A Chronicle of the October 29 PFP Invasion of Oaxaca
Another Angle of Events Before and During the Advance of Federal Forces into the City of Oaxaca
By Jacob Muller
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
November 13, 2006
What follows is a description of events on October 28-30 in Oaxaca, Mexico as experienced by this journalist. This marked the imminent advance of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), sent by President Vicente Fox to purportedly restore order to Oaxaca. Fox´s decision to send in the PFP—long awaited and welcomed by illegitimate governor Ulises Ruiz¬—was no doubt in response to the attacks and assassinations of 4 people on October 27, including a U.S. journalist, by state-sponsored gunmen in civilian clothes.
Saturday, October 28, 9 a.m.: Wanting to get a feel for the mood of the people, I walk up to some people sitting around the Zocalo. It is a cool, clear morning and the city’s center square is looking ragged and worn. Remains of burning tires from the previous nights´ watch posts are smoldering, and the walls are covered with graffiti and posters protesting the government and its repression in the State.
I strike up conversations with people, asking what’s going on, what they think will happen. Everyone I speak with is expecting the worst. And everyone is determined to continue resisting. Most express the importance of remaining non-violent. There are a couple of young men, 18-20 years-old, who have bent thick pieces of wire into handles for slingshots. We talk as they attach the surgical tubing that will launch stones to the roughshod handles. I ask them how they can possibly defend themselves against tanks of the elite and the heavily-equipped PFP. “We have to do something. We don’t have a choice,” one of them explained, “We’re an example of resistance for many others.”
This matter-of-fact attitude in the face of the impending strike is echoed by many gathered at the Zocalo this morning.
I walk by a makeshift medical station that’s been erected. Inside, I recognize one of Oaxaca’s better-known artists, Hugo Tovar, sitting on a stool and having blood drawn from his arm. I notice that there is not the usual tube or vial connected to the needle in his vein. Instead, he’s holding an empty plastic water bottle, which is slowly filling with his blood. A short while later, Tovar thanks the nurse as she removes the needle, then he stands and walks out into the Zocalo. His compañera is waiting with some small paint brushes and several large sheets of paper from a sketch pad.
Tovar spreads out and begins sketching a series of faces with charcoal. Then he mixes his blood with water and begins painting the faces. He adds detail with more blood, this time from a syringe. He finishes his public art work by writing, “Not one more drop of blood. No to the repression!” A crowd of 30 or so people has gathered around. Only a few soft whispers break the pervasive silence.
In the afternoon, I decide to go to Radio Universidad, the university’s broadcast system that students have taken over and put it to use for the people’s popular movement. They’re a sharp thorn in the side of the powers-that-be in Oaxaca, and taking away their “voice” will probably be one of the first priorities of the PFP. They’re an indispensable part of the popular struggle, not only in terms of giving voice to people who normally aren’t heard, but also by getting vital logistical information and breaking news to people on the streets and “in the trenches.”
After having my press credentials carefully checked, I’m allowed to enter the area outside the radio station. Twenty or so people are working to beef up–using wooden posts, bricks and parts of cars–the barricades that have already been put up. The atmosphere is very tense, and there’s a mix of fear, determination and exhaustion on people’s faces.
On the ground in front of Radio Universidad is a milk crate filled with Molotov cocktails, some traditional firecracker rockets, and some roughshod wooden clubs. I point to the homemade weapons and ask, “Are those really going to help if the PFP breaks through the barricade here?” The young student who’s been showing me around answers, “Not much, really. If the PFP comes in here, they’re going to fuck us. There’s only two ways we’ll be leaving here: dead or detained,” he says matter-of-factly. “But we have to resist, there’s no other option. And if they take us, the struggle won’t be over. The struggle will continue somehow, in one form or another. The people are fed up. The poverty, the corruption, the repression; we can’t take anymore.”
As I’m leaving, several people ask for news about what’s happening outside. I tell them I’ve just come from the Zocalo, and that the hundreds of people who have been occupying the town center for the past five months were absent, and that I’d been told that they have been mobilized to protect the barricades at all the major entrances of the city. That leaves the radio station vulnerable, and they’re clearly worried. I wish them luck and tell them to take care. “And you too. Be very careful,” one woman says, “You know they killed a journalist like you yesterday—one of your compañeros. It wasn’t like the media reports it; he wasn’t caught in crossfire. He was shot in cold blood by plain-clothed police.”
