“La Doctora” Bertha Muñoz Returns to Oaxaca after Nearly Two Years in Hiding
Despite Threats of Violence, and State Criminal Charges She has Returned Home to Face the Fear that Led Her into Exile
By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca
November 26, 2008
In an emotional scene in the center of the city, “La Doctora” Bertha Muñoz returned to Oaxaca for the November 25 observance of the 2006 repression of the Oaxaca social movement. She joined leaders of Section 22 of SNTE on a stage constructed beside Oaxaca’s Catedrál, where APPO activists as well as the leaders of the teachers union addressed the post-march crowd .
Berta Muñoz spoke in a straightforward and simple way,. beginning, “Now I am here.” She continued, “I owe an explanation to those who are here and those who are not here. Why did I go? I went because of fear, fear for myself and my sons. I went due to fear. Others like me took the threats more or less seriously. I fled out of fear…
“I return because I am tired of living with fear. I am not an assassin or a criminal. I did not set fires, I did not kill anyone. With all the fear, I have returned. The fear goes on, but freedom will overcome it… I want to ask you to help me to understand what happened. Each person experienced the repression differently. .. I ask you to come on Sunday to the zócalo so we can talk and understand what happened to us. We have to do this ourselves.”
The crowd responded to La Doctora’s request for forgiveness by calling, “We love you, we love you”.
The full force of Mexico’s government fell on Oaxaca when then-president Vicente Fox ordered a random military sweep with combined national and state police. The armed troops swept through the streets of the historic center beating and grabbing whoever they found that night. More than 300 people were arrested.
Bertha Muñoz, who for months was the best-known voice of the social movement because of her broadcasts on Radio Universidad, fled shortly thereafter as a result of threats against her person, her home and her children. She received threats saying “they would cut her tongue out” and “they would set her house on fire”.
Dr. Muñoz appeared in public at the termination of the commemorative march despite warrants for her arrest on various trumped-up government charges. She has received federal protection, (in the form of amparos) but the state legal system in the control of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortega (URO) has maintained charges against her. Muñoz fled Oaxaca in December of 2006. In May of 2007 she was assisted into exile on the advice of the international Commission for Human Rights, who agreed she could not be safe from a government which routinely arrests, tortures and disappears those who stand against it. After many months in Bolivia she returned to Mexico in May of 2008, letting the world know through an interview with the CNN journalist Carmen Aristegui.
Muñoz hoped for legal protections against the state government’s arrest orders, but although lawyers repeatedly obtained court decisions to protect her, the government merely invented new charges, some of them patently absurd, such as setting fire to a Banamex ATM station.. Her pension for thirty years of teaching medicine at the University of Oaxaca medical school was rescinded –not overtly but by a systematic confusion in the paperwork required. Ultimately, Muñoz reported, she was told that she was “fired” for failure to show up at work, and her loss of pension was specifically ordered by the governor.
Finally Dr. Muñoz decided that she would no longer play the government’s game. She decided to return to Oaxaca. She arrived on Sunday in private transportation with considerable secrecy, and word of her homecoming was not public until Dr. Muñoz stood in the zócalo. For the fashion mavens among you, she wore a white lab coat over jeans, her curly white hair clearly visible above smaller people.
The doctor spoke with no notes, simply expressing her feelings, “What are we, animals? Where are human rights?” She referred to the assassination of reporters, “Where are the rights to work? There are no rights, only deeds (of repression)!” She asserted that the “failure” of the movement was not a failure of the people, who can hold their heads high. The federal government of Felipe Calderón chose to maintain the governor Ulises Ruiz and other PRI governors in power, in exchange for political support by the PRI: a moral failure on his part, she declared.
Doctor Muñoz, also referred to as “Doctor Escopeta,” broadcast in her much-loved rasp during the movement’s occupation of the capital city of Oaxaca in 2006. She hosted hours on Radio Universidad in the months before it was finally destroyed by government agents, speaking to and for the people in their struggle to rid themselves of the despotic governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, always in favor on non-violence and calm, even while the radio station itself was under attack. Her trademark cigarette and her spare frame were also seen in the streets during the time when the city was held by the people’s barricades. During marches she traveled in an ambulance ready to assist those injured.
In a later press conference with Section 22 leaders La Doctora said she would be willing to broadcast on the teachers’ station, Radio Plantón, since the university is now off limits.
The November 25 march publicized the current movement demands: get rid of Elba Ester Gordillo, president-for-life of The National Education Workers Union, do away with the Agreement for Quality Education (ACE) which is generally regarded to be a move toward privatizing education in Mexico, free all political prisoners, obtain justice for those government criminals now formally charged by the APPO, stop repression, and support other teachers sections across Mexico, specifically of Morelos where another repression occurred on the Oaxaca model following two months of teacher strikes. Teachers from Morelos in sympathy with the APPO and Section 22 also marched.
On the speakers platform, Flavio Sosa, Cástulo Lopez and Azael Santiago Chepi repeated calls for unity and putting aside the ideological differences which have hampered and all but destroyed the APPO since 2007. Lopez asked for a new beginning, with a new APPO assembly in January. Sanitago Chepi, a young Zaopoteco from the Sierra Norte, presents himself as more militant than his union predecessors, and more willing to take the strength of Section 22 into the streets on behalf of social protest. He issued a warning to Gordillo and Calderon: “We are building in the communities , and with the parents”. The movement is not dead, and clearly the new secretary general of Section 22 intends to be -without violence- on the front line of struggle.
Ironically, fighting broke out shortly thereafter in the same spot, between the EPR and VOCAL. Along the march route some unidentified –perhaps government agents- youngsters were destroying property and trying to break into Chedraui to steal food. Teachers lined up in front of Chedraui to protect it.
On the same morning of November 25, public transportation was suspended. Although it may have been at the orders of the governor, it is also clear that many bus company owners fear vandalism, which may or may not be paid for by this same government, whose goals include turning public opinion against the teachers. Those who wanted to join the megamarch, which dew more than 60,000 participants, set out on foot to reach the starting point at the crossroads of Viguera. Banners reading “We don’t forgive and we don’t forget” summarized the wrath of the public. Other banners held up the portrait of the man now imprisoned for the murder of Brad Will who filmed PRI officials running towards him shooting.
Remembrance of those arrested, tortured, and disappeared by the government. A cleansing ceremony, surrounded by a circle of family and friends of the dead, tortured or disappeared, sent sage smoke into the air in front of the Santo Domingo church.
A silent procession then wended its way along several streets where the repression occurred. At 6:00 PM a mass took place in the Catedrál, with the attending people carrying white flowers and food to share. Given the government’s clear intention to keep his fist clamped against any social protest, it may take more than prayers to improve the lives of poor Oaxaqueños.
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