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Oaxaca: Rebellion against Marginalization, Extreme Poverty, and Abuse of Power

B. Gloria Martínez González teaches economics at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and Alejandro Valle Baeza does the same at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

1. New Social Struggles in Mexico

In the last five years, millions of people have taken to the streets in Mexico challenging the political system and economic policies. In Atenco, in the state of Mexico, the population prevented the construction of the new Mexico City airport in 2002. Atenco became a center of resistance which has supported numerous struggles. Over a million people participated in protests in the year 2005, when the right-wing government of Vicente Fox attempted to eliminate Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the presidential elections of 2006 by way of a “legal” maneuver. More than two million protested against the election fraud with which Fox’s government imposed the presidency of Felipe Calderón. Thousands of citizens of Oaxaca rebelled against the corrupt and oppressive state government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Despite assassinations, disappearances, beastly abuse, and imprisonment, the protest, which began in May of 2006, continued until April of 2007. In retaliation for the events of 2006, the federal police repressed hundreds of protesters and arrested dozens of people. They broke into homes without warrants, and raped women.

Chart 1 shows one of the explanations for the protests; the real industrial wage is nearly half what it was in 1976. If this occurred in an organized worker sector, then the rest have done even worse. The minimum wage, which according to the federal labor law should be enough for a family with one working member, has been reduced in real terms to 25 percent of its equivalent in 1976. Apart from the fact that wages remain very low, the little employment that has been created is of  poor quality. Between 2002 and 2004, 2.8 million jobs were created, most of them without fringe benefits. The population growth demands approximately 1.5 million new jobs per year. This suggests that unemployment must have increased, although it did not, due to migration, as may be seen below. A clear indicator of the bad quality of employment generated in the last years is that from December 2002 to June 2006, the number of workers registered in the Mexican Institute of Social Security increased by 970 thousand, of which 60 percent were temporary workers. Few jobs were created with benefits, and most were temporary.

Chart 1: Real industrial wage, 1969-2005 (2005 pesos)

Real Industrial Wage, 1969-2005 (2005 Pesos)

With few jobs and bad pay, Mexican workers have migrated to the United States. It is estimated that Mexican migration to the United States, including unauthorized immigration (80–85 percent of the total) was a half-million people per year in the last decade.1 In the sixties, Mexican migration was approximately thirty thousand people per year, which means it has increased by more than sixteen times. The economic crises and inflexible neoliberal policies have made life impossible for many Mexicans in their own country, and have made crossing the border a necessity, under ever harder conditions. In Arizona alone, during a ten-month period in 2006, according to a humanitarian organization 205 immigrants died, some of them were assassinated by racist groups.2

Chart 2: Real annual GDP growth per capita

Real Annual GDP Growth Per Capita

Chart 2 depicts the poor performance of the Mexican economy. Its faulty operation in the last thirty years adds to the problem of a vast inequality in the distribution of income. The richest 20 percent of the population has an income approximately twenty times that of the poorest 20 percent. The distribution of income is so uneven that the poorest quintile of the Mexican population has an income comparable to the lowest quintile of Sri Lanka, at purchasing power parity, despite the fact that this country has an average income corresponding to one-third of the average income in Mexico.

The political struggle has a complex history. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed the country for seventy-four years in an authoritarian manner. The PRI has yielded most of its power to a party further to the right, the National Action Party (PAN), and to one on the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Yet, in a few areas, such as Oaxaca, it remains in power after eighty years.

