Neoliberalism hates indigenous autonomy: some history of the situation in Oaxaca and a call for support

by frowner – twin cities indymedia

“The indigenous, autonomous community of San Juan Copala has been in a desperate situation for a while now,” writes a Minneapolis activist working in Oaxaca. “They have been surviving persistent paramilitary attacks and are close to death as the paramilitaries have cut them off from food and water supplies. The solidarity caravan had intended to support them and try to bring attention to the attacks, but the government is so hell-bent on destroying this community that there was no hesitation to send paramilitaries to murder the participants. These were assassinations, not random shootings.”

“This will continue to happen in communities like San Juan Copala that are resisting, there is knowledge that there are more attacks planned of higher severity. The need for international solidarity is so desperate as it is so important to bring attention and acknowledgement to what is going on down here.”

She is describing the April 27 paramilitary assault on a humanitarian caravan in which Oaxacan CACTUS (Center for Community Assistance Working Together) director Bety Cariño and Finnish international observer Juri Jaakkola were murdered and others seriously injured. The caravan was bringing supplies to the blockaded autonomous Triqui community of San Juan Copala, along with teachers planning to reopen the schools shut down by right-wing paramilitaries. The state government has since claimed that Oaxacan organizers murdered their own people to discredit the state.

The attacks on San Juan Copala are part of a sustained state and corporate campaign against indigenous communities, especially when those communities have been fighting the destruction of the natural environment. Both the Oaxacan popular movements and the specifically indigenous movements in Oaxaca have a sophisticated political/environmental analysis and strong connections with popular organizations throughout Mexico. These attacks are not only intended to dispose the peoples of Oaxaca; they are intended to smash a strong and threatening political movement.

“This has everything to do with U.S. laws like the Arizona SB1070 and the Merida Initiative, these are all connected into increasing amounts of white supremacist imperialist control and San Juan Copala is an example of these new laws mean,” writes the activist from Minneapolis.

People in Minnesota are urged to contact the Mexican consulate or join a delegation which will deliver a letter to the consul in St. Paul on Friday, May 21. (Details also at the end of the article.)

The autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala

On January 21, 2007, Triqui communities in western Oaxaca declared themselves the new, autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, governed by the traditional “uses and customs” and open assemblies rather than by the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the legendarily corrupt state political party which ruled Mexico uninterrupted from the 1920s until 2000 The media immediately said that the area was too poor to function independently; the PRI declared it a “spectacle”. But this spectacle was so threatening that it would draw instant and aggressive attack–the murder of activist Roberto Garcia Flores on his way to the inauguration.

“We know the government is not going to recognize us, but we are going to recognize (the new entity) as our own government and we are going to support it. We are going to govern ourselves because they (the municipal governments) are not indigenous, they’re not Triqui, and they don’t know how to govern,” asserted Jorge Albino Ortiz, council member of the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) on behalf of the Unified Movement for the Triqui Independence Struggle (MULTI, Movimiento Unificado de Lucha Triqui Independiente.)

In fall of 2009, endemic violence against San Juan Copala intensified. On November 29, members of the UBISORT paramilitary (a nominally indigenous Triqui organization) blocked the entrance to the township, while other armed groups came down from the hills and shot into the town, killing a nine-year-old child and wounding two other children. Apparently, the immediate goal was to prevent members of People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT) of San Salvador Atenco from entering the town for a meeting. The FPDT is a social movement working against state and corporate projects such as dams, mines and highways on indigenous land.

In the wake of this attack, schools and the market were closed. Right-wing forces affiliated with the PRI, the party that governs the state of Oaxaca, blockaded the town and cut the water pipes and electrical cables. UBISORT paramilitaries took over the municipal building at the center of town. Provocation, occupation, militarization–after its own violence, UBISORT has called for national troops to “pacify” the area.

