In the city of Oaxaca,Mexico over half of the thousands sifting in to join the November 25, 2006 Popular Assembly demonstration arrived after the scheduled starting time. Students, indigenas, professors, white collar workers, construction gophers, housewives, many with young children strapped to their chests in harness carriers, milled together embracing old friends, unfurling parasols and munching breakfast burritos and fruit from paper cups. Patrol marshals—most of them teachers of the striking public teachers’ union—hustled up and down the column as it moved forward, warning participants not to respond to harassment from bystanders.
Professionally lettered banners four meters wide swayed aloft; teachers and students waved placards attached to lathes and broom handles. Some contained enlarged photographs of Brad Will, the American Indie media journalist who’d been killed by paramilitary police; others depicted Zapata with the slogan “Zapata lives!” beneath the portraits. Youthful members of a leftist group displayed Lenin and Stalin photos. Several others dressed in mock armor parodied the “Robocops”—as Oaxacans called the armored police for their likeness to characters in a science-fiction movie.
The chorus “Ya cayó! Ya cayó! Ulisés ya cayó! became more and more infectious as the chanting demonstrators neared the Centro Historico. They chanted,“He’s fallen He’s fallen [Governor Ulisés Ruiz] has fallen!” Marching teachers thrust their fists into the air and women who had participated in previous marches banged skillets.
As they funneled into the narrow streets leading to the Alameda and Zócalo they fanned out to form what the Assembly leadership had announced would be a symbolic surrounding of the armed federal police and soldiers barricading the central business district. Clusters of high school and college students banded together to shout insults and taunt the armed sentinels and groups of teachers and a number of Popular Assembly women confronted individual segments of the occupying force “some of us affably, others—especially the women—more vituperatively,” a participant told me afterwards.
Shortly after taking positions outside the sentries guarding the north side of the perimeter, the marchers that I had been following separated into smaller groups, some to seek compatriots in other places along the perimeter and others to head home or buy hot coffee or seek bathrooms somewhere in the Centro Historico. I had come down with a bad cold a day or two before and decided to head up the hill to my bungalow since the march had broken up and not much more appeared to be happening.
I was mistaken.
“At five o’clock the PFP [Federal Preventive Police] and the soldiers began pushing people this way and that,” a nineteen-year-old named Gonzalo told members of Rights Action emergency delegation of which I was a member. He, his novia and many people around them who were close to the Zócalo heard shots:
We looked up and saw armed men on the rooftops of buildings. They weren’t wearing uniforms but they had guns and they began firing tear gas canisters into the street. They fired rubber bullets at us as we were trying to run away.
Through clouds of teargas billowing along the streets of the Centro Historico Gonzalo testified that he heard infiltrators urge, “The El Camino Hotel. Break into it! Set in on fire!”
“We refused to follow them,” the teenager affirmed, “and they shouted, ‘Banamex! Burn down Banamex!’ but again there were no followers. We weren’t there to destroy things. That wasn’t the point of the march.”
At approximately 6:30 p.m. the federal police advanced.
They had their helmet visors down and clubs in their hands. There were a lot of us, mostly young people—students, teachers—massed together. We covered our faces with rags and handkerchiefs and grabbed some of the canisters and threw them back at the Robocops. But the gas was so thick we barely could see. Everyone was panicking.
My amiga fainted from inhaling tear gas. I had to carry her. I tried to find some place to get some fresh air but the police had trapped us in the Plaza de Santo Domingo. They began to hit us indiscriminately as they moved in. There were police in civilian clothes making arrests. I heard one of them say that the civilian police were being paid $6,000 pesos cash for each person they captured.
We gave in, we couldn’t go any further. The cops were hitting me, my mamá was pleading with them to stop but they hit me and kicked me more.
The police pulled Gonzalo away from his mother and novia and forced him to stumble away from Santo Domingo with a group of other men they’d corralled.