With each passing day it becomes clearer that this country is governed by a transnational bourgeoisie: managers of foreign companies and local businessmen with transnational interests as investors in other countries or partners in foreign companies. This transnational bourgeoisie relies on the PRI and the PAN to govern; occasionally these parties work at cross purposes, but generally they work together in a combination known as PRIAN. The two factions of the PRIAN often compete to see who offers more to the ruling bourgeoisie; this was the case with the approval of the radio and television legislation in which disproportionate privileges were granted to the two companies that own all commercial television and almost all the radio stations. In 1988 the presidential election fraud was carried out by the PRI with the complicity of the PAN. The new fraud in 2006 served to help the PAN keep the presidency, and it was done with the support of the PRI. The 1988 fraud took place to avoid the unexpected rise of the center-left candidate: Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. In 2006, the fraud on the part of the PAN was executed to prevent the expected victory of the center-left, represented by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Today, several municipalities and some states are ruled by the center-left.

Many people are engaged in struggles over concrete local problems. But there is an increasing interest in national problems. Unions, which were once decidedly in favor of the employer, such as the National Union of Mine Workers or the union of public social security workers, the IMSS, have been forced by their members into conflict with employers and the government. Battles which might have been local have moved into the national scene—such as the insurrection of the Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1994 or the exemplary struggle in Oaxaca which began in 2006. These two movements have moved further left than the main center-left party, the PRD, which governs the capital of the country, several states, and numerous municipalities.

2. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca


Of the 3.5 million inhabitants of Oaxaca approximately 52 percent are female, 34 percent are under fifteen years of age, and 35 percent speak an indigenous language.3 Among the most spoken languages are Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, Mixe, and Chinantec.

Oaxaca has an infant mortality rate of 24.6 percent (the national average is 18.8); the population with access to medical assistance is 22.5 percent in contrast with 46.9 percent nationally; around 20 percent of the population is illiterate (7 percent nationally); 45 percent of its workers are self-employed (20 percent nationally); and 68 percent earn no more than twice the minimum wage (up to $8.65 a day) while 46.7 percent do on the national level.

The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) is part of a very long history of black and indigenous struggle and resistance. In the second half of June 2006, hundreds of Oaxacan organizations declared that they understood the necessity of uniting against the common enemy of the Mexicans: “the fascism personified in the state governor,” Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, whom they do not recognize.

The APPO is comprised of around 365 social, political, human rights, non-governmental, environmental, gender, student, and union organizations, the indigenous communities, and thousands of independent Oaxacans. The APPO formally came into being on June 17, after the brutal repression against teachers of local 22 of the National Union of Education Workers and the Promoter of National Unity against Neoliberalism. It hopes for a society with neither the exploited nor exploiters.

Despite the Dead and the Disappeared

From the very beginning, Ulises Ruiz’s government has waged a dirty war—“operation iron” against the Appistas, as members of the APPO are called, first against leaders and then against any of its members, giving orders to arrest, fatally attack, or “disappear,” by means of hit men and members of the paramilitary group “Los Zetas.” “In this ‘dirty war,’ there have been violent deaths, such as that of the schoolteacher whose throat was slit while close to his home, very much in the style of the acts carried out by the narcotrafficking hit men, Los Zetas.”4 The list of dead is numerous and that of the disappeared is enormous.

3. Chronology of the Rebellion and the Repression5

The Teachers’ Movement

The conflict began on May 1, 2006. Members of Local 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) delivered a list of demands to Ulises Ruiz, which were purely economic, such as the creation of education infrastructure, teaching positions, provision of materials for more than one thousand schools within the entity, support for scholarships and school breakfasts, and the application of a salary scale that would allow a gradual recuperation of the buying power of the teachers’ salaries.

May 22, hearing no response to their list of demands, hundreds of teachers supported by social organizations initiated an indefinite encampment in the historical center of Oaxaca.

June 1, the movement blocked the five access ways to the Oaxaca international airport.

June 2, the first mega-march drew some eighty thousand people in support of the occupation and in repudiation of the Ulises Ruiz government, which ordered teachers to return to classes on June 5.

June 5, the movement rejected the governor’s ultimatum because its demands had not been met.

June 7, the second mega-march of the movement was realized.
June 8, a commission of teachers coordinated by Enrique Rueda, secretary general of Local 22, met with the federal government to seek a solution to the conflict.

