Friday, February 29, 2008

Volcano of War May Erupt in Chiapas

By John Tarleton
From the February 24, 2008 issue of The Indypendent

Interview with Ernesto Ladesma
Interview and Translation by John Tarleton

In January 1994, the indigenous rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) shocked the world by launching an armed uprising in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. They were quickly forced to retreat from major towns and cities, but have since been able to carve out control of a large swath of the state while maintaining an uneasy truce with the Mexican government, which has established 56 permanent military bases inside Zapatista-held territory.

Ernesto Ladesma, Director of the Chiapas-based Center of Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations (CAPISE), closely tracks events in Zapatista communities and has become increasingly alarmed at the aggressive counter-insurgency strategy being pushed by Mexico’s new right-wing president Felipe Calderón. During a recent visit to New York, Ladesma spoke to The Indypendent about the situation in Chiapas as well as the growing militarization of Mexico society.

JT: The Zapatista’s military leadership recently warned that the “fetid odor” of war is in the air. How serious is the situation at the moment?

EL: We have documented the reactivation of paramilitary groups and a restructuring of the Mexican Army in indigenous territories. Ninety percent of the Mexican Army in Chiapas are Special Forces. The land the Zapatistas recovered through blood and fire in 1994, the government is once again expropriating and taking from the Zapatistas and is transferring to other indigenous organizations. In general, there is an inter-communal confrontation. The information published by the media is that, “The indigenous peoples are killing each other like savages.”

We also see a much stronger reactivation of the municipal, state and federal police in tandem with paramilitary groups. On Feb. 1, we began to see cases of torture. We haven’t seen these in more than ten years at these levels. We are accustomed to seeing the difficult situations that the indigenous people have to live. But, not like what is happening now. The impunity of the authorities is total. There is no punishment for their crimes.

JT: How are the Zapatista communities responding?

EL: The understanding is to not respond to the provocations, to not respond to the aggressions with more aggressions. The Zapatistas have their civil government — the Councils of Good Government. The Councils have said that if the government forms paramilitary groups, and their neighbors are misled into joining, we are going to insist by all means possible that there is a dialogue with these indigenous organizations that are opposed to us.

JT: What is the impact of the new government of Felipe Calderón on this situation?

EL: The social movements in Mexico are enduring a repression that we have not seen in many years. Felipe Calderón practically militarized the nation. There are roadblocks everywhere.
There’s currently a proposal to modify the law in Mexico to allow the police and the army to enter people’s homes without a judge’s order. All the political parties are in support. The signals are very clear: they are going to apply the mano duro (“heavy hand”) to all those who are not in accord with the nation’s politics and economics. In the case of the Zapatistas, the repression is armed repression.

JT: Why is the repression increasing now? The previous government was also a conservative one.

EL: Calderón is an illegitimate president. He lost the 2006 election. He didn’t win. He was imposed. So, he entered office in a very weak state with practically zero credibility. That’s why he delivered himself into the hands of the Army. He doesn’t have another arm of government for being able to impose order in a repressive manner.
What we are seeing is ever-greater social discontent while the media says nothing. We are expecting that the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 will be very difficult for Mexico. The Mexican Congress recognizes 14 armed groups in the country. They aren’t going to be able to control this. It appears to me that the Mexican state is gradually beginning to panic.

JT: What do you make of Plan Mexico and the role of the U.S. government in offering to provide $500 million per year in aid to Mexican security forces?

EL: What the U.S. government is going to do is guarantee the investments of its businesses in Mexico.

JT: What should people here in the U.S. do to support the people of Chiapas?

EL: The point isn’t to come to people and tell them what they have to do. We think people know what to do in their own place, on their own terrain. Our role is to present the information we have documented about what is happening in the Zapatista communities.

JT: Why should people outside Chiapas care about the struggle of the Zapatista communities?

EL: We think that the Zapatista communities are presenting an alternative that we have not seen in Mexico or other countries. The people of these communities say, “We have had various governments. We have had senators and representatives from all parties and have seen what they have done. We’re going to have to construct this other alternative. No government above is going to construct anything for us.”

So, they began to construct their own autonomy, their own areas of health care, education, criminal justice, agrarian reform. It is something different. The people empowered themselves. What they wanted to do, they did.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mexico's Gestapo Law

Feb. 29 update: Mexico's Chamber of Deputies removed warrantless house searches from the Gestapo law, which passed on February 26 by a landslide. While the some claim that the Gestapo law has been defeated, or that lawmakers took the "Gestapo" out of the law before passing it, it's important to note that all other controversial measures remain. This includes the ability to hold detainees incomunicado for up to 80 days. The constitutional reform has not yet become law because the Chamber of Deputies version must be reconciled with the previously passed Senate version, which does include warrantless house searches.

Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Iraq. Most journalists seem to die at the hands of drug cartels, though every now and then paramilitaries kill someone like Brad Will. The Mexican government's unwillingness to protect journalists and its blatant attempts to cover for their murderers create an environment where it's acceptable to mess with reporters. One recent case involves two Narco News correspondents. From La Jornada:

Reporters Harassed

Juan Trujillo Limones (a La Jornada and Ojarasca contributor) and Raúl Romero Gallardo, reporters for the Narco News electronic bulletin, have been subjected to spying and unlawful entry into their Mexico City apartment. On both occasions the "visitors" have made sure Trujillo and Romero knew they were there. On the night of January 25-26 they inspected their computers and left them on, and on February 1 they left the television on. Neighbors have confirmed the presence of strange people outside the building. We believe these acts are linked to the reporters' activity. They've covered various independent indigenous movement activities, and now they join the ranks of journalists who've been harassed recently. Early effects of the "Gestapo law"? We demand security and respect for our colleagues' work.

Ojarasca supplement: Hermann Bellinghausen, Eugenio Bermejillo, Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, Ramón Vera Herrera, Yuriria Pantoja Millán
What is this Gestapo law? For starters, I couldn't tell you its real name because everyone, including the corporate media, just calls it "the Gestapo law." Obviously inspired by the US government's USA PATRIOT Act, it is a constitutional reform that, if approved, will legalize warrantless house searches in cases where police feel there is "a current or imminent danger." It would also allow the Mexican government to hold detainees incommunicado for up to 80 days. This last part particularly terrifies Mexicans who, in an attempt to stem the disappearances and torture that were so widespread in previous decades, fought for a slightly more transparent judicial process in which detainees must be brought before a judge and presented to the public within 72 hours of their arrest. Rosario Ibarra, a PRD senator and the mother of a disappeared son, says doing away with these protections promotes torture.

While most PRD members of congress initially supported the Gestapo law, some are backtracking. Rep.
Humberto Zazueta Aguilar (PRD) asked his fellow lawmakers, "Are we going to allow the police--the same ones who are currently being disarmed because of their involvement in organized crime--to be the ones who decide when there is a threat that justifies entering people's homes?"

For their part, APPO members, student organizations, and Other Campaign adherents like the Brigada Callajera (Street Brigade), Atenco's Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de a Tierra (Peoples' Front in Defense of the Land), and the Communist Party of Mexico have mobilized to oppose the proposed constitutional reform. They argue that the government will use the law to make what happened in San Salvador Atenco in 2006 the norm for the rest of the country, specifically Oaxaca, allowing police to do warrantless house-to-house searches during protests, round up suspicious-looking people, and torture and rape incommunicado detainees for up to 80 days. However, if Atenco taught us anything, it's that with or without this law, police will be police. The Gestapo law will simply sanctify behavior that's already common practice. Just ask Juan Trujillo and
Raúl Romero.

Stop Plan Mexico!

Friends of Brad Will put out this wonderful public service announcement. Plan Mexico in 3.5 minutes!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Popular assembies are so...Popular

When the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) hit the news, everyone wanted a popular assembly of their own to foment revolution. They sprung up all over Mexico and in a few places in the US. Aside from the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Guerrero, where there is also a long and continuing history of autonomous governance by popular assembly, you don't hear much from them these days. But you'll read all about Guerrero's autonomy in practice on the Left Turn website soon enough thanks to the kind folks at Regeneracion Radio.

For now, let's talk about the APPO. I've been reading La Batalla por Oaxaca, a collection of articles written during and after the uprising. It really is a gem if you can read Spanish and want to learn about Oaxaca beyond the police riot and paramilitary free-for-all that dominated the headlines. For those of you who don't read Spanish, I've translated an insightful article by anthropologist Benjamin Maldonado about what is and is not a popular assembly.

One part of the article that really stands out is Maldonado's
discussion of the age-old question: "Which came first? The popular assembly or the uprising?" This certainly sounds like a no-brainer. We all know that the assembly was formed after a month-long teachers strike was violently broken up by Oaxacan police. But, given that popular assemblies shot up like dandelions in the wake of the APPO's founding, it's worth repeating Dr. Maldonado's wise words: "It's not the formation of an assembly that can foment a broad-based movement. Rather, a broad-based movement can foment an assembly." That said, we shouldn't be dismayed that the formation of numerous popular assemblies didn't spark continental (or even neighborhood) revolution. Forming an assembly does not replace getting to know your neighbors, agitating them, and then joining with them to fix whatever it is that makes them so agitated.

But certainly the most interesting part of this article has to be when Maldonado argues that the APPO is a departure from traditional Oaxacan community assemblies. What a renegade!

Most articles about the APPO have argued that its strength came from rich indigenous traditions of governance by popular assembly. These assemblies functioned by consensus, as does the APPO. As in the APPO, leaders lead by obeying, and leadership frequently changes to prevent a leader from assuming too much power (that is, any power at all over the assembly). But
Maldonado points out that what others have argued is its ancestral strength is in fact completely new terrain. The ancient tried-and-true assembly is territorial. It doesn't coordinate broad-based social movements; it coordinates daily activities within a territory like whose farm everyone will work on this week, who's going to keep watch, and how the new road is going to be constructed. That is, the stuff the government does now.