She was referring to Brad Will, a U.S. journalist with Indymedia who was killed in the neighborhood of Santa Lucia on the morning of October 27. Her words would soon be confirmed by photographs taken by journalists at the scene: Will was shot in the chest while videotaping a confrontation between government-sponsored agitators and local residents manning a local barricade. The photos of Will’s assassins identified them as local authorities and police in civilian clothes. Many people, myself included, assumed that Will’s murder was accidental. Killing U.S. journalists usually isn’t worth the political and economic repercussions, but several Oaxacan human rights workers and political analysts have suggested that Will’s murder was deliberate.
“Ulises Ruiz (URO) has been asking President Fox to send the Federal Preventative Police to Oaxaca to crush the popular movement for months now. And in spite of at least a dozen deaths that have taken place since the conflict started, Fox announced that he was sending in the PFP the very next day following Will’s death,” one investigator told me. “It’s very possible that URO created the situation for Will’s death, knowing that Fox would have to respond with force. Will was fairly high-profile; he was present at a press conference with the controversial former governor, and reportedly was collecting information about one of the murders. We’ll probably never know the truth, but if URO did stage the assassination, clearly it was a successful strategy.
Sunday, October 29, 8:30 a.m.: The neighborhood barricades of Vigueras are rumored to be among the most heavily fortified. The highway from Mexico City leads into Vigueras, and many of the 4000 PFP forces will be coming in from that direction.
I arrive at one of the barricades—a pile of bricks, rocks, large tree branches and a few burned out vehicles—and there’s a crowd of neighbors gathered in anticipation of the PFP’s arrival. I note the worry, and the defiance, on their faces. They are talking about what to do.
“We need to make this barricade stronger, let’s move that bus over here!” A group of thirty men and women run over to a burned-out school bus. I doubt they can move it, but heaving and sweating, they manage to lift it a little bit at a time and move it crossways into the middle of the highway.
A group of women is talking nearby, “Remember, no violence. We don’t want a war. If we provoke them, they’ll use it as a pretext to strike back hard,” says one woman with a child in her arms.
“Yes, our fight is non-violent. We need to show them that,” echoes a slight woman in a faded t-shirt and worn jeans. “Why don’t we walk up to them with white flowers? Or we could paint our palms white and hold them up to the PFP.” Many in the Vigueras crowd did both. Unfortunately, the image of the women holding flowers up to the PFP was manipulated in many of the local and national commercial media that claimed the white flowers were a greeting to the PFP, thanking them for coming to Oaxaca to “restore order.”
Several people say they’ve already seen the PFP passing by in commercial buses, heading for the Zocalo. Hearing this news, I decide to return to the city center to see if it’s true. The Zocalo will be a primary target for the PFP; it is a center point for the movement, as the town squares are traditionally seen as the heart of a town or city and are frequently used for staging protests when the government isn’t listening to the peoples’ voices. Since the occupation of the Zocalo began in mid-May, hundreds of people have been camped out there. There are posters, banners and graffiti everywhere you look, most denouncing the governor’s corruption and repression and demanding that he renounce his seat.
10:00 a.m.: When I arrive the Zocalo it is calm, and more or less empty. Everyone is at the barricades hoping to keep the PFP from coming in the city. In front of the cathedral I see Hugo Tovar, the artist who’d done the political painting in the Zocalo the day before. I tell him I’ve just come from Vigueras and mention the woman who suggested confronting the federal police with outstretched palms painted white.
“That’s a great idea. Let’s do it,” Tovar says. We take a brisk walk to his studio for a bucket of white paint and then we’re off to Vigueras. Public transportation is frozen today, so we take a variety of impromptu “taxis,” pickup trucks and personal vehicles driven by local entrepreneurs seizing the moment to make a few pesos. When we get closer to the small army of PFP waiting to enter, the makeshift taxis dissapear, so we walk and, when we can, hitch rides on passing motorcycles.
11:30 a.m., Vigueras: We arrive at the “front line.” There’s a crowd of 100-150 people facing many hundreds of police in full riot gear, clubs, gas masks, and tear gas guns at the ready. On the highway that comes in from Mexico City are at least fifteen tanks lined up three wide. They have bulldozer blades in front to clear the barricades, video cameras on turrets, and water canons. Behind them—as far as my eyes can see—are hundreds of more PFP troops and vehicles.
The crowd caries signs while chanting, talking and pleading, “You are the people. Your job is to protect us, not repress us! Oaxaca is not Atenco! This is our home. You don’t understand what’s happening here. Don’t protect this governor, the rich businesses. This city belongs to all the people of Oaxaca. We’re fucked, day and night, by the poverty!” The police stare straight ahead.
I’ve been photographing the police—protected like turtles in their armor, behind their shields, with their clubs, gas masks, tear gas and tanks—and turn away toward the crowd gathered to confront them. There’s a wall of white palms held up toward the police. Hugo Tovar has been busy, his palms wet with white paint, offering it to a sea of palms held out by the crowd. Someone from the crowd walks up to a pair of painted palms and is writing something on each one: “PAZ”—“PEACE,” in black letters begins to appear one by one on each of the protestors’ painted hands.