June 14, the state police failed in its operation to evict the encampment situated in the center of the city.


Between June 17 and 21, the APPO was formally constituted.
July 2, the punitive vote triumphed, and the PRI lost elections in almost every district.

July 11, the secretary general of government and the director general of public security, Jorge Franco Vargas and José Manuel Vera Salinas, respectively, were removed for their participation in the eviction effort of June 14.

On August 1, hundreds of rebellious women marched through the streets and occupied radio and television facilities of the state government.

August 18, there was a statewide general strike, the main entryways to the city of Oaxaca were blocked.

The March for the Dignity of the Peoples of Oaxaca

September 21, the march/walk for the dignity of the peoples of Oaxaca to Mexico City commenced.

September 30, as airplanes and helicopters flew overhead and troops landed at the ports of Salina Cruz and Huatulco, the State Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca was concluding. The assembly had just passed resolutions to continue acts of resistance and solidarity in that city, in Mexico City, and in other regions outside of the country.

October 16 in Mexico City, a hunger strike began in support of the federal government declaring the “relinquishment of power” in Oaxaca (which would annul the authority of the governor, legislature, and judiciary of the state of Oaxaca); all except one would lift their hunger strike by early December.

October 19, Mexican senators decided not to declare relinquishment of power, even though they recognized that Oaxaca is in a state of anarchy. Thousands of persons marched in Oaxaca to reject the legislative decision that favored Ulises Ruiz.

October 27, the teacher Emilio Alonso Fabián and U.S. journalist Bradley Roland Will were assassinated. Furthermore, the APPO  reported sixteen wounded, one disappeared, and three kidnapped teachers.6

October 28, representatives of the Oaxacan teachers and the secretary of government signed an agreement for a gradual return to classes starting on the next day. The secretary of government conceded the seventeen points on the list of the teachers’ demands, including its central request of “rezoning” which would increase the salaries of all of the education workers. (Teachers’ salaries had been set according to geographical location with higher salaries in the city of Oaxaca and certain tourist centers than in more remote regions.) The teachers furthermore obtained offers to liberate on the following Monday the four prisoners who were members of this movement, to cancel all of the arrest warrants, and to provide security for the teachers upon their return to classes. In addition, it promised five retroactive fortnightly salaries, community kitchens, and 500,000 pesos to initiate a shoe program. Likewise, the director of the State Public Education Institute of Oaxaca, Emilio Mendoza Kaplan, was removed from office.

The following day, October 29, the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), the Federal Investigations Agency (AFI), and state police entered Oaxaca. Four thousand policemen and special intelligence and tactical groups participated in the repression. They used helicopters of the federal police and army, tanks that fired ammunition, pepper spray, and tear gas. The balance of the repression against the Appistas was three dead (a number that the Fox government denied), eight wounded, and fifty detained. The government forces took the Zócalo (the main plaza) and the APPO retreated to the university.

November 11, the Constituent Assembly of the APPO began with more than a thousand delegates who represented the seven regions of Oaxaca and all of their social sectors. The delegates were elected democratically in barrios, agencias, common land cooperatives, municipios, unions, colonias, organizations, barricades, and they were obligated to bring these voices to the assembly.7

At the assembly, the international, national, and state contexts were analyzed; a discussion took place about the institutional crisis, comprehensive reform in the Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca, and a new government, constituent assembly, and constitution. Also, the principles, bylaws, and goals of the APPO were declared; its prospects were examined and short-, medium-, and long-term programs and plans were developed. The assembly championed various principles that ought to govern the operation of the APPO, most notably: anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, direct democracy, independence from the state, and gender and ethnic equality.

