Oaxaca: Geopolitics and the Earthquake

By: Griselda Sánchez
Photos by: Marisol Balbuena Delgado y brigada médica y solidaria.

The people of Oaxaca have had a difficult week. First came President Enrique Peña Nieto’s visit to the capital on Thursday, September 7th for the inauguration of a Cultural and Convention Center, on the occasion of the 24th Conference of the Mexican Business Council for Foreign Trade, Investment and Technology (COMCE). It was evident that the conference was the main motive for Peña’s presence at the event, since he was joined by Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, the Mexican Secretary of Economy, and Valentín Diez Morodo, the President of COMCE, as well as businessmen from important national and international companies; ambassadors and their commercial counselors from the diplomatic corps; the secretaries of the federal government, and the Director of Trade Negotiations of the World Trade Organization.

Peña Nieto had recently returned from a tour of China, where he met with Yi Huiman, head of China’s Bank of Industry and Trade, as well as with the executives of the Alibaba Group, one of the largest digital technology companies whose online platform connects vendors with markets all over the world. It might even seem like a metaphor but it isn’t; certainly Alibaba’s forty thieves are ready to loot Mexico. And Peña’s discourse at the inauguration was all too eloquent: special interest for the Isthmus with the Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos highways; congratulations to Oaxaca’s state government, represented by Governor Alejandro Murat, for “loosening the hold” on the region’s wind energy projects; a round of applause for the presence of Gerardo Gutiérrez Candiani, director of the Special Economic Zones.

In order to enter Oaxaca, the crass president first had to send 1,500 members of the Federal Police and Gendarmerie to patrol the city, in addition to the State and Transit Police. In case backup was needed, the hired gangs of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) were also ready to go. Although the Chief of Staff’s security personnel would be responsible for ensuring a safe visit, such a deployment was understandable; after all, the last president to visit the capital was Felipe Calderón in February 2011.

And so on September 7th the city of Oaxaca awoke in a state of siege, and Section 22 of the National Education Workers Trade Union (SNTE) called on its members as well as the inhabitants of neighborhoods, barrios, communities, and the people of Oaxaca in general to protest Peña’s visit. Hundreds of people took to the streets to march or set up blockades. This triggered serious confrontations with police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse protesters in the area surrounding the Convention Center. And we must point out that such indignation is organized and understandable, given that Peña Nieto has been responsible for many forms of repression since he was Governor of the State of Mexico: “Never forget Atenco!” is a cry that still persists in our collective memory; then there is the most recent massacre in Nochixtlan on June 19, 2016, as well as the forced disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, whose third anniversary will be marked this September 26th.

Oaxacans do not forget. They do not forget that Peña has been one of the main drivers of Mexico’s Structural Reforms, and that the Educational Reform—which might as well be called a Labor Reform—has served as a pretext for dis-articulating the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE).

And the compañerxs of Oaxaca were just barely recovering from a difficult day—from the arbitrary detentions and violence, from the gases and rubber bullets—when an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2 on the Richter scale surprised them at 11 o’clock at night, leaving 76 dead, more than 800,000 people affected, and numerous physical damages.

While it is true that the damages in the city of Oaxaca were minor, in reality they could have been fatal considering the negligence and corruption that prevail in that state. According to an investigation by journalist Rodrigo Islas Brito, the earthquake alarm did not sound that night: “This situation can be understood if one recalls that in the month of July it was made public that the Center for Seismic Instrumentation and Registration (CIRES)—faced with the debt of more than 22 million pesos left behind by Oaxaca’s previous Governor, Gabino Cué, whose administration has been accused of the likely loss of 30 billion pesos in public funds—had stopped providing maintenance services to the Seismic Warning System of Oaxaca (SASO) as of January 1 [2017].”

