Oaxaca’s Popular Movement at Six Months
Arrests, Disappearances, Assassinations and Human Rights Violations are Manifold but Have Failed to Stop the Struggle
By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca
November 17, 2006
Tables set up in the Santo Domingo encampment now occupied by the APPO are a clear indication of how grave the human rights issue has become in Oaxaca. At some hour of the day or night it’s possible to find the table staffed by human rights lawyers or by teachers. At other times volunteers staff the tables where the names of the disappeared are registered in a book by their families. Lists are published by the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights (LIMEDDH).
From October 29 to November 14 thirty-one people disappeared. Of the 104 people arrested illegally, 95 have been freed, 9 are still held inside state prisons. The crimes which they are accused of include hindering free passage, sedition, criminal association, conspiracy, theft, rebellion, and threats. Warrants are outstanding for many teachers and APPO people, who move nightly from one house to another to sleep. The PFP have entered homes illegally to search and seize people. At Radio Universidad the now-famous Doctor Bertha, whose voice prevailed as the voice of sanity, calm and reason on the air, does not leave the university grounds. Like others, she virtually lives inside its protective walls. Radio Universidad still broadcasts, but its signal is blocked by the government.
November 15 was the day when Ulises Ruiz Ortiz was scheduled to hand in his second “state of the State” message, called the “informe.” It was supposed to illustrate the governability of Oaxaca, and indeed how well things are going here. Due to the level of “governability” actually in force, the governor handed his written statement over to his Secretary of Government (Chief of Staff, in the US counterpart) for him to hand it, in turn, to the legislators. At the same time, the governor asked for 123 billion pesos from the federal government to put down the popular assembly movement in Oaxaca. Although Ulises Ruiz claims the state is functioning normally, he nevertheless requires an influx of tanks and armaments. The informe requests the firm hand of Felipe Calderon.
Excuse me, but that sounds like a clear admission that the state is not governable.
The APPO, on the day of the informe, chose to demonstrate that Oaxaca is indeed ungovernable. Marches were scheduled from three different points to demand the departure of the PFP.
The march of about 10,000 teachers from Valles Centrales and Sierra Norte, along with adherents to the APPO, were met with attacks by PFP from “friendly roofs” of private houses, using slingshots to fire glass marbles which struck several of the marchers (this tactic of harassment was also used on November 2). The march, which had originated outside the center, now proceeded to a point south of the zocalo, where one or two marchers, despite calls from the APPO leaders not to provoke retaliation, provoked the Federal Police (PFP) who guard the zocalo. The PFP first responded to taunts of “Oaxaca is not a barracks,” “PFP out of Oaxaca,” and other slogans by shooting stones and marbles from slingshots. The marchers responded with rocks and bottles of water. Then the PFP launched tear gas canisters. Since the intersection where the confrontation occurred is between shops and the primary school Enrique C. Rebsámen, where about 400 students were in classes. The gas penetrated both sides of the street, causing harm to both students and shopkeepers. The marchers took to another street.
At the same time, two other marches took place in the city of Oaxaca, and one at the Istmo of Tehuantepec. Several highways were blockaded.
The same day two young photographers were abducted in the zocalo. They were taken by vehicles which had license plates, noted by the observers. A woman who had been out shopping witnessed the PFP grab the cameras, throw the two photographers to the ground, and kick and beat them. The men, who had been taking photos of the PFP guards, were first approached by an officer who told them to stop. Then the police took away their backpacks. The woman who witnessed all this approached the police and said that the men were within their rights, that they were Oaxacan citizens, and that it wasn’t right what the police were doing. A group of police officers surrounded the woman in what seemed like an effort to intimidate her. They then surrounded the two men and threw them, bloody and beaten, into a police car and drove away.
The PFP then took many photos of this woman witness, and followed her as she headed towards the barricade of Cinco Señores to report the abduction. The woman was connected by telephone to the human rights observer, to whom she spoke at length, describing the situation, the abducted men, and the car (with the license plate numbers) that took them away. After getting off the phone she continued to express her outrage and her disgust with the police, in terms which indicated that a housewife out to do some shopping had been abruptly radicalized.
Within two days the human rights lawyers obtained the release of these two photographers, who clearly had been arrested with no legal grounds. Foreign photographers use extreme caution, and report being followed. This “dirty war” is growing in Oaxaca, with paramilitaries, disinformation in the press, intimidation, and repression of all forms of political speech.
Foreign observers seem to be everywhere – not just amateurs but big name people (here nameless) including one American doctor, a film maker, a German photo-journalist, and teams of reporters. Today one team went to interview a man who was taken prisoner and in an eight day ordeal was tortured by the police; one team went to discuss the disappeared and the matter of 24 corpses sitting in the Red Cross amphitheater.
The only people authorized to enter the morgue to look for bodies are LIMEDH and Red Oaxaqueña de Derechos Humanos. They are the ones who have compiled the lists of disappeared and the related testimonies. They are the ones who work directly with the Committee of Family Members and Friends of the Disappeared, Detained, and Political Prisoners. Furthermore, they have a long-existing (though strained) relationship with the Red Cross, which gives them access to the morgue. The Committee formed only a few weeks ago and, while filling an important role, is not the sole body dealing with the question of disappeared persons. Many people who assist the Committee (for example, staffing the human rights table in Santo Domingo) are volunteers.
