June 8, 2010 - The world will be closely watching the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, as a second international aid caravan attempts to break the paramilitary blockade that has kept that community cut off from the outside world since January.
The Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), an armed organization that was founded by and maintains close ties with the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI, the party that has ruled the state of Oaxaca with an iron fist for the past eighty years) blocked the road into San Juan Copala in January. The group also cut running water and electricity to the community. The presence of sharpshooters in the surrounding hillsides and mountains makes it virtually impossible for San Juan Copala residents to leave their homes during the day.
This past April 27, self-identified members of UBISORT opened fire on an international aid caravan headed for San Juan Copala, according to survivors. Two people died in the ambush.
Even though the ambush on that caravan attracted international attention and condemnation, the security situation in San Juan Copala appears to be steadily deteriorating. On May 16, twelve indigenous Triqui women and children were kidnapped by people whom they identify as UBISORT leaders and members. Their captors released them a day later after destroying all of their belongings.
Then, on May 20, mestizo hitmen murdered Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez and Cleriberta Castro in their home in the Yosoyuxi community, which is part of the autonomous municipality. Ramírez was one of the founders of the autonomous municipality and one of its most important leaders.
On June 4, just days before the caravan is scheduled to take place, the blockade outside San Juan Copala was reinforced with "large rocks" which the Oaxaca-based Bartolomé Carrasco Briseño Human Rights Center says it presumes "were placed there with heavy machinery."
On June 5 and 6, an armed group opened fire on San Juan Copala, injuring 20-year-old Melitón Rodríguez Martínez, reportedly as he left his home in an attempt to reach his bathroom, which is not connected to his house. He received 3-4 gunshots in the leg, according to Father Wilfrido Mayén Peláez. The Bartolomé Carrasco Briseño Human Rights Center reports that Rodríguez Martínez has not yet received medical attention because residents have been unable to transport him out of the community to a medical center.
The new caravan, scheduled to arrive in San Juan Copala the morning of June 8, is considerably larger and higher-profile than the April 27 caravan, which only had about 30 participants. The June 8 caravan is comprised of two contingents: seven buses and trucks that left Mexico City the night of June 7, and one bus from Oaxaca City. In all, over 200 people are expected to participate in the caravan, and they are bringing a three-ton truck full of aid for San Juan Copala residents. Over a dozen federal members of Congress are expected to accompany the caravan.
The Oaxaca state government has provided no guarantees for the caravan. It has reportedly deployed between 150-350 state police along the route to San Juan Copala. It demanded that caravan organizers provide the government with the names and personal information of all of the caravan organizers and participants, along with the immigration statuses of foreigners. It also requested a complete itinerary for the caravan. Caravan organizers say they will not turn that information over to the government for security reasons.
For its part, UBISORT has warned the caravan to cancel the June 8 trip, because it says "the conditions don't exist." It said the same thing just prior to the first caravan, which its members allegedly ambushed.
The municipality of San Juan Copala declared itself autonomous following the nonviolent uprising that nearly overthrew the Oaxacan governor in 2006. Since then, it has suffered violence at the hands political organizations in the area, such as UBISORT, which are allied with the government. The crisis intensified seven months ago, when UBISORT paramilitaries blockaded the community. Shootouts and murders are now a common occurrence in the Triqui region.