters came in so low their big rotors sent things flying through the air. Then the whistling sounds as they fired tear gas. We were coughing and choking, we were blinded, people were shouting for their children. Then the police came, swinging their clubs, smashing everything.”

Despite the tear gas, groups of teachers clustered into resistant groups and fought back, hurling bottles and paving stones, swinging mop sticks, chairs, tent poles, belts, and rebar. Others commandeered city buses and forced the police to scatter as they accelerated towards them. By 9:30 that morning, the entire force of over one thousand police had evacuated the area. For the first time during his reign, the King had been defeated.

The daily Noticias’ correspondent Pedro Matias called the victory “a parting of the waters.” Oaxaca, he prophesied, “never will be the same.”

What had begun as a legal sit-in—a plantón—overnight became a massive resistance movement. Civic organizations throughout the state surged forward to support the teachers. The representatives of over three hundred separate organizations talked, urged, argued, and convoked their first reunion on June 20, and announced the formation of the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO). Participants included indigena federations from throughout the state, radical student and youth groups that espoused revolutionary overthrow, human rights organizations, and many Catholic priests. “Mexico winning the World Cup couldn’t have generated more enthusiasm than that first assembly!” a delegate named Cabrera told me.

Driven out of the city that was supposed to be his center of operations and with his police force humiliated, King Ulisés, the cacique, wielder of absolute power, became a ruler in absentia: he literally did not step foot in the Centro Historico for over five months and conducted state business from his limousine, hotels, and, not infrequently, a state-owned helicopter. To counter the APPO’s sudden popularity he, El Chucky, and “La Bruja,” Lizabeth Caña, the state attorney general, went underground.

Non-uniformed sicarios (hired gunmen) followed up on arbitrary arrests by charging the APPO leaders and sympathizers with carrying concealed weapons or trying to sell drugs. State-hired paramilitaries shot and killed six APPO members in August alone and wounded at least eleven others. URO’s television and radio lackeys maintained a steady bombardment of anti-APPO propaganda. Their “lies” so angered the women who had organized a “March of the Cacerolas” (or Cooking Pans) that they commandeered taxis and buses, and invaded the television station’s facilities after a protest march on August 1.

“We asked for an hour of air time to explain what APPO was about,” a participant named Itandehui told me. “They said ‘no,’ we insisted, ‘yes’ and wound up taking over the station.”

Within hours young communications students from the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca were on hand to manipulate the equipment, and the “new channel nine” went on the air, telecasting documentaries the students acquired from the university, APPO news, and interviews with Oaxaca residents. Teachers and APPO members spent their nights guarding the facility and, for twenty days, the APPO controlled the local airwaves. “We knew there would be repercussions,” one of the March of the Cacerolas women sighed, “but one has to take chances in order to get something done.”

The repercussions hit with decisive force on August 21. Nearly seventy heavily armed paramilitaries broke past the APPO defenders and destroyed the station’s antenna and telecasting equipment.

“‘What are we going to do?’ those of us involved with channel nine asked each other,” Leyla Centeno said, as she recalled the APPO activists’ desperation. “Somebody suggested taking over a radio station. Somebody else suggested, ‘Why not take over all of them?’”

Why not?

“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 twelve of the city’s radio stations!”

The “invaders” decided to retain only Radio Ley, located in a large, primarily residential area close to the Centro Historico. “Radio Ley,” Centeno boasted, “became the voice of the people.”

To defend the station and to impede the excursions of night-riding escuadrones de muerte, the APPO barricaded the area by night. The idea of setting up “defensive” barricades “spread like wildfire,” Sara Mendez added. She told me that over one thousand barricades were erected. Oaxaca, Tiempo Nublado reported 1,800 in the city of Oaxaca alone, but Leyla Centeno, effervescent with enthusiasm, insisted, “Within two days there were a thousand barricades. By the third day after we took over Radio Ley there were three thousand!” Roadblocks stopped traffic at night on major highways throughout the state, including the Oaxaca-Mexico and Oaxaca-Puerto Escondido thoroughfares.

Ruiz’s government responded by notifying the union that teachers who did not return to their classrooms by a specific date in September would be dismissed, and substitute teachers would take over. Section 22 called the deadline illegal, and none of the union teachers returned to hold classes, setting off confrontations throughout the state between parent groups who supported the sit-in and those who opposed it. Hundreds of businesses closed their doors, many permanently, and tourism, the key to Oaxaca’s economy, virtually disappeared.