Suddenly the crowd begins to part from behind. An ambulance from the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez appears and slowly makes its way to the front line. A wizened nurse with silver hair gets out, and asks some of the crowd to make space so the police to see what’s about to take place. She takes from the ambulance a small plastic stool. Hugo Tovar sits down and rolls up his sleeve. The nurse inserts a needle into a vein, and blood begins to flow down his arm.
Three people come forward from the crowd. “Yes, me too!” they are saying. The first is a woman of maybe 25 years. “I’m a mother, I have two daughters. I want them to have a future, to live in peace,” she shouts toward the police, “here’s my blood. If you want my blood, here it is… but don’t take it with violence. Please!”
A heavy set man sits down defiantly, and offers his arm. The nurse inserts a needle, and soon blood is flowing down his arm. “Help me, pull off my t-shirt,” he asks Tovar. Bare-chested, he gathers a handful of the blood dripping down his forearm. Slowly, deliberately he writes the letters “URO,” the governor’s initials, on his chest. “How many more have to die?” he shouts.
A large man who towers above the crowd sits down on the chair. Again, the needle and the blood. He stands up and begins screaming with bursts of emotion toward the police. “I’m a campesino. I work the land. I’m from Oaxaca. You aren’t from here, so you don’t know, but we’re dying here. We die from the poverty, and the governor’s men are killing us as well.” He continues moving closer to the police, on the verge of tears, saying, “My brother is with the police too. I understand that necessity makes you do it. But he’s a good man. Please understand, you’re being used. We are all `the people.’ Don’t hurt your own. No more violence!”
Suddenly a Mexican flag appears in his hands. By now there’s a steady stream of blood dripping down his arm onto the black pavement. He takes the flag and wipes it across his arm. He begins to wave the flag, stained with his own blood, through the air. Then he begins to sing the Mexican national anthem, tears streaming down his face. The crowd soon joins him. Many faces are wet with tears.
Not much later, as sirens sound, the police move into action. They part, making room for the entrance of the armored vehicles. In unison they rap their batons against their shields and, along with the tanks, begin moving forward toward the crowd. People begin chanting. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” — “The people united, will never be defeated!”
Through my camera lens I see several people grab the bulldozer blades of one of the tanks. They’re pushing, hopelessly, against the tank to keep it from moving forward. I see movement on the pavement below, and when I lower my camera I see three people on the ground. The tank is slowly, steadily moving forward, but the people aren’t moving. A wave of journalists rushes in to capture the action. I see the tank’s blade drop, and my heart sinks. I turn away for a moment, and then look back toward the scene. Several compañeros have pulled the protestors back from the approaching tank… just in time.
I feel someone tugging strongly on one of my sleeves. I look down and see a small, grey-haired woman of maybe sixty years, tears flowing, “This is how our government treats its people, with repression,” she implores, “my God, what shame. How is this possible? What is happening to us?”
The tanks and the police pick up their pace, and the crowd moves back. Some people are running, clearly afraid, but most are retreating calmly. Some in the crowd are even shouting for people to slow down. The tanks begin firing their high-pressure water canons, knocking some people to the ground. The people try to put more distance between themselves and the approaching forces, running, tripping—a strange, controlled havoc.
I get a call on my cell phone, telling me I should get to the Zocalo. Police are going to be entering there soon. There are no buses or taxis to be seen as they’ve all left long ago. I begin walking quickly and before long I see a motorcycle passing by. I flag him down and ask for a ride. “You’re a journalist, no?” I nod. “Vamonos. Where do you want to go?” As close as I can get to the Zocalo, I explain, and then we’re off, dodging through the barricades of burning trees and tires and hollowed-out cars and buses.
We pass several confrontations between the people and the police. Tanks are using their water canons against the crowd and many are throwing bricks and small boulders at the tanks, helicopters are circling overhead dropping tear gas, and smoke rises from burning tires and vehicles.
We weave through the scenes and arrive at the Zocalo. As I get off the motorcycle, the driver reaches out to shake my hand. “Be careful,” he says, “They killed an American journalist the other day.” Another reference to Brad Will.
The Zocalo is quiet, mostly deserted. A few journalist pace around, busy talking on cell phones. Everywhere—on the sides of building, on trees, on sidewalks—there are posters, banners and graffiti scorning URO: “Ulises-Assassin,” “URO-Coward Rat” and “Ulises has already fallen.”
It’s getting dark, and smoke from the smoldering barricades floats through the Zocalo.
To be continued…
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