The Last Days in Oaxaca

December 23rd, 2006 – Xochitl writes: Dear friends and family,

After about a week of traveling around Mexico, on the run after our arrest, we returned to Oaxaca for a few days before leaving the country. It was a beguiling, heart-wrenching and stressful time.

Beguiling, because on the surface Oaxaca continues to return to normal. The PFP have decamped from the zocalo, though they are still present in the bus station and other areas of the city. As you enter the zocalo you encounter a thin line of municipal or state police in regular uniforms, in the place of spiderwebs of barbed wire and gigantic garbage dumpster barricades, with dozens of PFP at each entrance, decked out with shields, helmets, bulletproof vests and more backed up by tanquetas ready to spray pepper spray while they videotape their targets, or even plow through crowds and barricades.

After passing through this gauntlet, until recently, as you entered the zocalo, you would have seen hundreds of PFP lounging around, playing games on their cell phones, watching TV on the rigged-up electrical system, flirting, sexually assaulting people (there have been several reports of assaults), eating ice cream, sleeping in I couldn’t count how many tents (though tents were deluxe accommodations initially many of the PFP were sleeping on tarps or cardboard on the ground).

Now, from a first hand account from a friend (I didn’t go any closer to the zocalo than I had to, though most of the banks are nearby, so I did take one trip all-too-close to there), other than the police lines at the entrances, the zocalo is pretty much back to normal. It is missing only one thing tourists. I would guess, from previous visits, that vendors wander around, though they are probably a bit more persistent and very much more desperate for business these days.

But isn’t strange that “normal” still includes lines of police, protecting the zocalo from the very people who pay taxes that pay the salaries for those same police, as well as the cleaners, the painters, and the “re-developers” (one of the points of contention with the Oaxaca state governor is an expensive and most-likely corrupt “make-over” of the zocalo)?

But beguiling it is. Most of the graffiti in the city has been painted over, so the exquisite vistas of building after building painted in different warm colors, as far as you can see, is unbroken by angry words and graphics such as Fuera URO y el PFP (URO and the PFP out), URO asesino (URO murderer) and one of my favorites from outside the zocalo, Asesina los pobres no soluciona la pobraza (Murdering the poor does not solve the problem of poverty).

There are still frequent patrols of municipal police, and we tensed up every time one came near. We are not sure whether we are on their lists for apprehension and deportation, or worse. We were astonished and overjoyed to be released after just 4 hours of detention, but they may want to ask us more questions now. Or they may have released us as a strategic move, to follow us detain our friends. We do know that some of the people we know and love, and who we spent time with in these last days in Oaxaca, are on those apprehension lists, so we were all always on the alert.

Oaxaca is heart-breaking because it is so beguiling. Where is the vibrant encampment at the zocalo or the Santo Domingo plaza, where people sold videos of recent marches, engaged in debate and dialogue, and created a party/fair like atmosphere with a political theme? Where are the posters and banners demanding justice for teachers, for indigenous people, for all of the people of Oaxaca who have been left behind as neo-liberalism and corrupt party politics continue their march towards economic polarization?

And worse. Because now, instead of groups of people discussing the most recent events, people even peripherally involved in the movement meet in public in just 2s and 3s, if they meet at all. Most of the movement has gone underground. People are hiding all over Oaxaca, all over Mexico. And when we do meet on the street, or in the market, or by phone, conversations often turn to the people who are missing, in hiding, seeking political asylum, or being tortured in prisons throughout Mexico.

Because under this state-imposed normality, the violence continues. PFP have entered schools, going directly into classrooms filled with children, and detained teachers while the children watch, terrified. Most, if not all, of the leaders of APPO are under threat of arrest. Human rights workers, medical professionals, journalists, students, anyone who was even seen at the University of the Santo Domingo encampment may be on the arrest lists. Worse than arrest, the night-time death squads may come for them. There are rumors, totally unconfirmed but entirely believable, that police and political death squads are working together. The police may apprehend someone for questioning, gather data about their activities and whereabouts, then give that information to the usually PRI-affiliated squads that work in the night, making deadly house calls. How many people have been killed or detained by these death squads? No one knows. The death count remains around 20, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people reported as disappeared. Some may be in hiding, some may have just left the area, but some are undoubtedly dead, possibly their corpses layered like pancakes in a mass grave somewhere in the countryside.