Meetings with federal officials triggered speculation that the Mexican Senate would depose Ruiz and appoint an interim governor to replace him. But the country was in an uproar over allegations of fraud during the July presidential elections, and many in the federal government didn’t want to deal with the additional headaches that the APPO’s takeover of Oaxaca had created. President Fox and president-elect Calderón had their hands full with opposition candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s massive Mexico City sit-in, and they could not afford to lose Oaxaca to what they felt were leftist rabble.

Federal officials imposed a deadline of October 28 for the removal of all of the barricades. The APPO refused to comply, and Fox dispatched armored Army, Navy, and federal police to “guarantee free movement and the rights of private property, free expression and free assembly.” Forty-five hundred heavily armed troops swept through the state. Teachers and young appistas, as members of the APPO were called, sought sanctuary in churches and on the university campus, leaving the Centro Historico in the hands of the invading force.

On November 2, they surged out of the Centro Historico, accompanied by tanks and five helicopters roaring just over the housetops, to drive the APPO militants off the university campus. A hurriedly assembled group of teachers, students, and APPO supporters intercepted the force as it approached the campus. Women, children, and teachers grabbed rocks to hurl at the “Robocops” (so-called because they resembled science fiction movie characters). Students wielding slingshots, bottle rockets, and Molotov cocktails darted in and out, and after what the daily Noticias described as a “pitched battle,” the federal forces retreated. The APPO militants proclaimed “a victory” in what they touted as “The Battle of Todos Santos.” More neutral observers, however, cautioned that the federal forces withdrew in order not to violate the University’s autonomy.

Between June and December 2006, at least twenty-three persons involved with the APPO lost their lives, reputedly to state-supported paramilitaries and death squads. One of the victims, U.S. video-cameraman Brad Will, taped four armed attackers rushing the barricade from which he was filming, seconds before he collapsed from a bullet wound. A year later, responding to pressure generated by U.S. interests, Ruiz’s government arrested and convicted one of Will’s APPO companions despite witnesses’ testimony and photographic evidence that one of the attackers—all of whom had been identified as police and ex-police—had fired the fatal bullet.

Anti-Ruiz protest marches and confrontations with federal police and soldiers continued throughout November. APPO organizers of a march on November 25 decided to surround the military encampment to demonstrate their continued presence in Oaxaca, a maneuver their spokespersons called “symbolic.” The armed federal police and soldiers responded by executing a well-planned and highly coordinated counterattack.

“We (journalists) were there the whole time,” Noticias reporter Matias testified to an emergency human rights delegation, of which I was a member.

The confrontation, the tear gas, the gunshots—there were gunshots—and afterwards the fires. At Seguro Social two wings of attacking police converged forcing hundreds of people, men, women, old people onto the highway in front of El Fortín hotel….The international journalists were terrorized by what they were seeing….I don’t know if they (the soldiers and police) beat everybody but there were heartrending women’s shouts. As if we were delinquents, in order to save our lives, or at least keep from being beaten, we climbed Fortín hill like refugees so they couldn’t find us.

Some didn’t make it as far as the Fortín hotel. A fifty-year-old single mother of three, just leaving work, testified before the emergency 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.”

As temperatures dropped to near freezing, the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) stripped those they’d apprehended of their sweaters, coats, and shoes, and hurled their victims face-down into the beds of trucks to haul them to the state prison in Tlacolula.

“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 nineteen-year-old college student told the human rights delegation.

In the prison, forty-some miles from the capital city of Oaxaca, the federal police and state prison guards photographed the detainees and finally, after nearly twenty-four hours, let them have food and water before transporting them in military airplanes and helicopters to federal installations in Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and the Estado de Mexico.

During the police attack several buildings were burned, including the government archives housing financial and tax records. For reasons that neither the Oaxacan state nor Mexican federal government 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 multi-billion fraud.

On December 4, federal agents swooped down on four APPO negotiators in Mexico City who were scheduled to meet with the secretary of government the following day, and seized Flavio Sosa, whom they considered the leader of the negotiating team, sending him to the country’s highest security prison. This was the infamous La Palma, where he was held without bail for nearly a year before being transferred to a state prison in Oaxaca.

