by Kristin Bricker
San Juan Copala, Oaxaca - On Tuesday afternoon at about 2:50pm, people believed to be paramilitaries affiliated with the ruling party of Oaxaca ambushed an international aid caravan en route to San Juan Copala. At least two people are reported dead.
The caravan was carrying food, water, and other basic necessities to San Juan Copala, which has been subject to a paramilitary blockade that has prevented anyone from entering or leaving the community since January. In addition to carrying much-needed supplies, the caravan was meant to accompany teachers who were returning to classes after paramilitaries denied them access to the community nearly five months ago. The caravan included representatives from the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), Section 22 of the teachers union, the Center for Community Support Working Together (CACTUS), Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty (VOCAL), two reporters from the Mexican magazine Contralinea, and international observers from Belgium, Finland, Italy, and Germany.
San Juan Copala has been under constant siege from pro-government paramilitaries since it declared itself autonomous following the 2006 peaceful uprising that shook the state and nearly drove the governor out of office. One such paramilitary organization, the Union for the Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), warned that the caravan could be in danger if it attempted to enter San Juan Copala. UBISORT leader Rufino Juárez Hernández told press that shoot-outs were a constant occurrence in the region, and that his organization would not be held responsible for “what could happen” to the caravan.
Reports from survivors indicate that at approximately 2:50 pm just outside the community of La Sabana, which is controlled by UBISORT, the caravan reached a blockade of rocks piled on the road. As the vehicles began to turn around to head back, they came under fire from gunmen who were hiding in the brush. “They started shooting like madmen,” says one survivor.
Monica Citlali Santiago Ortiz, 22, was shot in the back. She is being treated in a hospital in Juxtlahuaca. The total number of wounded and dead is unknown. Paramilitaries continue to blockade the area, making rescue impossible.
The paramilitaries did allow police to remove two bodies from the area this afternoon. They have been identified as Alberta “Bety” Cariño, the director of CACTUS, and Juri Jaakkola, an observer from Finland.
Survivors who fled into the brush when the caravan came under attack are beginning to surface as they make their way out of the area and into larger towns. Nonetheless, an unconfirmed number of people are still missing. VOCAL reports that two of its members remain missing after they fled into the brush. CACTUS reports another four missing, including the two Contralinea reporters and Martin Sautan, a Belgian citizen.
Paramilitaries briefly detained VOCAL member, Ruben Valencia. He reports that the gunmen took his identification and cell phone and threatened to kill him before releasing him along the side of a road.
The Oaxacan government has denied all responsibility for the attack, claiming that it had no knowledge of the caravan.
Eduardo Almeida from the human rights organization Nodo de Derechos Humanos said, “We fear that the government will use this as a pretext to militarize the region.”