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Sleepless in Oaxaca: Stirrings of the People’s Giant

By • Aug 20th, 2010 • Category: News & Analysis

By: Robert Joe Stout

“Oaxaca never emerged from the Middle Ages. Living here is like
living in a medieval kingdom,” Sara Mendez, director of the Oaxaca,
Mexico Human Rights Network, told a human rights delegation in
December, 2006. Although she was speaking figuratively, Mendez nevertheless
expressed the feelings of many of us who have had to deal
with the corruption, abject poverty, and law enforcement impunity
that vitiate the state.
The medieval kingdom that is twentieth century Oaxaca has imprisoned
hundreds of citizens arbitrarily and unjustly. Dozens more
have disappeared, victims of paramilitary escuadrones de muerte (death
squads). Thousands more have been beaten, tortured and robbed, lost
their jobs or have been forced into exile because they objected to government
For six years (2004-2010), this medieval kingdom was ruled by a
political adventurer named Ulisés Ruiz. His principal executioner was
“El Chucky,” nee José Franco, who, in the minds of many residents,
bore a remarkable resemblance to the homicidal Hollywood thriller figure.
Chucky (Franco) functioned as King (Governor) Ruiz’s Secretary
General until he became head of the state of Oaxaca’s Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Ruiz’s supposed heir to the throne. Ruiz
and Chucky controlled a compliant legislature, the judiciary, and the
state’s finances. (Management of the latter was not subject to audit
and only Ruiz and Chucky know where the money went.)
Vesting so much power in the executive branch of government,
Mendez contends, “has killed dissent.” It has also nourished largescale
corruption in business, the judicial system, and political
elections. Like many other observers, Mendez insists that Ruiz fraudulently
won the governorship in 2004. Among irregularities reported by
Robert Joe Stout (, former resident of Ireland, France,
and Guatemala, now resides in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he freelances for a variety of
trade and literary publications. In 2008 Praeger issued his Why Immigrants Come to America.
Other books include the award-winning poetry chapbook They Still Play Baseball the Old
Way from White Eagle Coffee Store Press and The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, a
creative nonfiction mosaic of Mexican faces, places and experiences.
30 M O N T H L Y R E V I E W / J u n e 2 0 1 0
Oaxaca’s daily Noticias and various human rights and election observers
were precincts whose eligible voters numbered fewer than the
reported votes cast for Ruiz; stolen bags of ballots favoring Ruiz’s
opponents ; physical intimidation; and precincts crediting every participant
with voting for Ruiz, despite assertions from many claiming
that they’d marked their ballots for opposition candidates.
Once in office, King Ruiz (like many rulers before him) tightened
his hold by expanding the size of the state police force and denying
services to communities that voted for his opponents.
“You could feel the decomposition everywhere,” Mendez remembers.
“It was like living in occupied territory, like some foreigners had taken
over the state, foreigners who didn’t care what the people felt or thought.”
Oaxaca artist Hugo Tovar described Ruiz’s first two years on the
throne as a time of constant repression. Government agents raided
indigena autonomous communities, arresting and/or disappearing those
who spoke out against or did not cooperate with local authorities.
Helped by a legislature that rubberstamped his granting huge contracts
to construction firms, Ruiz moved many government offices out of the city
of Oaxaca’s historical district, had the hundreds-of-years-old stonework
in the city Zócalo (main square) ripped out and replaced, and ordered
the cutting of many of the huge flowering trees that shaded the Zócalo
and Alameda (a park in downtown Mexico City). His disregard for public
opinion and the favoritism he showed to entrepreneurial supporters put
his government at odds with large segments of the population, including
Oaxaca’s Section 22 of Mexico’s national teachers union.
In May 2006, the teachers threatened to stage a sit-in in the capital
unless Ruiz’s government agreed to their demands for a reclassification of
their salary base (which would have raised the minimum wage for workers
throughout the state). Claiming inadequate finances, the King offered
to fund a portion of what it would cost to effect the reclassification.
