Note: This article came out before David's April 6 trial. That trial was postponed to April 13 at 10:45am, meaning that there is still time to fax or call the judge who will give the verdict.
"They wanted people in the movement to believe that my arrest wasn't politically motivated."
At midday on April 13, 2007, 24-year-old David Venegas, an advisor to the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), was walking with human rights lawyer Isaac Torres Carmona through El Llano park in downtown Oaxaca City. Without warning, a group of men dressed head-to-toe in black clothing jumped out of a red pick-up truck without license plates and, as Venegas recounted to Narco News, "jumped on top of me."
The black-clad men were police. Torres Carmona demanded to see an arrest warrant, but he says the police told him to shut up or he'd be the next one they beat up. "Within a matter of minutes," says Torres Carmona, police threw Venegas in the pick-up truck and put a bag over his head. Torres attempted to identify which police force was carrying out the action; one of the police yelled at him, "Write down the license plate number, asshole."
Over the course of the next six hours, the police transferred Venegas to several different unknown locations--Venegas couldn't see where they took him because his head remained covered with the bag. During that time they beat and kicked Venegas and threatened to disappear him if he didn't cooperate. In questioning Venegas, the police made it very clear that they'd been watching him for some time. They showed him a file full of pictures they'd taken of him, including at protest rallies.
According to Venegas, after several hours of beatings and threats, his captors took him to the State Preventive Police headquarters in Santa María Coyotepec, Oaxaca. There, the police photographed him with heroine and cocaine that they claim to have found on him when they arrested him. They then transferred him, the drugs, and prepared statements from the arresting officers to the Street Sales Drug Unit (UMAN in its Spanish initials) of the Federal Attorney General's Office.
After two days in the UMAN, the Attorney General's Office transferred Venegas to the Santa Maria Ixcotel Prison in Oaxaca City, where he discovered that the government had filed further charges against him for sedition, conspiracy, and arson. The government accused him of burning down eight government buildings on November 25, 2006, the same day federal police invaded Oaxaca to violently put down the uprising. It is widely believed within the movement that Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz ordered the government buildings to be burnt down in order to destroy evidence of corruption in the Ruiz administration, including injustices committed in the judicial system and embezzlement of public funds.
After 11 months in prison, Venegas beat the sedition, conspiracy, and arson charges. All of the eight witnesses who testified to seeing Venegas burn down the government buildings were either police or government employees. According to Venegas, the witnesses contradicted their own testimony, saying that the people who burned down the buildings had covered their faces with ski masks and bandanas, but that they were able to positively identify Venegas as one of the culprits because they saw his whole face.
Despite the evidence being in his favor, the win didn't come easy. While he was imprisoned, Venegas won an appeal that threw out those charges. Instead of releasing Venegas, however, the government filed new charges against him for attacks on transit routes, rebellion, crimes against civil servants, dangerous attacks, and resisting arrest. Venegas beat those charges in a second appeal, but still had the drug charges pending. He was released on bail on March 5, 2008.
Politically Motivated Arrest
At the time of his arrest for possession with intent to distribute, Venegas had at least two other outstanding warrants against him for the crimes the government accused him of committing on November 25, 2006--the crimes the government officially charged him with after the drug arrest. In Mexico, the government issues arrest warrants against activists but waits for a politically opportune moment to act on them. The warrants related to the November 25 charges were issued in December 2006. Venegas believes that police planted drugs on him in order to discredit him so that the government could advance its other cases against him more easily and with less public resistance. "They wanted people in the movement to believe that my arrest wasn't politically motivated."
In what be the most obvious clue that Venegas' arrest was politically motivated, the police released a post-arrest photograph to the media showing Venegas standing behind a bag of white powder (allegedly drugs) that is sitting on top of an issue of La Barrikada, a magazine published by people involved in the APPO. In the photo, Venegas' face is obviously swollen from the beatings he says he received from police.
Venegas' current legal troubles have resurfaced during a tense moment in Oaxaca. In January, an unknown assailant attacked APPO adviser and fellow VOCAL member Ruben Valencia Nuñez with a knife. In March, an unknown group of assailants kidnapped APPO adviser and former political prisoner Marcelino Coache Verano. They tortured him, including burning him on his chest and genitals. Venegas attributes increasing repression against the movement to a convergence of political factors: "Two years after the brutal repression we lived through as a movement, there's hope now that we can organize ourselves and move forward. The Second APPO Congress just happened, and there have been important changes. The government knows that this year there's been a lot of movement in Oaxaca. Add that to the global and national economic crisis. In the coming days they're going to try to separate as many of the possible dissidents that they can."
