Repression and Resistance in San Juan Copala, Mexico

The Triqui people of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala, in the western Mexican state of Oaxaca, continue to be blockaded, killed, and disappeared. In late September, the situation escalated, with more deaths and disappearances, according to the newspaper Noticias, which called San Juan Copala "Mexico's Gaza."


On September 20, ten women and nine children—who had managed to make their way over the mountains, past the paramilitaries surrounding San Juan Copala to the Oaxaca City Zocalo—initiated a hunger strike.


On Thursday, September 23, there was a march through the city that demanded justice for the people of San Juan Copala. People chanted slogans like "De Copala a Palestina, la lucha no termina" (from Copala to Palestine, the struggle continues).


I talked with some of the participants from inside their encampment. The children lay on mats and newspaper clippings chronicling this internationally recognized conflict adorned the walls. My first interview was with Fausto from San Juan Copala.


MOROSIN: Today you began your hunger strike, is that right?


FAUSTO: Yes. The encampment has been here approximately 40 days. But not having gotten a response about the problems in our community, the compañeras decided at a meeting to establish this hunger strike encampment to demand justice, and the immediate end of the paramilitary and other groups intervening in the region.


You say there are other groups besides the Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT)?


MULT and UBISORT are basically the groups that are trapping the community and this needs to cease immediately.


Can you talk about the conditions in San Juan Copala? How many inhabitants are in the autonomous municipality? What is daily life like there?


When it declared itself an autonomous municipality in 2007, life was very good. We were very peaceful. Everything was normal, relaxed. There wasn't much violence or deaths. The people could go back and forth easily. But around November 2009, I don't know what's happening with this paramilitary group UBISORT, but at the time hostilities began, they started killing people.


Whose interests does this paramilitary group defend?


They defend caciques, corrupt leaders in the region, protected by, and overlapping with, the state government.


What about the economic interests in the region? Is there agriculture? Big companies?


There's not much of that. What there are is a group of landlords.


Which crops do they cultivate?


Basically, Copala doesn't produce much. The communities around it are the ones that produce bananas, coffee, oranges, lemons.


For export?


No, they don't export. Most of it is to sell in regional markets.


Are the workers day laborers?


No, everyone pretty much works their own land through their families.


The caciques don't run this aspect?


No. The caciques hoard what the compañeros produce and they sell it at another price. They're like middlemen.


And they're connected to the government and paramilitaries?


That's how it is. The paramilitaries are there to spread fear in the population and make them do what they demand.


Do you know how many citizens have lost their lives in this conflict?


The count is endless. And more this past week. Many deaths, many wounded. It's very hard. What they did first was surround the autonomous community and then not permit people to pass. They don't let people get out to buy food or go back and forth freely. Little by little they get in and kill people.


They still don't let doctors in? Journalists?


None of that. Copala is a fenced-in area.


How many hours or kilometers is Copala from here?


Approximately seven-and-a-half hours.


So they let you all pass?


No. We came through the mountains, through a community that sympathizes with us. And from there, we came by vehicle. But from Copala, you can't leave. It was about a two hour walk.


Is there electricity in Copala?


Previously, there was electricity, a health center, a middle school. Everything was working normally. But now there's nothing. It's like a ghost town.


What has been the official response?


The government has talked about dialog for some months, but they haven't adhered to the suggestions we've put forward—security and return to Copala. On the contrary, it seems the government wants to put an end to the autonomous community.


What are the political and economic proposals of the autonomous community?


We want respect for all of the customs, the daily life of the citizens, all of the wealth we have in our lands. We don't want investors who come from outside and try to impose a monopoly in Copala.


Which resources are investors interested in?


Basically, big capitalists want to come in for the mines. There are silver, platinum, and other mines. Many people have come who want these mines. But these companies don't bring anything good. On the contrary, they bring problems. This is what we've been fighting.


What has been the response from Oaxacans in Oaxaca City to your struggle?


Here in the city, people have been supporting us a lot. They've brought much solidarity. There are also some people who are bothered by our presence here, but in the struggle, there's good people and bad people.


How can the international community help? Do you have specific demands, ways we can help popularize your demands?


