Repression, Impunity and Resistance in Oaxaca: One Year After the Copala Caravan Ambush

By Scott Campbell

One year ago last Wednesday, on April 27, 2010, a humanitarian and solidarity caravan en route to the besieged Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala in the Triqui region of the Oaxacan Mixteca was ambushed by paramilitaries linked to the Oaxaca state government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Placing large boulders at a curve in the road minutes outside of San Juan Copala, paramilitaries from the organization Union for the Well-Being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT) blockaded the path of the caravan. As the vehicles were trying to turn around, gunmen came down from the hillsides, opening fire on the caravan with automatic weapons. Two members of the caravan were killed, Bety Cariño, founder of the organization Community Support Center – Working Together (CACTUS), and Jyri Jaakkola, an international solidarity activist from Finland. Several others were wounded as caravan members fled for their lives into the nearby hills.

The caravan was organized to support the people of San Juan Copala, who together with nine other communities in the region declared the creation of an autonomous municipality on January 1, 2007, just weeks after the brutal state and federal government repression of the social movement in Oaxaca, which under the aegis of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had rendered the state ungovernable by the elite and their police forces for more than five months in 2006.


Organized as the Independent Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULTI), those who would go on to form the autonomous municipality also participated in the 2006 social movement. Three of their members were assassinated by state forces on August 9, 2006, while on their way to support the mobilizations in the city of Oaxaca. That same month, MULTI led the APPO’s occupation of the municipal palace in Juxtlahuaca, the major population center and seat of local government in the Triqui region, and held it until December 26.

The declaration one week later of the autonomous municipality was met with immediate rejection by the state government, who condemned it as “illegal” and “infantile.” Repression against the municipality was also quick in coming. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz utilized two paramilitary groups in an attempt to violently crush the autonomous project. One was UBISORT, the group which ambushed the solidarity caravan. UBISORT was created by the PRI state government in the mid-90s to counteract the extended influence of the Zapatista rebellion in the neighboring state of Chiapas. The other was the MULT, the Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle (not to be confused with MULTI). Created in the 1980s, it was originally a left-wing organization which organized to unite and defend the territories and rights of the Triqui people. Over the years, the MULT leadership developed close ties to the PRI government and the organization took on a more clientelist veneer. In 2003, the MULT created the Popular Unity Party (PUP), which similarly has close links with the PRI.

Heavily armed and well-trained members of UBISORT-PRI and MULT-PUP unleashed a wave a terror against the autonomous municipality. For example, on January 19, 2007, a town meeting was fired upon by MULT. On April 7, 2008, two Triqui radio broadcasters, Felícitas Martínez and Teresa Bautista, 21 and 24, were assassinated in an ambush. Felícitas and Teresa had both helped found the autonomous municipality’s community radio station – The Voice that Breaks the Silence – with the assistance of Bety Cariño and CACTUS. Broadcasting to tens of Triqui communities in their own language, the station had only been on the air since January 1, 2008. Later that year, on November 1, San Juan Copala resident Héctor Antonio Ramírez Paz was assassinated.

Despite the repression, during this time the autonomous municipality worked to develop the area, acquiring computers, repairing and upgrading schools, government offices, roads, public spaces, medical clinics, childcare centers, etc.

The situation turned even more serious on November 29, 2009, when members of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), from San Salvador Atenco, attempted to enter San Juan Copala to advocate for the release of their 12 political prisoners and to express support for the autonomous municipality. UBISORT blocked the caravan from entering the town, while at the same time MULT and UBISORT rained gunfire into the town, hitting four children and killing one, Elías Fernández de Jesús, age 9.

In January of 2010, UBISORT paramilitaries began a siege of the town of San Juan Copala, cutting water and electricity and prohibiting the entry of doctors and teachers. For almost ten months, residents had no access to medical care and children had no access to education. In order to survive, the women of the town had to sneak out through the forests in order to buy food or to collect wood to boil water in order to have potable water. Often the women were captured by the paramilitaries, kidnapped, their food stolen and destroyed and on several occasions the women were raped and/or murdered.

On April 17, 2010, another attack on the town left José Celestino Hernández Cruz dead. In response, the autonomous municipality issued a call for solidarity and for a caravan to come break the siege of San Juan Copala. Ten days later, that caravan departed from Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, but would not reach its destination.

And so, one year later, hundreds of people from various organizations marched from the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca to the central plaza to demand justice for Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola, respect for the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala, and an end to the impunity which allows paramilitaries and their backers to hide in plain sight, without fear of persecution. The march concluded at the encampment of the displaced women and children of San Juan Copala, established in front of the government palace on August 7, 2010. Speakers from San Juan Copala and survivors of the ambush spoke of the events of April 27, 2010 and of the injustice which still reigns in the Triqui region. A cultural event followed, with performances from hip hop artists and music collectives in solidarity with the autonomous municipality and the social movement in Oaxaca. Events were also held in Amatitlán, Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City.

The situation in San Juan Copala remains unresolved, with no justice in sight. Following the attack on the caravan, a second caravan – named in honor of Bety and Jyri – was also unable to reach San Juan Copala. A third caravan from Huajuapan to Mexico City was cancelled after three municipality members working to organize the caravan were assassinated in an ambush. MULT and UBISORT paramilitaries continued to assassinate, rape, kidnap and terrorize the population, including assassinating the moral leader of San Juan Copala and MULTI founder Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez and his wife Cleriberta Castro. On September 13, 2010, five hundred MULT and UBISORT paramilitaries took over the municipal palace of San Juan Copala and gave those remaining in the town 24 hours to leave, threatening those who remained with execution. Several more townspeople were assassinated, injured or disappeared during this time, and those who survived fled through the forests, leaving the town empty except for the paramilitaries. MULT and UBISORT members then proceeded to set fire to at least 100 houses of known leaders or supporters of the autonomous project. To this day, San Juan Copala remains in the hands of paramilitaries.


