Sportswriter At The Barricades




W

hile the turmoil in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was in the headlines
last fall for weeks, little media coverage noted that at its center was
a crusading newspaper,

Noticias.

The paper’s leading sportswriter, Jaime
Medina, is also a spokesperson for the teachers, doctors, nurses, newspaper
workers, and others in the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO),
who joined together to call for greater democracy. I interviewed Medina
in November in northern Mexico.

 




BACON: What’s it like being a reporter in Oaxaca? 



MEDINA: I starting working for

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23 years ago and all those years
I covered sports. I’m not really an activist. I got involved in this current
struggle because it is for something just and because we’re defending our
paper and our rights. I hope to eventually go back to just writing and
photographing sports. Nevertheless, this has been a very memorable experience
and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 




Why did your newspaper become the center of social protest? 



The newspaper has been fighting government persecution because it’s the
only independent newspaper in the state. A lot of papers work with the
government, which controls what is printed. That’s not the case with us.
We report on what we feel is necessary. Government persecution began when
former Governor Jose Nelson Murat tried to buy control of our paper. When
he couldn’t do it, he suspended government ads, but we continued to function
with private ads. Then Murat ordered an invasion of the newspaper’s warehouses.
 


Before Murat left office, we were publishing articles about corruption
in Murat’s administration. That did not mean that the newspaper was against
the government, it was simply writing about an Administration that was
taking advantage of its position. 


While the present Governor Ulises Ruiz was giving his inaugural speech,
officials once again raided the newspaper’s warehouses. Still we managed
to survive. I think Ruiz also managed federal aid to the poor for his own
benefit. That is one reason why the people want to crucify him now.

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has always been critical of the government, all the while just giving the
facts. That is why we’ve been on the government’s bad side. 




Why didn’t the union  defend you? 



We belong to a union known as CROC [Revolutionary Confederation of Workers
and Farmers]. These labor organizations are very common in México. Their
purpose more than anything is to protect employers and the government.
Usually when an employee complains, they  are fired without the union even
getting involved. 






When the attacks on us began, it had been nine years since we’d had any
communication with the union. Many workers didn’t even know who the leaders
were. In nine years we never had a union meeting. The local CROC leader
is a member of the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution [PRI]. He
is so close to state PRI leaders that he was given a position as deputy
in the state legislature. [The PRI was Mexico’s ruling party for 70 years,
until it was defeated nationally in 2000. The PRI still governs Oaxaca.] 




When the newspaper took an independent approach to reporting, CROC wasn’t
in agreement? 



Of course not. The PRI was used to operating in a closed-door fashion with
little interference from outside. The union violated our rights by not
taking our opinion into account when they were supposed to be protecting
us. 


After Ruiz became governor the union contract at

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came up for renegotiation
and the state government sought to use this to close down our newspaper.
The union announced it had made a decision to strike. No one asked for
our opinion. Even though we were unhappy with our pay, we saw the game
the union was playing and we didn’t want any part of their decision to
strike. 


On the day it began, CROC leaders came in with military personnel dressed
as civilians. I saw them coming through both entrances. I left because
I was afraid of being hurt. There were more than 300 people that came in
to take over. Thirty-one of my coworkers stayed behind to print the paper.
Other reporters were still finishing up last minute stories. The newspaper’s
editor and assistant editor also stayed behind. They were basically kidnapped.
We could see them through the windows as they were being assaulted. They
were there 31 days and on July 18, 2004 they were let go by the military
personnel inside, but beaten once again on their way out. 




How did they survive 31 days? 



The people in the neighborhood saw the injustice being done and gave them
food through open windows. The military’s intention was to stop the paper
from printing, but workers were able to get two more editions out. The
military blocked the exits that second day, but we were able to rent space
from another paper in the neighboring state of Veracruz. 


Even though it was very expensive to produce, the newspaper was being printed
daily and people were waiting for it. The newspaper would arrive in Oaxaca
between one and three in the afternoon. People would form lines to buy
it. We, the workers, were very thankful to the people of Oaxaca because
they helped us survive. 




Why did the conflict with the teachers arise during the same period

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was being attacked? 