We may have just missed one of those visits. I was detained, along with 2 friends from the US, about 2 weeks ago. We had switched hotels and stayed inside for several days after November 25, when the city became a war zone, filled with police patrols and night-time raids. The day before one friend, W, was to leave we went to buy presents for his friends and family at one of the artisans market. The city seemed safe during the day, and we were seduced by the apparent normality, so rather than return to our hotel, we continued our day as happy tourists.

W cannot live without pizza, almost literally. And he prefers Domino’s. So we walked over to the local restaurant for lunch. On the way there I stopped in the market to look for one last gift, while they continued to the restaurant. As I walked down the street I saw a companero from the University. He had left his hiding place, where he and 3 others were staying, to get food. We talked for a moment, and moved on.

About 10 minutes after I had arrived at the restaurant W said, what are those police doing? Are we OK? A municipal police officer was peering into the window behind me, hands cupped around his eyes to shade the bright sun.

Were we being paranoid? Justifiably anxious? Crazy? These are the questions that run through my head with every single concern about safety. During the worst times (and we didn’t experience even close to the worst of the people in the movement, because of our level of involvement and the privilege endowed by our white skin and nationality) those concerns were as banal as where and how to get food, whether to take a taxi or walk somewhere, whether to leave the hotel at all. Every action of every moment, is in question. Should we walk fast or slow? Should we take this route or that one? Should we avoid the police, or walk by them like we have nothing to worry about? Should we wear touristy clothing, or our regular clothes?

Each person has a complex mixture of feelings about safety, and because there is some safety in groups, each group has to engage in constant analysis, reflection and communication about what, when, how, where and why to do everything. And that, too brings stress. What if one person is very very hungry, but the others don’t feel that it is safe to go get food? What if one person believes that a guard/night-watch is necessary, and the others do not and don’t want to have to stay awake?

Then layered on top of that is the constant question am I over-reacting? Am I being arrogant, self-important to think that I might be at risk? Am I crazy? Is this the entire point of this dirty war, to make us all so paranoid that we are paralyzed not sleeping, not eating, not able to live even if we are not in a prison with bars we can see and touch?

Because relative to many people in the movement, I must repeat, we had it easy. Yes, we were detained. But we got out. Yes we were frightened, but we had much less to worry about than many others.

All of these thoughts were passing through my mind as the municipal police moved over to block both of the entrances to the Domino’s where we were quietly, a bit anxiously, eating pizza. Then they moved in and asked us to come with them.

Why? We asked. Just come with us, they said.

We were put in the back of a small pick-up truck and driven to the local police station. We repeatedly asked why we were being detained, what we had done, and we told that all would be explained in just a few minutes. That’s a few minutes police-time, meaning hours.

After the police gathered our basic information (name, where we were staying, etc), they separated me from my 2 friends, J and W, both men. I was brought to a small office-like room, and they went through all of our belongings. They left us with our cell phones at that point, so we were all able to make some phone calls while we waited. I wanted to call the offices of human rights organizations, but no one answers the phone on the weekends. So I called a friend, the one who had originally encouraged me to come to Oaxaca. I explained where we were, and before I could say anything more he said, “I’ll call you back.” About 15 minutes later he called and said that a lawyer was on the way. J and W called family and friends so they could call the US consul, and to mobilize more general support.

I was the sherpa for our group, so I had the backpack with all of the gifts we had bought. “They are just presents,” I explained. “Just some wooden sculptures.” But I forgot one thing at the market we had found a collection of Zapatista dolls, and W had bought them all, 11 in total. The police pulled out the bag and looked at me suspiciously. Well, what do we have here? the look said.

“Un chiste, regalos comicos” (A joke, comical gifts) I said.

“Ah.” The policeman said with a raised eyebrow, and put them aside, along with a bandanna, into the pile of incriminating items. Fortunately, the pile was small.