“That they [the government] were going to negotiate with him was a trick to arrest Flavio!” human rights attorney Yésica Sánchez told me in February 2007. “The conference was a pretext to get him out of Oaxaca.”

Forced underground (debajo el agua—“underwater”—is the Spanish expression), the APPO continued to meet, march, stage demonstrations, and fight for the release of members who had been unjustly imprisoned. Independent labor unions, human rights groups, and the Zapatista movement in the neighboring state of Chiapas supported and encouraged these actions. Yet, many national and foreign journalists declared the “story over,” describing these protests as “subdued,” “reduced in intensity,” and “reflecting defeat.” King Ruiz, with the federal militarized force and the imprisonment of nonparticipants, had won.

As police and militaries continued to hassle and arrest persons identified as APPO participants, the majority of those who had worked with the APPO drifted away, recognizing that Ruiz wasn’t going to be dethroned, and unwilling to risk being apprehended. The teacher-members of Section 22 focused on regaining their positions in the schools and on reoccupying those that had been taken over by PRI committees. Political and social organizations also pulled back to focus on their own activities, leaving the APPO only a shell of what had been a vigorous protest movement.

This segmentation dramatized differences of opinion that had existed within the APPO since its beginnings. Section 22’s leadership (and the majority of its members) regarded the APPO as a loosely structured support organization, built around the teachers union. Whereas the APPO itself advocated a “horizontal” governing structure (which, in many cases, resulted in no structure at all), Section 22 maintained its traditional “vertical” organization.

Homeopathic practitioner José Pérez, a slight, thin-faced man with shoulder-length hair, whose eyes belied his placid demeanor, described the APPO’s meteoric rise and almost equally rapid dissolution.

The spark caught, see. Whoosh! It was like an electric storm. I think a lot of people got caught up in it without knowing why, without being able to explain the urgency they felt, the emotion. But it was all geared on getting rid of URO. The chants. The waving banners. The speeches. Electric.

When URO won out, the current went off. There was a huge relapse—you could feel it all over Oaxaca. People went back to what they were doing before the electricity struck. Chauffeurs went back to driving, teachers to teaching, bureaucrats to robbing, prostitutes to whoring. One still felt loyal, one still felt committed, but there was no electricity. It was just going through the motions. That good feeling was gone.

The “good feeling” may have evaporated in Oaxaca but the “bad feeling” of federal government officials toward public protests increased. That the APPO was considered a dangerous revolutionary force was made evident when the PFP and AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación—Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI) stopped a student takeover of a toll booth near Acapulco, Guerrero, and demanded to know what connections the protesters had with “subversive” organizations, specifically “the APPO.” Warning them “the same thing can happen to you that happened to Flavio Sosa,” agents tried to force the students to admit that the APPO had financed them.

During an interview he gave to La Jornada, student leader Luis González quoted an AFI officer who said, “The federal government will not stand for another desmadre like the one that occurred in Oaxaca!” (Desmadre can be translated in various ways, all negative, but essentially means “disaster.”) Although the APPO organizers insisted on nonviolence, millions of people throughout Mexico, including high-ranking federal officials, had come to view the APPO as a dangerous threat that needed to be repressed before it spread further.

Various journalists and academics whom I contacted theorized that the APPO’s division into separate ideological groups resulted because its near instantaneous formation had been based on an immediate, short-term goal—driving Ruiz out of office—and not on functional plans for longer-term change. An activist named Genoveva López suggested that the different organizations “forgot lots of things in order to come together.”

Everyone had had separate agendas before they rushed in to support Section 22, she explained. Although they temporarily set aside individual quests and identities, they did not abandon them or change their organizations’ goals. During the height of the APPO’s popularity, the marches brought teachers, self-help groups, street urchins, Marxists, labor unionists, indigena activists, and thousands of others together—but after the marches and the speeches and the cheering and the songs, most of the participants returned to their everyday lives.

Despite these splits and the ongoing dissention, the APPO also became a symbol of popular cohesion and a trigger for political change. La Jornada’s Julio Hernández told a March 2008 Día de Mujer forum in the city of Oaxaca, “What happened here is an example, an example of action…that gave hope to the entire pueblo of Mexico.” He affirmed that the APPO’s takeover of communications “awakened a sleeping giant in Oaxaca” and created an immense empathy in Mexico’s Federal District for the APPO, and great hopes for its success.