Oaxaca is a tourist state so the cost of living is very high. The teachers
had been asking for a pay increase for many years. Ruiz said that if the
federal government wanted to give the teachers more, that was up to them,
but the state didn’t have any more to give. So in May 2005 the teachers
decided to strike and they took up residence in the plaza at the center
of town. 


The federal government is always raving about its educational system, but
in rural parts of Oaxaca, a typical school consists of four poles and palm
leaves for a roof. Students sit on rocks, logs, or anything else they can
find. A typical teacher earns about 2,200 pesos [about $220] every 2 weeks.
From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils, and other school supplies.
 




So there was a lot of anger among teachers? 



I don’t think it started that way. They asked for what they needed, but
the government’s denial infuriated them. When they decided to strike the
first time, they almost didn’t complete the 2005-2006 school year. But
the teachers have such a love for their students and profession, they decided
to finish the term. That year they stopped the strike. But then the government
tried to force them to do the same during the following spring. The teachers
refused. 







On June 14 the government sent in the military to force them out of the
main plaza. Two helicopters dropped tear gas and Molotov cocktails from
above. This made all labor unions and organizations throughout the state
unite in one organization, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca
[Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca]. They came to the teachers’
rescue and they were able to continue to occupy the plaza. They all agreed
that they wanted Ruiz to resign his post as governor. Protestors put up
barricades blocking entrances to the plaza for fear that they would be
attacked, as they had been in the past. 




What was

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doing during this time? 




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was reporting the truth, unlike other papers in the state. Radio
stations wouldn’t allow the teachers time to state their demands and the
reasons for their actions because the stations were basically under government
control. So the teachers first took over Channel 9, and then others. 


Meanwhile, they were being assaulted and shot at by police in plain clothes.
Finally a U.S. journalist [Brad Will from Indymedia] was killed. He was
covering the story in Santa Lucia del Camino, a neighboring town, when
demonstrators were fired on. Protesters defended themselves with rocks
and sticks. After that, federal police were called in. 


First they sent in the Marines and the Army—3,500 officers arrived to take
over the plaza. They said they would come in peacefully, but they came
with tear gas, water, and pepper spray, and attacked the residents who
were protecting the teachers. When the Federal Preventative Police (PFP)
reached the center of town, the confrontation turned violent. Protesters
held off tanks with rocks and sticks, the only arms they had against guns.
During this confrontation, a nurse was killed when he was attacked with
tear gas. When federal officials came in to Channel 9, a 16-year-old protester
was killed. All told, since the attack on the plaza on June 14, 16 people
have been killed, the majority teachers. Not one government official. 




Were

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journalists or photographers subject to reprisals from the
government during this time? 



A fellow journalist, Luis Ignacio Velasquez, and two others are fighting
charges of defamation of character and libel. I’ve been singled out by
the government for supposedly overstepping my boundaries. We’ve been persecuted
and four of my coworkers have been assaulted. But we have been successful
in obtaining something that has never been obtained by a group of journalists
in Latin America. The Human Rights Commission of America told the federal
government to protect us and take responsibility for our lives. Unfortunately
they still haven’t guaranteed us protection. 


Now we’re based on Independence Street in front of La Merced Church where
we’ve already faced aggression from the state government. About a month
and a half ago, two armed individuals came in and fired guns. Four workers
were injured. One worker still has a bullet lodged close to her heart. 




But you continue to publish? 



I think we’ve overcome the most difficult and violent battle. The challenge
now is to keep staying true to our stories and maintaining the newspaper.
We also have to keep fighting for our constitutional rights and pressure
the pro-government union to give us back our offices. We are in the process
of trying to form our own independent union as well. 


This country is experiencing many problems with our ability to freely choose
our government. Felipe Calderon [the newly swornin president of Mexico]
is not recognized nationally because of the way he came into power [there
were many charges of election fraud and no full recount of the ballots].
It was the same with Ruiz. It sometimes seems like Oaxaca and southern
Mexico aren’t even part of Mexico, the way they’re ignored by the federal
government until some big crisis erupts. 


Since the days of the revolution, Oaxaca has been in the forefront of change
and a picture of things to come. People here are not looking to win or
lose, but to improve their way of living. I think that if it means Ruiz
resigning for the good of his people, then he should resign. Something
has to give.


 





David Bacon is a freelance reporter and photographer based in California.