Unrest in Oaxaca, Mexico... Perspective from the Ground
8, 2006, downtown Oaxaca
Oaxaca teachers strike by Section 22 of the federal
union began May 22, 2006, unfolding as per the previous 26
years, with a couple of thousand protesters occupying the
central square (zócalo) of the capital, demanding money
and benefits. On June 14th, for reasons we can only surmise,
Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz (URO) sent in the
police. Widespread damage to historic buildings and personal
injuries was reported in international media, then and for
On June 16, 2006, Oaxaca Popular Peoples Assembly (APPO)
emerged, comprising campesinos, other disenfranchised groups
and additional sector individuals. Its demands, adopted by
Section 22, included wholesale socio-political change. The
primary stipulation, however, was that the governor resign.
It was alleged that he had gained office in 2004 as a result
of electoral fraud, and throughout his governorship had committed
widespread theft from the public purse and used strong-arm
tactics against those opposing his policies. APPO and Section
22 promised to not back down until the governor left office.
For months thereafter, Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
named one of the worlds most important travel destinations,
and a state relying almost entirely on tourism for its existence,
boasting pristine Pacific resorts, turned into a war zone,
frightening travelers from vacationing statewide, and dramatically
changing the citys complexion and the lives of residents.
The colorful, café-lined zócalo became a tent
city for demonstrators. Downtown graffiti abounded, defacing
historic buildings, private and government property and even
churches, at times racist and anti-capitalist, almost always
citing the governor´s record and demanding his departure.
Streets were blockaded with torched or otherwise destroyed
buses and government vehicles, barbed wire, laminated metal
and bricks. Night-time tire fires raged at intersections.
Radio stations were commandeered, the airwaves used to propagandize
and for communication between groups. Traffic became intolerable,
even though many residents shunned venturing downtown out
of fear, frustration and embarrassment. Running reds and driving
the wrong way up one-way streets became acceptable. Traffic
lights were rendered in-operational. The international airport
was blockaded for 24 hours, as was occasionally the highway
to Mexico City. With masked, club-wielding youths roaming
streets, police feared patrolling downtown. Municipal and
state offices closed, including the courts. Vigilante groups
formed, meting out their own form of justice.
Negotiations facilitated by the federal government stalled
when it resisted including the departure of URO as an issue
for discussion. Eventually the state acceded to the teachers
demands including many provisions which would lead to reform,
but not the stipulation that URO leave. They continued receiving
salaries until the end of August, and thereafter nothing.
When it became clear that the governor would not readily resign,
a 70 page document became the basis of settlement with Section
22. The teachers needed an income. A wedge had been driven
between their union and APPO. With no teachers striking, the
numbers in the movement dramatically dropped. Favor shifted
to government, but not without APPO making an unsuccessful
final effort, asking the senate to rule on whether or not
there had been a disappearance of powers or ingovernability.
It voted in the negative along party lines, enabling URO to
Nine deaths directly linked to the protests were confirmed.
The federal preventative police (PFP) was kept on alert. Finally
at the end of October, within days of an American activist
videographer being killed, the PFP entered the city, expelled
the demonstrators from the zócalo, and set up its own
encampment. Officers dismantled all blockades except those
surrounding a major intersection. A couple of weeks after
an ugly standoff, that final symbol of resistance was removed.
No federal incursion took place while Oaxacans were killing
merely Oaxacans. On November 25th APPO attempted to encircle
the PFP in the zócalo and render forces immobile for
2 days. Their sympathizers hurled rocks, the PFP responded
by moving their lines outward, and Molotov cocktail toting
protesters gutted at least 4 government buildings including
the federal court. Two days later, curiously, APPO had virtually
disappeared, leaving behind millions of dollars in property
damage, hotel occupancy reduced to 3% with 13 confirmed closures,
and business revenues down by up to 90%.
By mid-December a third of approximately 150 jailed APPO members
or sympathizers had been released. Many leaders remained incarcerated.
There was by then an air of cautious optimism, the city was
well into clean-up mode, and the PFP had begun withdrawing
from downtown and returning law enforcement to the state.
Hotels began reporting bookings rather than cancellations.
But some downtown restaurants which relied primarily on tourism
had permanently closed. For many shopkeepers it was as if
they were once again starting out in business. One jeweler
reported being given a 15 day grace period by his landlord
and no other consideration. Over the six months, days would
pass without a single sale. Twenty years of hard work and
savings were wiped out. The mattress has been ripped open,
with now nothing left inside. His budget shortfall was made
up selling stock at 10% above cost. With tourists finally
returning he has little stock and no way to replenish.
First the earthquake in the late nineties, then 9-11, now
this. Oaxaca is resilient, though, evidenced by its continuous
habitation for about three millenia. The federal government
has pledged to spend millions to assist in restoration and
worldwide promotion. Section 22 achieved its initial goals,
with promised reform. We may never know APPOs success.
With continued backing from the federal left wing PRD party
it may be a force with which to be reckoned and in due course
have a long-term impact upon transfer payments from federal
to state government, the lot of the impoverished, education,
and financial checks and balances until now absent in Oaxaca,
one of the poorest states. For the children, losing 6 months
of classes will be devastating, especially in a state where
schooling beyond 5th grade is the exception.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
) is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association,
its members providing an attractive alternative to lodging
in a Oaxaca hotel. Our member Oaxaca bed and breakfasts are
committed to providing value-added service in a quaint, personal
touch environment, a contrast to traditional Oaxaca hotels.
Casa Machaya co-owner Alvin, the Oaxaca destinations expert
for a major international travel website, provides Oaxaca
tours to his house guests as well as those staying in other
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