November 17, a national conference of the APPO was held in Mexico City. First, the APPO reviewed and evaluated its own movement. Second, different political and social personalities and organizations endorsed the APPO movement and its petition for the departure of Ulises Ruiz from the government of Oaxaca. Among these supporters were Andrés Manuel López Obrador, legitimate president of Mexico and coordinator of the civil resistance against Calderón policy; The Mexican Electricians Union; the Streetcar Union; the Independent Democratic Workers Party; the Broad Progressive Front of political parties; the Popular Assembly of the People of Michoacán; Women without Fear (which came about after the repression in Atenco, State of Mexico); the Coordinator of Worker, Campesino, and Popular Organizations; the organizations Aquí Estamos (Here We Stand) andRegeneración;and Senator Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, coordinator of the Senate Human Rights Commission.

November 18, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Mexico emerged, which is comprised of the above-mentioned organizations, unions, and many others.

From the Fox-Ruiz Repression to that of Calderón

November 25, the federal authorities declared that they would execute arrest warrants and the PFP repressed Appistas at barricades. There were 4 dead, 140 wounded, and 100 detained.

November 27, the PFP declared that its tolerance had come to an end and it would execute the arrest warrants against sympathizers and leaders of the APPO; it searched at least twenty properties looking for activists of that organization. It destroyed barricades, committed physical and psychological torture, and jailed Appistas; it evicted them from areas they had occupied. In pursuit of the Appistas, the PFP entered schools and classrooms in search of teachers who were members of the APPO, whether in front of high-school or kindergarten students, they dragged them out or pointed high-caliber weapons at them. The incarcerations were initially in Miahuatlán and Tlacolula, and in the ensuing hours those arrested were transferred no longer to Nayarit—as occurred with the detainees on November 25—but to the federal maximum security center in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, i.e., from a state in the southeast to states in the north.

In the first days of the government of “PFeliPe Calderón”—as he was called because of the PFP—there was more torture and incarcerations. The government of PFeliPe accepted the dialogue called for by the Appistas and (one day) prior to sitting down at the table, he apprehended one more of its city council members, among other APPO members.

International Evaluation following the Repression

An International Civil Commission of Observation of Human Rights (CCIODH) visited Oaxaca.8 In its document Preliminary Conclusions and Recommendations Concerning the Social Conflict in Oaxaca, it makes the following assessment up through January 2007: “The Commission considers that the events that occurred in Oaxaca form part of a juridical, police and military strategy, acting on a psychosocial and community level, whose goal is to control and intimidate the population in areas where community-based or non-partisan social movements are unfolding.”

The results of the strategy are as follows:

  1. Twenty-three deaths of individuals who were identified, plus others who remain unidentified, and cases where suspicion of disappearance seems justified. However, none have been reported to the police (obviously because people do not trust the police).
  2. Obstruction of the exercise of basic human rights, freedom of speech, thought, association, gathering, political participation, free movement, and protest. All this by way of physical force and coercion as shown by the violence against sit-ins and peaceful protest marches; impediment of the full exercise of legally elected communal representatives; and violence to reporters and the harassment of the media.
  3. The state and federal police forces have made recurrent arbitrary illegal arrests, occasionally massive arrests, of civilians, using disproportionate physical and psychological violence. Groups of persons out of uniform, bearing high-caliber weapons have kidnapped people, made illegal arrests, searched and shot at people, sometimes using police vehicles and with the participation of public officers. During their transportation psychological and physical torture was carried out (including electric shocks, beating, wounding, burning, etc.) on those arrested. The CCIODH has indications of rape of men and women, based on testimonies and clinical charts. The federal and state governments do not guarantee the right of defense of detainees and their legal processes: there was no assistance from a trusted lawyer, no private interviews, and no assistance from interpreters in the case of indigenous people. Instead, they were assisted by official lawyers who depend organically on the local government, and they backed all the illegal actions which took place in the processes.
  4. The criminal acts against the civilian population have been investigated and results have been obtained. Investigations have attempted to lay blame on the victims and their families.
  5. The National and State Human Rights Commissions have acted partially to cover the gravity of the events and exonerate the responsible governments.

