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Oaxaca 2006 Protests

by Tom Penick
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It was a time of heightened political struggle in Oaxaca City. It began with the annual teacher's strike in May 2006, an event that brings hundreds of teachers to the center of Oaxaca to camp out for days while they negotiate their contract for the following school year. For those who may not know, the Oaxaca Teachers Union (SNTE - Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación) is a powerful and occasionally violent political force that has engaged the state government in numerous disputes over the years, not just over pay and working conditions.
This year the teachers called for the removal of Ruiz, the governor of Oaxaca. The event was taken to the next level when the state government sent troops into the zócalo with tear gas on June 14th. The unfolding conflict attracted fringe groups of various reputations who joined in the protest by taking over radio stations, blocking off thoroughfares with burning busses and smoldering tires, and painting graffiti in the city's historical district. A newly formed organization called the APPO, "the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca" in English, added further demands. There seems to be little doubt that serious corruption exists in the govenor's office and probably in its detractors as well. There appears also to be a political power struggle with the PRD fanning the flames of unrest with an eye on unseating the ruling PRI party with the customary reward of the untold riches that result from political power in Mexico. There are typically so many twists to a Mexican political story that even the participants are largely in the dark, which makes it difficult for outsiders to even comment.
See the article An August Day in Oaxaca for a feel for the situation at this point.
In September, the teacher's contract remains unsettled and the teachers do not return to school. The school year begins with the public schools closed. By now, the teacher's part in the altercation is overshadowed by the volume of popular participation calling for the resignation of the govenor.
As of October 2, 2006, prospects of a peaceful solution are dimming. Negotations have stalled and the Army is moving troops and equipment into Oaxaca. Barricades remain in the streets of Oaxaca and the APPO is bracing for a possible altercation with government forces.
On October 27, 2006, shots were exchanged between protestors and uniformed gunmen, possibly local officials, who attempted to remove one of the blockades. American journalist, William Bradley Roland, aka Brad Will, was killed by a gunshot wound to the chest executed by paramilitary Pedro Carmona, ex-president of Felipe Carrillo Puerto de Santa Lucia del Camino, a colonia in Oaxaca. The event was caught on camera. Two local residents were also killed. One report said that the journalist had only one gunshot wound but arrived at the hospital an hour later with two.
At this point, the unfolding story in Oaxaca, which had largely been ignored by mainstream international media, made the headlines and international attention focused on Oaxaca. Up to this point, President Fox had resisted pressures to send in federal police. The event evidently changed his mind and the federal government responded immediately. The Oaxaca airport closed to commercial traffic and thousands of federal police arrived on large transport planes.
On October 29, 2006, federal troups, estimated in the thousands, marched to the zócalo from all sides using water cannons and heavily armed soldiers in riot gear. They began clearing hundreds of barracades. Protestors responded by setting fire to buses and other materials. The protestors were pushed back by the police but maintained their lines against the advance, only retreating as much as necessary. By nightfall, the historic district was largely reclaimed. Fortunately, the violence did not become deadly during this altercation, at least not on a large scale. Two deaths were reported as a result of this confrontation, 9 deaths over the last several months.
Federal police secured the city's central historic district. The protestors, who also numbered in the thousands surrounded the police-occupied territory and rebuilt blockades around them, once again sealing off the central district, this time from the outside rather than the inside. This was a psychological blow to the police who were cut off and had to fight their way back out using water cannons and lines of personnel in riot gear once again. As a note of explanation, the some 4000 troups have been referred to as police because Mexican law forbids the use of military forces against it's citizens due to past abuses of this priviledge. Therefore, a "police force" was established for such purposes, recruiting the majority of it's personnel from the military.
During November, scores of protesters were arrested and shipped off to prisons in other states, others simply disappeared and remain unaccounted for. Dead bodies began appearing around the city and the number of deaths mounted and became uncountable. A pile of dead bodies remained outside the Red Cross for days, unidentified, with their origin and killers unknown. The barricades were eliminated, and the city was largely returned to its residents.
On December 2, 2006, the EZLN, a Mexican revolutionary group, announced a "call for Global Mobilizations for Oaxaca". This appears to be a globally-staged event with no mention of anything taking place in the city of Oaxaca.
These events did not directly impact outlying areas or the coastal communities. I visited Puerto Escondido in November 2006 during the annual Fiestas de Noviembre. This was during some of the worst of the Oaxaca City protest activity and I saw no evidence of these troubles in Puerto Escondido other than a reduction in the number of tourists. This reduction of tourists during the high season did have a profound fiscal effect on Puerto Escondido, quickly trickling down to businesses not directly involved with tourists since many of their customers had no money to spend.

Protestors maintain lines against police but allow police to advance   More Photos

In December, Oaxacans raced to clean up their beautiful city. The high season has already begun and tourism has practically come to a standstill due to the disturbing events of the past months. The many city residents involved in the tourist trade are desperate to rekindle their businesses in time for the Christmas season. Much as the Christmas shopping season means everything for many retailers, the Christmas season is very important to the tourist economy in Mexico where both domestic and international tourists flock to favorite destinations and fill hotels to capacity. Oaxaca City is one of these favorite destinations.
The following email from Oscar Carrizosa, of www.go-oaxaca.com, illustrates this desire to get back to business:

  I saw your warning at your Oaxaca webpage, the problem is not solved yet but the city of Oaxaca is open to tourism right now. Here is the latest news from the Tourism Office:

"The Secretariat of Tourism of the Government of the State of Oaxaca is pleased to advise that the City of Oaxaca and the Central Valleys are now once again back to normal. The historic downtown center (Centro Histórico) and its tourist attractions can now be visited freely--the barricades are now a thing of the past. The federal preventative police, together with the state police, are patrolling and keeping a careful watch so as to guarantee the security of both citizens and vacationers. Hotels, restaurants and businesses in the Centro Histórico have reopened their doors. The city shines brightly in all its splendor, awaiting your visit and enabling you to enjoy the hospitality for which Oaxacans are known."

Oscar Carrizosa

And here is my reply:

  I am glad to hear that things are getting back to normal in Oaxaca. I know that the unfortunate events of the last months have caused much hardship for the residents there. On my recent visit to Puerto Escondido, I could see the effects even there with hotels that should have been full only being 1/2 full and non-tourist businesses suffering from the fact that many of their customers had less money to spend.

I think that the question that is on the minds of tourists is: With the demands of the protestors remaining unsatisfied, and the EZLN calling for a December 22nd event, do the federal police intend to retain a substantial force in the city indefinitely in order to keep the peace, or will the jailing and disappearance of a suitable volume of protestors be enough to discourage additional trouble? I think you can see that either way you answer the question, there will be a substantial group of tourists that won't consider Oaxaca an inviting destination.

In my country there is a certain respect for the efforts of protestors since the United States was born on a protest of taxation without representation and significant positive changes were brought about by protests later in our history such as civil rights, racial integration, and the women's right to vote. The result of the Oaxacan protest is not going to appeal to the average US resident.

On the positive side, I think the notoriety will help Oaxaca in the long term, just not anytime soon.

Tom Penick

So the city of Oaxaca has returned to a peaceful existance, cleaned up its streets and buildings, and is eager to get back to business. The immediate danger has passed and visitors can expect to be warmly received. Nevertheless, the fires of discontent continue to smolder in Oaxaca as they have for centuries. Visitors are encouraged to exercise common sense and ask about the nature of any protest gatherings they may encounter and avoid as appropriate.

Update November 2008:

The Federal Attorney General announced that members of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) will be charged in the murder of the US journalist Brad Will.

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