Thursday, June 18, 2009

Oaxacan Political Prisoners Find New Hope in Zapatistas' Other Campaign

Subcomandante Marcos' 2006 Visit to Imprisoned Loxichas Inspired a New Movement; One Prisoner is Already Free

On February 9, 2006, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos entered Oaxaca's Santa María Ixcotel jail to visit indigenous political prisoners from the state's Loxicha region. When he left the prison, he called upon Other Campaign adherents in Oaxaca to launch a national campaign to demand freedom for the political prisoners.

That national campaign never happened.

However, a Oaxacan group called the Zapatista Collective stepped up. As adherents to the Other Campaign, they took Marcos' words to heart and made political prisoner accompaniment a central focus of their organization's work. Soon after Marcos' prison visit, the collective approached one of the Loxicha political prisoners, a woman named Isabel Almaraz, and asked her how they could help her fight for her freedom. They worked with her for over two years, with her fighting from within the prison walls and the Zapatista Collective fighting from outside. On July 17, 2008, Almaraz won her freedom.

Throughout Almaraz's fight for her freedom, other Loxicha political prisoners and their families watched with interest. They'd had more than enough experience with outsiders wishing to "help." Outsiders tended to begin campaigns without properly consulting with the prisoners. Even worse, they would use the prisoners for their own political gains, such as securing a letter from the infamous Loxicha political prisoners to be read aloud at a conference or event.

But the Zapatista Collective was different. Their political prisoner work is guided by the principle of, "Don't struggle for [political prisoners]; struggle with them." The collective accompanied Almaraz in her fight for freedom rather than launching a campaign on her behalf--and it worked.

When Almaraz was released, other Loxicha political prisoners invited the Zapatista Collective to collaborate with them on their fight for freedom. After years of initial struggle following their arrests in 1996, the movement had grown quiet. The Loxichas were ready to fight again, but this time it would be them leading the struggle for their freedom.

The Loxichas have begun this new phase of struggle with a protest caravan from the Loxicha region to Mexico City. Along the way, they march though towns in Oaxaca and Puebla. The caravan, comprised of approximately 70 Loxichas, made a stop in Ocotlan, Oaxaca, the site of an ongoing battle between Canadian mining company Fortuna Silver Mines and the autonomous town of San Jose del Progreso in the Ocotlan municipality. The Loxicha caravan arrives in Mexico City for a protest in front of the Ministry of the Interior on June 15.

Struggle and Repression

The Loxicha struggle, like most indigenous struggles, has been a long and constant one. Up until 1984, the Loxicha region was dominated by caciques--outsider mestizo political bosses who ruled the majority indigenous region through repression and corruption. The region was (and still is) horribly underdeveloped. The twelve Loxicha political prisoners told supporters in an open letter written for the caravan, "The Loxicha region is one of the poorest regions in the state of Oaxaca. It is in a state of complete marginalization and extreme poverty, and [the people] have been totally abandoned. Malnutrition and hunger are widespread. Adults and children die of curable diseases because of a lack of economic resources... This situation forced us as residents to organize ourselves in a peaceful and civil manner."

To improve their standard of living, the Loxichas ousted the undemocratic and unresponsive political bosses. In 1984, for the first time in recent history, the president of the San Augustin Loxicha municipality, Alberto Antonio Antonio, was a Loxicha, not a cacique. Residents elected him through traditional governance mechanisms called usos y costumbres ("uses and customs"), not the corrupt government electoral process that had been used to impose caciques upon them for decades. For ten years, Loxichas controlled their own destiny through usos y costumbres, electing authorities who responded to their needs.

Then the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) made its first public appearance. On June 28, 1996, during the commemoration of the first anniversary of a massacre in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, where the Mexican military murdered 17 peasants, armed members of the EPR arrived unexpectedly and presented the group's first declaration. They told those gathered at the ceremony, "We have sprung forth from the sorrow of orphans and widows, from the absence of loved ones disappeared, from the pain of the tortured, from the anger of those unjustly incarcerated, from those who suffer from political and social persecution, from the situation which daily kills with repression, misery, hunger and disease, such as the abandoned children on the streets."

A month later, the EPR carried out its first armed attack in the neighboring state of Oaxaca. On August 29, the EPR took over the town of La Crucecita and engaged in a battle with the military and federal and local police. Eleven government agents died, as well as one or two members of the EPR. The government claims that one of the EPR casualties was Loxicha. "And that was the pretext for all of the repression that followed," Erika Sebastian Luis, the daughter of Loxicha political prisoner Alvaro Sebastian Ramirez, told Narco News.

On September 25, 1996, then-president Ernesto Zedillo sent police and federal soldiers to invade San Augustin Loxicha. They arrested over 500 residents, including the entire city council, without an arrest warrant, claiming that they were members of the EPR. The majority of the detainees were released after 72 hours of questioning, but 130-155 Loxichas remained imprisoned. Their wives and other family members formed a plantón, or protest encampment, outside of the governor's office to demand the prisoners' release. After over four years of the women's plantón, the government released all but twelve prisoners.