The union rejected this proposal and organized a protest march that
drew over 110,000 participants, including members of the national electricians
union, various indigena groups and members of the coalition
the Democratic Organizations of Oaxaca’s Social Front. [ß
is this a group?] and various indigena groups. The demonstrators hoisted
papier maché representations of URO (short for Ulisés Ruiz Ortiz, using
his initials), which they hanged and burned in the Zócalo at the end of the
march. Ruiz responded by pulling his offer off the table and announcing
that salaries owed teachers participating in the takeover were cancelled.
As they had threatened, the teachers took over the Zócalo. Their
massive encampment overflowed across the adjacent Alameda and
sl e e p l e ss in o a x a c a 31
filled some fifty blocks in the heart of the city with tents, huts, tarpaulins,
spouses, dogs, and children. Businesses throughout the central
part of the city closed, tourists cancelled hotel reservations, bus and
auto traffic ceased to function or had to be diverted to other parts of
the city. Ruiz demanded that the teachers stop their sit-in; the teachers
demanded that their requests be honored.
Like kings of old (and Mexican caciques of more recent times), Ruiz
responded by ordering the state and municipal police to “clear the bastards
out.” A primary school teacher who was in the Zócalo on June
14 remembered:
“The helicopters came in so low their big rotors sent things flying
through the air. Then the whistling sounds as they fired tear gas. We
were coughing and choking, we were blinded, people were shouting
for their children. Then the police came, swinging their clubs, smashing
Despite the tear gas, groups of teachers clustered into resistant groups
and fought back, hurling bottles and paving stones, swinging mop sticks,
chairs and tent poles, belts and rebar. Others commandeered city buses
and forced the police to scatter as they accelerated towards them. By
9:30 that morning [p.m.?] the entire force of over one thousand police had evacuated
the area. For the first time during his reign, the King had been defeated.
The daily Noticias’ correspondent Pedro Matias called the victory “a
parting of the waters.” Oaxaca, he prophesied, “never will be the same.”
What had begun as a legal sit-in—a plantón—overnight became
a massive resistance movement. Civic organizations throughout the
state surged forward to support the teachers. The representatives of
over three hundred separate organizations talked, urged, argued, and
convoked their first reunion on June 20, and announced the formation
of the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO). Participants
included indigena federations from throughout the state, radical student
and youth groups that espoused revolutionary overthrow, human
rights organizations, and many Catholic priests. “Mexico winning the
World Cup couldn’t have generated more enthusiasm than that first
assembly!” a delegate named Cabrera told me.
Driven out of the city that was supposed to be his center of operations
and with his police force humiliated, King Ulisés, the cacique,
wielder of absolute power, became a ruler in absentia: he literally did
not step foot in the Centro Historico for over five months and conducted
state business from his limousine, hotels and, not infrequently,
a state-owned helicopter. To counter the APPO’s sudden popularity
32 M O N T H L Y R E V I E W / J u n e 2 0 1 0
he, El Chucky and “La Bruja,” Lizabeth Caña, the state attorney general,
went underground. Non-uniformed sicarios (hired gunmen) validated arbitrary arrests
by charging the APPO leaders and sympathizers with carrying concealed
weapons or trying to sell drugs. State-hired paramilitaries shot
and killed six APPO members in August alone and wounded at least
eleven others. URO’s television and radio lackeys maintained a steady
bombardment of anti-APPO propaganda. Their “lies” so angered the
women who had organized a “March of the Cacerolas” (or Cooking
Pans) that they commandeered taxis and buses, and invaded the television
station’s facilities after a protest march on August 1.
“We asked for an hour of air time to explain what APPO was
about,” a participant named Itandehui told me. “They said ‘no,’ we
insisted, ‘yes’ and wound up taking over the station.”
Within hours young communications students from the Benito
Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca were on hand to manipulate
the equipment, and the “new channel nine” went on the air, telecasting
documentaries the students acquired from the university, APPO
news, and interviews with Oaxaca residents. Teachers and APPO
members spent their nights guarding the facility and, for twenty days,
the APPO controlled the local airwaves. “We knew there would be
repercussions,” one of the March of the Cacerolas women sighed, “but
one has to take chances in order to get something done.”
