Notes from the Other Oaxaca

John Gibler

Notes from the Other Oaxaca
The Other Campaign calls for a national movement to free prisoners of conscience
by John Gibler; February 28, 2006

Walking across the central plaza in Oaxaca City time slows down. Stepping into the expanse of cobblestone walkways that weave through trees and flower beds, surrounded by old colonial government buildings and sidewalk cafes, one feels one's hurry diminish like a drop in temperature. Taking a stroll and then leaning back with an espresso seem to be the most natural activities in the world.

And this is no accident, the state of Oaxaca spent 80 million dollars in the past two years renovating the plaza, crafting the image that the Mexican state so dearly loves to export: the perfect balance of an antique culture represented in art and architecture and the conveniences and luxuries of capitalism.

This is the preferred snapshot of the “new” Mexico and the “democratic change” attributed to President Vicente Fox's six years in office. The idyllic colonial plaza equipped with credit-card ready shops and restaurants. The route of the Other Campaign through Oaxaca, however, revealed a different image of this intersection between Mexico's elder culture and its contemporary capitalism: the molded concrete of a prison wall.

Throughout Oaxaca Subcomandante Marcos listened to hours of testimony from family members and co-workers of indigenous activists who have been taken prisoner. The charges range from belonging to the armed Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) to acts of murder and kidnapping. Yet the evidence—when there is any—is reduced to a signed confession, extracted under torture.

Human Rights Watch has found that over 40 percent of prisoners in Mexico have never been formally convicted of any crime. Provisions of Mexican law make it easy for prosecutors to detain suspects “preventively” and to present judges with confessions, most often blank pages signed under torture. In 2004, President Vicente Fox sent a criminal justice reform package to Congress, avowing to patch these loopholes in Mexican law, but federal representatives have yet to vote on the provisions pertaining to torture and preventive detention.

In Oaxaca, the political prisoners are mostly indigenous people who were easy to grab because they weren't running or hiding; because they had not done anything. After the EPR appeared in southern Mexico 1996—on the one-year anniversary of the Guerrero state police massacre of rural farmworkers in Aguas Blancas—the Oaxaca state government took over 100 prisoners in the Loxicha indigenous region. Many of those who remain in the state prison in Ixcotel do not speak Spanish and, in ten years of imprisonment, have never met with an interpreter.

On January 1, 2005, in the Zapotec indigenous community of San Blas Atempa, gunmen shot from the balcony of City Hall into a thick crowd protesting electoral fraud. Four young men fell wounded. In response, the crowd doused the building and the cars parked around the block in gasoline and set them alight, allowing the illicit officials to escape on foot through the smoke and flames. The charred remains of automobiles still ring the plaza over a year later, and the villagers still guard City Hall, having installed an autonomous governing body.

The four men who were wounded in the gunfire, however, are in prison. From the hospital in Oaxaca City the men and a friend who accompanied them to the hospital were taken to the state prison in Tehuantepec. The men who shot into the crowd and the former mayor and current state representative, Agustina Acevedo Gutierrez, who ordered the gunmen to fire, are all free.

In one of the more dramatic and odd twists in the Other Campaign, Subcomandante Marcos has entered three state prisons to speak with political prisoners, once in Tabasco and twice in Oaxaca. Recall: Marcos wears a black balaclava at all times and leads an armed guerrilla movement that twelve years ago declared war on the Mexican government and took over seven major cities in the state of Chiapas. While the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has publicly avowed to pursue unarmed political organizing with the Other Campaign, they have neither surrendered nor laid down their arms in Chiapas, as Marcos has made clear in public meetings.

This might be the first time in the history of the modern state that a masked rebel has entered state prisons to talk with prisoners of conscience. Accompanied by local defense lawyers and correspondents of the alternative media covering the Other Campaign, Marcos entered the prisons in Tehuantepec and Ixcotel, Oaxaca without so much as being asked to present identification or pass through a metal detector.