Other Loxicha political prisoners have entered and left Oaxacan prisons since the September 25 repression because the government aggressions against San Augustin Loxicha never ended. 1996 and 1997 were particularly difficult years full of human rights abuses, disappearances, and politically motivated arrests. The government attacked San Augustin Loxicha with numerous joint operations--that is, operations that included the military and police from various levels of the government, just like today's joint operations in the drug war. Sebastian Luis told Narco News that many of these operations were led by members of the caciques' private armies, known as "white guards." The white guards told the police and soldiers where organizers lived so that they could be arrested. In 1997, Lucio Vasquez, a cacique whose family is full of prominent white guards, took advantage of the constant government raids on San Augustin Loxicha and the detention of community leaders and authorities. He declared himself municipal president, and cacique rule returned to San Augustin Loxicha.

Stigmatization and Hope

The Loxicha case is filled with irregularities and abuses. Many of the prisoners, including Sebastian Luis' father Alvaro, were tortured. Sebastian Luis says the torture included the tehuacanazo (squirting mineral water mixed with chile up the victim's nose), beatings, and sexual abuse. Through torture, many prisoners were forced to sign blank pieces of paper (in Sebastian Ramirez's case, over 200 pages) that were later filled with confessions invented by the authorities. All of the remaining twelve Loxicha prisoners are accused of homicide.

Despite the painfully obvious injustices and abuses in the Loxicha case, the political prisoners have not enjoyed the national or international support that other political prisoners and indigenous groups do. The lack of solidarity is likely due to the government's accusation that the Loxicha prisoners belong to the EPR, according to a member of the Zapatista Collective. The EPR has not enjoyed the civil society support that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has. On the contrary, it has been thoroughly demonized, thanks in large part to former president Zedillo's creation of a "good guerilla, bad guerrilla" paradigm. Following the appearance of the EPR in 1996, Zedillo stated that while the EZLN had a social base, did not resort to terror, and agreed to dialogue with government, the EPR lacked a social base and used terrorist means to achieve its goals. Zedillo never elaborated on the difference he saw between the EZLN's armed uprising, in which it attacked military and police targets and threatened to overthrow the federal government, and the EPR's attacks on military and police targets. The demonization of the EPR has given the government a permanent pretext for repression: it can accuse any social organization or organizers that oppose it of being "EPR terrorists" and unleash unthinkable violence upon them.

Even though the Loxichas deny that they belong to the EPR, the damage has been done. Throughout most of their struggle, they've been largely abandoned by civil society. They hope that with Subcomandante Marcos' statement that they have a place within the Other Campaign, they can overcome the stigmatization caused by the government's allegations that they belong to the EPR. Marcos has gone so far as to say that when Oaxacan organizations do present a proposal for a national campaign for the Loxicha prisoners' freedom, the Zapatistas will promote the campaign. This is exactly what the Loxichas want. They hope to receive support and solidarity at a level that they've never before enjoyed, relying upon the international network of indigenous rights supporters created by the Other Campaign.

The Loxicha caravan, a first step towards a national campaign, comes at a critical time for the Loxicha prisoners. Four of them are scheduled to complete their 13-year sentences within the coming months. The other eight have been sentenced to 32 years. Sebastian Luis told Narco News that if the four prisoners are left to serve their full sentences, it will be much more difficult to argue that the other eight shouldn't serve their full 32-year sentences.

Despite the odds against them, the Loxichas are hopeful. By choosing to lead the campaign themselves rather than allowing non-prisoners to direct a campaign on their behalf, the prisoners have chosen a tried-and-true political prisoner solidarity model. Over a year ago, the Chiapas state government released over forty political prisoners, including many Zapatistas, after the prisoners kicked off a campaign for their freedom with an indefinite hunger strike. The Chiapan prisoners led the campaign throughout the hunger strike, using phone cards to call members of civil society and instructing them on how to plan marches and what to paint on banners that called for their release.

So far, the Loxicha caravan has been met with support from Mexican civil society. Oaxaca's Section 22 teachers union has declared its open support for the Loxichas and has joined them in the demand for the prisoners' freedom. Likewise, Omar Esparza from the Network of Community and Indigenous Radios of the Mexican Southeast reports that teachers from Puebla's Section 23 and Section 51 unions have received the Loxichas with open arms in that state. On June 11--just two days before the Loxicha's arrival--Puebla governor Mario Marin ordered a brutal police operation against Section 23, resulting the arrest of 15 teachers and human rights observers.

The Loxichas say that the caravan is only a first step in their renewed campaign for freedom for their political prisoners. They are expected to announce more actions in the coming days.
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