MEXICO CITY - A number of thick files contain the details of human rights abuses committed in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where a social uprising lasting more than six months was put down by force by police and illegal armed groups, leaving 20 people dead, 349 under arrest and 370 injured.
Eighty people are still in custody, including the leaders of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). But most of those arrested, who were housed in jails in several states, have now been freed after the state government, paradoxically the main alleged perpetrator of the violence, paid millions of pesos to bail them out.
Thousands of supporters and members of the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO) take part in a march against the Governor of Oaxaca Ulises Ruiz and Federal police (PFP), in Oaxaca City December 10, 2006. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar (MEXICO)
"If it hadn't been for the international and national pressure added to the accusations by human rights organizations, the repression would have been even more violent, and there would still be dozens of people under arrest; of that we are certain," Adrián Ramírez, president of the non-governmental Mexican League for the Defence of Human Rights (LIMEDDHH), told IPS.
The state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest in the country, was the scene of an uprising led by APPO, a collective of over 350 social organizations, between June and November. The main aim, which it failed to achieve, was the resignation of the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, who has long been accused of abuses, corruption, violence and authoritarianism.
The conflict broke out in May when local teachers held protests to demand better salaries, but it escalated in June in response to police violence against the protesters, following Ruiz's orders. In October, the administration of then president Vicente Fox sent thousands of federal police to regain control of the capital of Oaxaca, which bears the same name.
In late November there were fierce clashes between the police and demonstrators. Presumed activists burned and destroyed several public buildings, unleashing a wave of mass arrests which pulled in the leaders of APPO. Then the federal police took over total control of the capital, part of which they later handed over to the local police.
Today the situation is one of relative calm. APPO has sustained some splits in the last few weeks, but is still negotiating with the government of President Felipe Calderón, who took office on Dec. 1. Meanwhile, national and international scrutiny of the human rights situation continues.
The International Civil Commission for Human Rights Observation, made up of representatives from 30 countries, most of them European, has been visiting Mexico since Dec. 18 for the purpose of collecting testimonies about Oaxaca and producing a final report.
The Calderón administration has extended every facility to assist the work of the delegation, which will remain in Mexico until late January. At a later date it will issue its report, which will reach different forums, such as the European Parliament, which has severely criticised Mexico over the events in Oaxaca.
The analyses and reports presented over the last few months by Mexican and international human rights organizations about Oaxaca have put federal and state authorities in the dock.
The reports concur that the authorities were guilty of many instances of abuses, arbitrary detentions, torture, and shootings of demonstrators and journalists.
These documents also say that irregular armed groups, apparently answering to Ruiz, acted with complete impunity against the protesters, who occupied most of the city of Oaxaca between June and November.
The governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) stated in a preliminary report released on Dec. 18 that since June it has received 1,211 complaints from individuals and organizations in Oaxaca.
The case files collected spoke of unjustified use of force, arbitrary detentions, people held incommunicado, "disappearances", damages, injuries, threats and illegal house searches. These acts resulted in the deaths of 20 people, 349 arrests and 370 people injured, according to the CNDH, which has kept a team of experts in Oaxaca since June.
In its conclusions, the CNDH said that the state of Oaxaca "is still lacking the necessary and sufficient conditions for the enforcement and respect of basic human rights."
LIMEDDHH reached similar conclusions in various reports on the crisis.
In one of its latest reports, analysing the police crackdown in November, the League stated that the police made a total of 141 "arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests, mostly of innocent people."
"From the moment they were arrested, most people were subjected to blows and humiliations, beyond the limits of legal measures to secure and restrain them, as they offered no resistance," the document stated.
"A significant number of persons, both men and women, complained of sexual abuse, together with threats of rape or mutilation," it went on.
"Deprivation of water, food, facilities for relieving physiological needs, the assumption of forced positions, the extreme crowding of people during transport in spite of the existence of injured people with obvious bleeding, the denial of medical care, together with insults and threats, were also constantly repeated complaints," according to the League.
Furthermore, there was "degrading and negligent treatment by police personnel and humiliations during transfer to the different prisons, and the uncertainty about their status in law, as well as the shaving of people's heads, including women," it added.
Ramírez, the head of the League, spoke of the nightmare experiences of hundreds of people who were victims of mistreatment by the police and illegal armed groups. He remarked that activists in his organization have been threatened and are facing warrants for their arrest.
In Oaxaca, the state violated national and international legislation, which "has forced us to denounce the existence of outright persecution by the different state security services and personnel, aimed at criminalizing popular protests," said LIMEDDHH.
Practices of this kind in Oaxaca go back way before the conflict broke out. Governor Ruiz, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has ruled the state uninterruptedly for over 70 years, is the main alleged culprit.
Ruiz became governor in 2004 after winning elections which the opposition claimed were fraudulent. He belongs to the most conservative wing of the PRI, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000.
The governor refuses to step down. The Senate has the power to remove him from office but lacks the necessary majority to do so. Although political support for Ruiz has declined, after the police crackdown his regime resumed the government of Oaxaca, after several months of conducting business from outside the state.
The London-based Amnesty International and the New York-based Human Rights Watch have issued alarming reports in recent years about the constant violations of the human rights of peasants and social opposition leaders in Oaxaca.
During the uprising, these international organizations also reported that APPO demonstrators were repeatedly attacked by irregular armed groups, apparently sent in by Ruiz, which fired on protesters, killing a number of them.
There have also been a few accusations that protesters beat up journalists and other innocent people, and took justice into their own hands against suspected criminals and police.
"Oaxaca has been through some regrettable months, and we hope that the justice system will act to punish those responsible for the illegal acts of violence and award reparations to the victims; but we also hope that the state will take measures to correct the serious unmet social needs and poverty that constitute the backdrop to the entire conflict," activist Ramírez summed up.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service