The repercussions hit with decisive force on August 21. Nearly seventy
heavily armed paramilitaries broke past the APPO defenders and
destroyed the station’s antenna and telecasting equipment.
“‘What are we going to do?’ those of us involved with channel nine
asked each other,” Leyla Centeno said, as she recalled the APPO activists’
desperation. “Somebody suggested taking over a radio station.
Somebody else suggested, ‘Why not take over all of them?’”
Why not?
“In cars, in cabs, we careened through the city, there must have
been hundreds of us. By five that morning we’d taken over all twelve
of the city’s radio stations!”
The “invaders” decided to retain only Radio Ley, located in a large,
primarily residential area close to the Centro Historico. “Radio Ley,”
Centeno boasted, “became the voice of the people.”
To defend the station and to impede the excursions of night-riding
escuadrones de muerte, the APPO barricaded the area by night. The idea of
setting up “defensive” barricades “spread like wildfire,” Sara Mendez
sl e e p l e ss in o a x a c a 33
added. She told me that over one thousand barricades were erected.
Oaxaca, Tiempo Nublado reported 1,800 in the city of Oaxaca alone, but
Leyla Centeno, effervescent with enthusiasm, insisted, “Within two
days there were a thousand barricades. By the third day after we took
over Radio Ley there were three thousand!” Roadblocks stopped traffic
at night on major highways throughout the state, including the
Oaxaca-Mexico and Oaxaca-Puerto Escondido thoroughfares.
Ruiz’s government responded by notifying the union that teachers
who did not return to their classrooms by a specific date in September
would be dismissed, and substitute teachers would take over. Section
22 called the deadline illegal, and none of the union teachers returned
to hold classes, setting off confrontations throughout the state between
parent groups who supported the sit-in and those who opposed it.
Hundreds of businesses closed their doors, many permanently, and
tourism, the key to Oaxaca’s economy, virtually disappeared.
Meetings with federal officials triggered speculation that the
Mexican Senate would depose Ruiz and appoint an interim governor
to replace him. But the country was in an uproar over allegations of
fraud during the July presidential elections, and many in the federal
government didn’t want to deal with the additional headaches that the
APPO’s takeover of Oaxaca had created. President Fox and presidentelect
Calderón had their hands full with opposition candidate Andrés
Manuel López Obrador’s massive Mexico City sit-in, and they couldn’t
afford to lose Oaxaca to what they felt were leftist rabble.
Federal officials imposed a deadline of October 28 for the removal of
all of the barricades. The APPO refused to comply, and Fox dispatched
armored Army, Navy, and federal police to “guarantee free movement and
the rights of private property, free expression and free assembly.” Fortyfive
hundred heavily armed troops swept through the state. Teachers and
young appistas, as members of the APPO were called, [define] sought sanctuary in churches and on the university
campus, leaving the Centro Historico in the hands of the invading force.
On November 2, All Saints Day [isn’t that November 1?], (eliminate “All Saint’s Day”; the APPO called their repelling the PFP “The Battle of Todos Santos” but, yes, Nov. 1 is All Saiant’s Day) they surged
out of the Centro Historico, accompanied by tanks and five helicopters
roaring just over the housetops, to drive the APPO militants off
the university campus. A hurriedly assembled group of teachers, students,
and APPO supporters intercepted the force as it approached the
campus. Women, children, and teachers grabbed rocks to hurl at the
“Robocops” (so-called because they resembled science fiction movie
characters). Students wielding slingshots, bottle rockets, and Molotov
cocktails darted in and out, and after what the daily Noticias described
34 M O N T H L Y R E V I E W / J u n e 2 0 1 0
as a “pitched battle,” the federal forces retreated. The APPO militants
proclaimed “a victory” in what they touted as “The Battle of Todos
Santos.” More neutral observers, however, cautioned that the federal
forces withdrew in order not to violate the University’s autonomy.
Between June and December 2006, at least twenty-three persons
involved with the APPO lost their lives, reputedly to state-supported
paramilitaries and death squads. One of the victims, U.S. video-cameraman
Brad Will, taped four armed attackers rushing the barricade
from which he was filming, seconds before he collapsed from a bullet
wound. A year later, responding to pressure generated by U.S.
interests, Ruiz’s government arrested and convicted one of Will’s APPO companions companion
despite witnesses’ testimony and photographic evidence that
one of the attackers—all of whom had been identified as police and
ex-police—had fired the fatal bullet.
