Marjorie Cohn and Jeanne Mirer
From June 7 to 11, 2007, NLG President Marjorie Cohn, IADL Secretary General Jeanne Mirer and Oscar Alzaga, President of the Association of Democratic Lawyers of Mexico, went to Oaxaca to discuss ways our organizations could provide concrete support to the lawyers who are defending the victims of government repression in Oaxaca.
On June 14, 2006, police and dogs acting under orders of state Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz had viciously attacked a peaceful encampment of members of the teachers union and supporters. They tear-gassed everyone in the vicinity, including pregnant women and children; one woman miscarried as a result. Ninety-two people were wounded. Members of the community reacted with outrage, fighting back with anything they could find. They chased the police from the public square, and re-established the camp.
On June 17, several hundred local organizations came together to form the Asemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), comprising almost 350 different civil organizations working in areas of indigenous issues, sustainable community development, human rights, and social justice. APPO demanded that Ruiz step down. The movement continued to grow, with large but peaceful demonstrations. Police raids, beatings, and shootings continued. On October 28, four people were killed, including indymedia journalist and US citizen Brad Will and a Mexican teacher, Emilio Alonso Fabian.
The Mexican government sent in the Federal Preventive Police. On November 25, they appeared in full riot gear, encircled the entire area of the demonstration, and fired tear gas. As people fled, many were arrested and beaten. One hundred seventy people were arrested.
Nearly 1,500,000 teachers, workers, professors and artists, many of them Indigenous people, occupied Oaxaca’s main plaza during this period. Although the movement crystallized to support the striking teachers, the frustration of the people resulted from deep economic and social problems the government has aggravated and allowed to fester. These problems that have harmed workers were exacerbated by NAFTA and the Bush administration’s neoliberal policies. The majority of the population of Oaxaca is Indigenous, most of whom live in extreme poverty.
From June 2006 to the present over 500 people were arrested, and 350 currently have pending charges. Many were severely beaten by the police, 100 have been tortured, and approximately 30 people were killed. Our Recent Delegation From June 7 to 11, 2007, we met with lawyers, workers and prisoners. Marcelino Coache Verano, a municipal worker and leader of APPO, related how he and three other activists had been arrested in Mexico City on their way to meet with government officials to negotiate an end to the strife. They were stripped naked, beaten, and guards walked on their backs. Marcelino’s finger was broken. His wife and young children told us how they were terrorized for months with death threats and shots fired at their home.
We interviewed two prisoners, Flabiano Juarez Hernandez and Wilbert Ramon Aquino Aragon. Flabiano was not part of the demonstration. He was working in the market near the plaza when he was arrested and charged with auto theft. The police blows to his head required several stitches. He is indigenous and doesn’t speak fluent Spanish; yet he was denied the services of an interpreter. Wilbert, a worker who participated in the demonstrations, was arrested for the attempted murder of a taxi driver he never met. He was told he would be released if he identified people in police photographs. Since he refused, he continues to be held in custody. The police beat him so badly he is scheduled for surgery.
Twenty year-old Pedro Garibo Pérez was not involved in the demonstration. Yet he was arrested and kept face down for 6 hours with his leg on a hot muffler. The 20 centimeter burn was left unattended for more than two and a half months. When lawyers finally were able to visit him, they saw large areas of exposed raw flesh on his leg. As a result of their demands, he finally received medical attention and spent 10 days in the hospital.
A 50-year-old widow named Aurelia was working as a maid on November 25. She had just left work when she was arrested. The police started firing tear gas at everyone. She said, “I felt myself asphyxiating and my eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t move. I was so scared.”
The police grabbed Aurelia by the hair, cursed at her and kicked her. They forced her and several other women to kneel for two hours on the cobblestone. Then they were thrown into a truck in a pile, “like animals, with their hands and feet tied.” Once in prison, Aurelia said, “you could hear the men screaming nearby. I thought about my family members who were there yelling, beaten.”
The treatment to which these people were subjected violates the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Three of the techniques used by the police in Oaxaca apparently originated in the United States. They include terrorizing people with ferocious dogs, threats to throw prisoners from helicopters into the sea, and a humiliation technique of denying toilet privileges, leaving people to defecate in their pants.
Nine men remain in custody. There are only 13 lawyers representing the 350 people who stand charged. Many of the lawyers have suffered some form of harassment, including threats, beatings, and sexual harassment. Five inmates were made to sign statements denouncing the president of the Mexican League for Defense of Human Rights, in exchange for their release from prison.
The lawyers have filed “amparos” in Mexico’s federal courts which are similar to habeas petitions to get the charges dismissed. Most people are facing charges of sedition, criminal association, and possession of fire bombs. They have been somewhat successful in attacking the constitutionality of the criminal association charge, but the matter has been sent back to the prosecutor to try to find an alternative charge which does not violate Mexico’s constitution.
The lawyers have also filed “deununcias” against Ruiz, the president of Mexico, and the attorney general, seeking to remove Ruiz and hold them criminally accountable. The denuncias charge assassination, torture, forced disappearance, and denial of justice.
A Mexican Supreme Court Justice minister said that federal, state and municipal authorities committed grave civil rights violations during the Oaxaca conflict; he recommended that the Court create a committee to investigate the responsible public officials. Although a special prosecutor was named (who is not independent) and the Supreme Court has said it will form a committee to investigate, nothing has been done to date.
What You Can Do
The Guild’s International Committee is recruiting interns who are fluent in Spanish to travel to Oaxaca and help sift through the testimonies of people arrested and beaten, for common defenses and evidence. The application for the internship can be found here. We have also recruited a Guild lawyer to write an amicus brief to be signed by many groups internationally in support of the amparos. For information on where to send letters of protest, see the article from the Guild’s December 2006 delegation.