Little has changed with the election of Gabino Cué, the first non-PRI governor of Oaxaca in 80 years, who assumed office on December 1, 2010. While he has excelled at issuing numerous statements and appearing for photo ops, the open wounds of San Juan Copala and the 2006 social movement persist, and repression on the part of both the state and federal government continues.

On February 15, when Mexican president Felipe Calderón made an extremely provocative visit Oaxaca, federal police violently put down protests against his visit, deploying beatings, tear gas and rubber bullets, and wounding several protesters, some very seriously. On March 5, state police violently attacked demonstrators protesting a bull fight, wounding many and detaining 10 protesters.

Also in early March, journalist Roger Valle was disappeared in the Mixteca after receiving death threats. Valle was one of the journalists who accompanied the first caravan to San Juan Copala. Days later, on March 14, the teacher Carlos René Román Salazar was disappeared. Román Salazar was active in drafting an alternative to Calderón’s Alliance for Quality Education (ACE) scheme to privatize public education. Both Valle and Román Salazar remain disappeared.

On April 12, Filiberto Vicente Aquino, an organizer in the movement against the exorbitant electricity rates charged by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, was detained by state police and charged with the federal crime of stealing electricity. While he was released on bail after the social movement blockaded highways and CFE offices, the charges remain pending.

Finally, just this week, several high profile organizers fighting for justice for San Juan Copala and Bety and Jyri were arrested in the days leading up to the April 27 mobilizations. On Monday, April 25, David Venegas of the group Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom (VOCAL) was violently detained by police when he tried to enter a city government-sponsored event which was ostensibly free and open to the public, marking the 479th anniversary of the declaration of Oaxaca as a city by the Spanish colonizers. The following day, Tuesday, April 26, Omar Esparza, the husband of Bety Cariño and member of the Zapatista Indigenous Agrarian Movement (MAIZ), was detained by federal police in Puebla, along with Fernando Urbano of CACTUS, allegedly accused of driving a stolen vehicle. All three were released without charges just hours after their respective detentions, making clear that the arrests were not for actual crimes, but meant to send a message of intimidation to those who are active in the struggle against impunity and for justice in Oaxaca and Mexico.

Taken as a whole, the above events and the failure of the Cué government after nearly five months in office to take any meaningful action to address the rampant impunity and violence that is the legacy of his PRI predecessors means that while there may have been a change in the political parties which control the governor’s office, real change has in no way come to Oaxaca. Rather, the repression continues while the government takes highly-touted actions designed to pacify a mobilized populace.


For example, on March 9, Cué announced the creation of the Prosecutor’s Office of Investigations into Crimes of Social Importance, claiming it would investigate the assassinations and human rights violations that occurred in 2006, as well as in San Juan Copala and elsewhere. Human rights groups immediately denounced it as an empty proposal, in part by pointing out that the official appointed to head the office, Guadalupe Lucas López Figueroa Robledo, is a former judge who during his time on the bench was known not for upholding the law but for issuing rulings based on the orders of his political bosses.

In fact, the only “crime of social importance” which has allegedly been partially solved is the murder of MULT boss Heriberto Pazos, assassinated on October 23, 2010. One of his accused killers, Roberto Jorge Navarro Martínez, was detained on Monday, April 25. He was allegedly paid 300,000 pesos by two of Ulises Ruiz’s enforcers to kill Pazos. Conveniently, on October 29, just days after the murder of Pazos, both those men – Jesús Rubén Maldonado and Iván de Jesús Espinoza Luis – were also assassinated. Prosecutors claim to be investigating who provided Maldonado and Espinoza – both of whom also participated in the killings of APPO members in 2006 – with the 300,000 pesos to pay Navarro for the hit, as if it were pure coincidence that days before leaving office several of Ulises Ruiz’s former associates who could link his government to a number of crimes turned up dead.

Meanwhile, no progress has been made into the murders of at least 26 APPO members in 2006, the tens of assassinations residents of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala, the killings of Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola, and the assassination of Catarino Torres Pereda, secretary general of the Citizen’s Defense Committee (CODECI), to name just a few.

In another major development, on April 6, the Oaxaca state congress approved a series of Cué-backed constitutional reforms, claiming in part that it will empower Oaxaca’s citizenry by introducing plebiscites and referendums to broaden the decision-making process regarding major projects and policies. However, in essence it is an attempt to stifle the power of community assemblies, the indigenous decision-making and electoral bodies which exist in 418 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities. Community assemblies function outside of the control of political parties and often serve as the main source of resistance against state-imposed neoliberal capitalist projects such as super highways, hydroelectric dams, wind farms and mines, which universally have negative impacts on the communities in which they are established. As such, it is desirable for Cué – a dedicated neoliberal – to reduce their powers. In 1995, the state government passed a law recognizing the legal validity of decisions made in community assemblies. These reforms revoke that recognition, meaning the results of a state-wide referendum – on the construction of a super highway, for example – can be used to legally trump any decisions made in the assembly of a community through which the highway will actually pass. There are fears such a process may go even further and result in the criminalization of the community assembly, as the reforms do not recognize assemblies as one of the constitutional norms provided for decision-making and therefore community assemblies can be interpreted as contravening the constitution.

In sum, though the governor’s office has a new face and a new political party, the wounds of the past remain wide open and unresolved, the exploitation of Oaxaca’s vast natural resources continues apace, and the repression persists against those who fight for an alternative to the poverty, impunity and disenfranchisement of everyday life created by the neoliberal policies foisted upon Oaxaca’s three million inhabitants. Despite Cué’s campaign slogans, there is neither peace nor progress in Oaxaca.