Friday, October 15, 2010

Autonomous Supporters Describe Their Last Days in San Juan Copala

by Zósimo Camacho, Contralínea

October 1, 2010

After almost ten months under siege, San Juan Copala fell.  The paramilitaries kicked up the siege this past September 7, and over the following days they occupied the political and ceremonial center of the Triqui culture.  Nothing, no one, stopped them from smashing down doors, tearing down walls, burning homes, and ransacking houses.  Terror took hold for the last thirty families that resisted, and they fled through the hills, carrying the elderly, hurrying up children, falling into gullies.  Many escaped with bullet wounds.  They haven't been treated by doctors.  Under fire for 303 days, now displaced, always invisible, the Triquis that demand autonomy blame MULT [the Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle] and UBISORT [the Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region].  They accuse Amado Ortiz and Antonio Cruz [1] of leading the assault.

Yosoyuxi, Copala.  Barefoot, Altagracia Fernández de Jesús hides between her father's legs.  At four years old, she barely speaks.  Her mother, Francisca de Jesús, was shot in the back last September 7 as she tried to leave San Juan Copala.  She is in a hospital in Oaxaca.  Her brother, Elías, was murdered at the age of nine on November 29, 2009, in a classroom when paramilitaries shot up the school.  Her sister, Maribel, couldn't leave Copala's boarding school and stayed in the town center.  Her father, Benito Fernández, a 53-year-old carpenter with wounds on one foot, is desolate. 

For almost a quarter of her life, she's had to remain hidden in her house.  On the rainy morning of September 19, her father took her in his arms.  Sometimes he had to make her walk over the rocky ground while he carried 80-year-old Jacinta González Guzmán on his back.  Sometimes the man rolled through the brush with the old woman, at other times, with the little girl.

Also in that group that was fleeing from the hail of bullets was 53-year-old peasant Gabino Hernández; Margarita López Martínez, 45; Cornelio López Martínez, 51; and Susana López Martínez, 18.  The group was lucky: they weren't found by the armed groups.

They didn't bring any food with them, because at that point they didn't have any.  They fled with only the clothing on their backs, which they still wear.  They left behind their houses, their huipiles, some animals, personal documents, family photographs, altars, mats, cooking utensils, domestic goods, clothing...

But what they mourn is intangible.  They have been expelled from the Chuman'a, as they call San Juan Copala, the Triquis' ceremonial center.  They are concerned for their saints [2], which are prisoners in the church, without the flowers and candles that sustain them.  Their voices crack when they count the years they lived there: 12, 20, 40, 80, according to their ages.  The women who were not born in San Juan, but married there, could forget their age or the year they were born, but they'll never forget the year they moved to San Juan Copala, nor the time that they lived there.

"There is hope that we'll return to San Juan Copala," says Cornelio López.  He had previously spoken strongly and firmly.  But now that he's talking about the Chuman'a, where he worked the land for almost 40 years, his voice cracks.

"First God," he adds with difficulty, "we don't know; God knows..."

From "loaned" homes, the displaced recount their stories and show their wounds.  Most of the time they talk through an interpreter.  The sadness and indignation are translated from Triqui to Spanish.  They explain how each group, each family, each individual managed to evade the paramilitaries.  All agree that the gunfire that kept them in their homes for almost ten months got worse on September 13, when the armed groups took over the town hall.

From there, they spread out day by day, until they occupied the whole town.  They attacked street by street, house by house.  They used a loadspeaker to order men and women to leave their homes and give themselves up; they warned that they would hang the autonomous municipal president, Jesús Martínez Flores, and the men in the community.  Some families began to leave town the next night.  Others decided to resist a few more days.

Those who began to leave and had the "bad luck" to be discovered by the paramilitaries were shot and subdued.  The women were raped, like 42-year-old Natalia Cruz Bautista, who was tortured and humiliated (they cut her hair, took off her clothes, and raped her), and Francisca de Jesús García (who managed to flee, but with a bullet wound in her right shoulder; she is now in danger of losing the arm).