The Story that Didn’t Happen
On the morning of Sunday, November 2, two curious photographers I will call L and H, stopped by the Human Rights table in the Santo Domingo area where the APPO supporters are presently camped. All around them were videos showing various government attacks and the response of the population that fights back against the high caliber weapons of the police with stones, slingshots, sticks and home-made explosive Molotov cocktails. In the past twenty days, a human rights calamity has overtaken the movement. Under the guise of ”keeping the peace,” the PFP and/or PRI operatives of the governor Ulises Ruiz have killed, abducted or disappeared one hundred thirty people. There have been two major battles. One was on October 29, the attempt to dislodge the APPO barricades from in front of the government buildings they were blocking. Twenty-two were arrested, with sixteen more in the two days following. Dozens were injured. The failed PFP attempt to invade the radio station of the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez of Oaxaca (UABJO) in a seven hour battle took place on November 2. At that time, people were shoved into helicopters and presumably flown to the prison. About a dozen simply vanished.
Subsequent interviews with released prisoners verify that people were held at the helicopter doorways and threatened with being hurled out. Those in prison were tortured both physically and psychologically.
When L and H approached the human rights worker, C, for information they were told that bodies had been discovered – in the small amphitheater on the Red Cross grounds. A report said that the bodies had been held in the morgue at the state public hospital for an unknown number of days. Then the hospital decided it could store them no longer, and moved them to the Red Cross building located on Bustamante Street in the center of the city of Oaxaca.
L and H took their cameras and headed down.
When they arrived at the Red Cross building they found a window – too high to look through, but H was able to hold his camera above his head and look through a viewfinder. What a view. There were the bodies, stacked one above another on shelves. The bodies were all nude. It wasn’t possible to count exactly how many from the angle of view, but apparently at least one was female, and there were about twenty-four altogether.
While L and H were snapping pictures a person emerged from the building and asked them to leave immediately, which they did, taking with them precious evidence. The photos were transferred to a harddrive and to several CDs for safekeeping.
That same evening after dark two women walked back to Santo Domingo to inform the human rights observers of the existence of the videos. It was necessary to act rapidly, because there was no way to know how long the Red Cross would or could keep bodies in the Oaxaca climate. More importantly, photographs of the faces of the dead, fingerprints, and evidence of how they died were essential to retrieve, both for the bereaved families who might be able to claim their dead, and for the evidence of murder.
When the two women spoke with the human rights workers they were directed to a human rights lawyer, who exclaimed over the importance of the filmed evidence. The lawyer’s wife who is also a teacher, simply sat in the semi-darkness with tears in her eyes. She knew the families of the disappeared have been in anguish for two weeks wondering if their missing family members are dead or imprisoned.
Two human rights lawyers, with a letter in hand, proceeded to the Red Cross building on Monday afternoon accompanied by a team of seven people. They demanded entry to see the bodies, and were told they could – but the person in charge of letting them in was not present. They waited almost four hours. Eventually, the rules changed and they were told that four people only could go in. The four selected were a doctor from the USA, a photographer from Germany, a Oaxacan doctor who was admitted as a “helper” without admitting his medical capability, and a male nurse who also was admitted as an anonymous “helper.”
Before they entered the building, phone calls were made to alert friends and relatives as to where team members were, and to ask for more APPO people to come to the Red Cross building to protect them when they left. In addition, multiple copies of the CD showing the corpses had already been made and were in safe hands. By this time it was dark out, and surprisingly for Oaxaca in its dry season, raining steadily.
It had been decided that the first priority was to identify the bodies to see if they were among the disappeared. That meant a face photo, fingerprints, teeth photos, and recording identifying marks such as scars. By this time the team was tired.
Finally the director of the Red Cross arrived to open the building, and with him another worker who admitted all seven of the team, after their four-hour wait for admittance, while the director was in another area.
The team during an hour and half’s investigation documented all they could of the dead. But they decided the corpses were too old to be the disappeared –- probably dead since September, and with no signs of violence on their bodies. Nevertheless photos were taken and forensic procedures completed.
The Political Prisoners and Disappeared
This spontaneous Human Rights investigation yielded no results for the anxious families of those who disappeared. “Yet, whoever has a minimum of consciousness of history,” writes the Human Rights Committee, “can not hear at different hours of the day the noise of the spy plane, or pass through the historic center of this city, or the installations of Channel Nine or the Parque del Amor, where the federal police are posted, without thinking of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, and feeling the indignation which is provoked by the intention to maintain in power Ulises Ruiz… using for that purpose all the weight of the state apparatus… Thanks to the popular resistance, 131 compañeros have been freed after being arbitrarily detained during the occupation of the PFP. Nevertheless up until November 11 the following are still imprisoned:
- Humberto Jiménez Ríos
- Jaime Guerrero
- Gerardo Martínez
- Héctor Guzmán Acosta
- Joaquín Benjamín López Castillo
- Marcos García Martínez
- Miguel Angel García
- Valentín Pérez Hernández
- Víctor Hugo Martínez Toledo
Also still disappeared:
- Alejandro Merino García
- Ángel Santos Callejas Rodríguez
- Ángel Soto Gallegos
- Armando o Arnaldo Rojas Galán
- Camilo Domínguez de los Santos
- Erick López Ortiz
- Felipe Pérez Tomás
- Félix Ricardo Méndez Venegas
- Fernando Ruiz Santos
- Isaías Pérez Mireles
- Jesús Martínez Hernández
- Máximo Reyes Pérez
- Pedro “N”
- Teodoro Tiño Verado
- Ubaldo García Guzmán
- Yeni Jarquín Aguilar
- Diego Magdiel Rodríguez Hernández
12 more were carried off from the barricade in the Felipe Carrillo Puerto Neighborhood at the Avenida Ferrocarril.
With the indignation of whoever sees their sky, parks and plazas converted into visible signs of repression, we sign (committee members).”
Those whose efforts, which yielded only twenty-four unidentified bodies, continue to locate the families of those dead. The Human Rights Committee also carries on trying to locate the disappeared. The governor remains in power.
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