They threw us together in a mountain of persons and threw others on top of us. They took off our shoes. They tied our hands behind our backs. They continually beat our bare feet with their clubs. One of them told us, “You’re stupid to be trying to change things. The poor always are going to be poor, the rich are always going to be rich. See what trying to overthrow things gets you!”
For an hour and a half they spit on us, kicked us, tortured us. Then some vans came and they threw me into one of them with some others. I was covered with blood. Some police got in the van and kicked us and questioned us. I was shivering so much from the cold I couldn’t answer. They jumped up and down on top of us with their heavy boots. “How much did they pay you to march?” they demanded. “Forget about The Cause they told us. I thought they were going to kill us one by one.”
Gonzalo’s mother, forty-year-old Guadalupe Urrea, had left the demonstration but she, her husband and their daughter rushed back and caught up with Gonzalo near the Zócalo:
As we approached the Zócalo the PFP started releasing tear gas. I could see a fire burning in the Camino Real hotel…We turned to escape up Cinco de Mayo but it was blocked off…The tear gas was so thick we couldn’t see. I was desperate. I was trying to wipe my face, my eyes, and I let go of their hands. Then I saw that the PFP had my son. They were hitting everybody with their clubs, beating everybody. I was afraid for my son, I threw myself against him…They were kicking the people they’d knocked down…They took our sweaters and all of our belongings and tied our hands…Then they hurled all of us women on top of each other in a pickup.
As dense smoke from burning buildings combined with the tear gas clogging the Centro Historico it no longer became possible to identify intersections, stores or streetlamps. Those fleeing the heavily armed federal police stumbled against each other, tripped, gagged, fell and got up to run again, many not sure which streets they were on or which way they should turn.
Mothers were separated from their children, wives from their husbands. The police and their military and civilian counterparts made no attempts to distinguish Popular Assembly members from non-Popular Assembly participants. Their orders were to treat everyone they came across as criminals. Among the most vulnerable were a fifty-year-old widow who’d just gotten off work and a confused street vendor who spoke no Spanish.
The confrontations continued for several hours with over 100 wounded, dozens detained and the Popular Assembly encampment in the plaza of Santo Domingo totally destroyed. Groups of unidentified persons burned public buildings, vehicles and private homes. Meanwhile Oaxaca Governor Ulisés Ruiz’s spokesman gave twisted view to the media. The following day El Sol de Mexico reported:
The Policía Federal Preventiva today issued a communiqué informing the public that they had brought before the Procuraduría General de Justicia 152 persons responsible for wounding four agents and several civilians.
The PFP spokesperson maintained that members of the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO) and groups who came in from outside the city attacked the federal agents with skyrockets, Molotov cocktails, rocks, sticks, firecrackers and burning vehicles.
‘The PFP repelled the aggression and initiated armed patrols throughout the city of Oaxaca to ward off further illegal acts and detain those groups responsible for committing them.’
They confirmed that those arrested, most of whom came from outside of Oaxaca, would be put at the disposition of appropriate authorities to answer to the crimes they committed.
They added that they would go forward with identifying and arresting other participants in the confrontations of November 25.
The spokesperson noted that during the confrontation the protesters damaged the Tribunal Superior de Justicia, offices of the Poder Judicial Federal and Relaciones Exteriores, the Teatro Juárez and the Hospital Molina. These acts of vandalism severely affected the people of Oaxaca, particularly those who live near the Centro Historico.
Judicial accounts later confirmed that none of the 152 arrested were from outside the city and eye witnesses described a coordinated police and military operation that instigated a pre-planned purge supported by paramilitaries firing teargas canisters and wielding firearms.
The Popular Assembly had burst into being five months before that “Night of Horror” after Governor Ruiz had ordered municipal and state police to break up an encampment by striking public school teachers. The teachers fought back and retook their encampment which had spread across the city of Oaxaca’s Centro Historico.
