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September 3, 2006

Social Movement in Oaxaca Rejects Violence


by Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY – Leaders of the social movement that has been at the center of unrest in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca since May, demanding that the local governor step down, have asked self-styled guerrilla groups that have come out in defense of the protests not to interfere.

"All of the people should be involved in the struggle, but we reject armed activism, because it gives those in power the justification for a wave of repression," Florentino López, spokesman for the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), told IPS.

Around 15 supposed guerrilla fighters, armed and wearing face masks, blocked a road in northern Oaxaca Thursday and distributed leaflets in which they expressed support for the APPO and warned that they could enter into action if the authorities crack down on the protests. They claimed to belong to six different insurgent groups.

"We have differences with them (the local guerrilla groups), and we believe that their presence does not benefit us, and that they should not intervene," López said in a telephone interview from the city of Oaxaca, the state capital.

The center of the city of 300,000 people has been occupied by camps and barricades for over three months, set up by hundreds of local protesters from a number of different social and political organizations that are grouped in the APPO.

The demonstrators have also taken over and shut down all public offices, such as the local legislature, courtroom and city hall. In addition, they have occupied one public and five private radio stations.

The protests began in May when the Oaxaca teachers' union, which forms part of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), went on strike to demand wage hikes.

But the demonstrations grew as the teachers were joined by other social organizations, which began to call for the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruiz, who is accused of corruption and repression.

After several frustrated attempts at negotiation, the APPO leadership began to hold talks this week in the Mexican capital with secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal. Although no agreement has been reached, the negotiations are set to continue, the parties involved reported.

The APPO's main demand is the resignation of Governor Ruiz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed the state for over seven decades. Ruiz was elected in 2004 to a six year-term, in what the opposition parties say were rigged elections.

"Our organization is strong, but we are peaceful, and we channel our demands through legal means and institutions," said López. "That is why we are interested in dialogue, not in weapons and violence."

In response to IPS's observation that blockades of streets, the closure of public buildings, the occupation of media outlets, and the presence of demonstrators armed with clubs and stones are illegal, López said "they didn't leave us any alternative."

"But you have to understand that we are not violent, and that we only want an end to the repression and to bad government," added the activist.

Besides, he said, "here in Oaxaca, the victims of the repression are us, the people."

López was referring to the fact that as many as six people have been killed in violent incidents that have not been clarified, but which apparently involved irregular armed groups linked to the Ruiz administration, as well as harsh police action against the demonstrators. Several protesters have also been arrested.

The non-governmental Oaxaca Human Rights Network complained that the state government has mobilized paramilitary groups to clamp down on the protests.

"There are groups of trained men in plainclothes that shoot at us at night, and others that we believe are made up of criminals who until recently were in jail and were released to attack us," said López.

The APPO says the unrest broke out in Oaxaca due to "years of abuses by the PRI," the high level of poverty in the state, the rampant human rights violations, and the authoritarian government.

Over half of the state's 3.2 million people live in poverty.

And in the state, where a large part of the population is indigenous, 21.5 percent of people over 15 are illiterate, and the average number of years of schooling is 5.6 years – almost two less than the national average. In addition, 12.7 percent of people in the state have no electricity, and 34.5 percent lack piped water in their homes.

According to human rights groups, human rights are systematically violated in Oaxaca, freedom of expression does not exist, and the legislative and judicial branches are at the mercy of the state government – and thus the PRI, which lost its seven-decade grip on the national government in 2000 when President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) won the elections.

Since last year, the opposition daily Oaxaca Noticias has suffered attacks and its offices have been occupied by people who claim to be workers on strike. But the newspaper's reporters, who accuse the Ruiz administration of trying to silence the publication, deny that the staff has had any labor problems, and continue publishing the paper from a different building.

According to the government of Oaxaca, the protests are orchestrated by violent groups, which local authorities say may include guerrillas.

But while sources with the Fox administration admit that there are small Marxist insurgent groups in Oaxaca, like the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), they say they have no ties to the APPO.

The EPR has carried out a few propaganda actions in the past few years, but nothing of significance, and the intelligence services say it has little capacity for action.

The EPR was not one of the groups that came out Thursday to express support for the demonstrators in Oaxaca.

The leaflets handed out by the supposed guerrillas carried the names Tendencia Democrática Revolucionaria-Ejército del Pueblo, Colectivo Revolucionario Francisco Javier Mina, Brigada de Ajusticiamiento 2 de diciembre, Movimiento Revolucionario Lucio Cabañas, Organización Insurgente 1 de mayo and Brigadas Populares de Liberación.

According to several studies, there are at least a dozen small guerrilla groups in Mexico, apart from the internationally renowned indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in the southern state of Chiapas.

The number of members of the groups, which have seen leaders arrested in the last few years, is not known, but they are mainly made up of campesinos in poor areas of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, which are located near Chiapas.

(Inter Press Service)

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