Massacre in Oaxaca

The May 31st massacre of 27 indigenous campesinos in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, reportedly carried out by nieghbouring villagers over a territorial land dispute, has done little to encourage the Mexican Government to initiate long awaited indigenous land reforms. President Fox’s refusal to tackle the issue leaves him a time bomb waiting to explode across a quarter of the country.

A land dispute might have been at the heart of the recent massacre. But, add the presence of Narco traffickers, mineral extractors, evangelising Christians and endemic poverty, and you begin to understand why survivor Santiago Hernandez describes the Oaxacan Sierra as a place where ‘ there is no law, only the law of the gun’.

His words might sound like a line from a movie but they echo the anarchistic reality of daily life for hundreds of indigenous communities across Mexico. Before coming to power, President Fox promised he would solve the conflict initiated by angry indigenous rebels in the state of Chiapas in fifteen minutes. Indigenous people would secure rights to land and be given full power in governing their communities. After two years in office the indigenous reform law sits stalled in Congress, while the silent wars of the southern Sierras look set to escalate nationwide.

Having completed a week’s work at the local sawmill, on 31st May, the thirty Zapotec Indian workers are in good spirits. They have money in the pockets of their grubby sports jackets and are heading home to their village of Xochiltepec, when their truck is ordered to stop at a makeshift road block. ‘Parate Cabron’ (Stop you bastard) shouts a masked man to the driver, who he orders out of the truck. Some twenty or so masked men then board the truck and shoot everyone, stripping the corpses of their earnings. Only the driver and his son, who run for their lives and Santiago Hernandez, who managed to hide under the dead bodies survive. The massacre has left Xochiltepec eighteen widows and eighty-nine orphans. The women, and their remaining children, many of whom are strapped to their mothers back with the customary reobozo or shawl, lit a mountain of candles for the dead, who lay in a makeshift shelter.

Villagers from nearby Teojomulco were immediately accused of the act, having been at odds with their Xochiltepec neighbors over territorial boundaries for almost a century.

The act was one of a string of bloody assassinations which have been carried out in the region. In 1986 a land dispute between Amoltepec and Zaniza left twenty-nine dead. In 1995 a fight between Zaniza and Xochiltepec left seventeen dead and in 1998 thirteen were killed after Teojomulco and Texmelucan disputed rights to gold mines. Investigations into these events have never been completed. The cycle of impunity encourages others, often out of revenge, to regularly carry out acts of crop burning, animal theft, individual kidnappings and murders against their neighbours. Yet there appears so little to steal. These are ghost towns, full of humble adobe or concrete homes but empty of men. Migration to the US is their only hope for a decent wage. Often disappearing for years at a time, they return with money for the family and a different outlook on traditional life.

In the latest incident, however, the state chief of police, Jorge, Julian Ahuet proudly proclaimed that he and his policemen had rounded up and detained seventeen Teojomulcan suspects in less than forty-eight hours. He was perhaps unaware, at the time, that two of them were minors who were reportedly at school when the massacre took place. The suspicously rapid police response, might have something to do with the fact that Oaxacan State Governor Jose Murat, embarrassingly had to admit that various human rights groups and representatives from Xochiltepec had warned him back in March that they feared an imminent attack by the Teojomulcans. ‘We had asked for more security from the State Governor for over a year, but as usual we were ignored until it was too late.’ explains a Xochiltepec village representative.

Meanwhile, the Teojomulcans are furious and swear that their townsfolk have been wrongfully accused of the massacre. ’We are being used as scapegoats’ they explain. ‘We do not know who committed the massacre, we think it was paramilitaries, who terrorize the Sierra, robbing us. If it really was people from our village, they should have received a fair trial before they were detained,’ says Leonardo Gomez, one of the many Teojomulcans who have established an indefinite protest against the arrests, outside the government offices in the city of Oaxaca.

The chief of police justified his arrests, stating that, ‘we found weapons with those who committed the homicides and were known to be responsible’. The discovery of twenty three rifles in the house of Teojomulcan resident, 68 year old Ines Garcia Luis which were hiding amidst her maize harvest and an aging typewriter also assured the town’s guilt, according to the state police.

‘Why there is money for guns but not enough to buy beans to feed themselves with, is what we need to be asking ourselves’ says Mexican journalist Ramon Garza.

An AK47 costs between US$600 -1000 in the Sierra. It would take a farmer sixtydays work in the forests to earn enough to buy an R15, which currently go for US$400.