Those who stayed for a few more days heard walls being torn down, plundering, and they saw the flames.  Angelina Ramírez Ortega, 71, was one of the last people to abandon San Juan Copala.  She witnessed the massacre of farm animals and pets, the shooting of houses where smoke from the kitchen gave away those who were resisting.  The woman left when the armed group occupied almost the entire town, on September 19.

She leans against the door of the house that is giving her shelter now.  Battered, she awaits the reporters' questions with skepticism, but respect.  Her grotesquely bruised and swollen left hand and arm stand out.  Her arm is broken at the elbow.  No doctor has examined her. 

She recounts that she left alone before dawn: she waited for the heaviest darkness.  It was raining.  She slipped in the mud and tumbled until she hit the bottom of a ravine.  She doesn't know how long she was unconscious.  The paramilitaries found her. 

Angelina Ramírez says that when she came to, Antonio "Toño Pájaro" Cruz, one of the leaders of UBISORT,  dragged her by her hair and pointed the barrel of a submachine gun at her head.  Thin with a wrinkled face and her white hair stained with blood, she begged him to spare her life.

Through an interpreter, the grandmother explains that she had no other choice but to tell Toño Pájaro that she was old, that she couldn't harm anybody, that she is a widow and that they had already wounded her granddaughters (Selene and Adela Ramírez, both shot; Adela has a bullet lodged in her spine that has paralyzed her).

Toño Pájaro told Angelina to never come back, that she stop thinking that she still has a house in San Juan Copala.  He promised her that if she tries to return or to tells anyone, that she will be killed.

Others didn't leave.  José González Cruz, María Juana Agustina (grandparents who are about 100 years old) and 17-year-old Sofía Martínez were trapped in their homes.  Their whereabouts remain unknown.

All of the displaced insist that one of the leaders of the group that attacked San Juan Copala is Antonio Cruz.  The other, they claim, is Amado Ortiz, from the Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT), from the El Rastrojo community.  They say that UBISORT barely has a dozen armed men, while MULT has an "uncountable" number of armed men.  They say that the majority of the gunmen come from the Rastrojo, Cieneguilla, and Coyuchi communities.  And that amongst the paramilitaries, there were some mestizos (mixed indigenous with Spanish decent) with balaclavas. 

MULT, in the voice of Heriberto Pazos Ortiz and in communiqués, has denied its participation in the occupation of San Juan Copala.

The sun comes up.  The fog begins to rise.  The brush and the plots of cultivated land are an intense green.  The hilly cornfields are yellow.  Clouds of smoke come out of the houses.  The women from Yosoyuxi toss corn tortillas on the griddles.  The displaced from San Juan Copala will eat with their families.    Everything is shared, even the pain.

There are 82 refugees in this community; another 94 are spread out over another four communities and in the cities of Oaxaca and Mexico.  And these are only those who left after September 7.  The total number of people exiled from San Juan Copala since the siege began on November 28, 2009, is over 800.

Since the Autonomous Municipality was founded, the armed groups have murdered at least 15 people and wounded 16.  Leaders of the autonomist movement are amongst the dead.  The region's highest leader, Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez, was executed along with his wife in his own home.  It was an operation that took six months to develop, with masked hitmen. 

The autonomous municipality came out of a MULT splinter group: the Independent Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULTI).  In mid-2006, Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez and the leaders of four other communities broke with the mestizo leadership of MULT, which is lead from Oaxaca City by Heriberto Pazos Ortiz [3].  In addition to the disagreements over the distribution of resources and over the "disciplinary" measures that MULT imposes, MULT created the Popular Unity Party [4].  The Triquis said they felt cheated, and they decided to not join the party.  Both groups accused each other of being traitors.  And the ambushes against those who broke off from MULT began.

In 2007, MULTI promoted the creation of an Autonomous Municipality, based in traditional indigenous governance practices.  They believed that in this way, the indigenous people could be freed from political organizations and parties.  MULTI said that it was willing to dissolve itself as an organization in order to make way for the autonomous government.  Some communities from UBISORT and some MULT members also embraced the autonomous project. 