Respect for the autonomy and self-determination of indigenous peoples, not only Triquis. And that they don't put in foreign people to start manipulating the compañeros with strange ideas. Why? Because you let them in, you give them certain things, and we start fighting among ourselves. This is what foreigners provoke when they arrive in the communities.


How else can the international community help?


International organizations can send communications. They can be alert, more than anything. They can send statements to national governments and follow up on all these questions, so that they are fulfilled. Because what happens a lot is that things are put forward and they aren't followed up on; other things happen and life goes by. There should be continuity. So you're from California?


Yes. The struggle has also been very hard.


Immigrants, right?




What happened with that law?


The law in Arizona? They enacted it.




But they were deporting many people even without the law. I went with a group of compañeras from California to Arizona to the mega march in May. There were many families, many combative youth who wanted to do something. People were taking action, student strikes, an economic boycott of Arizona. Maybe this could also be done with the state of Oaxaca. But yes, we are building a revolutionary movement to put an end to these conditions.


Yes. It's necessary. It's time. Someone told me today, "It's time for a revolution." It's needed, because there's so much discrimination, so much injustice in the whole country. We're not the only ones. There's people who suffer the same things. It's necessary that a revolution be made.


Are a lot of people from your community incarcerated?


Not at this time. We have maintained a certain caution in this regard and compañeros haven't been jailed for this struggle. The saddest thing is that they have fallen by the bullets of the enemy.


The paramilitaries live in the mountains?


Copala is a center. The paramilitaries come through the mountains. It's easy for them to see where people are walking, where they're going. They basically have a panoramic view of Copala. They see us easily and they locate us. Some of us aren't hit. But others have good aim and they hit a number of compañeros.


So the attitude of the people in San Juan Copala is clearly that they want to continue with autonomy, right?


Yes. This was clear from the moment the autonomous municipality was declared.


How many other Triqui municipalities are in the region?


There are two others. MULT was an organization of Triquis founded in 1981, but, unfortunately, due to the greed and power this generated, many sold out and formed a political party, the PUP—Partido de Unidad Popular. They're not in power, but you could say that by doing this, they are on the side of the government.


So their attitude towards the struggle is not supportive.


They don't support it. Before, yes. They were a good organization.


Do you still hear talk of Plan Mesoamerica? Plan Puebla Panama?


Plan Puebla Panama, yes. We still hear about it.


And has this affected your area?


Yes, but nothing has been done.


Has there been struggle in your area against PPP?


Yes, definitely.


How do you see these questions being related to the struggle against neoliberal mega projects, for indigenous autonomy against the rule of corrupt local landlords and bosses?


It's very hard because we know that these struggles take the same path against the imposition that governments want to take against indigenous peoples, to fulfill a plan that the people don't agree with.


* * *


This next interview is with Reyna, a Triquis woman on the hunger strike who had been speaking to the press that day.


MOROSIN: What is your goal, what type of world do you want to see, and how might this problem and others be solved through your struggle?


reyna: We don't know what exactly could happen, but now all this hardship we're living, all this conflict that is happening in our pueblo, we're very concerned. We still have many people in there. We have family members closed in there. We'd like them to be able to leave. If they can't leave by the highway, we want the government to get them out by air. It's in their hands to do it, they just haven't wanted to. We want justice. We want these assassins, these paramilitaries, put in prison, so justice and tranquility can return in the pueblo, so the children can live happily in their homes.


Do medical services reach the community? A health center?


No. There was a health center. There was a CDI, a sacerdotal, a middle school. But they destroyed all of this and there's nothing, nothing, nothing. Now they're massacring our people who are closed in there.


They destroyed the health center?


Yes, everything. They kicked out the doctors, CDI, and the priest. There's only a few people left, the house where our people are is surrounded. They can't leave. There are some houses that they burned. It's ugly in there and we can't do anything. The government doesn't pay attention to us. We haven't been able to communicate with our people in there. I hope maybe later we can receive more news and make another decision.


So if you return, you come back…




All of you?


Yes. If we go back, they kill us.


Note: These interviews were performed on September 20, 2010. As of September 25, Oaxacan news outlets and activists have reported that all of the remaining families in San Juan Copala have left the community, with only paramilitaries of MULT and UBISORT remaining.



Alessandro Morosin is a graduate student in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The photographs are by him as well.