On Tuesday, April 27, a humanitarian caravan went to San Juan Copala from Oaxaca, made up of activists from the APPO, the radical Section 22 of the teachers union, the Center for Community Support Working Together (CACTUS), Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty (VOCAL), two reporters from the Mexican magazine Contralinea, and international observers from Belgium, Finland, Italy, and Germany. In the afternoon, the caravan came to a blockade in the road and gunmen armed with AK-47s began to shoot at people. They killed organizer Betty Carina and observer Juri Jaakkola. Paramilitaries detained members of the caravan, identifying themselves as members of UBISORT and speaking of their connection to the PRI.

Then On May 14, paramilitaries kidnapped 11 women and children who had gone from San Juan Copala to a neighboring town. They were told that they would be killed if they tried to return to San Juan Copala with food. All were released days later.

Since then, the town of San Juan Copala has called for another caravan and for national and international witness:

“Because silence cannot be imposed through the sound of gunfire: We call for the Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola Humanitarian Caravan which will occur on June 8, 2010…

The humanitarian conditions are extreme and the people cannot bear it anymore, without water, electricity, or food, the families need our support and solidarity, which is why we seek to coordinate with national and international human rights groups. We also call on the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, Peace Brigades International, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico to join this caravan to the extent that they are able.

To the national and international media, committed to the truth, that you document and verify the reality of San Juan Copala, that you tell the world how the subjugated and exploited live in Mexico and Oaxaca, that you see firsthand the inhuman conditions that Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola sought to document, losing their lives for it.

The integrity and security of all who accompany this caravan is the responsibility of the Mexican state as a whole, the rights outlined in our constitution and international treaties cannot be circumscribed by paramilitary groups or corrupt governments.

The Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola Humanitarian Caravan will succeed in breaking the paramilitary siege and saving the lives of the more than 70 families who are surviving under inhuman conditions.

Because the rights of the Triqui people are not under the control of any paramilitary group!

Because justice and peace can only be achieved by building from below!

Everyone to San Juan Copala on June 8!”

Signed by the Authorities of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala

The Struggle for Triqui Autonomy

Triqui people have fought against colonization for two hundred years, initially driving the Spanish away from their land base in western Oaxaca in 1823 and 1843. Since the early 20th century government and corporations have attempted to exploit natural resources and agricultural labor, often through violence.

Historically, political murders have been labeled “land disputes among indigenous people”, although the political violence has been either instigated or directly committed by the state. In the 1920s, when coffee production was first introduced, Triqui farmers who refused to raise the new crop were harassed and sometimes murdered by Triqui people in the pay of outside corporations or by agents of the corporations themselves. In 1948, Triqui land was divided into five municipalities and the area heavily militarized. Political violence in Oaxaca is sometimes among indigenous people, but it is initiated by the state against those struggling for traditional and new forms of autonomy.

In the late seventies, the Movimiento de Unificación y Lucha Triqui (MULT or the Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle) was formed to organize against large landowners and corrupt political bosses. So successful was MULT that it began to threaten the PRI’s hold on the region; the PRI responded by bribing some members of MULT, assassinating many and driving others to flee to the US. In 2003, MULT declared itself a political party. Members of MULT worked with the military police during the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca. But some supporters of San Juan Copala identify as part of MULT; the organization seems to have different meanings in different places.

In 2006, MULTI was created, the Movimiento de Unificación y Lucha Triqui Independiente. MULTI is strong in San Juan Copala and is affiliated with other popular organizations in Oaxaca. Since 2006, more than 20 members of MULTI have been disappeared by the paramilitaries.

In these struggles, organizational alliances have changed over time and vary from town to town. What has not changed is that when indigenous people–or the ordinary people of Oaxaca–try to rule themselves, the state and its shifting group of allies respond with assassinations, threats and propaganda.