In Tehuantepec, the five Zapotec men from San Blas Atempa sat in a row facing Marcos across a small desk. About ten reporters hung around the edge of the room taking pictures of the prisoners and Marcos while police took pictures of the reporters. One prison guard went around the room taking down the names of all the reporters in a spiral notebook.

The men—Alfredo Jimenez Henestrosa, Feliciano Jimenez Lopez, Jorge Reyes Ramirez, Roberto Ortiz Acevedo, and Jose Luis Sanchez—spoke in quiet, resolved voices, each echoing the same denunciation: we did not commit the crimes they accuse us of; we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that Agustina Gutierrez does not get back into City Hall.

At both the Tehuantepec and the Ixcotel prisons, crowds of several hundred waited outside. In Ixcotel, while Marcos was listening to the prisoners accused of belonging to EPR's guerrilla forces, local organizers with the Oaxaca-based Committee for the Defense of Indigenous Rights recounted over a mobile sound system their most recent encounter with arbitrary detentions. Three days prior, four young men were putting up fliers announcing the Other Campaign meetings in Oaxaca when nearly 20 local police officers trashed their fliers and took them off to jail for two days.

“They hit us and took us to the municipal jail,” said Cesar Luis Diaz, “for the sole crime of putting up fliers for the Other Campaign.”

While the representatives from the indigenous rights group told their story, the major television stations had their cameras turned off, resting by their sides, waiting only to film Marcos' exit from the prison compound.

In addition to the over 25 political prisoners in the state of Oaxaca, there are hundreds of arrest warrants against leaders of rural farmworker and indigenous rights organizations across the state, creating a palpable sense of apprehension: at any moment organizers might be picked off the street and thrown in jail. And the charges against them are often so ludicrous they are almost comical. Leaders of the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca (CIPO) have arrest warrants against them for stealing electricity: they connected a sound system to an outlet on municipal property during a protest.

Bertin Reyes Ramos, a 26 year-old lawyer and Oaxaca state representative of the Popular Revolutionary Front (FPR), was accused of kidnapping in March 2005 when he persisted in questioning a state official. Three months later, out of the blue, he was nabbed and thrown in jail for six weeks.

Arrest warrants, arbitrary detentions, and torture are signs that the political class fears for the legitimacy of its power: from the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships to Abu Graib to Oaxaca, the same story. Subsistence farmers, teachers, and union activists are no military threat to the state, but their demands for justice are a threat to its credibility. Thus, with unrivaled aplomb for the theory and practice of magical legalism, the political class criminalizes dissent and social activism, striving to silence social movements rather than listen to them.

After visiting two state prisons and listening to hours of testimony, Marcos and representatives of other social justice organizations stood before a crowd of 5000 in the central plaza of Oaxaca. Bertin Ramos, now one of a delegation of four FPR representatives accompanying the Other Campaign across the country, asked the kind of questions that have landed him in jail:

“How is it possible that the government spends 800 million pesos on the so-called remodeling of the central plaza of the city when there are villages, entire communities, that lack potable water, electricity, roads, schools, and hospitals?”

Those who joined the Other Campaign in Oaxaca recognize the opportunity to create strength in numbers. Alejandro Cruz, director of the Indigenous Human Rights Organization of Oaxaca (OIDHO), has supported the Zapatista struggle since 1994. He has been imprisoned three times in fifteen years of human rights work, and at present, three members of OIDHO are in prison on trumped up charges. “They have tortured us, several co-workers have died,” he said, “this is why we cannot afford to be isolated, we have to seek alliances with other organizations.”

Marcos proposed forming a statewide coalition in Oaxaca to ignite a national movement for the freedom of political prisoners.

“The push for freeing political prisoners needs to come from Oaxaca,” Marcos said. “Let us make a national call to everyone in the Other Campaign to mobilize, demanding liberty for all and the cancellation of all the arrest warrants” against social justice activists.