Anti-Ruiz protest marches and confrontations with federal police
and soldiers continued throughout November. APPO organizers of
a march on the 25th of that month decided to surround the military
encampment to demonstrate their continued presence in Oaxaca, a
maneuver their spokespersons called “symbolic.” The armed federal
police and soldiers responded by executing a well-planned and highly
coordinated counterattack.
“We (journalists) were there the whole time,” Noticias reporter
Matias testified to an Emergency Human Rights Delegation of which I was a member.[in court? Where? See also below “testimonies.”].
The confrontation, the tear gas, the gunshots—there were gunshots—
and afterwards the fires. At Seguro Social two wings of attacking police
converged forcing hundreds of people, men, women, old people onto the
highway in front of El Fortín hotel…The international journalists were
terrorized by what they were seeing…I don’t know if they (the soldiers and
police)beat everybody but there were heartrending women’s shouts. As if
we were delinquents, in order to save our lives, or at least keep from being
beaten, we climbed Fortín hill like refugees so they couldn’t find us…
Some didn’t make it as far as the Fortín hotel. A fifty-year-old single
mother of three, just leaving work, testified before the an emergency
human rights delegation (of which I was a member) (cut “of which I was a member): “I couldn’t see,
I was trying to find my son…they [the federal police] grabbed me,
shoved me against the pavement, handcuffed my hands behind my
neck and hurled me onto a pile of other women. They kicked and beat
us if we moved and kept us that way for almost two hours.”
As temperatures dropped to near freezing, the PFP stripped those
they’d apprehended of their sweaters, coats, and shoes, and hurled
sl e e p l e ss in o a x a c a 35
their victims face-down into the beds of trucks to haul them to the
state prison in Tlacolula.
“They spit on us, kicked us, tortured us. They slammed our heads
against the truck bed, they told us to say our prayers, we’d never see
our families again. I was covered with blood,” a tearful nineteen-yearold
college student told the human rights delegation. testified [?].
In the prison, forty-some miles from the capital city of Oaxaca, the
federal police and state prison guards photographed the detainees and
finally, after nearly twenty-four hours, let them have food and water
before transporting them in military airplanes and helicopters to federal
installations in Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and the Estado de Mexico.
During the police attack several buildings were burned, including
the government archives housing financial and tax records. For reasons
that neither the Oaxacan state nor Mexican federal government
explained all of the archives had been moved except those detailing
the current and previous governors’ financial dealings which were
being audited because of allegations of multi-billion fraud.
On December 4, federal agents swooped down on four APPO negotiators
in Mexico City who were scheduled to meet with the secretary
of government the following day, and seized Flavio Sosa, whom they
considered the leader of the negotiating team, sending him to the
country’s highest security prison. This was the infamous La Palma,
where he was held without bail for nearly a year before being transferred
to a state prison in Oaxaca.
“That they [the government] were going to negotiate with him was a
trick to arrest Flavio!” human rights attorney Yésica Sánchez told me in
February 2007. “The conference was a pretext to get him out of Oaxaca.”
Forced underground (debajo el agua—“underwater”—is the Spanish
expression), the APPO continued to meet, march, stage demonstrations,
and fight for the release of members who had been unjustly imprisoned.
Independent labor unions, human rights groups, and the Zapatista
movement in the neighboring state of Chiapas supported and encouraged
these actions. Yet, many national and foreign journalists declared
the “story over,” describing these protests as “subdued,” “reduced in
intensity,” and “reflecting defeat.” King Ruiz, with the federal militarized
force and the imprisonment of nonparticipants, had won.
As police and militaries continued to hassle and arrest persons identified
as APPO participants, the majority of those who had worked with the
APPO drifted away, recognizing that Ruiz wasn’t going to be dethroned,
and unwilling to risk being apprehended. The teacher-members of
36 M O N T H L Y R E V I E W / J u n e 2 0 1 0
Section 22 focused on regaining their positions in the schools and on reoccupying
those that had been taken over by PRI committees. Political and
social organizations also pulled back to focus on their own activities, leaving
the APPO only a shell of what had been a vigorous protest movement.
