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A View of Impunity from Vista Hermosa:Paramilitary Violence and Migration in Rural Oaxaca


"They came from Nundaco. Many people came to where I lived. They hit me with a rock in my face.  Everything was full of blood, my face, and my nose. Then they decided to kidnap me."  We sat in a small grey building in the town of San Isidro Vista Hermosa as Sara Hernandez Gonzales gave her testimony. Old and young, men and women, sat next to each other as babies cried and dogs barked outside. Eighteen community members took the afternoon off from the harsh sun of the fields to have their testimonies videotaped by a group of foreigners. One after another they sat down, introduced themselves and testified about the horrors they had experienced from the paramilitaries in the town of Santa Cruz Nundaco, a neighboring town just over the hill. Over four painful hours, this story of violence and impunity emerged.              

On July 4, 2005, at 3pm the municipal leader of the neighboring town of Santa Cruz Nundaco and a leader of the organization FNIC (The National Indigenous Farm-worker Front, a misleadingly named violent paramilitary organization) gathered a crowd of 500 people outside San Isidro Vista Hermosa.  They entered the town carrying sticks, stones, machetes and firearms and shot at people with high-powered weapons as they marched into town. Three townspeople were injured from gunshot wounds, one of them a 7-year old child named Aldair Reyes Hernandez. By 5:30 p.m. the mob led by FNIC had attacked the town hall, taking out all the archives and documents, destroying the doors and throwing all the furniture into the street. After this first attack the mob continued its rampage destroying seven houses, a shop, and burning four cars. As community member Esperanza Reyes Santiago explained, "They burned all of the doors of my house, burned the doors to my shop.  Basically they wreaked havoc, destroying my refrigerator and my child's bed.  They made a huge mess of everything—the radio, television, clothes, everything. "   

Unsatisfied with simply terrifying the people of Vista Hermosa, the mob led by FNIC then kidnapped thirty-eight residents.  The mob held the people at the municipal hall, torturing them physically and physiologically for more then 24 hours, and tried to obtain information to undermine and destroy the leaders of the traditional Usos y Costumbres (a form of governance based on town hall meetings and consensus) government of Vista Hermosa.   Upon their release, the 38 people who had been kidnapped went to the government delegates, local deputies and ministerial agents in the near by city of Tlaxiaco. The people had clear signs of shock and wounds caused by the physical torture.  Nine people went to the emergency room for treatment. Charges were filed with the authorities.    

On the 29th of August 2005, 500 people mostly from Santa Cruz Nundaco, led by leaders of FNIC again took control of the municipal building and started moving throughout the community. The people in the community assembly ran to the mountains and hid in terror, sleeping out in the forests and mountains for the night. When the residents returned, people realized that 2 of the townswomen had been kidnapped and they went to the Tlaxiaco public minister. The women were kidnapped for three days, then let go near another town 42 km from Vista Hermosa. The women had been raped and had to be hospitalized.  

When they were released one of the women told of how she had been kidnapped in the center of the city of Tlaxiaco by three masked men with guns. She was thrown in a green van, beaten and raped. As Roselia Matill Opheillia testified, "The men came and they began to tear at our clothes and locked us inside the van.  We couldn't defend ourselves because we were only two women. They called two more men and they began to rip our pants saying, you sons of bitches, there are no men here, so we'll be your men now, and they took off our pants and started trying to rip at our undergarments and said they were going to rape us because we don't follow the orders of the (Santa Cruz Nundaco) municipal president."   

Mountain Views, Fields of Corn and "the Problems"   Oaxaca is one of the poorest mexican states, and 80 percent Indigenous. Vista Hermosa is a town in the mountains of Oaxaca about 20 minutes from the city of Tlaxiaco. Its has a population of nearly 300 people who live on three dirt roads. The people are a mix of Mixteco Indigenous and Spanish descent. Most people speak Mixteco as their first and Spanish as their second language. They each have their own farm fields where they grow corn, beans and squash and raise pigs, cattle, and chickens. In many ways it is a beautiful rural community, nestled on a ridge below a larger mountain, a stream flowing in the ravine below.    