The giant reawakened after more than a year’s slumber, when Section 22 elected Azael Santiago-Chepi secretary-general before the 2008-2009 school year began. Santiago-Chepi immediately announced the union’s commitment to the APPO, thus amplifying Section 22’s base by making it the driving force in a people’s political movement, rather than exclusively a union operation. Simultaneously, it fortified the APPO by renewing the 70,000-member union’s participation.

Dethroning the King, however, was no longer the reinvigorated movement’s primary preoccupation. Section 22 focused on national politics, particularly the federal government’s attempt to install a national teacher evaluation system to replace state systems under union control. Recognizing that the APPO’s idealistic refusal to participate in state or local elections had played into King Ruiz’s hands by permitting his PRI party to gobble up all of the state’s legislative seats, the “new” APPO seems to have become more realistic, more practical, and less naively altruistic.

Many journalists doubt that the “horizontal” usos y costumbres system of government that the APPO had advocated actually could work effectively on a statewide level. They pointed out that decision by assembly and insistence on leaderless equality had generated endless disputes among national university student strikers in 1999-2000, which had splintered their unity and led to their collapse.

Usos y costumbres is a pre-Colonial indigena term for communal government that involves group decision making and rotation of community functions among heads of households. That it can work in a community of individuals who share the same language, basic beliefs, and customs has been demonstrated. Even so, communities governed by usos y costumbres are not—and never have been—idyllic paradises. Oaxaca’s history, before and since the Conquest, has been marred by violence between ethnic groups and competing communities.

“There has to be reform,” said teacher Ema González, who echoed the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans in contending that mobilizing those currently excluded from the social and political hierarchy is the key to change. The King’s minions who control Oaxaca’s political and economic systems are a small minority of the state’s population, “but they are a powerful minority. There is no transparency. The governor arranges, controls, dispenses as he wishes—he is the head cacique, he has the legislature and the judicial system in his pocket.” Change means overthrowing the governor and the system of government that he manifests and represents.

Can it be done nonviolently?

“The violence—repressive government violence—already has taken place,” answered Navarro, a retired government worker and the father of a teacher involved in Section 22’s occupation of the Centro Historico. During the turbulent year following the armed invasion of the Zócalo, I asked many Oaxacans this question: “How can you effect changes pacifically when those wanting to implement them are nonviolent and those repressing them are using tanks and truncheons and guns?”

Impossible?

Not everyone in Oaxaca thinks so. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that the state’s semi-feudal system has deep roots. For more than seventy years, the country’s predominant political party, the PRI, has held the governorship and an overwhelming majority of municipal and city administrations (equivalent to U.S. counties), as well as the state House of Deputies and Senate. Although the PRI lost the presidential elections in 2000 and 2006, Oaxaca remained firmly in PRI hands. In fact, many believe that the change in national leadership strengthened the hold of governor-kings like Ulisés Ruiz, since the states remaining under PRI domination became the new centers of party power. In 2006, as rumors circulated that the federal senate would declare Oaxaca “ungovernable,” King URO mocked, “Only God can remove a governor!”

Since God (whoever He or She is) failed to depose him, Oaxaca remained his to do with as he pleased. The rich got richer and the poverty-stricken (over 80 percent of the population) became more destitute and more dependent upon sons, husbands, daughters, and parents working in the United States. The renovated APPO, under Section 22 of the national teachers union’s leadership, has encouraged electoral challenges that would—at least temporarily—unite all parties opposing the PRI to support a single coalition candidate in 2010. But they still have to contend with the King’s money, the King’s political control, and the King’s paramilitary forces.

The Dark Ages succeeded the Golden Era of Rome. The Mayan Empire—and its culture—disappeared, the victim not of invasion but of the ruinous class division between its impoverished masses and its opulent rulers. History tells us that, in some places—India in the eighteenth century, Peru in the sixteenth—power and control replace power and control. Other civilizations give way to barbarian hordes. Some societies transform themselves through revolutionary change. What is Oaxaca’s future? It could be continued stagnation under a kind of “Dark Age.” Or the “sleeping giant” of the people could once again awake, this time bringing truly revolutionary transformation. One thing is certain: only the last offers hope for genuine progress for the people.