The worst effects were experienced in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where places like Matías Romero, Juchitán, San Dionisio del Mar, San Mateo del Mar, Ixhuatan, Guevea de Humboldt, Ixtaltepec, Ixtepec and Huamelula—to mention several of the 41 affected communities—have experienced damages to their homes, hospitals and public buildings; have been left without potable water, electricity, telephone, or Internet; and, most serious of all, have suffered the loss of dozens of human lives. The heart aches, but it is of utmost importance that in the face of this tragedy we do not cease to observe the geopolitical context of the Ithmus region. We must remember that over the past decade, this region has seen the installation of large-scale wind-power farms for the generation of self-sufficient electrical power, which is to say that companies like Bimbo and Coca Cola are able produce their own energy as well as sell it to Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). Many of these contracts have been signed under the pressure of fraud and repression, with companies lying to landowners so that they would rent out their plots for 30 years, with permission to renovate their lands for up to 60 years.

In this region marked by a fierce defense of the land we find the city of Juchitán, where Peña Nieto and Murat showed up for their photo op after the earthquake, and where they did what they hadn’t been able to do for years: enter the zone accompanied by the Secretary of Government (Segob) Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong; the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) Aurelio Nuño; the Secretary of Agricultural, Territorial, and Urban Development (Sedatu) Rosario Robles; and the coordinator of Civil Protection Luis Felipe Puente.

And thus, from the depths of the political machinery they took advantage of the misfortune, bewilderment, and need of thousands of inhabitants: they quickly sent the first three planes of the Mexican Air Force (“Hércules” C-130, “Spartan” C-227J, and “Casa” C-295M) to the region with the stated purpose of delivering humanitarian aid. I do, however, wonder: Why was the government able to accomplish on September 7th what it hadn’t been able to do for years? Let us recall that in 2016 in the city of Salina Cruz [in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec], the police were unable to evict the encampments of teachers and civil society organizations opposed to the Educational Reform. This set off a major clash, to be followed by confrontations in Nochixtlan and the City of Oaxaca that left 11 dead and hundreds of wounded. Yet still, the police were not able to get through [in the Isthmus].

Now, under the DNIII Plan which positions the army [as the authority] in cases of disaster, thousands of soldiers have entered the Isthmus, which is considered a geopolitically strategic zone. And this is where we’d like to place special attention. In their text “Defense, Armed Forces, and Natural Disasters: Cooperation or Militarization?” Alejando Frenkel and Lucas Magliola argue that natural disasters are an increasingly prominent feature in the defense agendas of Latin American countries. This has led to initiatives focused on intervention and response after a disaster has already taken place. The Armed Forces begin to play an increasingly dominant role while the States, hiding behind the mask of positive cooperation, allow the military to maintain its influence and presence in the region and, at the same time, to dodge questioning. In this sense, humanitarian assistance is conceived of as a means of alleviating the effects of a disaster, intervening in a territory once an event has already occurred, and granting the Armed Forces greater roles and responsibilities without taking into account the concomitant risks of militarization.

Thus, as we monitor the news we find a note from the editorial staff of the web portal Oaxaca Media, which informs us that more than 8,000 elements of the Mexican Army are distributed throughout the Isthmus region. At the same time, the PRI Governor Murat declares that the army will be tasked with gathering and delivering assistance from the various government agencies and civil society organizations, and that any matter involving food shipments must go through the armed forces: “no other entity is authorized to be able to stock any type of foodstuffs.” All of this has been justified in the name of avoiding the use of provisions for political payoff. They couldn’t have found a better pretext; first they encourage these practices, then they militarize. But the Assembly of the Peoples of the Isthmus had already warned of this in Juchitán, where the Municipal President Gloria Sánchez, who is close to the [political party] PRD and an interlocutor with the wind energy companies, is determining the delivery of provisions and aid. At the same time, the Municipal President of San Dionisio del Mar, Teresita Luis Ojeda, who has contributed to the break-down of that community’s social fabric in order to pave the way for energy projects, has “distributed amongst her supporters the aid that arrived for the population via helicopter.” The Assembly of San Dionisio del Mar also denounced the “nighttime distribution of provisions at the discretion of the mayor.” Other corrupt politicians act similarly: Eviel Pérez Magaña, the Sub-secretary of Sedesol, hands out provisions with their logo, while Samuel Gurrión Matías offers support though his organization “A Friendly Hand.”

