Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oaxaca Caravan Attack: The Militarization And Paramilitarization Of Mexico

A shorter edit of this article is running on NACLA right now.

By Kristin Bricker

On April 27, gunmen opened fire on an international aid caravan that was bringing food, clothing, medicine, and teachers to the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca. The attack left two dead: Oaxacan indigenous leader and media organizer Alberta "Bety" Cariño and a Finnish observer, Jyri Antero Jaakkola. Gunfire injured three other Oaxacans during the attack.

The attack was the latest in a series of assassinations in a region where shootouts are a frequent occurrence. While the attack on the caravan attracted international media attention, the other murders (at least 23 since 2007) were lost in the wave of violence that has gripped Mexico. Ever since President Felipe Calderon deployed 40,000 soldiers to fight the US-funded war on drugs, all violent murders in Mexico are automatically chalked up to the drug war in the media and in the government's official numbers. Drug war violence provides a too-convenient cover for the political violence that also pervades Mexico.

The violence in the Triqui region is the direct result of government machinations aimed at dividing the indigenous people who live there. “The political organizations are dividing us,” says San Juan Copala spokesman Jorge Albino. “When we form organizations, the political parties come and they offer to make one of us a leader, or they offer us a position. And some of us wind up identifying with a political party and we kill each other as a result.”

The government has good reason to want to weaken the Triquis through division: the Triquis have historically put up some of the fiercest resistance to the colonial (and later neo-colonial) project in Mexico. For this reason, their territory is particularly rich in natural resources. John Gibler writes in his book Mexico Unconquered: "As a result of their armed defense, the Triqui region today is a green oasis in the midst of the eroded Mixteca region where centuries of clear-cutting and goat herding have decimated the land."

Following the 2006 peaceful uprising that nearly threw the Oaxaca governor out of office, Triquis in San Juan Copala declared their municipality autonomous. Their autonomist project attempts to heal the divisions created by decades of interference by outsiders from political parties by removing the political parties altogether and replacing them with "uses and customs" or traditional governance. They took their inspiration from the Zapatistas in the neighboring state of Chiapas and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in their own state. Regarding the creation of the autonomous municipality, Albino said, "We know that the government will not recognize it. But we will recognize it as or own government, and we're going to push ahead with it. Now we're going to govern ourselves because they (the municipal governments) are not indigenous, are not Triqui, and they don't know how to govern. We know there will be repression and that there will be paramilitaries sooner or later. We are anticipating it, we don't have any other choice, but we know that we're not doing anything wrong. We're doing the best for peace for Triquis."

Members of Oaxaca's ruling party, the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), created the organization Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT) in 1994, shortly after the Zapatista uprising. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees classifies UBISORT as a paramilitary organization. San Juan Copala authorities blame UBISORT for much of the violence its residents have experienced since declaring the municipality autonomous. This past January, UBISORT put up a blockade that has prevented food, supplies, and teachers from entering San Juan Copala. No one can enter or leave the community, and the paramiltiaries have cut running water and electricity to the community.

Survivors of the April 27 caravan attack say the gunmen identified themselves as UBISORT members. The attack occurred at the UBISORT blockade, which is located near the community of La Sabana. UBISORT controls La Sabana. Gunmen briefly detained caravan participant Gabriela Jimenez along with a reporter as they fled into the brush during the attack. Jimenez recounts that the reporter offered to interview the armed, masked men that were holding them hostage. "And they [the gunmen] responded that they would have to interview their leaders, Heriberto Pasos and Rufino Juarez Hernandez." Juarez Hernandez is the leader of UBISORT. Pasos is the leader of the Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle (MULT), an organization that has also allied itself against the autonomous municipality

The Oaxacan government has denied all responsibility for the attack. Instead, it is attempting to blame the caravan organizers. "Whoever organized this caravan will have to answer for it, whoever invited these people ... without taking precautions, because I think these people did not know what the situation and problems in the area were," Oaxaca state Interior Secretary Evencio Martinez told the AP. "They (the caravan members) will have to answer, too, for having accepted the invitation."

However, sociologist Victor Raul Martinez Vasquez argues, "I believe that it was a deliberate act on the part of the government, with the idea to teach them a lesson and to dissuade those foreigners who want to help this town that is under siege, where they've closed the road to the community, they've cut the electricity. [The town] is running out of food."

