Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Uprising Rekindled in Oaxaca?

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 25 2007 (IPS) - Hundreds of delegates of social movements in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca have once again occupied the central square of the state capital for the past week, threatening to take more radical actions if their demands are not addressed.

A six-month social uprising demanding that Governor Ulises Ruiz, who is accused of corruption, authoritarianism, squelching opposition by means of violence and intimidation and undue use of force against peaceful demonstrators, step down or be removed came to an end in late 2006 when the president sent in federal troops.

“Obviously we do not have the same strength as before, but we are growing, and it will be the government’s response that will define the new routes and actions to be taken,” Florentino López, spokesman for the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), told IPS.

Oaxaca, where the poverty level is similar to that of the Occupied Palestinian Territories according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which did not lose its grip on the state after it lost its hold on the national government in 2000 for the first time in seven decades.

The 2006 uprising, which started out as a strike by teachers who were later joined by hundreds of social organisations, dragged on for over six months and left more than a dozen people dead, 370 injured and 350 under arrest, mainly in police sweeps that included excesses and abuses against demonstrators and even passersby, according to human rights groups.

The victims who were killed by irregular armed groups who APPO and other activists said were acting under Ruiz’s orders were mainly local protesters, as well as Bradley Will, an independent U.S. journalist who was working for the alternative on-line news agency Indymedia.

APPO, which is made up of over 300 Oaxaca social organisations, including the teachers’ union, is now demanding that the government of President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December, re-establish a negotiating committee on Oaxaca. They are also again calling for Governor Ruiz to be sacked.

In addition, they are calling on people to vote against the PRI and Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the local legislative elections scheduled for Aug. 5.

But the people of the state of Oaxaca do not appear to see eye to eye with the demonstrators. In a survey by the Covarrubias y Asociados polling firm published early this month, 55 percent of respondents in the state capital said they held a “bad” or “very bad” opinion of APPO. And in rural areas of the state, the proportion climbed to 62 percent.

“Conditions last year were different, but we are back on our feet,” said López.

“Some 3,000 of us are once again in the central square of Oaxaca, although we are not interrupting activity in the city. From here brigades of demonstrators go out to explain our movement and build up support in the neighbourhoods, schools, public transport, markets and other places,” said the spokesman, one of the few leaders of APPO who was not arrested in the late 2006 police crackdown.

A local resident of Oaxaca who spoke to IPS on the phone said the number of protesters in the square was actually less than 300.

Last year’s uprising in Oaxaca brought economic activity in the capital virtually to a halt for months.

Seven people with ties to APPO, arrested late last year, are still in prison. The rest were released after the Oaxaca state government declined to press charges, and even paid the bail of several of the accused.

On Jun. 21, Mexico’s Supreme Court decided to appoint a special commission to stage an inquiry into alleged human rights violations committed in Oaxaca last year.

The commission will investigate probable violations of the right to life and physical integrity, the inviolability of domicile, the right to property, free circulation, work, personal freedom and information, probable excesses on the part of municipal, state and federal police, and the likely “omission or passivity” on the part of municipal, state and federal authorities to restore and maintain public order and security in the area, said the Court ruling.

López welcomed the Court decision, but warned that the social organisations could be “unfairly” blamed in the inquiry, “in an attempt to cover up for those who were responsible” for the violence and abuses.

The Calderón administration continues to argue that the problems of social discontent in Oaxaca should be resolved by state authorities through talks – a position that APPO says is unacceptable.

“Last week we sent a formal request to the government of Calderón for a negotiating table to be set up. We have not received any response, but we hope to, for the good of Oaxaca,” said López.

Adrián Ramírez, director of the non-governmental Mexican League for the Defence of Human Rights, said “The government and the country’s institutions have shown a lack of political savvy with respect to the problems in Oaxaca, which means there is a high risk that the protests will break out again.”

Ramírez told IPS that “The question of impunity as well as the causes of last year’s uprising have not been resolved.”

All of the reports on Oaxaca, including those produced by the governmental National Human Rights Commission and the Mexican League for the Defence of Human Rights, have held Ruiz responsible for a number of abuses that have gone unpunished, and have found the federal police guilty of excesses and human rights violations.

Nevertheless, APPO does not have a good reputation among many Oaxacans, as indicated by opinion polls.

Marked social injustice forms the backdrop to the protests in Oaxaca. Along with Chiapas and Guerrero, Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, with 150 of the country’s 250 most impoverished municipalities.

In Oaxaca, the literacy rate is 81.2 percent against a national average of 91.8 percent, and per capita income is 3,978 dollars a year compared to the national average of 9,015 dollars.

In addition, 80.3 percent of the state’s population lacks sanitation services, public lighting, drinking water and paved streets, eight out of 10 people live in extreme poverty, and the richest 10 percent of households receive 13 times more income than the poorest 10 percent, according to the Oaxacan Human Rights Network.

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