Paramilitary attacks continue in Oaxaca

In the past week, gunmen have killed one and wounded four protesters from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). The recent killings heightened tensions as the conflict again enters into a critical moment with the Minister of the Interior threatening to withdraw the federal government’s settlement offer if teachers do not end their strike by Monday, October 16.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Senate is poised to make a definitive decision this Tuesday, October 17, on the APPO’s central demand that the state government be dissolved.

The teachers union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, stated that they will not return to classes on Monday, but will wait for the Senate’s decision the following day.

The conflict in Oaxaca began as a teachers’ strike five months ago, but exploded into a massive, statewide civil disobedience up-rising after a failed attempt to violently lift the striking teachers’ protest camp during the pre-dawn hours of June 14.

Since then the teachers union and the APPO, which formed in response to the failed police raid and groups together hundreds of local organizations, have held onto their occupation of Oaxaca’s historic central plaza; blocked state government office buildings; painted most of the city with graffiti calling for Governor Ulises Ruiz’s ousting; led a march of several thousand people over 250 miles from Oaxaca to Mexico City; taken over television and radio stations; and built thousands of barricades throughout the city.

Since August gunmen and civilian-clad police have shot at protesters in marches and at their camps, killing six people and wounding fifteen. Paramilitaries have also abducted movement leaders and participants and held them incommunicado for days before being taken to jail or released. Those abducted testified to having been tortured—with visible scars still covering their faces and bodies. (See ‘Pistol Policy’ ZNet, August 16, 2006)

The recent shootings began on October 11, the day that a “sub-commission” of three senators from the Senate Committee on the Interior was scheduled to arrive in Oaxaca City to analyze whether or not the state government has ceased to function. Since June 14, Section 22 and the APPO have conditioned all their demands upon the renunciation or ousting of the Governor.  Ruiz has refused to resign, and the only legal mechanism for the protesters to force his ousting is to request that the Senate declare that the state government has already, in effect, disappeared, a process known as the “desaparicion de poderes” in Spanish. Hence the APPO’s strategy has been to “create ungovernability” by blocking government buildings and shutting off highways and roads.

In anticipation of the sub-commission’s visit, APPO protesters commandeered four city buses on October 11 and drove throughout the city in “mobile brigades” to take over more state government offices and cover walls, buildings, road signs, other buses, and pretty much any available surface with graffiti calling for Governor’s ousting. The protesters had nearly concluded their mobile brigade when, shortly after 4 in the afternoon, outside a police station, un-uniformed police and gunmen shot into a crowd of protesters who were preparing to get back on their bus and move on.

The gunmen fired for several minutes, wounding four people, who were taken to the hospital and released later that evening. A photographer for the local newspaper, Noticias, and the national newspaper, Excelsior, captured clear images of one of the gunmen firing into the crowd. Gunmen fired over 60 rounds, forcing the protesters to seek shelter under fire. Three hours later a caravan of police trucks arrived to “rescue” the gunmen, allowing them to escape without being apprehended by the APPO protesters. As a result of the violence, the sub-commission suspended their visit until the following day.  

The senators’ visit was an exercise in contradictions. Inside the empty state legislature, surrounded by a few hundred protesters, state legislators told the federal sub-commission that they had not stopped working and had passed four laws in the past five months of the conflict.

The Governor, accompanied by his entire cabinet, testified that he had continued to work “as normal,” and presented the sub-commission with box-loads of documents to support his claim. Most poignant however, was the location of the Governor’s meeting with the sub-commission: a gated and guarded hangar at the Oaxaca City airport a few miles out of town. Ulises Ruiz has not been able to walk freely in the capital city since the June 14 raid.

During a four-hour meeting with organizations from the APPO, people gave testimony about the police raid and paramilitary violence. Instead of handing over boxes of documents, the protesters submitted bullet shells, exploded gas grenades, and police batons and helmets that they have gathered during the months of conflict as proof of the impunity with which the state government and paramilitaries beaten, shot, and killed protesters.

The senators repeated in the meetings with state government officials and protesters that they would not be “deciding” to dissolve the state government, but merely reporting their findings as to whether the government had already lost control or not. The sub-commission will turn their report into the Senate Committee on the Interior on Monday, October 16. The full Senate will vote on the matter on Tuesday, October 17.

In this context, the Minister or the Interior threatened to withdraw the offer to increase teachers’ payments and open the way for institutional reforms in Oaxaca if the Section 22 does not return to classes by October 16. The teachers responded that they would wait for the Senate vote. The Minister or the Interior’s ultimatum once again fueled rumors that a federal crackdown is imminent.

Then, at about 2:30 in the morning on Saturday, October 14, soldiers in civilian clothes who tried to make their way through a barricade on the outskirts of the center of town, opened fire on APPO protesters guarding the barricade. One soldier, 22 year-old Johnatan Ríos Vázquez, dropped his wallet before fleeing, thus leading to his identification and later apprehension by local police.

Ríos Vázquez fired upon the protesters with a 22-caliber pistol, hitting Alejandro García Hernández twice in the head. García Hernández, a nearby resident who nightly took coffee to the APPO protesters guarding the barricades, was serving coffee with his wife and son when the soldiers opened fire.

“My father was bleeding from the head. I held him and they kept shooting, but now at me,” his son Johnatan Halil told a reporter from the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada. “A compañero [Joaquín Benítez] jumped in the way to protect me. That is why they shot him in the shoulder.”

García Hernández languished in the hospital for over 8 hours without receiving medical attention. When the surgeons finally attempted to aid him, he had already gone brain dead. He died a few hours later. García Hernández was the sixth person to die in paramilitary shootings against protesters in Oaxaca.

This number does not include one teacher who opposed the strike, Jaime Rene Calva Aragon, who was hacked to death with ice axes two weeks ago. His colleagues immediately blamed the Section 22 and the APPO, while these organizations denied the accusations, in turn blaming Ulises Ruiz for trying to create the conditions necessary for a federal intervention. While APPO protesters have beaten people caught stealing in the city center and, on one occasion, a local journalist, there have been no cases of premeditated or targeted violence against strike opponents. 

The coming days will be decisive for the conflict in Oaxaca, with the federal government withdrawing their settlement offer with one hand and voting on the dissolution of the state government with the other. The APPO has called for national strikes and marches in solidarity with the Oaxaca movement. On Sunday, October 15, some 40 members of the APPO will begin a hunger strike to be carried out until Ulises Ruiz leaves office. The hunger strikers will join a protest camp in front of the Senate in Mexico City where several thousand teachers arrived on foot from Oaxaca this past Monday, October 9.

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