At the same time, Venegas stresses that the current wave of repression against organizers in Oaxaca is not a new occurrence. "Since the beginning of the movement there have been daily brutal injustices and human rights violations. Impunity is the law here in Oaxaca. There are unresolved forced disappearances, there are kidnappings, murders, jailing of the opposition, torture..."
The only evidence the government has against Venegas are the drugs the police claim they found on him and the word of the police who arrested him. "They don't have any civilian witnesses, they don't have anyone to corroborate their version of the events," says Venegas. In fact, half of the police who participated in the operation refuse to testify against him. "Halfway through the [judicial] process, one of the three police [who testified against Venegas], for reasons that are unknown to us, decided to stop participating in the lie and quit his job. Furthermore, when the three police were asked who was driving the vehicle during the operation, the police gave the name of a fourth officer. That officer denies that he participated in the operation that day."
The two police who are testifying against Venegas have given contradictory testimony in the case, despite the fact that during the ten hours Venegas was disappeared in their custody they had plenty of time to get their stories straight. Venegas and his witnesses, on the other hand, all gave their official declarations separately, without having the chance to discuss their stories beforehand. Torres Carmona, being a lawyer, filed charges against the police who arrested Venegas immediately following his arrest, even before Venegas first appeared in police custody later that night. Therefore, he officially filed his declaration before Venegas was able to file his. The official declarations of Venegas, Torres Carmona, and the third witness all give the same version of events.
The police claim that they arrested Venegas five blocks from El Llano Park, rather than in the actual park as Venegas and defense witnesses have stated. Whereas Venegas has witnesses who have testified that Venegas was detained in the park, the police have no civilian witnesses who claim he was detained five blocks from the park.
Likewise, the police also deny that they ever took Venegas to the State Preventive Police headquarters in Santa María Coyotepec. Venegas, however, says that it was the first place where police removed the bag from his head so that he could see where he was. It was there that the police planted the drugs on him, he says, and where they questioned him about other APPO members.
The police claim that they searched Venegas without a warrant because Venegas, Torres, and a third person shouted insults at the police as they passed. The police claim that they stopped and, during a standard search, found the drugs on Venegas. Venegas states that the police attacked him and threw him into the back of the pick-up so fast that they didn't even have time to ask his name or request identification, let alone search him for drugs. None of the witnesses saw the police find drugs on Venegas before the pick-up drove off.
Even the definition of "possession with intent to distribute" is in question in Venegas' case. In the early stages of Venegas' criminal proceedings, Venegas' lawyer attempted to argue that the small amount of drugs allegedly found on Venegas (see photo above) is not enough to justify the charge of "intent to distribute."
Despite the contradictions in the police officers' testimony and their lack of witnesses, Venegas knows he'll have a difficult time in court in Monday. "Here in Mexico, a police officer's word is sacred. Judges value a cop's word much more than a citizen's. This is the impunity we have to live with in Mexico.... Here in Mexico, especially in Oaxaca, it's not reason or strong arguments that win cases. It's political interests, repression, and economic interests that decide cases. The only thing the people have is mobilizations and protest. It's the only way things get resolved more or less correctly."
No Justice in Mexico--Just Impunity
Despite the numerous inconsistencies in the government's case against him, Venegas knows that he won't win his case based on justice. "In Mexico, there's a state of total impunity," Venegas tells Narco News. "Laws are meaningless if there isn't a willingness [to uphold them].... This is about politics. There are people who have been found with a lot of drugs in Mexico have been freed due because of who they know or the influence they have."
For this reason, Venegas' organization VOCAL is relying on local, national, and international solidarity to keep him out of jail. According to Venegas, "We've issued an urgent international action alert because in other criminal proceedings against other APPO members, they have been released on bail, just like in my case. But at the end of the whole [judicial] process, when it comes time for the verdict, when the movement is no longer paying a lot of attention to the case, they're found guilty." VOCAL doesn't want this to happen in Venegas' case, so they're requesting that supporters call or fax the judge who will decide his case, Judge Amado Chiñas Fuentes, before the verdict is delivered at 12:45 pm EST (9:45 am) on Monday, April 6. According to a VOCAL communique, the number for the court building is 011 52 (951) 515-6600. The communique also states that supporters who wish to send faxes can call that number during business hours and request a fax tone ("Me da un tono de fax por favor?"). VOCAL also requests that supporters send statements of solidarity to firstname.lastname@example.org.
VOCAL has also called for local supporters to attend a protest on Monday, April 6, at 10:30am in front of the Moises Saenz Garza Secondary School in El Llano, in Oaxaca City.