This segmentation dramatized differences of opinion that had
existed within the APPO since its beginnings. Section 22’s leadership
(and the majority of its members) regarded the APPO as a loosely
structured support organization, built around the teachers union.
Whereas the APPO itself advocated a “horizontal” governing structure
(which, in many cases, resulted in no structure at all), Section 22 maintained
its traditional “vertical” organization.
Homeopathic practitioner José Pérez, a slight, thin-faced man with
shoulder-length hair, whose eyes belied his placid demeanor, described
the APPO’s meteoric rise and almost equally rapid dissolution.
The spark caught, see. Whoosh! It was like an electric storm. I think a lot
of people got caught up in it without knowing why, without being able to
explain the urgency they felt, the emotion. But it was all geared on getting
rid of URO. The chants. The waving banners. The speeches. Electric.
When URO won out, the current went off. There was a huge relapse—
you could feel it all over Oaxaca. People went back to what they were
doing before the electricity struck. Chauffeurs went back to driving,
teachers to teaching, bureaucrats to robbing, prostitutes to whoring.
One still felt loyal, one still felt committed, but there was no electricity.
It was just going through the motions. That good feeling was gone.
The “good feeling” may have evaporated in Oaxaca but the “bad feeling”
of federal government officials toward public protests increased.
That the APPO was considered a dangerous revolutionary force was
made evident when the PFP (Federal Police) and AFI (Agencia Federal
de Investigación—Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI), stopped a student
takeover of a toll booth near Acapulco, Guerrero, and demanded to
know what connections the protesters had with “subversive” organizations,
specifically “the APPO.” Warning them “the same thing can
happen to you that happened to Flavio Sosa” agents tried to force the
students to admit that the APPO had financed them.
“The federal government will not stand for another desmadre like
the one that occurred in Oaxaca!” student leader Luis González, during
an interview that he gave to La Jornada, quoted an AFI officer as
saying. (Desmadre can be translated in various ways, all negative, but
essentially means “disaster.”) Although the APPO organizers insisted
on nonviolence, millions of people throughout Mexico, including
sl e e p l e ss in o a x a c a 37
high-ranking federal officials, had come to view the APPO as a dangerous
threat that needed to be repressed before it spread further.
Various journalists and academics whom I contacted theorized that the
APPO’s division into separate ideological groups resulted because its near
instantaneous formation had been based on an immediate, short-term
goal—driving Ruiz out of office—and not on functional plans for longer-
term change. An activist named Genoveva López suggested that the
different organizations “forgot lots of things in order to come together.”
Everyone had had separate agendas before they rushed in to support
Section 22, she explained. Although they temporarily set aside individual
quests and identities, they did not abandon them or change their
organizations’ goals. During the height of the APPO’s popularity, the
marches brought teachers, self-help groups, street urchins, Marxists,
labor unionists, indigena activists, and thousands of others together—
but after the marches and the speeches and the cheering and the songs,
most of the participants returned to their everyday lives.
Despite these splits and the ongoing dissention, the APPO also
became a symbol of popular cohesion and a trigger for political change.
La Jornada’s Julio Hernández told a March 2008 Día de Mujer forum in
the city of Oaxaca, “What happened here is an example, an example
of action…that gave hope to the entire pueblo of Mexico.” He affirmed
that the APPO’s takeover of communications “awakened a sleeping
giant in Oaxaca” and created an immense empathy in Mexico’s Federal District the D.F. [?] for
the APPO, and great hopes for its success.
The giant reawakened after more than a year’s slumber, when
Section 22 elected Azael Santiago-Chepi secretary-general before the
2008-2009 school year began. Santiago-Chepi immediately announced
the union’s commitment to the APPO, thus amplifying Section 22’s
base by making it the driving force in a people’s political movement,
rather than exclusively a union operation. Simultaneously, it fortified
the APPO by renewing the 70,000-member union’s participation.