The two traditional organizations, MULT and UBISORT, antagonists for so long, felt displaced and threatened.  Their leadership rejected the creation of the Autonomous Municipality. [5]

Political power isn't everything.  Federal and state resources [aid] isn't delivered directly to the communities.  Since the 1980s, the money is handed over to the organizations and they decide how to invest it in "their" communities.

In January 2007, San Juan Copala, Yosoyuxi, Paraje Pérez, Santa Cruz Tilapa, Guadalupe Tilapa, and Agua Fría named autonomous municipal authorities who were backed by their respected community assemblies: councils of elders, the mayordomo [a traditional Oaxacan leader chosen through public works], and traditional leaders from each community.

For almost two years, the autonomous project worked: the number of supporters and autonomous educational and health projects grew and took the place of the old projects.  The paramilitary siege began on November 28, 2009.  For almost ten months, residents lived under a state of siege.  The calls for help were not headed, and the paramilitary groups ended up occupying San Juan Copala.  The federal, state, and municipal governments left the Triquis who demanded autonomy to their own fate. 

According to supporters of the autonomous movement, the occupation of Copala was only possible thanks to the assassination of Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez, a great speaker in his Triqui language who enjoyed prestige, even amongst the opposing communities.  He was the highest traditional leader of seven communities and of MULTI.

"Autonomy will go on.  Love live Timo.  I promised Timo that I would give my life for autonomy.  And that's how it will be.  We will not kneel down before MULT or UBISORT," says Miguel Angel Velasco from another community that supports the autonomous movement and has given him shelter.

He explains that he left at the end: on the 19th, with five "little guys," his youngest children.  His adolescent children also left that day, but they took a different route: "If someone was going to have 'bad luck,' we hoped that they wouldn't get all of us."

One of those young men, 16-year-old Pablo Velasco Dorantes,  was wounded by a bullet in his left foot and hand.  Calmly, he explains that in the early hours of September 17, his house was attacked.  It seemed as though it was raining bullets.

In order to leave San Juan Copala, he walked, dragging his foot through 18 km of brush for over five hours.

"And they say that we should sit down and dialogue.  I don't know if you all would agree to dialogue if they run you out of your homes," says an indignant Felipa de Jesús Suárez, 44.

In the houses, the fire dies down but doesn't go out.  Yosoyuxi residents and guests put down straw mats and blankets for the night.  Some prefer to sleep in the backyard in the grass; others lay down with the dogs.

"Narit duini' iue (see you tomorrow)," they say before they stop talking.  Not everyone can get to sleep.



Murders in San Juan Copala Since The Founding of the
Autonomous Municipality
Date Name Age
April 7, 2008 Teresa Bautista Merino 24
Felícitas Martínez Sánchez 20
November 1, 2008 Héctor Antonio Ramírez Paz
November 29, 2009 Elías Fernández de Jesús 9
April 17, 2010 José Celestino Hernández Cruz
April 27, 2010 Beatriz Alberta Cariño Trujillo
Jyri Jaakkola
May 20, 2010 Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez
Tleriberta Castro
August 21, 2010 Antonio Ramírez López 72
Antonio Cruz García 29
Rigoberto González 40
September 5, 2010 Pedro Santos Castro 31
September 18, 2010 David García Réyez 25
September 19, 2010 Paulino Ramírez Réyez 28

Translated by Kristin Bricker.


Translator's Notes:

1.  Amado Ortiz is a MULT leader from the Rastrojo community.  Antonio Cruz is an UBISORT leader whom the autonomous municipality has accused of personally committing various attacks on its supporters.
2.  It is common to put up altars to saints in Mexican homes and churches.  Believers leave offerings for the saints, such as flower, fruits, candles, bread, and alcohol.
3.  Heriberto Pazos Ortiz is not Triqui; he is from Oaxaca's coast.
4.  The Popular Unity Party is billed as the nation's first indigenous party.  However, its candidates are not Triqui; they're not even indigenous.  They have very light skin.
5.  Some UBISORT leaders embraced the formation of the autonomous municipality and left the group.  Here, the author refers to the leaders who stayed in the organization.
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