The Oaxaca crisis began when the state’s school teachers went on strike May 22, demanding not only raises but bigger budgets for schools in poor rural parts of the state. Governor Ulises Ruiz refused to budge on their demands. The teachers launched a sit-in at Oaxaca City’s central square, the zocalo, and began occupying several streets in the downtown historic district. As Ruiz held his ground, the sit-in swelled to a tent city of several thousand.
In a pre-dawn raid on June 14, Oaxaca state police, some in helicopters, armed with tear gas and rifles attacked the encampment. Witnesses said police fired on the crowd, and protesters later reported three dead—claims disputed by the state government. The teachers counter-attacked, hurling gas cannisters back at the police lines and charging them with commandeered buses. Within hours, they had re-taken the zocalo.
This proved the turning point. The demand now became for the ouster of Governor Ruiz, who the strikers claimed had been fraudulently elected. A coalition of grassroots and civil organizations congealed around the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), and this group seized control of the Oaxaca City center. Ruiz and his bureaucracy had to retreat to hotels on the outskirts of the city. Radio and TV stations were also taken over by the protesters. APPO pledged to make Oaxaca “ungovernable.”
By the end of July, mysterious gunmen—presumed to be state police in civilian clothes—were attempting to use terror to beat back the movement. On August 10, unknown gunmen fired on an APPO march, killing one man, Jose Jimenez, the husband of a striking teacher. On August 22, gunmen fired on an occupied radio station, killing one of occupiers, Lorenzo Pablo.
By this point, peasant and indigenous councils affiliated with APPO had seized control of towns and villages throughout the state. In early September, APPO announced that it was forming an alternative government. It had become the real power in the state of Oaxaca.
On September 21, some 4,000 people left Oaxaca City on a cross-country march to Mexico City. The federal government entered into negotiations with APPO and the striking teachers. In mid-October, a Senate committee began meeting to consider a resolution officially dissolving Ruiz’s powers.Thousands of APPO activists and teachers maintained an ongoing encampment outside the Senate building.
On October 14, gunmen shot two people at a roadblock in Oaxaca City, killing one. Two days later, several of the Oaxaca activists camped out at the Senate building began a hunger strike. But on the 18th, the Senate committee voted not to remove Ruiz. That night in Oaxaca City, another teacher was killed by unknown assailants.
In the midst of all this, Mexico had witnessed a dramatic showdown over the contested presidential elections. The left opposition has declared their own candidate, former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as Mexico’s “legitimate president,” and pledged a civil disobedience campaign to prevent president-elect Felipe Calderon from taking office. There were signs that the local revolution in Oaxaca could serve as a template for a national uprising. On October 26, APPO issued a “call for a popular peaceful insurrection” starting December 1 if Ruiz had not stepped down by then.
Brad Will and two local protesters were fatally shot on October 27 as an APPO barricade on the outskirts of Oaxaca City again came under fire.
Fox announced an “extraordinary” program for the “total recuperation” of Oaxaca. On October 29, thousands of federal police with water cannons, tear gas, helicopters, and armored vehicles stormed past barricades, seizing control of the city center. The next day, Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said two deaths had been confirmed since the federal forces entered Oaxaca, and at least 40 arrests.
President Fox declared victory, saying, “The plaza and city were recovered for the citizenry of Oaxaca.” Dismissing reports of two deaths, Fox described the operation as “bloodless.”
But the degree of federal police control of Oaxaca City remains uncertain. Press accounts quoted APPO leader Flavio Sosa saying the police had recovered only the area around the zocalo, after protesters ceded it in the face of overwhelming force. “The control of the rest of the city is in the hands of APPO,” Sosa said. “I want to tell you that we are not going to hand over control of the city. We are going to resist at every barricade.”
The APPO has established a new central encampment in a plaza a few blocks away from the police-occupied zocalo. Oaxaca City seems divided by areas of federal and APPO control.
There have now been over 80 arrests by the federal police in Oaxaca City; many people are being held incomunicado, even as reports of human rights abuses in the jails are mounting. The army has also established checkpoints on the outskirts of town, and there are reports of activists being illegally detained at these roadblocks. In once case, two detained by the army—a local teacher and a student from the national university—were reportedly taken to a military camp, tortured and beaten for hours, and finally put naked and bound aboard a helicopter, where they were threatened with being thrown overboard into the sea. They were then turned over to a state prison, where, following the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, relatives were allowed access to them, and they related their ordeal. Amnesty International has called upon the Mexican government to release the names of all those arrested, and what charges they are being held on.
Protests have spread to other cities in Mexico. On November 4, Zapatista Subcommander Marcos and supporters blocked the international bridge linking Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Maquiladora workers also blocked the international bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville in solidarity with the APPO. Meanwhile, in Chiapas, Zapatistas blocked roads and rebel peasants shut down the international bridge on the Guatemalan border with their bodies.
In a more sinister development, on the morning of November 6 bombs exploded at three high-profile targets in Mexico City: the national headquarters of the PRI, the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which had ruled in favor of Calderon in September, and a branch of a Canadian bank. There was property damage but no casualties. A communique jointly signed by five small guerilla groups active in the mountains of the Mexican south claimed responsibility, saying the action was a response to the repression in Oaxaca and warning the government against using the attacks “as a pretext to generate psychosis in the citizenry and to continue repressing the civil, peaceful organizations and movements.”
Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso 2000) and editor of the electronic journal World War 4 Report