Somewhere just west of Chiapas

Oaxaca is one of the southernmost Mexican states, sharing a border with west of Chiapas. Oaxaca’s population is one-third indigenous. Oaxaca is resource-rich and cash-poor, rich in gold, silver, copper and uranium–a target for international mining corporations operating outside Mexican environmental law. Ninety percent of the indigenous population lives by agriculture or animal husbandry. Big landowners have tremendous political influence, often holding political office and ceding land and resources to corporate cronies. Schools are desperately underfunded — if you’re looking for bitter humor, consider the country schools which use internet-based books and materials–but they have no internet!

The governor of Oaxaca is PRI politician Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who took power in 2004 amid charges of fraud after an election in which only 40% of the electorate voted. Funds intended for job creation, schools and other government services have been skimmed off to enrich Ruiz’s cronies, and then Ruiz has used police and paramilitary violence to suppress strikes, protest and critical journalism, as well as to murder his opposition.

In 1994, the year of the Zapatista uprising, the right-wing paramilitary organization UBISORT (Unión de Bienestar Social de la Región Triqui) was formed to fight against Zapatista influence and popular organization in the region. UBISORT is relatively small in numbers but heavily armed with AK-47s supplied by the state–probably bought with money from US government programs.

The tangled web of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is nakedly visible in Oaxaca, where the violence against poor and indigenous people is both racialized and economic–political violence is often aimed at ordinary people’s livelihoods, particularly traditional indigenous land use. In May of 2009, 700 armed police broke up the 40-day blockade of a silver mine by indigenous Zapotec people struggling against Fortuna, a Canadian silver mining company. Cyanide is used in extracting silver; the cyanide, mercury, arsenic and lead leak into the local water supply. Prior to the blockade, twenty cattle had died from drinking contaminated water, a substantial loss in a poor agricultural community. People had met in assembly and decided to blockade the mines, over threats from the local mayor. The police came in with dogs, tear gas and guns. They beat protesters and detained 28 people. There are many other mining projects in Oaxaca, more now that the price of gold and silver has risen in response to global financial uncertainty.

Under NAFTA and the Merida initiative (a US-Mexico security plan heavily supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation), the US government provides money, training and occasionally troops to prosecute the drug war in Mexico. De facto, this means that the US government arms the police and soldiers who break up strikes, blockades and protests. US government funding also strengthens the Attorney General’s Office of the Mexican Justice Department, which already routinely refuses information to opposition groups and human rights investigations. Naturally, the violence which accompanies the drug trade continues since poverty, government corruption and a lucrative US market do nothing to discourage it.

The US is certainly invested in “security” in Oaxaca. The Department of Defense gave at least $500,000 to University of Kansas researchers to map “indigenous” territory in the state, under the supervision of an army security expert, Geoffrey Demarest, who has written that “informal property ownership in either rural or urban settings is the breeding ground for criminal or insurrectionary activity.”

2006 – “Ruiz Fuera!”

“There isn’t much to say about the city itself. It is a farce of government sponsored concerts and festivals for tourists, and as election time is approaching there is PRI propaganda everywhere,” the Minneapolis activist says in an email. “To an unknowing eye, it seems like everything is hunky-dory here and like the government has control. But really, there is so much dissent and very few have any amount of confidence in political parties and government systems.”

In May 2006, the Oaxaca teachers’ union went on strike and occupied the main square of the capital. The union strikes almost every year, since the schools are underfunded and only strikes seem to generate raises or changes in conditions. In past years, the strikes had been peaceful and had lasted for several weeks before being settled. In 2006, the strike intensified over an effort to end a regional tiered pay system and increase student grants. Ruiz responded by attempting to break the union–calling in political allies to write letters of condemnation and recruiting mayors to demand local control of school conditions rather than conditions negotiated with the union. On June 14th, Ruiz sent 3000 military police to clear the square. A pitched street battle put a hundred people in the hospital, and widespread anger at Ruiz and the state coalesced into collective action. The APPO (the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca) was formed out of social movements, unions, cooperatives, representatives of Oaxaca’s independent municipalities, indigenous rights organizing and other anti-state groups. On June 17 APPO reoccupied the main square and declared itself the governing body of Oaxaca. Ruiz fled to Mexico City.