Already unpopular for allegedly having won his election as governor by fraud and for having torn up the Zócalo in a “modernization” that included moving the governor’s palace and other governmental buildings to the city’s suburbs, Ruiz ordering the wanton attack on unarmed teachers and their families aroused the wrath of a huge segment of the state’s populace. Enraged by what they considered to be a violent transgression by the government against the people they instinctively supported the Popular Assembly and its demands that “the tyrant,” “the assassin,” Governor Ruiz be ousted.
Ruiz refused to deal with their demands and for nearly five months hardly set foot in the city. Finally he convinced outgoing Mexican president Vicente Fox and newly elected (also allegedly by fraud) Felipe Calderón to send federal troops to Oaxaca. Helicopters, tanketas, tear gas and 4,000 armed soldiers and federal police aided by Ruiz’ law enforcement forces leveled Popular Assembly barricades and pushed the teachers out of the center of the city but the Assembly continued to hold marches, demonstrate and challenge what they considered to be the government’s illegal and abusive practices.
Although I was able to publish a few accounts about the “Night of Horror” and events preceding it the mainline U.S. media issued only whitewashed reports culled from Mexican government sources. To a number of Mexican and U.S. journalists and academics I proposed the question: “If a riot that included burning buses, Molotov cocktails, brutal beatings and indiscriminate arrests had occurred in Iran, Venezuela or Palestine would media disregard have been the same?” The almost universal response was: Journalists report the news, editors amend or delete it and corporate owners determine policy.
In other words an anti-government uprising in Cuba or Venezuela is not the same as an anti-government uprising in Colombia or Mexico.
This lack of coverage—actually misrepresentation of the news—persists in major media reportage in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Although Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón loftily has proclaimed “in Mexico the government does not manipulate the media” results speak otherwise. Mexico’s television duopoly—Televisa and TV Aztec—have become so entwined with Calderón’s federal government that some Mexican academics and journalists question whether the government is controlling the Televisa/Azteca duo or Televisa/Azteca is controlling the federal government.
With few exceptions, principally online journalism circulating in the United States and the Mexican daily “La Jornada” and weekly “Proceso”, coverage of the so-called “War on Drugs,” anti-government demonstrations in Oaxaca, Atenco in the Estado de Mexico and Ciudad Juárez and the repression of Mexican labor unions is highly adulterated. Carlos Payan, founder and longtime editor of La Jornada, insists that the Mexican media, following a worldwide pattern, has ceased to be operated by journalists and has passed into the hands of entrepreneurs who “deform and erode information and any attempts at objectivity.”
News like cabbages, immigrant workers and purified water has become merchandise to be peddled at the highest available prices—or held off the market if it does not satisfy entrepreneurial needs.
The final openly violent—and militarily quashed—confrontation in the city of Oaxaca occurred eight months after The Night of Horror when armed federal, state and local police crushed a Popular Assembly-led attempt to hold their version of the traditional Guelaguetza festivities at the amphitheater on the slopes of the city of Oaxaca’s Fortín hill. Ruiz had denied them access to the amphitheater but after assembling at a nearby church plaza the teacher-led Popular Assembly surged towards the amphitheater. Clouds of tear gas, burning buses, ransacked soft drink trucks, shouts and clubbing erupted as the federales, instead of maintaining strictly defensive positions, charged and violently repelled the Assembly “invaders.”
Participation in Popular Assembly marches and protests noticeably dwindled after the melee. Harassment of those who dared criticize the government continued but not open conflict; Ruiz was back in the driver’s seat passing lucrative construction contracts to friends and associates and spending millions of pesos on propaganda designed to reactivate the state’s “factories without chimneys,” the tourism industry.
But it was a return to normal latinamericano-style: a police state benevolent to those who didn’t rock the boat, didn’t challenge authority and who went about their daily lives focused on trying to make ends meet while Ruiz’s political establishment diverted public funds to private causes and quashed investigations of illegality or corruption. The escalation of battles among the drug corporations and Mexico’s military in northern Mexico pushed local issues to the sidelines; poverty, unemployment and petty crime increased as the economy stagnated and more and more people transitioned to the non-taxed, non-licensed “informal sector” to eke out a living.
