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

MEXICO: Terror Returns to Oaxaca

Kristin Bricker and Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - A violent incident in which two activists were killed in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has raised fears among human rights groups of a return to the unrest and severe clashes between protesters and police that virtually paralysed the state in 2006.

On Thursday, two more survivors of Tuesday’s attack by a paramilitary group on an international humanitarian convoy emerged, and said two missing reporters were alive.

The 25-person convoy, which was taking food and supplies to the “autonomous” Triqui indigenous community of San Juan Copala, 600 km southeast of Mexico capital, included several foreign activists.

Two people were killed in the attack: Beatriz Alberta Cariño, the director of the local non-governmental Centre for Community Support Working Together (CACTUS) and Jyri Jaakkola, a human rights observer from Finland. Both were shot in the head. In addition, at least two people were injured.

Missing activists David Venegas and Noé Bautista made it to the city of Juxtlahuaca Thursday and reported that two journalists for the Mexican magazine Contralínea, Érika Ramírez and David Cilia, were alive, although the latter had been shot in the foot.

Contralínea is highly critical of the federal government and the Oaxaca state governmented headed by Governor Ulises Ruiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“If they die, it’ll be of hunger or thirst, because the Oaxaca state government has not cleared out the paramilitaries,” the magazine stated.

Venegas and Bautista showed a video in which a weak and dehydrated Ramírez and the wounded Cilia, hiding in the bush, asked to be rescued. The government of Oaxaca sent a helicopter in on Thursday to attempt to retrieve them.

It was also reported that another missing activist, David Casinori of Italy, was alive.

Still missing are two local Triqui Indian women who were kidnapped just prior to the ambush.

The area is under the control of the Union for the Wellbeing of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), a paramilitary group accused of ties with the PRI.

The convoy, which included observers and activists from Belgium, Finland, Italy and Germany, was carrying food, water and other basic necessities to San Juan Copala, which has been subjected to a paramilitary blockade since January. The paramilitaries have also cut off water and electricity to the town, while preventing anyone from entering or leaving.

The aid convoy was also escorting teachers who were returning to classes after paramilitaries denied them access to the community four months ago.

According to survivors, the convoy reached a blockade of rocks piled on the road just outside the community of La Sabana, which is controlled by UBISORT. As the vehicles began to turn around to head back, they came under fire from gunmen who were hiding in the bush.

“They started shooting like madmen,” one survivor told IPS. The activists fled into the bush before making their way out of the area, to larger towns.

Human rights defenders fear that the government could take advantage of the attack to advance its political interests in the Triqui region. “We fear that the government will use this as a pretext to militarise the region,” Eduardo Almeida with Nodo de Derechos Humanos, a local human rights group, told IPS.

From May to October 2006, the local section of the national teachers’ union and the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), an umbrella group of around 300 local organisations, occupied the main square of the city of Oaxaca, the state capital, demanding the removal of Ruiz.

The groups accused the governor, a representative of the most conservative wing of the PRI, of corruption, authoritarianism and squelching opposition by means of violence and intimidation.

The uprising was finally put down by federal troops sent in by then President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN).

During the months of protests, at least 20 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed, including independent U.S. journalist Brad Will. In addition, an estimated 370 people were injured and 350 arrested.

The protests flared up again in mid-2007, but quickly fizzled out.

Oaxaca, where most of the population is Amerindian, is one of the poorest states in Mexico.

Another survivor of Tuesday’s ambush, APPO adviser Gabriela Jiménez, said the attackers told their victims that they were members of UBISORT and that they had the governor’s support. But the state government denied any responsibility, claiming that it had no knowledge of the convoy.

San Juan Copala has been under constant siege from pro-government paramilitaries since it declared itself autonomous in January 2007. UBISORT, one of the groups, had warned that the convoy could be in danger if it attempted to enter San Juan Copala.

The group’s leader, Rufino Juárez, told the press that shoot-outs were a frequent occurrence in the region, and that his organisation would not be held responsible for “what could happen” to the convoy.

The attack was condemned by numerous local and international organisations, which see it is a disturbing development ahead of the July elections for new state government and legislative authorities.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón of the PAN promised an in-depth investigation of the incident.

The situation in Oaxaca cuts close to home for the president, because his predecessor Fox sent in troops in late 2006 so he would not inherit the crisis when he was sworn in on Dec. 1 that year. Moreover, in the coming elections, his party, the PAN, hopes to finally snatch power in the state from the PRI for the first time in eight decades.

“Who does the brutal ambush in Oaxaca benefit, in electoral terms? There may be several different answers,” columnist Francisco López wrote Thursday in the Mexico City daily La Jornada. “One of them could definitely lie in the interests of the different political-electoral actors in the region.”

There have long been divisions between different Triqui communities in the region, but they began to get worse in the 1970s, when native communities created El Club, a group which later became the Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle.

That organisation later split, giving rise to the Independent Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle, to which the autonomous community belongs.

UBISORT blames the government for failing to intervene in the conflict, which has claimed at least a dozen lives since 2007. The organisation stands to benefit from government intervention in the region, which would undoubtedly be directed against the autonomous municipality.

In April 2008, Felícitas Martínez and Teresa Bautista, two young indigenous reporters with the Radio Copala community station, were ambushed and shot to death on a rural road near the town — victims of the violence arising from the divisions among their people.

San Juan Copala remains incommunicado, and conditions there are unknown. Local residents who were not in the community at the time of the attack are demanding that the government create conditions that would allow civil society to enter the town, but without police intervention.

State police visited the scene of the shootings twice on Wednesday, where they recovered the bullet-ridden vehicles and two bodies. They reported, however, that they were unable to locate the perpetrators or the missing activists and journalists.

The situation remains unstable in the area as the government, the autonomous municipality, APPO and UBISORT decide what steps to take now.

The gunmen promised that there would be more violence. They took the identification documents from the people in the convoy, and told them that if they ever returned to San Juan Copala or talked about what happened, they would be shot, one survivor told IPS.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags