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MEXICO: Murders Strengthen Resolve of Autonomous Indigenous Community

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, May 21 2010 (IPS) - “We feel defenceless, but we’re going to return to San Juan Copala and accompany the family of our dead friend and colleague,” Jorge Albino, spokesperson for his autonomous village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, told IPS Friday.

San Juan Copala, a Triqui indigenous village that declared itself “autonomous” in January 2007, faced violence again this week with the murders of Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez, 44, and his wife Cleriberta Castro, 35, by an armed group late Thursday.

Ramírez, who had already suffered two attempts on his life, was one of the driving forces behind the town’s declaration of autonomy, and the leader of the Independent Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULTI).

Albino and a group of non-governmental organisations on Friday laid the blame for the killings on the administration of Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and on the state’s Popular Unity Party (PUP).

“Timoteo died in the struggle for his rights, for seeking the common good. The Triqui region has been forgotten and marginalised for so long,” Edelberto Hernández, another community leader, told IPS.

San Juan Copala, located some 600 kilometres southeast of the Mexican capital, is no stranger to violence. On Apr. 27, members of the Union for the Wellbeing of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), a paramilitary group accused of ties with the PRI, attacked a humanitarian convoy as it entered the municipality.

The late April ambush left two people dead: Beatriz Alberta Cariño, 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. Several others were injured.

Human rights activists and observers from Belgium, Finland, Germany and Italy were travelling in the convoy to bring supplies of food, water and other basic items to the people of San Juan Copala, which the paramilitary UBISORT, which reportedly has ties to the PRI, has had under blockade since January.

Mexican and foreign human rights NGOs condemned the attack and have called on the federal government of conservative President Felipe Calderón to launch an investigation and bring those responsible to justice.

Finnish President Tarja Halonen urged similar action on the April incident in a meeting with Calderón at the European Union-Latin America/Caribbean summit this week in Madrid.

The NGOs are preparing another convoy for Jun. 8 in order to “break the paramilitary siege” that has paralysed the community for months, said Alejandro Encinas, a lawmaker of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), told a press conference Friday.

The Triqui organisations believe Governor Ruiz’s intention is to block San Juan Copala’s autonomy and prevent the notion of independence from spreading to more communities in Oaxaca, as well as to militarise the region.

“We will not fall for the state’s provocations. We are committed to the autonomy of San Juan Copala,” said Albino, who led a rally Friday to protest the murders of Ramírez and Castro.

Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, is set to hold state elections Jul. 4. Recent polls indicate a virtual tie between PRI candidate Eviel Pérez and Gabino Cué, who is leading an opposition coalition.

But Albino said conditions are not stable enough to hold elections in the municipality.

The federal Attorney General’s Office is investigating the April murders, but has yet to release any results. On behalf of Cariño’s family, several NGOs are considering filing a lawsuit for the activist’s murder.

Thursday’s murders “in no way hinder our struggle. With the fall of our friend and colleague, we believe that many more Timoteos are born,” said Hernández.

MULTI called on the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a guerrilla group that briefly rose up in arms in January 1994 demanding respect for indigenous rights, and other organisations close to the Zapatistas who form part of La Otra Campaña (The Other Campaign) movement, to build a common strategy to defend community autonomy.

In the southern state of Chiapas, just east of Oaxaca, dozens of villages controlled by the Zapatistas have declared themselves autonomous.

However, splits within the Triqui communities have long been common in this region, but have grown worse since the 1970s, when the indigenous communities created “El Club”, a group that later became the Triqui Movement of Unification and Struggle.

That group then divided, giving rise to MULTI, which controls the autonomous San Juan Copala municipality.

UBISORT condemns the government for failing to intervene in the conflict, which has claimed at least a dozen lives since 2007. The paramilitary group would benefit from such intervention, which would likely be aimed against the autonomous local administration.

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.

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