So how should the APPO organize itself for a sustained social movement? According to Maldonado, it should do exactly what many journalists report it is currently doing: organizing locally to strengthen its base. Every territory should organize an assembly, and the APPO should be an assembly of territorial assemblies that cut across associations based on trade, gender, or union membership. Then it'll move beyond what it was--that is, a coalition of various organizations--and become a real popular assembly.

The APPO as an Assembly
by Benjamin Maldonado A.

From the beginning, the recent social movement in Oaxaca has been defined by its participants as an assembly, which is interesting because since the '70s organizational convergences have been termed coalitions, fronts, unions, and, rarely, assemblies. And those which have been called assemblies have mainly been organizations of municipal authorities in indigenous regions, such as the Assembly of Mixe Authorities and the Assembly of Zapoteca and Chinanteca Authorities in the Sierra.

The differences between both assemblies and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) lie not only in their membership but also in the scope of its territory.

Because it's strange that the Oaxacan social movement headed by the teachers union would call itself an assembly without giving too much appreciation to its indigenous heritage, it becomes necessary to identify the origin of the proposal to name the movement "the APPO" and above all to broaden the scope of the definition of "assembly," and the latter is the focus of these brief reflections.

Point of Departure or Arrival

It seems to me that the creation of an Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca is the point of arrival where the popular movement could focus itself, and it is not a point of departure. In other words, it's not the formation of an assembly that can foment a broad-based movement. Rather, a broad-based movement can foment an assembly.

In this way, a powerful social movement's objective would be to achieve a social transformation that would be guaranteed by an assembly. This means to free a peaceful struggle (no necessarily violent) to achieve changes in the power structure, changes like substituting the state government based on the political party system with a popular assembly of Oaxacan people.

The work of said movement would be to impel conditions so that the Oaxacan people would be able to organize itself as communities and then as an assembly of communities, to be able to struggle because that new coordinating assembly would be an organization of power.

That is medium- and long-term work. Currently the APPO appears to be better defined as a coalition or a front of organizations that struggles to be able to have organic life and that has the goal of dismissing the governor.

The Territory Question

A community assembly is a means by which the citizens of a perfectly delineated, concrete territory exercise power. That is the principal characteristic of a community assembly, and that is the assembly model to which the majority of Oaxacans are historically accustomed: power in a space, not as a landless exercise, not as a way for people to control people or institutions, but rather as people organizing the way of life in a territory, or to be more exact, people organizing their own lives in their own territory.

So, the political exercise that countless generations of Oaxacans are a part of is a localized exercise. The landless experience, such as that of groups of people organized by interest (such as artisans' groups or producers' unions), is also strongly present in the teachers union, social organizations, producers' groups, unions, civil society--those for whom the assembly is their way of organizing. But the assembly does not form part of the socio-political structure of the community.

The assembly as a means of coordination and not as a means of governing a territory lies in the community organizations and not in the organization of the community, which is certainly an important, growing experience, but one that is more recent.

In sum, calling the APPO an assembly appears to come from an innovative interest in articulating the Oaxacan social movement, but it's still not clear what influence the majority of Oaxacan's historical practice of community power has.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Just what you needed—more of my big mouth

A blog of my own.

I've been resisting it for years. Angsty teens with too much internet access on their hands poisoned the waters. Plus, my generation has replaced real, live social networking with "social networking websites." And my revolutionary contemporaries and I aren't immune: we can spend hours upon hours every day doing internet-based "organizing" without ever leaving our homes. Is it really organizing if we don't see each other face-to-face regularly? Or do we just fill our days with electronic pseudo-organizing so we feel better about ourselves in such a yucky political environment? Lee Seigel put it best: the internet is the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual. Uh-oh. That doesn't sound like an ingredient for revolutionary social change.

Well, I'm taking the blog back, damnit.

The Zapatistas, Burmese democracy activists, and the good folks at Regeneracion Radio have convinced me that while the only real way to radically transform society for the better is to dismantle capitalism and the pillars it sits upon, we can seize their technology for our needs. Technology is most often funded by capitalists to further their purposes and expand their powerful reach. It's not made to help us. But that doesn't mean it can't make a decent weapon in the interim.

I've spent so long banging my head up against the metaphorical wall that is US imperialism that I'm disoriented. And my stomach really, really hurts. So I'm off to Mexico to make myself useful, and this blog is one of the ways I'm going to do that. I've written about Mexico before and had my articles published in various places, and I often translate articles and communiques, but never before have I tried to compile all of my writings, translations, and odds and ends in one place to create a more complete picture of Mexico as it's inspired and enraged me.

And gosh, Mexico's been enraging me lately. Paramilitary activity and an overall environment of impunity is making Chiapas seriously dicey. I never thought I'd hear anyone complain about a lack of gringos in Mexico, but everyone seems to agree that there aren't enough journalists writing in English about the situation.

So here you will find news articles, analysis, translations, notes, and links about what I see and hear in Mexico. A "Barricade Manifesto Against Radical Symbolism" will probably appear after a few months and a couple of caguamas. It's sure to change the character of activism in the gabacho. Just you wait.