The Federal Justice Department, who are carrying out investigations to find the instigators of the massacre say there is no evidence to suggest that the latest massacre was in any way associated with narco trafficking. But others remark that the quantity of money required to buy such high caliber weapons makes the link unavoidable. While it is known that communities require village members to pay a percentage towards the purchase of weapons for security, this still doesn’t explain why the Sierra is quite so awash with guns. Some of the weapons found by the police in Teojomulco had army licenses. These could have been obtained by missing police agent Pablo Ramirez Bautista who disappeared in the Sierra some months ago. According to Anti narcotics agencies virtually the entire police force in the area are ‘coptado’ or paid off by Oaxacan drug cartel leader Pedro Diaz Parada. Police and army involvement with drug trafficking is not something the investigating justice department wants to publicise. The increased production of amapola and marijuana in the Sierra over the last six years has secured Oaxaca’s place as one of the fastest growing narco states in Mexico. Parada’s cartel, not only controls the police and the local judges but his operations are maintained by over 2000 indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec campesinos.

Drugs cartels are not the only ones taking advantage of this seemingly lawless region. The lack of power, community governments possess in the region to safeguard communal lands and the resources they produce make them prime targets for external investors and illegal loggers. Six mineral companies, half of which are foreign-owned, are currently extracting magnesium, copper, gold and other minerals in the vicinity. All of them received permission to operate, not from Oaxaca , but somewhat inexplicably by the neighbouring state of Puebla.

Failed by the authorities, and increasingly abandoned by a once strong Catholic church presence, people in the Sierra are turning to other types of divine protection, raising community tensions in the process. The area is just one of many in southern Mexico which has been infiltrated by evangelist Christians, eager to convert a traditionally Catholic nation. In Tetixtlan 50% of the population are now Inter-denominational, 30% belong to the evangelical group ‘Light of the World’ and only 20% remain Catholic. Strong resentment of these new faiths by traditional Catholics results in intra-familiar and community expulsions.

‘The communities are divided religiously, and over land. The only thing they have in common is the heavy presence of the Mexican army, now placed there to avoid new attacks’ says local Oaxacan journalist Pablo Lopez.

State Governor Jose Murat, blames a combination of the aforementioned problems for the massacre, and the lack of assistance he receives from the Federal Government to reduce poverty in Oaxaca. He also accused the Mexican environment department (Semarnat), insisting that their allocation of legal logging licenses in the area was in part to blame for the massacre. Semarnat deny any such action, pointing out they never give logging licenses to communities in conflict. ‘Murat is trying to distract attention from the fact that he failed to provide local security, turning the issue into a federal problem’ said Environment Minister Victor Waisman at a recent press conference. ‘There is no way that the massacre was the fault of Semarnat. By providing licenses we are helping communities combat illegal logging.’ He added.

Whilst lisences might not have been the root cause of the massacre some confusion remains as to why Semarnat renewed the community of Zanzia’s logging license despite protests by villagers in Xochiltepec who argue that the area includes some of their land.

Indigenous groups point to the failure of Mexico’s Agrarian Reform department in its ability to overcome land disputes. The difficulty appears to be that cash-strapped, local agriculture departments take sides. Xochiltepec and the village of Texmeluca have both officially complained at the favoritism the department has shown to Teojomulco in the past. In 1996 Texmeluca lost 50% of their land to Teojomuclo when the department redesignated their boundaries. The department’s decisions may have something to do with the fact that Teojomulco is a largely Mestizo community, and therefore has more money to reward corrupt government officials than the other communities which are indigenous and poor.

If, and when, government departments better delineate boundaries, local communities are still unable to then control what lands they are left with.

This is why indigenous and human rights groups are making it clear that state and federal governments should be doing much more to strengthen and realise the San Andres Accords, the framework for an indigenous law, currently stalled in Congress. ‘It was for exactly this reason that we, the indigenous communities of Mexico, did not accept the constitutional reform proposed last year by Congress that cancelled one of our fundamental clauses, that of our peoples rights to manage and own their land, territory and natural resources’. Says Gomez Vazquez, leader of a union of indigenous farmers.

‘Negligence of the state and neoliberalism which wants indigenous people off their lands, that is why these problems continue’ says priest Martin Ortiz from Teojomulco. By awarding indigenous people land rights, Fox will face greater difficulty in then persuading them to hand back land to foreign investors, who are crucial to his proposed Plan Puebla Panama, a mega-development project of electricity and road networks he insists will open up Southern Mexico.

Until Fox reaches an agreement with indigenous people over their rights to land and addresses institutional corruption of government departments, Mexico faces an uncertain future. It is estimated that there are over twenty two thousand agrarian conflicts involving indigenous communities in Mexico. The prospect of violent instability exists not just among five hundred communities in Oaxaca, but also in the states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Veracruz, Sinaloa, and Baja California. His failure to act will, likely see him loose the very investors he wishes to attract.

Leave a comment