I was then questioned, first by a social worker who said he was our appointed advocate. He would explain our side of the story to the police, so I should tell him everything. I said that I didn’t feel comfortable having someone paid by the police as our advocate, and that in the US a suspect would have a lawyer who as an advocate, and that our lawyer was on the way.

“Well, you cannot have a lawyer here.” I was told.. I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice, so I talked with him. He was, quite honestly, very nice and did seem to want to help. But he was totally wrong about the lawyer part. I learned later that we had every right to a lawyer in every part of the process.

They took photos, took a video of me stating my name and why I was detained (eating Domino’s pizza? Being seen in the Santo Domingo encampment? What?). And I waited and waited.

Then the mean cop showed up (were they playing good cop bad cop? Don’t know) to question me. He was clearly schooled in intimidation tactics, and I believe he was from one of the special forces police based in Mexico City. He asked me why I was at UNAM (a Mexico City university), and I said that I had never visited UNAM in my life. He had to ask another police officer the name of the university in Oaxaca, which was a center of the resistance. He sat very close, directly in front of me. He gestured in my face, he spoke very loudly, he seemed very angry. He would repeat the same question over and over, including accusations in his questions, “We know you and your friends slept at the University every night. What were you doing there?” Well, I had spent one night there when I couldn’t leave because of violence in the surrounding streets. My friends had never slept there, not even once.

I explained that we were working on a documentary, and that I was a doctor and I did occasional first aid.

After more questioning, a visit with the medical office to document any allergies or illnesses, we were re-united and brought before the magistrate who would decide what to do with us. By then our lawyer had arrived, and he chided everyone for not allowing him access to us earlier. The right to legal representation is fundamental in Mexico, as it is in the US.

We then stood before the magistrate to hear our charges. We were accused of the Mexican version of disturbing the peace yelling obscenities, pushing people, taking pictures without permission. We laughed out loud when these charges were read by the magistrate, and I suspect he also found them ridiculous, especially since one of us spoke almost no Spanish at all. Regardless, the charges were quite welcome, given the possible alternatives. As we were paying the small fine the US consular agent arrived, a bit late but still helpful. When we asked for our property, we received everything except our cell phones, “We are keeping them for a little while,” we were told.

We returned to our hotel, which fortunately had not been searched during our detention, and tried to figure out what to do. Should we stay in the same hotel? Should we leave town immediately? Would it be better to drive at night (it was dark by then), or wait until day?

At about 8 pm the phone rang, and the receptionist said that the police were there to see us. I asked to speak by phone with the police officer, while J and W went to the window. There were two unmarked white pick-up trucks parked in front of the hotel. They had not been there before, and we had been checking every few minutes. The person I spoke with said he was from the police, and that they needed us to go down to the station to identify our phones.

“We will go tomorrow at 10, with our lawyer, as previously arranged,” I said. He said okay and hung up. A short while we checked outside, and the trucks were gone.

We called our lawyer and the consul to advise them of this new development. The lawyer suggested that we meet immediately at the police station to recover our phones. Even though it was late, and dark, and we really really really didn’t want to go back there, we decided to go.

We arrived at the nearby Plaza of the Dance, met up with our lawyer and proceeded to the police station. The officer in charge said our phones were locked up, and there was no way to get them. He also said he knew nothing about the “police” who came to our hotel. Who had come to visit us? Was it a real police patrol, that had for some reason not communicated with the police station? Or paramilitaries, rogue police or someone else?

Needless to say, we were pretty freaked out. We returned to our hotel, barricaded the door, and wrote to everyone we knew about the situation. What should we do? Would they come back? Should we leave immediately even though it was 10 pm by then? Should we try to change hotel rooms? What would we eat? We ordered some food, set up a night watch and tried to sleep.

The next day W left town, as planned previously. We pretty much gave up on our phones, because we just didn’t want to go back to the station. It seemed like maybe the police would change their minds, and arrest us again, but this time they might keep us a lot longer.

B and I hit the road, to get away from Oaxaca and continue work in his video project (Alive in Mexico) in other places. Although I was able to help with translating, and even shooting some video, I felt pretty much useless because I was unable to use my medical skills while we were traveling.

