Robin Alexander and Jennifer Harbury
Last May some 70,000 teachers in Oaxaca went on strike. Their demands included raising the wages of teachers working in the state to a level commensurate with a higher cost of living, as well as assistance to students from impoverished regions. When their demands were not met, the teachers set up a makeshift encampment in the historical zócalo, or town- square, and there they stayed. Strike in Oaxaca Last May some 70,000 teachers in Oaxaca went on strike. Their demands included raising the wages of teachers working in the state to a level commensurate with a higher cost of living, as well as assistance to students from impoverished regions. When their demands were not met, the teachers set up a makeshift encampment in the historical zócalo, or town- square, and there they stayed.
At first the state government responded with a media attack. When that did not work, on June 14, at 4:00 a.m. armed police, accompanied by dogs, attacked the teachers who were sleeping with their family members and other supporters in the encampment and assaulted them with tear gas. At the same time, they took over the offices and the hotel of the union, detaining a dozen people including those who had been operating the union’s radio station known as “radio plantón.” The police were subsequently supported by two helicopters, throwing grenades of pepper smoke and tear gas which affected not only the strikers, but neighbors and guests in nearby hotels. The tents were destroyed and burned by police in large bonfires. This also resulted in various detentions and disappearances as well as one spontaneous abortion due to exposure to tear gas. While repression had been common, this sort of attack on sleeping people, affording them no notice or opportunity to leave, was unprecedented. Members of the community reacted with outrage, fighting back with anything they could find. They chased the police from the square, and re-established the camp
On June 17, several hundred local organizations came together to form the APPO, or Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, demanding that Governor Ulises Ruiz step down. Meanwhile, the movement continued to grow, with large but peaceful marches and demonstrations.
Throughout this period police raids, beatings, and shooting continued. On October 28 four people were killed, including indymedia journalist and U.S. citizen Brad Will and a Mexican teacher, Emilio Alonso Fabian.
The Federal Preventive Police were then sent in by the Mexican government, and on November 25 they appeared in full riot gear and encircled the entire area, firing tear gas. As people fled, many were arrested and beaten. Among the prisoners were many people who were simply on their way to work or to the market place that morning; 170 people were arrested that day, and most were taken to the far away prison of Nayarit. Thirty four were women, and five were minors.
On our first day in Oaxaca, some of the Nayarit prisoners were released and we hurried to the square to hear the news. As we listened to civic leaders address the press, a woman ran by asking for a doctor. One of the prisoners was still suffering from broken ribs. Other released prisoners and desperate relatives came to visit us quietly to tell their stories. As word got out about their presence, more and more people lined up to speak with them. One indigenous woman found her husband dying. His body bore nine bullet wounds from above – providing conclusive evidence he had been shot from the roof top. All the prisoners had been badly battered, kicked, struck with rifle butts, and bound so tightly some lost feeling in their arms or hands. Many were seriously injured but received no medical care at all. One man, an architect, came close to losing an eye; half of his face remains paralyzed.
Although the police were beginning to withdraw from the Zócalo as we arrived on Dec, 16th, the government repression continued. During the time we were in Oaxaca, an APPO leader and two activists were picked up leaving a meeting, badly beaten as a warning to others, then released. The woman whose husband was shot to death has been subject to intimidation. A battered lawyer had his office ransacked and remains in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the attacks have also been focused on local human rights advocates. An attorney was beaten so badly that his motorcycle helmet was broken. A broken rib had pierced his lung. He received no medical care for nearly a week. He had long been working with the rural organizations, and had defended friends who were imprisoned this year. He remains in hiding now as he recovers from his emergency surgery for a collapsed lung. His office has been ransacked and many files stolen. The police continue to look for him although he does not even know what the charges against him are. Another attorney has been forced to flee the country. Threats against Yésica Sánchez are yet another example.
The National Commission for Human Rights issued its preliminary report on December 18, in which it concluded that 20 people had been killed, 370 injured and 349 imprisoned since June 2. Although November 25 was a particularly egregious day, the violence continues.
But the popular movement also continues in the face of repression. Marcos Leyva, a leader of the NGO sector of APPO explained that APPO represents the convergence of various types of movements: social, ecological indigenous. He told us that APPO has two dimensions: “One is a political organization with leadership, internal organization and structure. Another is the dimension of spirituality, community, rebellion, and a spirit of struggle and resistance. This APPO was thirty years in the making. So even if the leadership is crushed, APPO is only an expression of what is underneath.” NLG developing relations with the human rights offices which represent the movement A delegation from Oaxaca, Mexico composed of lawyers and victims of government repression was in Washington, D.C. from March 2 – 8 for a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. With virtually no notice, members of the National Lawyers Guild coordinated housing and a series events hosted by community groups, unions, and universities. This was made possible due to the warmth and generosity of many organizations and individuals.
Of special note within the Guild in Washington were the American University chapter (which organized an event and held a bake sale to raise funds) and labor lawyer Dan Smith who worked with the DC chapter to organize a Guild reception for them, and worked with Robin Alexander on overall coordination.
Legal Support Work
Planned Legal support work in coordination with human rights organizations in Oaxaca is also being planned. In June, Guild President Marjorie Cohn and International Committee co-coordinator Jeanne Mirer will participate in a small, high level delegation which will travel to Oaxaca together with lawyers from the National Association of Democratic Lawyers of (ANAD) of Mexico.
The Movement in Oaxaca May Need You!
In addition, we are launching an internship program. Lawyers/law students/legal workers willing to work 3 – 6 months with Human Rights Organizations are needed. Fluency in Spanish is essential, legal experience is a big plus, and volunteers must have their own funding (although costs will be low). Delegation possibilities also exist. Lawyers with and Spanish speakers are especially encouraged to apply. For more information, please contact Robin Alexander <firstname.lastname@example.org> and Vanessa Lucas <email@example.com>. We are in discussions with ANAD, and it is likely that this will also become a joint project.
About the authors
This article was co-written by Robin Alexander, Director of International Affairs for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), a progressive union headquartered in Pittsburgh, and by human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. They participated in a delegation composed of lawyers – Guild attorney Merrilyn Onisko also participated – independent media, professors, students and other activists, who traveled to Oaxaca in late December, 2006 as part of a human rights delegation. A full report appears on the UE web site. Action Alert To participate in our Oaxaca Action Alert, click here.