Oaxaca: The Discourse of Fear, Rumors and Lies

By Griselda Sánchez
July 14, 2016
Translated by Scott Campbell

June 19, 11:09:01pm – Are you ok?? Rumors are spreading here about a curfew. What do you know? Be careful, ok? We’re here if there’s something we can do to help. And in that way, more than 15 people from Mexico City sent me text messages or called to tell me that they were getting messages saying that there was – or would be – a power cut in the city of Oaxaca, that the police had already entered the main square (Zócalo) to remove the teachers who have had an encampment (plantón) there since May 15. I told them that I was listening to Radio Universidad and Radio Tu’un Ñuu Savi and that they weren’t saying these things. It was a very difficult day…In the morning, the State and Federal Police tried to remove the blockade of federal highway 190 maintained by teachers and parents in Nochixtlán. In that police operation nine people were killed by gunfire and there were dozens seriously wounded. For hours in the afternoon, in Hacienda Blanca and Viguera – the entrance to the state capital – two Federal Police helicopters bombarded with tear gas grenades the people who were resisting on the barricades in order to block the path of the police. These helicopters also fired on houses in the neighborhood and on the school where people had set up a first aid site to treat the wounded. My compañeros with independent media went to cover that location while I went to the Zócalo. I arrived in time to witness an informational meeting given by the teachers. The spokespersons informed us of what was happening a few kilometers from here. They indicated where barricades would be put up to protect the plantón, and also asked for calm and to pay no mind to the rumors. They said that moments before a woman passed by shouting: “They’re coming, the police have arrived!” – placing the plantón on alert, which like an anthill began to mobilize. The businesses abruptly shuttered. Some people approached the main table to deliver bags of medication, food, vinegar. It’s true, that afternoon reeked of uncertainty…and uncertainty and rumors are not a good combination because they spread rapidly, penetrating your skin and paralyzing you. That was the state’s strategy: to create fear, weariness, and paralysis.

Trying to understand what happened during those critical days, and the propaganda campaign by the corporate media in the following weeks, I reviewed several texts. I opened to page 207 in Armand and Michelle Mattelart’s The Media in Times of Crisis to find this quote from Erich Fried: Not the exception/ but the state of exception/ confirms the rule/ What rule?/ In order not to/ answer the question/ one proclaims the state of exception. But the state of exception is a powerful concept, inadmissible in a democracy…Democracy? The state of exception is decreed by power in the case of an extreme situation: the state exercises its authority to define the public enemy, going beyond, if necessary, the state of siege, in order to protect public welfare. “No, Oaxaca is not in a state of siege,” the head of Public Security in Oaxaca tells a local paper on June 21. But, returning to the definition: during a state of siege, constitutional protections are suspended, to greater or lesser degree, depending on the laws. While it’s true that a state of siege has not officially been declared throughout Oaxaca – as there is no need to: the 2011 National Security Law states that the army can intervene without such a declaration – on June 19, constitutional protections were de facto suspended. Reviewing the Preliminary Report on Human Rights Violations in Oaxaca on June 19 (Código DH, Consorcio, Ojo de Agua, Fundar y Luna del Sur), it reveals the systematic violations of fundamental rights in Nochixtlán, Huitzo, Telixtlahuaca, Hacienda Blanca and Viguera. The main rights affected were the right to life and the right to physical integrity, the right to health care and emergency medical attention, the right to freedom and due process. One more fact: Oaxaca has been under military and police occupation for a year. The armed forces arrived to safeguard last year’s elections and they tried to make their presence seem natural: on weekends you saw the Gendarmerie walking through the city center with their impeccable uniforms, or at the taco stands. To top it all off: during the week they went to schools to make repairs or do gardening.

It’s in this context that the Public Security Minister recommends we ignore rumors that seek only to create fear among the citizens. How revealing! Rumors? Could it be that he also has read Mattelart’s book that refers to the Chilean Army instruction manual published at the end of 1973 that mentions the usefulness of rumors: It is a piece of news spread through the same means as its target, its authenticity is doubtful and its origin impossible to prove. Once underway, the rumor spreads rapidly, provided that it addresses certain basic feelings such as worry, fear, hope, desire, hatred. It must be put into circulation with aplomb, as a true fact, appealing to the known feelings and emotions of the public or the “first ones” it will reach. In Oaxaca, the rumors that spread most widely during those days were power cuts throughout the city on the nights of June 19 and 20, the completed removal of the teachers plantón, shootings in different parts of the city. The channels used to spread them were: text messages, WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter bots that spread false or misleading information.