Dethroning the King, however, was no longer the reinvigorated
movement’s primary preoccupation. Section 22 focused on national
politics, particularly the federal government’s attempt to install a
national teacher evaluation system to replace state systems under
union control. Recognizing that the APPO’s idealistic refusal to participate
in state or local elections had played into King Ruiz’s hands by
permitting his PRI party to gobble up all of the state’s legislative seats,
the “new” APPO seems to have become more realistic, more practical,
and less naively altruistic.
38 M O N T H L Y R E V I E W / J u n e 2 0 1 0
Many journalists doubt that the “horizontal” usos y costumbres system
of government that the APPO had advocated actually could work effectively
on a statewide level. They pointed out that decision by assembly
and insistence on leaderless equality had generated endless disputes
among national university student strikers in 1999-2000, which had
splintered their unity and led to their collapse.
Usos y costumbres is a pre-Colonial indigena term for communal government
that involves group decision-making and rotation of community
functions among heads of households. That it can work in a community
of individuals who share the same language, basic beliefs, and
customs has been demonstrated. Even so, communities governed
by usos y costumbres are not—and never have been—idyllic paradises.
Oaxaca’s history, before and since the Conquest, has been marred by
violence between ethnic groups and competing communities.
“There has to be reform,” said teacher Ema González, who echoed
the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans in contending that
mobilizing those currently excluded from the social and political hierarchy
is the key to change. The King’s minions who control Oaxaca’s
political and economic systems are a small minority of the state’s
population, “but they are a powerful minority. There is no transparency.
The governor arranges, controls, dispenses as he wishes—he is
the head cacique, he has the legislature and the judicial system in his
pocket.” Change means overthrowing the governor and the system of
government that he manifests and represents.
Can it be done nonviolently?
“The violence—repressive government violence—already has taken
place,” answered Navarro, a retired government worker and the father
of a teacher involved in Section 22’s occupation of the Centro Historico.
During the turbulent year following the armed invasion of the Zócalo, I
asked many Oaxacans this question: “How can you effect changes pacifically
when those wanting to implement them are nonviolent and those
repressing them are using tanks and truncheons and guns?”
Not everyone in Oaxaca thinks so. Nevertheless, they acknowledge
that the state’s semi-feudal system has deep roots. For more than seventy
years, the country’s predominant political party, the PRI, has held
the governorship and an overwhelming majority of municipal and city
administrations (equivalent to U.S. counties), as well as the state House
of Deputies and Senate. Although the PRI lost the presidential elections
in 2000 and 2006, Oaxaca remained firmly in PRI hands. In fact, many
sl e e p l e ss in o a x a c a 39
believe that the change in national leadership strengthened the hold of
governor-kings like Ulisés Ruiz, since the states remaining under PRI
domination became the new centers of party power. In 2006, as rumors
circulated that the federal senate would declare Oaxaca “ungovernable,”
King URO mocked, “Only God can remove a governor!”
Since God (whoever He or She is) failed to depose him, Oaxaca
remained his to do with as he pleased. The rich got richer and the
poverty-stricken (over 80 percent of the population) became more
destitute and more dependent upon sons, husbands, daughters, and
parents working in the United States. The renovated APPO, under
Section 22 of the national teachers union’s leadership, has encouraged
electoral challenges that would—at least temporarily—unite all parties
opposing the PRI to support a single coalition candidate in 2010. But
they still have to contend with the King’s money, the King’s political
control, and the King’s paramilitary forces.
The Dark Ages succeeded the Golden Era of Rome. The Mayan
Empire—and its culture—disappeared, the victim not of invasion but of
the ruinous class division between its impoverished masses and its opulent
rulers. History tells us that, in some places—India in the eighteenth
century, Peru in the sixteenth—power and control replace power and
control. Other civilizations give way to barbarian hordes. Some societies
transform themselves through revolutionary change .What is Oaxaca’s
future? It could be continued stagnation under a kind of “Dark Age.”
Or the “sleeping giant” of the people could once again awake, this time
bringing truly revolutionary transformation. One thing is certain: only
the last offers hope for genuine progress for the people


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