4. The APPO Stands its Ground

Despite the generalized repression, the struggle was not interrupted. Here are some examples:

January 26, 2007, teachers, students, and parents marched in the district of El Retiro. On February 3, the APPO carried out their ninth mega-march. With thousands of protesters, they showed their strength.
February 8, the APPO organized the Second National Forum in Defense of Human Rights in Oaxaca, where a balance was made of the prevailing situation; organizational strategies were designed to demand the cessation of violations of human rights in the country; and national and international alliances and commitments were established. On February 10 and 11, the First State Assembly of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (city of resistance) was convened.

March 8, the APPO organized a protest with thousands of participants, to commemorate International Women’s Day and to continue their struggle. On March 17, the Extraordinary State Assembly of the APPO was held in the Hotel del Magisterio, in Oaxaca City. On March 25, the APPO participated in a large protest against the new Social Security and Services Institute Law for State Workers. The new law harms teachers and other federal employees by raising the age of retirement, reducing retirement pensions, and threatening health benefits.

In April, the APPO organized new marches. On April 20 and 21, they carried out the Third International Forum for Human Rights in Oaxaca, in which a Popular Jury of Public Morals was created, which found the governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz guilty of crimes against humanity.

5. What Next?

The PRI governor is brutal, corrupt, and authoritarian, as are others in the country. In Oaxaca the primary and secondary schoolteachers initiated a struggle that was repressed like so many others before. This time that did not work. The struggle extended to more than one million Oaxacans. PRI and PAN lost the elections for local representatives in the Federal Congress in July 2006. A parallel authority was established in the city of Oaxaca, the state capital, and in many municipios. Its chief demand: the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the murderous little dictator. The PRI denied his removal from office because, if new elections were called, the PRD would win. The PAN obtained the presidency of the country for Felipe Calderón on that very day, July 2, by means of an obvious fraud and a campaign of fear and slander backed by large transnational corporations. It did not obtain the necessary majority to enact legislation. All of this led to another PRI-PAN alliance.

The PRIAN today maintains the government of the fraud and that of Oaxaca in power; it applies force against the APPO and conceals the assassins of dozens of persons; it applies counterinsurgent tactics already tried in other parts of the country and the world and commits state terror against the Oaxacan population. It disappears persons, as in the South American dirty wars or that of Mexico in the seventies, and it banishes prisoners as did the Spanish government with members of Basque Homeland and Freedom. Why? For the classist fear of any popular insurrection that cannot be controlled through the corruption of leaders and selective repression. The government of Ulises Ruiz already attempted that without success. Therefore, the phase of state terror has begun, as in previous South American dictatorships.

The APPO insurrection chiefly asked for the departure of Ulises Ruiz and satisfaction of the teachers’ demands. To achieve that, it constituted itself as an organization that can achieve much more. The brutal repression of the PRIAN was unleashed to counter that possibility. Today Oaxaca is in a state of undeclared siege. The APPO appears weak but is not in retreat. Will repression triumph this time? We shall soon see if the APPO can respond to the brutal onslaught of the PRIAN. We shall see if national and international support can aid this exemplary struggle.


1.   Jeffrey S. Passel, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey,” Research Report, March 7, 2006, Pew Hispanic Center,
3.   INEGI, Population Count, 2005,
4.   José Gil Olmos, “Las fuerzas oaxaqueñas,” Proceso,
5.   Based on our research and on “Cronología del conflicto en Oaxaca,” El Universal, October 30, 2006,
6.   Matías Pedro and Rosalía Vergara, Proceso, October 29, 2006.
7.   Colonias and barrios are different sized neighborhoods and agencias are small villages; they are all administrative subdivisions of municipios, which are roughly equivalent to counties in the United States.
10. The International Civil Commission of Observation of Human Rights was founded to investigate the human rights situation in Chiapas,

2007, Volume 59, Issue 03 (July-August)
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