Oaxaca: People’s Guelaguetza
vs. State Violence

— Rachel Wallis

WALKING THROUGH THE streets of Oaxaca on the morning of July 16th, the schizophrenic nature of the Oaxacan political reality was on full display. On one end of the city, in a historic plaza beside a church, thousands of supporters of the teachers’ union and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) gathered peacefully to watch cultural performances as a part of the People’s Guelaguetza.

If you were to wander less than a mile up the road, however, you would have entered a cloud of smoke and teargas, where police and military forces brutally attacked protesters, arresting 62 and leaving one teacher in a coma from which he has not recovered.

The roots of the conflict in Oaxaca date back at least a year. On June 14, 2006, faced with an annual teachers’ strike, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (or URO, as he is known), the governor of Oaxaca, chose against negotiation, and instead sent police forces to brutally attack the striking teachers in the dead of night. (See Yakira Teitel’s Women in Oaxaca’s Popular Movement, ATC 127, March–April 2007.)

The action was not his first brush with controversy or even his most brutal act since coming to power in 2004 in what many considered a fraudulent election. His career was marked with corruption, violence against indigenous communities, and political assassinations and disappearances. But his attack against the teachers sparked an incredible response, as hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Oaxaca to demand his removal from office.

The APPO grew out of these marches, bringing together a diverse social movement of student, labor, women’s, indigenous and community groups, who took to the streets and reclaimed the media to demand justice for the people of Oaxaca. Over the last year, their struggle has been marked by government and paramilitary violence, leaving at least 22 dead, more than 30 disappeared, as well as hundreds who have been arrested and tortured by the Oaxacan government. (For more information on human rights violations, see Amnesty International’s recent report Oaxaca — Clamour for Justice.)

New Battle Lines

Since February, both sides of the conflict have been living in uneasy peace. The APPO and the teacher’s movement have limited their presence on the streets to marches and a “symbolic” occupation of the Zocalo, with each major movement organization maintaining a small tent or table. The government has continued harassing and occasionally arresting movement supporters, although the large-scale sweeps and blatant paramilitary attacks of last fall have ended.

But the core issues of the conflict haven’t changed: Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is still in power, a rival government-controlled teachers’ union has taken over many of the school districts in Oaxaca, the state still holds movement prisoners, scores of individuals have been disappeared, and no one has been brought to justice for the assassination of teachers, organizers and journalists, despite ample evidence. It was only a matter of time before the confrontation spilled back onto the streets.

In July it became clear that battle lines would be drawn for both sides around the Guelaguetza. The Guelaguetza is Oaxaca’s biggest tourist attraction. In a series of events over two weeks, dancers and musicians representing different regions and cultures of the state parade through the city to a large amphitheater on a hill and perform.

Supposedly based on pre-Columbian rites, the festival as it exists today was invented in the 1930s to attract tourism to Oaxaca after a devastating earthquake. Today tickets cost about 400 pesos, entirely out of reach for the average Mexican, and it is arguably the most important national and international tourist draw for the city. In 2006 the Guelaguetza was cancelled, in that the APPO was occupying much of the city.

This year, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz made it clear that nothing would stop his celebration. Needless to say, the APPO and the teacher’s union called for a boycott.

The morning of the 16th, thousands gathered in Zocalo to begin the parade for the “People’s Guelaguetza,” organized by the social movement a week before the official government Guelaguetza. Even as the crowd left the center of the city, it was unclear if they were going to march up to the amphitheater — a public park where the extravaganza is traditionally held, but which had been occupied by thousands of local, state and federal police for the previous week — or hold the celebration at the much smaller Plaza de la Danza instead.

As the first marchers set off, however, it became clear that the Plaza de la Danza was already full of people waiting for the performance to begin ... there was no way that all of those present could watch or participate in the festivities. So in costume, holding their instruments, puppets, and baskets of flowers, the crowd began to climb the hill, hoping by shear numbers to gain access to the space that was rightfully theirs.

Rather than allow them to pass, the police launched an attack with teargas and stones, thrown from rooftops alongside the road. The crowd responded with what has become almost routine after a year of skirmishes, gathering up rocks of their own, using buses as barricades, throwing back the gas canisters behind police lines as the popular Guelaguetza began in the Plaza.

By the end of the day, the dark smoke from the amphitheater hung over the rest of the city. More than 62 people were detained by the police, although only 40 of them appeared on the official lists, the rest added to the demoralizing list of those disappeared in the state of Oaxaca. Five people were hospitalized, including a human rights lawyer, and dozens more were injured. Six buses were burnt and windows were broken.

The papers were filled with horrifying photos: protesters in the back of police pickups, covered in blood. Detained protesters lying on the ground, surrounded by piles of shoes and clumps of human hair. Emeterio Merino Cruz, the husband of a teacher, being led away, uninjured, by the police. Emeterio Merino Cruz, on the ground, surrounded by police beating him. Emeterio Merino Cruz, being wheeled into the hospital, covered in contusions, in a coma from which he still hasn’t emerged.

State of Occupation

In the weeks after the Guelaguetza Popular, a series of judges released all but six of the July 16th protesters for lack of evidence.

The remaining prisoners, however, are being charged with car theft, arson, and assault. All are active members in the teachers’ union or the APPO, and there has been speculation that they were held to put pressure on the movement not to disrupt the government festivities.

The events of the commercial Guelaguetza passed under a state of occupation. Thousands of police and army units patrolled the city and sealed off the borders of the state. Buses of APPO supporters were turned away at the borders as they tried to support the protests.

The social movement took to the streets, with massive mobilizations on July 23rd and the 30th, but despite infiltration of the marches, there was no police violence or confrontations. There is speculation that the Teachers Union negotiated the release of many of the July 16th prisoners in return for not blockading the government celebrations, but there was also a widespread desire within the movement to avoid direct confrontation so as not to give the government cause for more repression and arrests.

The state government padded the attendance of the Guelaguetza by requiring government employees to attend, and busing in paid supporters from outlying communities. URO is calling the event a success, but local hotels reported occupancy rates of 38% for the first week of the celebrations, and as low as 20% by the second.

As the battle of the “Guerraguetza” comes to a close, all eyes are pointed forwards, and the conflict heads into its second year. On August 5th, the Oaxacan people voted for state representatives. Abstentionism won by a landslide, with less than 30% of the population voting. But the party of Ulises Ruiz, the PRI, won the most seats. Although the APPO has declared the elections a victory, saying that it further underscored the illegitimacy of URO’s rule, the results were less of a blow to the state government than they might have been.

The social movement hasn’t slowed down during August, marching, meeting, and organizing across the state. August 10th marked one year since the first assassination of an APPO supporter, and the coming weeks and months will bring many more grim anniversaries. No one knows what to expect in Oaxaca, even week to week, but it seems clear for the meantime that “Peace in Oaxaca” is still far away.

ATC 130, September–October 2007