Musicians—folkloric, traditional, mariachi—competed in the Zócalo, clowns reenacted age-old gags, children in indigena dress peddled candy and cigarettes or pumped out songs on their accordions. Makeshift vendors’ stalls heaped with pirated CDs, cut-rate clothing, made-in-China knickknacks and cheap cosmetics crowded the streets and alleyways leading to the Zócalo and the adjoining Alameda; improvised portable kitchens offered empanadas, tacos, pozole and traditional tlayudas (huge crisp flour tortillas filled with melted cheese, shredded cabbage and chilis). Teenagers sauntered among the stalls and among anxious-faced parents warding off their younger children’s badgering for balloons, ice cream and roasting ears.
Oaxaca típico. What tourists come to see. But there were too few tourists for the weavers, rug vendors, hotel owners. Too few tourists and too many trying to escape the deprivations of daily life. “Oaxaca’s a shadow of what it used to be,” a laid-off account clerk told me. A tourist guide admitted, “It’s all a simulation. Nobody has any money so people try to forget, be part of a crowd, do something,” much like I remembered seeing in Guatemala under the military dictatorships and in Spain under Franco, a forging of fake normalcy despite constantly being aware of the deprivations, the incarcerations, the corruption in which their societies were immersed.
The political domination of Oaxaca by Governor Ruiz and his PRI machine dwindled to a close after the 2010 elections left the state with strange bedfellows as a governing coalition. The ultra-conservative Action Party (PAN) of President Calderón, the more liberal Convergencia and Partido de Trabajo and what remained of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) banded together to defeat Ruiz’s handpicked “delfin” (“dolphin,” a term popularly used to describe a front man) to promote the candidacy of Oaxaca Senator Gabino Cue, the loser in the contaminated election of Ruiz six years before. This time Cue won handily, a victory attributed by most observers to repudiation of Ruiz and Ruiz’s corruption-tainted mandate.
The popular movement that had battled Ruiz achieved legitimacy despite the uncomfortable association between newly elected Governor Cue’s liberal support base and President Calderón’s rightwing PAN. Nevertheless, Oaxaca remains wracked by agrarian conflicts, policed by corrupt and ineffectual law enforcement, deeply in debt and suffering from extreme flood damage and the deterioration of its infrastructure. Un- and under-employment, poverty, authoritarian regional caciques, inadequate support of education and migration continued to exist.
Frequently I’m asked why “my country”—the United States—does nothing to help the people of Oaxaca “except to beat and deport poor workers who are trying to keep their families from starving.” I have no doubt that had military police in Cuba, or Venezuela, or Iran, launched as brutal an attack against its civilian population as Mexican soldiers and federal police did against Oaxacan citizens in 2006 the U.S. government would have spared no efforts to demand reparations and justice.
The United States’ backing of Calderón and Calderon’s support of Governor Ruiz enforced an authoritarian status quo against all attempts to modify it. In many peoples’ minds that made the government of the United States a partner in the oppression and human rights violations, an enemy of the people, as corrupt and totalitarian as Governor Ruiz. Meanwhile media propaganda continues to identify the protests as leftist-led, a threat to the nation’s stability and a dangerous precedent for other repressed groups in Latin America.
The governments of both Mexico and the United States reacted as though the Popular Assembly’s unifying the way it did—suddenly, forcefully, with shared goals and effective means of achieving them—could have expanded into a national movement that would have altered the way the country was being governed—and altered U.S. economic and political control of one of its two conservative allies in Latin America. Oaxaca, like the country of which it is a microcosm, continues to be a tinderbox that could erupt at any moment.
Robert Joe Stout has written about Mexico for a variety of publications, including Commonweal, American Educator and Notre Dame Magazine. He was a member of two Rights Action emergency human rights delegations to Oaxaca. His books include The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives and Why Immigrants Come to America, published in 2008 by Praeger.
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