The caravan attack may benefit the government in another way: human rights organizations fear that the government will use the attack to militarize the region. The UBISORT has already called for the military to enter the area "in order to put an end to the violence that has spilled our brothers' blood." The military are not likely to drive the government-friendly UBISORT out of La Sabana. Rather, militarization is a direct threat against the autonomous government in San Juan Copala. If the rest of Mexico is any indication, the military's presence would increase, not decrease, violence and human rights abuses.

The people of San Juan Copala, who have borne the brunt of the violence in this conflict, say that they don't want the government to send in the police or the military to resolve the conflict--not even to break the blockade. Instead, they want the government to guarantee the safety of civil society organizations so that they can enter San Juan Copala and begin to attend to residents' needs.

The sudden international media attention on San Juan Copala could leave the impression that the attack was an isolated incident or, at worst, yet another deplorable act linked to Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz's administration. However, paramilitaries have a long history in Mexico. They were a fixture of the dirty war in the 1960s and 70s. After a brief lull in activity, they experienced a resurgence during the Ernesto Zedillo administration. When Zedillo took office, he began a campaign of low-intensity warfare against the Zapatistas, which involved the creation and maintenance of paramilitary organizations.

Following the 1997 Acteal massacre, many traditional paramilitary organizations in Chiapas folded under increased international scrutiny. However, paramilitary leaders reorganized themselves and formed a registered non-profit to provide a cover for their new paramilitary organization, the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC). The non-profit status and civilian membership give legitimacy to the organization's paramilitary nucleus. Leaked government documents prove the the government conspires with the OPDDIC to bring Zapatista lands back under government control. OPDDIC members often cruise Zapatista territory in government vehicles driven by police officers. The openly armed organization receives financial aid from the government through its NGO, and a federal government official has acted as the organization’s lawyer.

Violence and human rights abuses have drastically increased as the war on drugs has progressed. It appears as though paramilitarism is also on the rise. Mexico, a laboratory of paramilitary innovation, has seen another strain of paramilitary organization arise: the narco-paramilitary. The most famous are Los Zetas, who received US training when they formed part of an elite Mexican military unit. They later deserted--taking their training, uniforms, weapons, and government contacts with them--and became the Gulf cartel's private army.

Sometimes the line between narco-paramilitaries and paramilitaries blur. This is the case in Guerrero, where a paramiltary organization lead by local political boss Rogaciano Alva Alvarez and linked to the Sinaloa cartel fights both rival drug gangs and the Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army (ERPI). The conflict between peasant insurgents and narco-paramilitaries is logical: both fight for control of territory. The ERPI claims that it has driven drug traffickers out of the territory that it controls.

As drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) corrupt more government officials, it is only natural that those government officials' paramilitary and military soldiers begin to carry out the DTOs orders. The ERPI's Comandante Ramiro, in an interview with Contralinea magazine explained, "The counterinsurgency campaign is currently increasing. Organized crime cannot sustain itself without the complicity of corrupt networks that are tolerated and privileged by the State. Numerous soldiers, both retired and active, with the government's approval, sponsor paramilitary groups and participate in them. They employ counterinsurgency tactics learned in imperialist military programs, with the objective of reducing enemy cartels and terrorizing popular movements that provide alternatives to capitalism."

Last November, Comandante Ramiro was assassinated. The ERPI says that a local political boss hired seven narco-paramilitaries to murder him with AK-47s.

Paramilitary organizations don't just target armed leftist organizations. Even non-violent organizations, if they mount successful campaigns for control of land and territory, present a threat to the government and/or drug traffickers who also have vested interests in that territory. Such is the case of the Zapatistas, who haven't fired a shot since they declared a ceasefire on January 15, 1994, but are constantly threatened by paramilitary organizations.

This is also true in the case of the international aid caravan in Oaxaca. While the caravan was comprised of several organizations, many of whom do not work actively in the Triqui region, it had a specific goal: break the siege on the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala. San Juan Copala, in declaring itself autonomous and driving out all political parties and political organizations, took control of its territory out of the state's hands and put it under indigenous control. Because the caravan aimed to bring food and other basic necessities despite a paramilitary blockade that aims to starve San Juan Copala into submission to the state, the caravan presented a serious threat to paramilitaries and the government.

Ambush survivor Jimenez says the gunmen made their goal very clear when they detained her following the attack: "They told us that they were going to take back Copala. They said they were going to drive people from their homes. They said, 'Wherever you walk, this is all UBISORT territory.'"


Photo: one of the caravan members managed to snap the above picture during the paramilitary attack.
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