When I visited in January of 2008 the town seemed calm on the surface. There were no obvious signs of destruction or brutality. But in talking to townspeople, I soon found that the calm is similar to what you might find in a graveyard. The town was divided from house to house.  If I brought up "the problems" community members would politely whisper, "No, not now. Next door they are "the others", the bad ones, it is better that we talk some where else." I, and the two other internationals that were part of our delegation could not walk across town with out a guide because they feared that supporters of FNIC and Nundaco would try to provoke us into a confrontation that would end in more violence for the community.  The cars with the decals of FNIC, the paramilitaries, would drive by and say "good morning" in English to us. The Vista Hermosans we stayed with were worried about my filming the cars of the paramilitaries or the municipal building that is still held by leaders of FNIC because, if paramilitary people saw me, they might take it as provocation. This could lead to them shooting up the houses of the people we were staying with after we left. In response to the kidnappings, terror, and impunity on the part of the people of Nundaco's and the leaders of FNIC, the whole community of Vista Hermosa mobilized and on the 7th of Sept. 2005.  221 people left Vista Hermosa for Mexico City.  

They began to camp in the Zócalo, the central plaza, to demand justice for the people kidnapped and attacked.  As one of the community leaders, Abelano Reyes Aguilar, tells it, "We went to the federal government because we hoped we would get justice in a way that we couldn't with the state government.  We were there for three months. We went to the secretary of the government and to the federal senate.  We went to the presidential house of Vicente Fox.  We went to the human rights organizations, to the national defense secretary, to the UN. We stayed there for three months living in the Zócalo, the central plaza, of Mexico City, living in tents, sleeping on the hard ground and eating out of the trash. But each office told us something different then the last one.  They said they had other work, or that they didn't have time for us and our problem." They were told that there was little that could be done to ensure their safety in the future, prosecute those responsible for the kidnappings and brutality, or resolve the underlying issue of municipal authority and land rights.   Because of this possibility of violence we couldn't even go near the Municipal Building even though it was only a block away from where we were staying. We tried to figure out what was happening with justice for the people detained, and elder community leader Patricio Reyes Santiago told us, "How come the kidnappers have not been detained? We don't know.  We know who they are, but because of the friends and relations they have with the PRI, no one has been detained. The kidnappers have many contacts in the PRI, and with the government. We ask the government for justice but they have detained no one."   

FNIC (The National Indigenous Farmworker Front): The Paramilitaries Next Door The Committee in Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEP) is an organization that has helped to support Vista Hermosa's fight for justice, joining their fight against impunity with the statewide social movements of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO, in Spanish). Their organizers have a lot to teach about the current process of paramilitarization in Mexico. Paramilitarization is a counterinsurgency strategy where the government gives civilian groups weapons, legal impunity and specific orders to attack social movement and citizens groups. There are different types of paramilitaries that take different forms in their organizing and application, but in Vista Hermosa, these groups have high powered weapons and complete impunity from prosecution. There impunity does not mean that they do what ever they want, like any police or military organization they have clear orders and act within there orders while accomplishing there goals of sowing terror. Part of their current orders in Vista Hermosa seems to be that they do not kill anyone or leave many visible marks on those who they attack, kidnappings, destruction of property, rape, and shooting up buildings seem to be what are within there orders to effectively terrorize Vista Hermosa's. 

The threat of violence has split the community and forced the traditional government to give up control of town hall. The key to understanding Vista Hermosa is to see that this is not an isolated occurrence but a fundamental practice of the elite of Oaxaca. As Amnesty International's secretary general Irene Khan reported after their 2007 investigation in the state of Oaxaca, "Impunity is so endemic and so entrenched that the authorities seem to tolerate that no one has been held responsible for 18 deaths and the hundreds of cases of unfair detentions, torture and harassment," International Human Rights organizer, Simon Sedillo, has written in detail about the origins and leadership of the Nundaco paramilitaries. "The leaders of the paramilitary from Nundaco are part of an organization called FNIC, the National Indigenous Farmworker Front. FNIC receives PRI funding and backing, and has quickly become a paramilitary organization. FNIC has taken hold of Nundaco, and convinced its people that they are a part of a popular struggle for indigenous autonomy and communal land rights.  FNIC, along with the PRI government in Nundaco, has handed out concessions to the people of Nundaco, including but not limited to building materials, roads, schools, a town hall, fertilizers, public transportation permits, and now, more than ever, high powered assault rifles and hand guns. The price the people from Nundaco have had to pay in exchange for these concessions is strategizing and implementing the assimilation, occupation, and eventual displacement of Vista Hermosa.  

Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the governor of Oaxaca, has assigned and imposed an unrecognized PRI municipal president in Vista Hermosa and approximately a fourth of Vista Hermosa has given up their land deeds to FNIC and the people of Nundaco in exchange for communal ownership and the supposed benefits that come from an imposed municipal government. However, the imposed municipal president, like all PRI politicians, is pocketing all the municipal resources intended for his community. So, the people that gave up their land to "communality" have no rights to reclaim these funds, as the PRI takes control through FNIC." This local and state paramilitary impunity is accompanied by a larger strategy to create similar circumstances thru-out Mexican politics. This strategy uses the rhetoric of The War on Drugs and Organized Crime to create the perception of instability, dependence and violence. Elite groups then use the Mexican military to impose compliance and control on society in general. Plan Mexico, legislation that is currently in the US Congress, would provide $1.5 billion in US Taxpayer money and equipment to the Mexican military, police, and intelligence services. This would reward and expand this strategy of counterinsurgency violence, and legal impunity to all areas of Mexican politics.   

Government Violence, Corruption and Lack of Democracy as the Roots of Migration The conflict between Vista Hermosa and Nundaco around the control of the land and corrupt taxation that is a common struggle in Mexican politics. The residents of Vista Hermosa are organized into a traditional democratic form of government called usos y costumbres, that is a legally recognized form of decision making for Indigenous communities under Mexican law. Unlike the neighboring town of Nundaco, Vista Hermosa practices a town hall meeting style directly democratic local government, free from the party based corruption of the PRI(The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated Mexican politics for 80 years). The elite of Nundaco are not letting the Vista Hermosan's practice their traditional democracy, as kidnapping survivor Esperanza Reyes Santiago testified, "They yelled many curses at us saying, "You are rats," then they took us hostage because they said were are disobedient because we didn't want to obey a them and return our traditional government to control of their municipality." This fight over control of the municipality and local corruption is made more difficult because so many Vista Hermosan's have migrated. Many leave because they fear for their safety, others because their taxes are stolen by corruption, and others because trade policies like NAFTA make it impossible to make enough money as farmers. Almost all the men and many of the women from Vista Hermosa are currently in, just got back from, or were soon going to the USA to work as cheep labor in restaurants or farm fields. 

This migration is happening everywhere in rural Mexico. The Mexican countryside as a whole has been emptied by the "free" trade policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexican small farmer's are forced to sell to a market that devalues there products by making them compete with US Industrial Agribusiness and the US's governments heavy farm subsidies. According to a Carnegie Endowment impact evaluation, by the treaty's 10th anniversary in 2004, NAFTA had driven 1.2 million farmers off the land. Since each farm family averages out to six people, the total number of people expelled from the countryside hovers around six million.  During ex-president Vicente Fox's 6-year term in office, 2.4 million Mexicans, 70 percent of them reportedly displaced farmers, migrated to the U.S. despite the wall erected by Washington to keep them out.  According to CONAPI, Mexico's Council on Population, 29 million Mexicans and Mexican descendants now live in the United States, 2 million more live in the Mexican countryside from which so many of them have fled.   

The poverty in Vista Hermosa is serious.  There is running water only a few times a week, no paved roads or large machinery. The only way many people are able to pay for basics is to migrate. A recent survey found that, in Oaxaca's Central Valley communities, nearly two-thirds have sent a family member to the US. The same survey proved that remittances typically went to the very basics of daily survival, with 60 percent covering immediate household expenses, from construction to the daily costs of living—ranging from the purchase of food to payments for utilities (electricity, gas, and firewood). Nationwide, the 27 million farmers who remain on the land in Mexico are only sustained by the $22 billion in remittances that those who have gone north send back.   

When we asked community members what could help stem the forced migration and provide support for people in the community to resist the paramilitaries, Abulano Perez, a former migrant and community leader, told us, "We need a project that is a source of work to keep people from immigrating and support self-management. Because we are farm-workers, we know how to work the land, but we need a pump to get the water.  The water we need more then anything, we don't have sufficient year round water. Because sometimes the rains come for only15 or 20 days and we lose everything we are growing for the year. With water there are many things we could grow here all year. We have land and people who know how to work it. We could grow fine animals, cows, chickens, squash, tomatoes, and corn, but for everything we need water. To get water we need a pump and to buy a pump we need money, a loan, an investment or a grant. The government (of Nundaco) doesn't give us money. We want to be under the municipality of Tlaxiaco or be our own autonomous municipality, but not under Nundaco. They are corrupt because they don't give us our tax money. We have to work collectively to build everything in our municipality ourselves and then we are forced to immigrate to the US to get money to eat." 

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 The figures on migration are from John Ross "Agrarian Apocolypse Looms in Mexico" ZMAG, March, 01 2008. The surveys on Remittances cited are from: The Oaxaca-US Connection and Remittances ??By Jeffrey H. Cohen?Pennsylvania State University, ??January 1, 2005 Available online. Copyright @ 2008 Migration Policy Institute. 
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