En Planton, the Women of Loxicha


Troy Skeels

A
band of women from Loxicha have been encamped under the eaves of the
governor’s palace in Oaxaca for three and a half years. Despite hardship and
discomfort, they remain firmly “en planton.” Their presence is a
persistent petition for the release of their sons, husbands, and brothers,
incarcerated as suspected members of the guerrilla EPR, the Popular
Revolutionary Army.

Loxicha
(pronounced low-see- cha) is a poor and isolated region near the Pacific coast
of Oaxaca. The only paved road in the region is to Pochutla, on the highway
from Oaxaca city to the coastal resort of Puerto Escondido. As one of the
poorest regions in one of the poorest states in Mexico, Loxicha is a desperate
place even in the best of times. In Loxicha, according to John Ross, in his
book, The Annexation of Mexico, “babies die in the priests
arms during baptism.”

Seven of the
area’s 32 municipalities have electricity. Medical care is scarce to
non-existent as is potable water. Spanish is a second language to many of the
region’s Zapotec people. They live by farming corn, beans, and coffee.
Always, what little they have, is threatened by those powerful, who must have
more.

Since 1996,
Loxicha has been the site of low intensity warfare conducted by the Army,
State, and Federal Police forces and private militias, headed by pistoleros,
the hired thugs of the caciques (local political bosses/landowners). The Latin
American Federation of Associations for the Detainees and Disappeared has
called Loxicha the most militarized and repressed zone in Mexico.

Eighty-six men
of Loxicha are in jails in Oaxaca and in the Almoya maximum security prison in
Mexico State. The prisoners comprise what was the entire municipal government
of San Augustin Loxicha, the main town. Several are teachers. All deny any
involvement with the EPR.

One hundred
thirty-seven men were scooped up in the initial sweeps. Fifty-one have been
released for absence of any evidence of guerilla involvement. The encamped
women, in their third anniversary statement, say the large numbers of those
released without charge clearly demonstrates the spurious nature of the
arrests in the first place. The women deny they or their male relatives have
any involvement or contact with the EPR. They say the caciques and their
allies in the government are using the anti-guerrilla campaign as a pretext to
eliminate the local political opposition.

The women and
their children cook and sleep in their encampment along the south edge of
Oaxaca’s central square. They sell baskets, woven by the imprisoned men, to
tourists. The children solicit donations in the square. About 30 women and 20
children are in the encampment at any one time. They stay for varying lengths,
traveling by bus between Loxicha and Oaxaca city. Some stay for months at a
time.

In 1978, the
people of Loxicha expelled the cacique families. This successful uprising
followed years of the caciques cheating the coffee workers out of their wages,
misappropriations from the public treasuries, intimidation, and murders.
Oaxaca, like neighboring Guerrero and Chiapas, includes strong traditions of
local decision-making. The people of Loxicha used their traditional forum to
strip the caciques’ authority and reclaimed a bit of political autonomy. The
caciques gradually made inroads over time, but stayed largely absent until
1996.

In
the meantime, Mexico underwent cataclysmic changes. The Zapatista uprising in
response to NAFTA’s neoliberal vision, inspired social struggle on all
fronts, including awakening several latent guerrilla armies. The EPR is one of
these. This army marched into the public eye in 1996, at the one-year
anniversary of the massacre of Aguas Blancas.

In 1995, at
Aguas Blancas, Guerrero state police, without warning, opened fire on farmers
protesting the governor’s failure to deliver promised fertilizer. Seventeen
demonstrators were killed and twenty-three were wounded. Police put weapons
into the hands of the dead before photographing the bodies. The television
networks broadcast doctored footage of the attack as evidence that the police
had defeated an armed guerilla force. Eventually the actual footage of the
massacre appeared, corroborating reports of a police ambush of unarmed
farmers.

Jogging out of
the hills and into the anniversary memorial ceremony, the uniformed guerrillas
initially frightened the mourners, who thought they were from the Mexican
army, come to finish what the police had started a year before. Not the army,
the EPR declared themselves “companeros,” and hoisted an EPR flag. They
placed white flowers on the monument to the dead and read their “Declaration
of Aguas Blancas,” calling for a popular uprising in support of old left
style reforms.

