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Pistol Policy


Throughout the past week gunmen of have opened fire on members of the People’s Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO for its initials in Spanish) killing four and wounding at least 10.

Organizations and citizens across Oaxaca formed the APPO shortly after the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz’s (Institutional Revolutionary Party) failed June 14 raid on a teachers’ encampment in downtown Oaxaca City. The teachers had been camping out, on strike, since May 22. The APPO united the teachers’ union and a broad swath of political and social organizations to demand the immediate renunciation or destitution of Ulises Ruiz. The APPO led massive marches with up to half a million people in attendance before deciding to step up their civil disobedience tactics on July 26 by shutting down all branches of the state government, setting up encampments around government office buildings. On August 1, some 3000 women led a women’s only march through town that led to the unarmed take over of the state television and radio corporation, CORTV. APPO’s explicit strategy is to generate “ungovernability” (ingobernabilidad) to force Ulises Ruiz’s exit from office.

The response of Ruiz and the state government has been to simply disappear from downtown Oaxaca, to lobby the federal government to intervene, to arbitrarily and illegally detain APPO leaders, and—apparently—to send thugs and gunmen to terrify and break up the APPO protests.

The recent wave of violence started last Sunday when four federal agents arbitrarily detained Catarino Torres Pereda, a social movement leader from Tuxtepec and member of the APPO. Agents beat Pereda and then took him to the La Palma maximum-security prison outside of Mexico City.

Then, on Monday, August 7, local and national reporters witnessed police chief, Aristeo Lopez Martinez, shooting at a student protest from the back of a BMW motorcycle (Milenio, 8 August 2006, “Estalla Oaxaca”). No one was wounded and the protesters repelled the police with rocks. From that day on rumors have run through town that the Big Raid is coming. That night gunmen executed a university professor, Marcos Garcia Tapia, in his car in downtown Oaxaca.

The next day, Tuesday, August 8, students paid to sabotage the university radio station set a bus on fire to distract the radio workers; they ran into the console and dumped sulfuric acid on the radio transmitter. Radio workers caught the students in the act and detained them.

One of the first victims of the June 14 raid was the teachers’ Radio Plantón (Encampment Radio). Police officers destroyed all of the radio equipment and beat and arrested three of the programmers in the first minutes of the raid. That very day, a group of seven students decided to take over the university radio station and immediately continue their broadcasts. On July 22, armed gunmen opened fire on the radio station from pick-up trucks. No one was injured, nor was the equipment damaged. Radio workers said that the shooting was an attempt to scare them.

“The government said that the shootings on July 22 were a “self-hit” (autoatentado),” one worker who asked to remain anonymous told me. “We say it was a government action to chase us off, to threaten us and wear us out psychologically. We blame the government. We are conscious of what is at risk here, and if it is necessary, we are ready to give our lives for our university, for our radio.”
 
The teachers and social movements across Oaxaca have long used the radio not only for political discussion and analysis, but also for emergency coordination during state repression. The police attacks and sabotage attempts against the radio stations are strategic military actions, seeking to break up the movement’s communication network.

On Wednesday, August 9, a gunman busted into the offices of the Oaxaca state newspaper Noticias at 7:24 AM, firing Uzi machine guns at the ceiling and wounding six employees with bullet fragments that ricocheted off the ceiling. Noticias has been the constant victim of state repression since June 28, 2004 when thugs took over the newspapers’ office building. In response, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called on the Mexican federal government to take precautionary measures to ensure the safety of 117 employees of the paper.

Later that day, gunmen ambushed and opened fire on Triqui indigenous members of the APPO near Putla in the Mixteca region of the state, killing three people and wounding two; the Triquis were on their way to an assembly meeting.

Also that day, federal and state agents dressed in civilian clothes and armed with AR-15 assault rifles, beat and detained a leader of one of the largest organizations in the APPO, the Popular Revolutionary Front (FPR), German Mendoza Nube. Nube has been wheel-chair bound since 1987 when he was shot in the lower spine. He also suffers from severe diabetes. Two friends and neighbors were helping Nube get out of a car and into his wheelchair when the armed men pulled up in three cars and immediately beat him and threw him into the back of a pick-up truck. They also beat the neighbors and friends, arresting three of them (they were released the next day). The agents have moved Nube between several different prisons in Oaxaca and Puebla, making it impossible for family to locate him.

The next day, Thursday August 10, the APPO convoked a march to demand the liberty of Torres Pereda and Mendoza Nube. Around 12,000 people marched toward the occupied CORTV station when they were ambushed in a narrow stretch of Morelos Avenue around 7:15 at night. Gunmen shot from both sides of the street, wounding three people and killing one. Jose Colmenares, a 50 year-old mechanic, joined the march to support his wife, a junior-high teacher from Ejutla. A gunman who ran out into the street shot Colmenares in the neck and heart. He died minutes later.

Marchers detained at least 8 suspects, and found a pistol, gloves, police boots and jackets in the house and health clinic from which the shots had been fired. Protestors set fire to the house to force hiding gunmen out, but they appeared to have escaped, and within half an hour protestors allowed firefighters access to the house. Firefighters extinguished the flames within minutes.

In the town square, tourists continued to sip coffee and listen to roaming mariachi musicians apparently oblivious to the gunshots and flames only a mile away.

On Friday, August 11, police detained Erangelio Mendoza, a long-time leader of the teachers’ movement, and held him in a car while they waited for a helicopter to take him away. His whereabouts are still unknown.

The APPO’s explicit aim has been to generate “ungovernability.” They have succeeded. In over a month in Oaxaca, I have not seen one uniformed police officer. The idea that the state maintains its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence has been obliterated. But the APPO has refrained from resorting to violence itself in this total power vacuum. Their tactics are extreme—shutting off access to all government buildings; commandeering government vehicles; occupying the town square; taking over the state television station—but never violent. The state, in turn, responds with outright violence such as the failed June 14 police raid, or covert violence such as the arbitrary detentions, beatings, shootings, sabotage attempts and assassinations of the past week.

Army intelligence officers videotape over land travelers to and from Oaxaca. Spies follow journalists throughout the day. Plainclothes cops with machine guns pick APPO leaders off the street. No one knows where the governor is, not even his press secretary. Gunmen fire into crowds.

On Friday, Flavio Sosa, one of the APPO spokespeople, publicly called for a meeting with Carlos Abascal, the Minister of the Interior, to discuss possible solutions to the conflict in Oaxaca. “Ulises Ruiz is leading us into a situation practically of civil war, and our movement is non-violent,” he said in a press conference in the occupied town square. “Our movement is non-violent. In fact, it is a movement against violence, against a system of violence that excludes us, against the violence of police brutality.”

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