It is important to note that the PRI and the PAN (National Action Party, which replaced the PRI as Mexico’s ruling party) worked together against the uprising in Oaxaca.

Between June and October, the APPO governed the city, despite attacks on APPO members by the right and by police. The conflict was present in the immediate daily life of the city, with roadblocks, occupations, marches and violence against strikers. The APPO took over a number of the city’s radio and television stations to coordinate actions–in the past, the state government had denied radio and television licenses to groups critical of the state. In August, plain clothes police and right-wing organizations attacked a number of these stations, killing six APPO members. In October, Indymedia photographer Brad Will was shot, apparently by a paramilitary PRI member, as was Raúl Marcial Pérez, an Indigenous community leader and columnist for the regional daily El Gráfico. At month’s end, thousands of military police and soldiers drove the APPO out of Oaxaca’s main square, attacking protestors with chemical grenades and staging raids on the houses of APPO members. An unknown number of people were killed, including dozens of APPO members. Further police assaults and protests continued through November. Many APPO organizers went into hiding.

The involvement of indigenous people (and MULT-I) in this struggle hasn’t always been counted. Two Triqui activists and a young boy were shot in 2006 after leaving an APPO meeting, apparently targeted for being MULT-I members who affiliated with APPO. Their deaths were described as that same “violence among indigenous people” which is not investigated, not assigned causes, believed to be irrational.

In the wake of 2006, there was conflict within the teachers’ union and a move to push out leaders who had collaborated with the PRI. APPO members continued to meet clandestinely and then openly. The APPO has organized large marches against political violence and worked with indigenous communities against neoliberal projects like the Fortuna mine described above. Meanwhile, the government continues to arrest activists and the paramilitaries continue to murder them–among these were two Triqui women radio activists, Felicitas Martinez, age 20, and Teresa Bautista, age 24,who were shot to death as they travelled to a political meeting. Continuing neoliberal projects–the privatization of parts of social security, a 29% rise in bus fares, doubled fertilizer costs–are the other half of the violence.

While here, where we live

“I think that’s the most important thing for people wanting to show solidarity in the U.S., that this has everything to do with U.S. laws like the Arizona SB1070 and the Merida Initiative, these are all connected into increasing amounts of white supremacist imperialist control and San Juan Copala is an example of what these new laws mean,” writes the activist from Minneapolis.

US initiatives move money, arms and law enforcement agents into Mexico so that gold, silver, uranium, labor, coffee and other profitable items can be taken out. US immigration laws guarantee that Mexican immigrants can be exploited, controlled and then jailed or thrown out.

At the same time, Oaxaca and San Juan Copala are real, living examples of popular uprising, in its slow unfolding, confusion and amazing actions. San Juan Copala is a community of people organizing themselves according to the expressed wishes of the community itself. We ought to be cheering with joy, but the least we can do is respond to calls to action.

Write, call and demonstrate at your local Mexican consulate, as has been happening nationwide.

Join us in calling the Mexican Consulate to DEMAND the following:

-End the paramilitary attacks and harassment in the Triqui region and in particular against the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala NOW.

-Identify and hold accountable the individual(s) responsible – both materially and intellectually – for the murders of Beatriz Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola and the injuries inflicted upon Mónica Citlali Santiago Ortiz, Noé Bautista Jiménez and others.

And stay informed and spread the word! Injustice can continue when there is no outcry, no response, and only silence. Tell your friends, family and co-workers what’s happening and encourage them to take action.

Author’s Note: This article was based on communication with an activist in Oaxaca, translated material from Narco News and articles and interviews posted on El Enemigo Común and My Word Is My Weapon (you can tell from the links!) The details of the situation in Oaxaca are obviously really complicated–anyone who has more knowledge about this situation, feel free to correct any wrong assumptions I may have made and I’ll be glad to change the story.