Days in Oaxaca

November 13th, 2006– Dear friends and family,

I came to Oaxaca, where there is a people’s movement demanding political, social and economic reform. For more general information about the situation here, see Narco News and Indymedia. Here is my first day’s report:

The day began quietly enough. I went down to the zocalo (central town square), walking between lines of federal police who are now camped there, in place of the teachers who were there for 5 months. I sat at a cafe along the border of the central square, and had mole tamales and coffee and a delicious plate of fruit while small children selling gum and older folks selling various crafts passed by asking did I want any of their wares. When I said no, some would ask no, really, do you want any?

I wandered around looking for a place to buy a phone, then called George, my friend from Massachusetts who lives here. He said “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you! There are bodies at the Red Cross (which is the equivalent to the public health system and ambulance services in the US), and we think they may be some of the disappeared, but we have not been able to see them. They have refused us entry. Maybe with your doctor credentials you can get in.”

Afte some more discussion, he instructed me to go to the Human Rights Observers’ table in the planton (emcampment) which had moved from the zocalo to the courtyard outside Santo Domingo chuch, after being forcibly evicted by the federal police. (and don’t believe the reports that APPO willingly ceded the zocalo to the police. One person saw more than 20 bodies being carried away from the area by the police, most of them appeared dead).

I walked over there and sat for a while…..I met people, talked about the current situation, wandered around to see the wonder of mutual aid there, with food, medical care, bathrooms (which were working until they ran out of water), music and lots of information about what has happened over the last 5 months.

After a while K appeared, and explained what was going on with the Red Cross. We were waiting for the lawyers, who had applied for official permission to enter the morgue and view the bodies. Our first goal was to identify the bodies, because based on the best available information 130 – 150 people have been disappeared. Secondarily, we wanted to gather what details we could about cause of death. K, who is from North Carolina but lives most of the time in Oaxaca, has some experience with forensics. The next member of our team was Hinrich, a German photographer (he took one of the best photos I have seen of Brad Will in the Oaxaca zocalo just a few days before he was killed). Next we needed some strong people to help move the bodies, because they were stacked like pancakes in the morgue.

I went over to where some of the teachers who are still on strike (many have still refused to return to the classrooms, despite what we hear in the US), and asked if they knew anyone who might help us. After much laughter and silliness about who was the strongest, they found us two men who also had some medical training and could help us out.

But we had no lawyers, and no official permission. And according to our information (which turned out to be incorrect), the bodies were not preserved and were decomposing quickly, so if we didn’t get there quickly there would be little hope of identification.

So we decided to go and try to gain entrance, and if we were denied, to try again later with the lawyers. We gathered our group, which was about 8 people by then, and went to the Red Cross, where the bodies were.

When we first arrived, we were told that the director was not there, and that we should return in 2 hours.

Two hours later we returned, waited a while, and finally talked with the director. First he said that the bodies were definitely not associated with the protests, that they were unclaimed dead people who were there waiting for some family member to come and identify them and either bury them or give permission that they be used for anatomy classes at the local medical school. He told some stories, and then we asked again. He said that they definitely were not anyone from the protests, and that he couldn’t let us enter. More stories, more requests, more stories, more requests. I said that if they were not any of the disappeared, we should be able to tell APPO, the teachers and others that this was definitely true, because word of the bodies was spreading quickly and many people believed that these dead ones were their disappeared family members. No he said, more stories. Then, finally, yes.

But wait. We had to be accompanied by two of his assistants, one of whom was not there. We would have to wait until he arrived to enter the morgue. Four hours (yes, four hours waiting in the rain), as darkness fell, finally the all-important assistant arrived and we entered the morgue.

It looks like, for most of the 23 corpses that were there, he was telling the truth. Most had been there for months (embalmed, thank god), but a few were more recent deaths. With masks and gloves on we went through the slow process of moving each of the corpses from a pyramid-like-pile, photographing, looking for other identifiying marks, and asking about cause of death, estimated age, and when they arrived at the morgue.

We will now compare these photos with the videos and photos that people had managed to take earlier (one short video taken through a window with a camera held over the head of the videographer for a few minutes before he was chased away), to make sure that no bodies were removed from the morgue before we got there (maybe while we waited 4 hours??). And we will turn the photos over to the organizers of the popular movement, to see how they want to distrubute them, to see if any of the corpses are the disappeared.

So, that was my first day in Oaxaca. There are, of course, millions of other details that I can’t possibly related right now, but more than anything, I would like to leave you with thoughts of the beauty of this movement, the generosity of every person I have met so far, the vibrancy of the encampment, the astonishing commitment to this struggle, the extraordinary demonstrations of mutual aid, and the willingness of everyone to contribute what they can.

I can’t imagine what tomorrow will be like.

And one last note, if you forward this email to any person or to any listserv, please remove all identifying information such as my email and name.

Much love,