In this way the army, hiding behind the mask of humanitarian aid, takes control of the situation. Fortunately, public denouncements are appearing on social media: “the army is confiscating the aid that arrives, they bring it to the storehouses of the municipal president and the [National System for Integral Family Development] DIF, who are taking everything. The aid that arrived to San Mateo from Xalapa was confiscated by soldiers; in the case of San Mateo the aid was delivered, and later it is seen in a video. But in the case of Juchitán, which is facing great problems of distribution, the army doesn’t have the capacity to deliver aid to everyone. The crisis is especially terrible there because the politicians are hoarding and setting the conditions for the delivery of aid, especially DIF which is controlled by cronies of [the dominant political party] PRI.”

These are the same PRI cronies who have always supported the wind-power companies. Fortunately, a communique from the José Martí de San Francisco Ixhuatan High School exhorts: “To our countrymen and women, let us perform the necessary rituals so that the spirit returns to us and we may take up the struggle anew. The reconstruction of our people does not depend on handouts but on daily work; let us not depend on aid because this aid may now come from the wind farms, mines, or transnational companies that stalk and take advantage of our territory, seeking to gain our confidence and rob us of the commons that we have safeguarded for centuries… Election season is very close and the nominations are being prepared; therefore we do not doubt that our misfortune will be a good springboard [for the political candidates]. We ask the politicians and religions not to cash in on the pain, impotence, and shock of our countrymen and women.”

Thus the militarization of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, disguised as humanitarian aid, in fact seeks control over the territory and population. This is due to the great monetary interests in this region, which have been debated ever since the Energy Reform modified key clauses of the Constitution, thereby enabling foreign companies to generate electricity, to the detriment of Mexico’s energy sovereignty. The militarization of the Isthmus seeks to eliminate people’s ability to make decisions and organize themselves in an autonomous and collective manner, as they are currently doing. But the State doesn’t like this at all, and so they tell us: you shouldn’t leave your homes, you should watch television and we’ll keep you informed, don’t worry, everything that you collect will be handed out by the army. No, don’t organize, don’t organize.

But what they have failed to understand is that communality and organization are intrinsic to Oaxaca, part of its profound roots. One example is Section 22, which has offered its organizational structure to carry out support brigades. It is precisely this organization, this capacity to respond and to mobilize, which the State does not like, and which it therefore seeks to dismember and to crush.

And so during these difficult days civil society organizations, collectives, and ordinary citizens have united to collect supplies, traveling hours to support the communities affected by the earthquake. Still, so much more solidarity is needed in this phase of reconstruction that is only just beginning. In this context, anguish can also be fertile ground—this hopelessness in the face of losing everything, of losing what has been so difficult to build over the years: their homes and above all their families… this is what can be taken advantage of by the Spanish and German companies that covet this territory.

As they strengthen that capacity for agency, whereby we become the subjects of our own decisions, the youth of the Ixhuatan high school again show us the way forward: “Our intention is not to continue promoting dependency and untruthfulness, but rather to allow families to feel the bravery, power and courage to be reborn. We again emphasize that in these events, the capitalists represented by the federal and state governments use municipal authorities to implement their plans and projects. They use the uncertainty of the population, which is why we reiterate the warning against depending on external aid, so that we do not permit the entrance of any transnational companies that will then form part of the Special Economic Zones. It is urgent that the communities meet and organize so as to face this adversity from within. It would be unfortunate if the communities lost their organizational force and with it, their defense of the territory.”

It’s true; that Thursday when I learned how serious the earthquake was, my heart only knew that if my compañerxs were alive, they’d be resisting and organizing from the perspective of communality; fortunately, this is exactly what they’re doing.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this perspective, which I had not understood. What are the best opportunities for resisting the capitalist exploitation of El Itsmo? What are the key organizations? My husband is from the region, and we have a home there. I am devastated to hear that humanitarian aid is being denied, based on political agendas. Please keep reporting on these issues!!

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