A series of EPR
attacks around Guerrero was followed on August 28, 1996 by coordinated
assaults on police forces and Federal Electricity Commission installations in
six states. Among these were assaults on police barracks in Acapulco, in
Guerrero State and Huatulco, Oaxaca, a developing resort much touted by the
Mexican government.

This threat to
the lucrative tourist trade made the EPR an instant priority for Mexican law
enforcement and the military. It also seems to have become an excuse for
political reckoning, southern Mexico style. When the military and the
Federales invaded Loxicha on September 5, 1996, several once expelled
pistoleros were among them, dressed in Federal Police uniforms, pointing out
the men who should be taken away.

The prisoners
were reportedly tortured to extract predetermined “confessions.” Mexican
government reports indicate that torture is common in the jails of Oaxaca and
other states. One prisoner described being tortured as men in FBI caps stood
by. The FBI explained that U.S. agents had probably exchanged caps with
Mexican Federal Police agents during a recent training encounter. Other
witnesses describe the FBI cap wearers as looking like gringos and “not
speaking Spanish well.”

There was U.S.
interest, at least peripherally. More than a dozen U.S. timber companies were
building up for NAFTA operations in Mexico. Boise Cascade, through its Mexican
subsidiary, Costa Grande, had begun logging operations in Guerrero. They were
reported to own timber properties in Oaxaca as well. Wide-scale ecological
destruction resulting from logging was a key issue in the farmers’ protest
movement that the EPR endorsed.

Boise Cascade
has since ceased all operations in Mexico and liquidated its assets there. The
company’s web site says that Boise’s pull out from Mexico had nothing to
do with local opposition. The company claims to have discovered there was
opposition only after the fact, by reading about it in the news.

Discussing the
EPR in relation to the prisoners of Loxicha, even as background, is perhaps to
continue the mischaracterization of the situation. The people of Loxicha share
many of the same complaints as the EPR, but that is not evidence that they are
guerillas. Most of the evidence points the other way. The EPR is wealthy
enough to have several times abandoned large arms caches subsequently
discovered by the government. The EPR, whoever they are, have access to money.
This is not a characteristic of the struggling people of Loxicha. A report by
K. Ramirez and A. Frumin, published by Global Exchange indicates persistent
doubt that Loxicha is the hotbed of EPR activity that the government claims.
“The EPR has yet to make an official public statement concerning Oaxaca. The
published communiques have appeared in Huasteca, Mexico State, and in the
daily liberal paper, La Jornada (Sorroza, 12/29/96). For this reason,
many people feel the EPR’s intellectual authors are not centered in Oaxaca.”

The women
encamped in the square do not deny that there are members of the EPR to be
found among the Zapotec of Loxicha. They firmly insist however, that the local
community leaders are not among them, nor is the EPR in any way connected with
the local institutions. What EPR support there is, is isolated and individual,
and by attacking the whole region, the government has other goals in mind than
destroying the EPR.

Despite its
peripheral involvement in EPR activity, Loxicha is where the Mexican
Government has centered its counterinsurgency campaign. The Mexican army has
bases in four of the towns in Loxicha and regularly patrols the region.
Federal and state militarized police have a heavy presence. Foreign visitors
require a special visa to venture past Pochutla. Human rights groups visiting
the area are routinely harassed by the army and threatened and attacked by
militias. Oaxaca’s governor has said that he cannot guarantee the safety of
any outsider who visits Loxicha. Farmers are afraid to take their crops to
town for fear of the authorities.

The women of
Loxicha remain encamped, pressing their case, not only for the release of the
prisoners, but also for the demilitarization of Loxicha and improvement of the
infrastructure.

While there are
occasional grumblings in editorials about the unsightliness of a long-term
encampment in Oaxa- ca’s picturesque city center, local sentiment is
accommodating, if not enthusiastically supportive. No one denies that the
women have legitimate grievances. The government doesn’t try to refute it,
nor does it have the will to confront the women. It ignores them, while it
does its brutal work miles away, in Loxicha, effectively invisible to the
world.
                          Z


Troy Skeels is an editor of
Eat the State, a biweekly
journal published in Seattle (www.eatthestate.org).