Oaxaca’s Radio Wars


Despite assassinations, community radio is spreading throughout southern Mexico

 

"Some people think that we are too young to be informed, but what they should know is that we are too young to die."

 

These were the fateful words of Felicitas Martinez Sanchez and Teresa Bautista Merino, two indigenous Triqui radio broadcasters who were assassinated in southern Oaxaca on April 7th.

 

The two girls, aged 20 and 24, had worked for the recently inaugurated Radio Triqui, "The Voice that Breaks the Silence", in the autonomous Triqui municipality of San Juan Copala.

 

San Juan Copala declared autonomy from the state government in January of 2007, unifying more than half of the 24,000 Triqui indigenous peoples into a single municipality, and has faced many obstacles—often violent—in its quest for self-determination.

 

The community is governed by usos y costumbres, the traditional indigenous form of government which is based around the popular assembly, and has thrown out all of the corrupt political organizations that had been dividing and arming the community.

 

As part of the community process to start the radio—which began transmitting in January—Martinez and Bautista had been elected by their community to serve as broadcasters.

 

The National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH, in its Spanish initials) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations have recently condemned their assassinations and called for a thorough investigation into their deaths.

 

However, the Attorney General’s Office (PGJ) of Oaxaca has already concluded its investigation, saying that the gunmen had been trying to kill the driver of the vehicle, Faustino Vasquez Martinez, rather than the young radio hosts. Community authorities and other members of Radio Triqui have rejected this finding, blaming the government and local political bosses.

 

Both Vasquez and family members of the two girls have received death threats and warnings not to speak to the press, and it is unlikely that the gunmen—who Vasquez recognized as fellow Triquis—will be brought to justice.

 

But despite the threats and the girls murders, Radio Triqui vows to continue its work informing and organizing the residents of San Juan Copala.

 

The news has shed well-needed international light on the plight of journalists in Mexico, as well as on the difficult and violent political turmoil that consumes the Triqui region. But little attention has been focused on what has become a veritable revolution in Oaxaca: community radio.

 

Since the popular uprising that shook the state in 2006, when 14 commercial radio stations and one TV network were taken over by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), the radio has taken on a key role in community organizing.

 

Although the state government and it’s armed thugs violently took back the occupied radio stations, effectively ending what some leftist thinkers had called the "Oaxaca Commune" and the "first revolution of the 21st century", indigenous communities all over Oaxaca have created their own radio stations in an attempt to become more autonomous from the tyrannical state government.

 

Diego Lopez is a 26 year old indigenous Mixe who has helped organize the creation of 17 community radio stations in Oaxaca—including Radio Triqui. He believes that community radio is an essential tool for indigenous communities that are struggling for autonomy.

 

"The radio offers a community the opportunity to become more informed, for the people to discover their rights," he said. "It offers an opportunity for them to create their own spaces, which leads the community towards autonomy."

 

"I’ve been involved in the creation of many radios, and the results have been very real, very concrete," he added. "You see how the radio impacts and fights for justice in a community. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the radio has helped to stop some of the mega-projects that are part of the Plan Puebla-Panama, like the construction of the Trans-Isthmus super-highway."

 

Maria Rivera Aguilar, a 17 year old host for Radio Tezoatlan, "Liberating the Word", in the Mixteca region, helped teach the two Triqui girls how to use radio equipment. She believes that community radios play a key role in organizing indigenous communities by informing the people of their rights.

 

"The radio is a way for us to support our communities, for them to get to know their rights, and offers a space where they can express themselves freely," she said.

 

"We want things to change, to get better", added Rivera. "We want to help the population see things how they really are."

 

The majority of the community radios that have started up in Oaxaca—few have more than a year on the air—broadcast primarily in indigenous languages, have very simple equipment and weak antennae, and are staffed by the youths of the community—especially young women.

 

Machismo is deeply ingrained in many communities, and the young female radio hosts have tried to empower other women in their communities by inviting doctors onto the radio to talk about sexual health and sexuality.

 

Community radio stations also focus on reviving and maintaining indigenous culture, by broadcasting information on the traditions of the community and by playing indigenous music. They have also formed internet broadcasts so that migrants in the U.S.—Oaxaca has more migrants in the U.S. than any other Mexican state—can listen in and keep up on the goings on in their communities.

 

However, Lopez believes that the most important contribution of community radio is its ability to politicize indigenous pueblos.

 

"I think the most important benefit is the political impact of the radio. It can divide and it can unify at the same time," he said. "But the radio is not subversive. We don’t say ‘go get guns and start a revolution’. We inform, we give the community a voice, we give them power and knowledge with what we broadcast, which is always backed up by factual information."

 

However, the creating of a community radio station is a difficult and often dangerous endeavor.

 

"I’ve received various threats, been harassed and persecuted," said Lopez. "When we began to transmit in Copala, for example, people called the station telling us to ‘shut up’ and threatening us. But these are the threats of people who are afraid that the community learns the truth, because they are the ones who will be pointed out."

 

Local and national media, as well as the government, have attacked community radio stations in an effort to present them as criminal operations. It is true that community radio stations do not have legal permits to operate, which are extremely expensive and difficult to obtain, but they have found loopholes in the laws which permit them to operate.

 

"Ours is a struggle against the system. If we tried to do everything legally, it’s a very difficult process. The government has been promoting a law, along with the major communications companies like TV Azteca and Televisa, that says that indigenous communities do not have the right to operate their own radios. They say that we are pirate radios, but we’re not. They say we are illegal, but we are not operating illegally," said Lopez.

 

In fact, during the popular uprising in Oaxaca, when the APPO was in control of most of the radios in the state capital, the state government formed an illegal, pirate radio station called "Citizen Radio" that broadcast the names and addresses of APPO members and incited people to go out and kill them.

 

The recent deaths of Martinez and Bautista, however, have only created more solidarity among community radios in the Oaxaca, and those involved have vowed to work harder for social justice.

 

"Their deaths do make me feel threatened," said Rivera. "But now I’m going to put in more effort so that this doesn’t happen again. There must be justice."

 

"The government wants to intimidate us, but we’re only going to work harder," said Lopez.

 

"When a community makes the decision to form a radio, here in Mexico, it makes them very vulnerable to violence by the government," he added. "But I don’t think the communities are going to back down. Once they’ve started the process of creating autonomy, sooner or later they will finish it."

 

Note: Names of subjects have been changed to protect their identity.

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