Oaxaca Protesters Fear Major Police Crackdown
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Oaxaca Protesters Fear Major Police Crackdown
by Diego Cevallos
MEXICO CITY - Thousands of local residents, teachers and social activists in the front line of a historic movement against local authorities in the capital of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca are preparing to resist a police operation they believe may be imminent.
"Our companions are very tense. We demand that force should not be used, nobody wants blood in the streets," Florentino López, spokesman for the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), a variegated social movement bringing together radical and reformist trade unions and leftist political forces in the state, told IPS from Oaxaca, the state capital.
Sources close to President Vicente Fox's government told IPS that police plans are laid to put an end to the conflict, which has already lasted 129 days, after attempts failed at negotiation between APPO and representatives of state Governor Ulises Ruiz, who is accused of corruption and human rights abuses.
A police crackdown in Oaxaca "is not planned, but neither is it ruled out," said Interior Minister Carlos Abascal, who in the past few days has been meeting members of the business community, opinion leaders and church representatives to discuss the conflict.
López confirmed that the "peaceful resistance" movement's barricades in the centre of Oaxaca have been reinforced and extended since Monday, and that "many compañeros" have armed themselves with incendiary bombs, sticks and stones.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, the military and police presence has also been beefed up, according to various reports.
"The situation is explosive and could flare up at any time," Wilfredo Mayrén told IPS. A Catholic priest and coordinator of the diocesan Justice and Peace commission in the state of Oaxaca, he took part in a civilian commission that tried unsuccessfully to mediate in the conflict.
The protests began in May, when the teachers' union in Oaxaca, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, went on strike to demand better salaries.
But the growing protests, ignored by the state government, began to draw in other social groups with different grievances, leading to the emergence of APPO and demands that Governor Ruiz, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), step down.
Mayrén interpreted the present situation as "the result of a cocktail that includes decades of repressive and corrupt governments, a great deal of poverty, and the emergence of authentic social organisations, but also some that are radical or corrupt, for whom social activism is a business."
In early September, some 15 armed guerrillas with their faces covered, who claimed to belong to six different insurgent groups, blocked a highway in the north of Oaxaca and distributed leaflets which praised APPO and warned that they might enter into action if the authorities responded violently to the social mobilisation.
But APPO publicly rejected any such threats. "All of the people should be involved in the struggle, but we reject armed activism, because it gives those in power the justification for a wave of repression," López told IPS at the time.
"We have differences with them (the purported guerrilla groups), and we believe that their presence does not benefit us, and that they should not intervene," he added.
Ruiz was elected in 2004 to a six-year term in what the opposition parties say were rigged elections, and is accused of acting in a tyrannical and repressive manner towards opponents and minorities.
But in the Senate, which could impeach Ruiz, he enjoys the support of lawmakers from both the PRI -- which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 -- and the governing conservative National Action Party (PAN).
During the protests, as many as six people have been killed in violent incidents that have not been clarified, but which apparently involved irregular armed groups linked to the Ruiz administration and the police, according to human rights organisations. A number of demonstrators have also been arrested.
Three indigenous people were killed in August. And on Wednesday four others were injured in an ambush staged by unknown assailants against members of the Trique Movement of Unification and Struggle who were on their way to the state capital to join the APPO movement.
"Here in Oaxaca, the victims of the repression are us, the members of APPO, who only want justice and an end to the repression and to bad government," said López.
The rest of the victims were people who support the social movement, who were beaten or shot by police or unidentified snipers.
The non-governmental Oaxacan Human Rights Network has denounced that the state government is mobilising paramilitary-style groups to squelch the protest.
Over half of the state's 3.2 million people, many of whom are indigenous, live in poverty, and 21.5 percent of those over 15 are illiterate, while the average number of years of schooling is 5.6 years -- almost two less than the national average. In addition, 12.7 percent of people in the state have no electricity, and 34.5 percent lack piped water in their homes.
Human rights organisations have denounced systematic violations of human rights in Oaxaca, saying that freedom of expression is not respected, and that the legislative and judicial branches are completely subordinated to the state government, which has been controlled by the PRI for decades.
Some 50 human rights and social organisations have urged the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene, and have asked the Fox administration to take effective action to prevent further violence in Oaxaca.
In this year’s presidential election campaign, which culminated in the Jul. 2 elections, Ruiz dedicated himself fully to backing PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo, neglecting his duties as governor.
Prior to the elections, Madrazo broke off relations with the head of the national teachers union, Elba Gordillo, who also belongs to the PRI but was accused of working in favour of PAN candidate Felipe Calderón, now president-elect.
That triggered a conflict between the PRI and the teachers union, which some analysts point to as one of the underlying causes of the current problems in Oaxaca.
In Father Mayrén’s view, the most radical groups have gained ground in APPO. "I don't doubt that there are well-intentioned social organisations, but they have less power now," he said.
On several occasions in the last few weeks, APPO members have used violence, seizing people they consider to be criminals or opponents, and exhibiting them with their hands bound in a public square.
They have also entered public and private buildings, where they have attacked the occupants, among them a well-known journalist, Ricardo Rocha, who received blows from demonstrators who stormed into a hotel in Oaxaca looking for Ruiz.
APPO later apologised to Rocha.
According to the Oaxacan Human Rights Network, uniformed police officers and men in civilian dress attacked the demonstrators on the streets outside the hotel with shots and blows, leaving several people injured, including one with a bullet wound.
Activists have blocked access to public buildings such as the state legislature, the courthouse and the government house. They have also occupied one state-run and five private radio stations.
"APPO is made up of many organisations and groups, but I assure you we are non-violent. We have already apologised for several isolated incidents, but you must understand that people are very upset, and that is why they behave aggressively," said López.
A number of Oaxacan mayors and legislators, most of whom belong to the PRI, went to Mexico City on Tuesday to demand that the Fox administration use force to end the conflict. Closure of the schools is negatively affecting 1.3 million children, and the protests are causing considerable economic damage to tourism and trade.
Meanwhile, on Sep. 21 hundreds of Oaxaca residents began a march on foot and in vehicles from Oaxaca to Mexico City, which they hope to reach on Friday or Saturday, to ask for solutions.
Fox pledged to do everything in his power to solve the conflict before he hands over to Calderón on Dec. 1.
Mayrén said the state of Oaxaca is in need of "profound structural reforms," to overcome the problems that have plagued it for decades "and that have now reached crisis point."
"We urgently need a non-violent third party that is neither the government nor APPO. That's the only way to reach a solution," he maintained.
Regarding the position taken by the Oaxacan populace towards the conflict, he said that "the majority are neither with APPO nor with the government." In Oaxaca, "what we have are people who are hoping for a prompt and non-violent solution," he said.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service