We returned to Oaxaca to gather some things we had left there, and to meet up with some people working on Alive in Mexico. For the 2 days we were there we were constantly vacillating between anxiety about the situation, and appreciation for the city of Oaxaca.

I had one more scare while leaving. I was taking a night bus to Mexico City, to fly from there to the US today. B had planned to take me to the bus station, but he got suddenly and badly sick earlier in the day, so I had to go alone. I learned, once again, never, ever, go anywhere alone when there is risk of arrest.

I arrived at the bus station with my piles of luggage, and waited. A security guard approached me and asked for my ticket. She looked at it, looked me directly in the face, then handed it back to me. She went to speak to two other security guards nearby, and then walked directly to the security office. Oh no. What was going to happen?

About 2 minutes later the PFP walked by. One officer stayed to my right, while 2 others went over to the ticket desk on my left. Were they staking me out? Were they checking on my name in the bus computer? Who would know if I was arrested? Would I disappear? I desperately searched through my bag for a pen and paper to write down my name and how to contact B and my family, if anything were to happen. I couldn’t find one. And why didn’t I already have that information? And why didn’t I have a phone with me? Damn it. Lulled into complacency once again.

Two tourists from Switzerland were standing next to me, and I asked them for a pen. Shaking, I wrote down my basic information, then asked them for a favor. If anything should happen to me, could they please contact B?

“Why would anything happen?” they asked. I explained the current situation in Oaxaca. They had been visiting for just 2 days, and as far as they could see everything was tranquil. But no, I explained, and gave them a brief history of the movement and the current repression.

Should I run? I wondered. Should I just leave my bags and go? Should I try to borrow a phone and call the hotel where B was, waiting for a flight from Oaxaca city today? Or is this nothing, and I am unnecessarily worried? Am I going to be arrested, deported? Am I going to lose all of the gifts I have in my bags? What should I do? And damn it, why didn’t I insist that B come to the bus station with me, or find someone else since he was so sick? Why did I relax? Why did I let my guard down? What is going to happen to me?

I saw 2 people who had been staying in the same hotel across the bus station lobby, and went to ask them, too to call the hotel if anything should happen. They agreed, and said that they say the police buying bus tickets. That helped me relax a bit, but I was still worried.

Shortly thereafter the PFP went away. Did they go to the wait alongside the bus? Or were they gone. Finally, finally, my bus was boarding. Fortunately, all my new-found security friends were boarding different buses, but at the same time. They were so generous and kind, making sure that I was nearby them and fine, until I had boarded my bus (after a bit of flirting from the luggage man, which helped break the tension a bit).

As we were leaving Oaxaca city, as I started to feel sleepy, the bus stopped at a check point. A municipal police officer boarded the bus, and walked up and down the aisle, checking out all the passengers. Would I be pulled off the bus then? Or was I being crazy-paranoid? The officer left the bus, and I let felt my muscles unclench.

But I still had one more worry. About 2 weeks ago there were rumors that the buses were being stopped at Nochixtlan, a nearby town, search passengers and check their documents. So I couldn’t relax just yet.

We passed Nochixtlan and I fell asleep. I now write this from the Mexico City airport.

I write the above detailed description not to focus on myself, but to give the tiniest taste of what it is like to live in a state of such constant and severe repression. And despite those threats, the movement in Oaxaca continues. On December 10 thousands of people marched in Oaxaca, some with death warrants, many in fear for their safety from the police and others.

Though many people involved in the movement in Oaxaca have been forced underground, are in prison or have been disappeared, the struggle will not be snuffed out so easily. For on-going information about the situation, see Oaxaca Indymedia,, the APPO website,, El Enemigo Comun (one of several places on the net where you can make donations to support the movement in Oaxaca), and Narco News,

So now I head home. I am lucky to have a home to return to, one where I feel relatively safe. The people of Oaxaca don’t have anywhere else to go, and they live the struggles of poverty and injustice every day. Please keep them, and all people fighting for justice around the world, in your hearts.