Scenes from the Oaxaca Rebellion

On Tuesday, August 1, about 3,000 women marched through downtown Oaxaca City banging metal pots and pans in an oddly melodious cacophony that served as the background for their chants demanding the ousting of governor Ulises Ruiz. They stopped by a hotel where state senators are rumored to hold sessions (the state legislative building has been surrounded by protestors for over a week) and taped black ribbons on the closed doors before pelting the glass panes with raw eggs. There was not a security guard or a uniformed police officer in sight.

Once gathered in the central town square—where teachers and other protestors have been camping out since May 22—the women decided to take over the statewide television and radio company known by its Spanish initials as CORTV. Some women walked, others hopped on buses. Thousands of them met at CORTV’s broadcasting headquarters outside the colonial town center, where they walked right in, and took it over. Not a shot was fired. Not a punch was thrown. While the station’s director had fled, the women gathered the station’s employees and demanded that they hook up the cameras for a live broadcast. Outside the building, about 50 women and a handful of men with clubs (one had two nails sticking out of it) guarded the entrance. They would not let any men enter the building (with a few exceptions of well-known reporters who were escorted in by groups of women). When reporters from the national television station Televisa arrived on the scene, the men and women gathered at the gates marched them right back to their cars shouting: “Get them out!” and “Liars!” The three reporters walked dejectedly back to their cars with their faces drawn long, followed by a rowdy crowd of about a hundred.

It took several hours of negotiation before the women were able to fix a live broadcast, during which—still clutching their pots and wooden spoons, dressed in aprons and work clothes—they set out to correct the mistakes in the station’s reporting on the violent June 14 attempt by state police to lift the teachers’ encampment and demand on the air that the press “tell the truth” about the social movement that is taking over Oaxaca.

The women are all part of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO, an organizing body that was created after the June 14 police raid with the objective of concentrating local residents’ outrage over the violence into the single demand that the governor step down, or get the boot, and the TV station take-over was only the latest in a series of in-your-face civil resistance tactics aimed at shutting down the state government.

On June 16, just two days after the raid, some 500,000 people marched to demand the governor’s resignation. The APPO then organized a “punishment vote” (voto de castigo) campaign against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which led to the first time the PRI lost the state of Oaxaca in a presidential election. The APPO also organized a boycott of the state’s largest tourist event, the Guelaguetza, and convoked an alternative, and free of charge, Guelaguetza that drew a crowd of 20,000. Throughout July, members of the APPO took over the coordination of the town square encampment and began to organize sit-ins at government buildings, which became permanent encampments on July 26.

The strategy of the APPO is to generate “ungovernability” to force the resignation of Ulises Ruiz. The complete absence of uniformed city or state police at the APPO’s actions is a testament to the power they have achieved. I have not seen a single uniformed police officer during a two-week stay in Oaxaca City. (Nor have I heard testimony or read newspaper stories of street crime in the area controlled by the APPO.) The APPO has surrounded and essentially taken over the office buildings of the three branches of state government. They took over CORTV, a private company, and released the station employees to the Red Cross—as if the APPO were a recognized belligerent force.

On July 31, the APPO captured, detained, and turned over to federal investigators a plainclothes police officer that, witnesses said, had fired shots into the air during a protest. A ballistics test conducted on the spot by federal agents proved that the man, Isaías Pérez Hernández, an ex-soldier now with the state police, had indeed fired a pistol within the last 24 hours, but agents were unable to find the gun. Isaías Hernández told me in an interview before the test results came in that he did not know how to fire a pistol.

What most impressed me in this scene was not that state police would send a plain clothes cop to scare or provoke the protestors by shooting into the air, but that the federal agents (members of the elite Agencia Federal de Investigación, or AFI) did not for a moment question the authority of the APPO members who had detailed Hernández and carried him off to their headquarters. IN fact, the AFI—who were called by the APPO organizers—could only approach the APPO headquarters once organizers had beckoned the crowd to let them through. Here again, the federal government seems to tacitly recognize the APPO as something like a belligerent force. (Hernández was unscathed and constantly in the presence of the press. Though he received considerable taunting and the APPO members had made him carry a sign that read, “I am the aggressor sent by Ulises Ruiz,” he was treated rather well considering the tension).

In press conferences and interviews APPO members have stated repeatedly that their movement is non-violent, exclusively targeting the ability of the state government to function, while leaving local businesses and tourists out of the fray.

The current conflict in Oaxaca is at least 26 years old, if not 500. In 1980, teachers in the Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers—then the largest union in Latin America—decided to wage a fight against corruption in the union’s national leadership and demand an increased federal budget for education in Oaxaca state, long one of the poorest and most abandoned regions in Mexico. Oaxaca’s highly organized teachers have been holding protests every year since.

This year things changed. First, the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, has crossed various sectors of Oaxaca’s working and middle classes by spending millions to move the state government offices outside of town and remodel the historic town square. He has also been ensnared in scandal, accused of siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the state budget to finance the PRI’s presidential campaign in Oaxaca. Ruiz had created many enemies by the time he clumsily sent 1000 state police into the town square at dawn on June 14 to beat up sleeping teachers. His timing was also apocryphal. Mexico had been rocked in preceding weeks by overwhelming police violence against protestors in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, and San Salvador Atenco, Mexico State.

Ulises Ruiz’s botched raid—after a few hours the 1000 police were facing about 30,000 teachers and local citizens armed with rocks, boards and iron rods; the police retreated and the teachers took the town square back—catalyzed deep social discontent and offered an attractive, and seemingly achievable, objective: ousting Ulises.

As the APPO steps up its civil disobedience tactics, the movement appears more and more like the class struggle that has mobilized millions behind Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s call to protest vote fraud in the July 2 presidential elections. Mainly poor and working class people fill the encampments and the marches, while more middle and upper class locals start to criticize those in the movement for “not getting back to work.” As tensions rise between locals, the danger increases that provocations, such as the police officers that fired shots in the air, could lead to violent confrontations between citizens that could then be used as a pretext for federal police intervention. 

At present, Oaxaca remains an occupied city, where thousands of citizens camp out in the streets, blocking access to state government buildings, where tourists browse through hand-woven shirts a few yards from protestors’ tents, and day after day the APPO accelerates the pace of the civil disobedience to force the fall of Ulises Ruiz. 

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