And so, as the days passed, this psychological warfare was broadcast in various ways by the official corporate media. Chomsky already said in his work Manufacturing Consent: through regular propaganda campaigns, the media and the way it functions serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate state and private activity. In the case at hand what has been most commonly used is white propaganda, which Carlos Fazio defines in his book Media Terrorism. The social construction of fear in Mexico, as propagated and acknowledged by sources and official representatives, is an activity done openly and frankly, where spokespeople do not hide their identity (they speak in the name of their government and focus on the favorable aspects of their side) and is disseminated widely. The lie is one of the main means to influence and persuade people. This is what happened at the press conference during the afternoon of June 19: the heads of the Federal and State Police, Enrique Galindo and Jorge Ruiz Martínez, presented the official version of events, denying that the police were armed during the operation, even though at that time there were already numerous photographs and videos taken by news agencies and independent media which showed the police firing at unarmed civilians. Power tried to impose another historical truth.*

A propaganda campaign was waged throughout the country – and not just in Oaxaca – in order to create a consensus and justify a new police raid, again appealing to the basic emotions of fear, desire and hatred. Using language about a humanitarian crisis, caused by alleged food shortages in Oaxaca, newspaper stands were filled with headlines such as: “Shortages increase and threaten to increase prices,” “The CNTE’s blockades leave Oaxaca without rice, milk, bread,” “The Mexican Army and Social Development Ministry conduct airlifts to Oaxaca to supply corn.” Aside from being a blatant lie, at no time was there concern regarding food access for Oaxacans, but rather a defense of the transit of merchandise. The business sector appealed to the rule of law, which as we mentioned at the beginning of this text, has only led to the suspension of individual rights.

In recent weeks incidents have occurred that are so crude they can’t be upheld, such as the alleged kidnapping of two TV Azteca reporters on Tuesday, June 21 in Nochixtlán. That day residents, tired of the station’s lies, intercepted the journalists on the highway barricade and demanded that they tell the truth. To confirm their actions and ensure that no space was given to lies, they accompanied them while they did their report. That evening, on primetime news, Javier Alatorre tried to take advantage of this incident and labelled it a “kidnapping,” a “heinous crime,” caused by the “wave of violence, criminality, looting, vandalism that prevails in certain parts of the country.” On top of that, they created an ode to how they practice “freedom of the press,” when in reality what they defend are the interests of the station’s owners. In the book Control of the Media, Control of the Man, Enrique Guinsberg tells us that the media report what is convenient for the maintenance of the structure of domination in question, misinforming or distorting what could be an attack on it, and eliminating awareness of reality. Following that author, we can say that the propaganda in Oaxaca did not begin on June 19, but has been spread for three years – in a campaign costing millions – through television and radio ads on the benefits of labor reform, that is, educational reform.

These have been difficult days…More than a month after elections gave the governorship in Oaxaca back to the PRI, ten years since the APPO, four months until the “alternating” government of Gabino Cué ends, I’ve tried to find answers to these campaigns. And to my surprise, this psychological warfare has not had quite the effect desired by its authors. For example, the mayor of Yanhuitlán recalls that before daybreak on June 20, when rumors intensified about a new police raid on Nochixtlán, the residents of neighboring communities responded without fear: they took to the streets, to the points of entry, and stood guard all night in order to protect Nochixtlán. And so, little by little, responses to this distortion of reality take shape: when food shortages were announced in the markets and supermarkets, in an almost natural way social networks answered by promoting the consumption of local products. Finally, and as a recommendation during these times of disinformation, I ask that before you share a piece of news, check the sources, verify the dates of publication, treat rumors for what they are, and above all gather around independent and community media so they may continue to be strengthened. The peoples have already spoken, this struggle is not just about the teachers, they are coming for our territories and we must be ready.

* Translator’s note: “Historical truth” is what the federal government called their universally disproven explanation of events regarding the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa on September 26, 2014.