The Oaxaca Commune: Struggling for Autonomy and Dignity

Gerardo Rénique and Deborah Poole

For almost six months in 2006, an unstructured coalition of workers, students, peasants, women, youth, indigenous peoples, and urban poor brought the government of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to a virtual standstill. Their massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was sparked by outrage at the June 14 police offensive against an encampment, or plantón, which striking teachers had set up three weeks earlier in the capital city’s historic central square, or zócalo. Following the attack, Oaxacans came together to demand the resignation of Ulises Ruiz Ortíz, the latest in a series of famously corrupt governors from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although Ruiz remains in power, the movement that took shape in the summer of 2006 continues to thrive in the form of recurring mobilizations, collective initiatives, and political debates.

Although the Oaxacan resistance was galvanized by the police offensive, distrust of Ruiz had been building since his appointment by the PRI-dominated state legislature, following an election in which federal electoral authorities had found clear evidence of fraud. Furthermore, Ruiz’s policies, which ranged from the self-serving to the ridiculous, broke the patience of a society whose tolerance for the PRI’s “traditional”­ strong-arm tactics of rule had already been tested by the extreme impunity and corruption that characterized the tenure of his predecessor, José Murat. Almost immediately after taking office in January 2005, Ruiz moved to preempt popular unrest with a decree banning political demonstrations in the city’s center. One month later, he moved his own offices out of the Palace of Government on Oaxaca’s zócalo and set up shop in a police barracks on the outskirts of the capital. The state legislature was also moved from the city center. In the countryside, Ruiz’s first year in office was marked by an aggressive campaign of political containment in which at least 36 opposition, community, indigenous, and grassroots leaders and activists were assassinated.1

The first mass mobilization against Ruiz occurred in summer 2005, when Oaxaca’s urban middle classes and intellectuals joined popular protests against the governor’s unilateral decision to transform the Palace of Government into a museum for tourists and to “renovate” the zócalo. During the renovations, century-old trees were uprooted and picturesque cobblestones replaced with cheap paving. Many denounced the zócalo’s new modernist aesthetic for disrupting the architectural integrity of Oaxaca’s internationally famous historic center.

The protests, together with growing awareness of the Ruiz government’s corruption and impunity, led to widespread opposition to the privatization of the city’s historical and cultural patrimony. The 2006 plantón mounted by the Oaxacan Section 22 of the national teachers union (SNTE) thus coincided with a period of growing resistance to the clientelistic and authoritarian politics of Oaxaca’s PRI-led government. Since 1989, the teachers had staged a plantón each year as a negotiating tactic during the union’s annual collective-bargaining drive. Spreading over 50 square blocks, the 2006 plantón—which served as a temporary home for some 50,000 teachers, many accompanied by their families—was the largest in many years. Familiar with the disruptions in commerce and traffic caused by the annual plantón, most city residents were initially either hostile or indifferent to the teachers’ strike. But public opinion shifted rapidly after the violent attack on June 14, when the governor sent state police to beat and tear-gas sleeping teachers and residents in the plantón.

Contrary to its intended goals of isolating the teachers, the police repression generated an unforeseen outpouring of public outrage against Ruiz’s government. After police destroyed the teacher’s radio station during the attack, students occupied the university radio station (Radio Universidad) and opened the microphones around the clock. The response was massive and immediate. Long lines formed outside the radio station, where people patiently waited their turn to denounce the government’s abusive practices, corruption, and arrogance. Many emotionally recounted how the June 14 events had “opened their eyes,” giving them courage to speak out for the first time about their experiences of government abuse and impunity.

A week after the police attack, activists called for an open assembly to rally support for the teachers’ union. In the meeting, a broad array of popular organizations, including neighborhood associations, unions, indigenous communities, NGOs, ecologists, artists, women, youth, and media activists coalesced to form the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, or APPO. From that point forward, what began as an act of solidarity with a teachers’ strike transformed into a broad-based mobilization. Although the APPO continued to press for such specific demands, including the removal of Ruiz from the governorship and a resolution of the teachers’ strike, its members soon came to understand that what united them was a widely shared conviction that what Oaxaca (and indeed the whole of Mexico) needed was a new, more participatory, and open democratic order.

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Following the formation of the APPO, which has been aptly described as a movement of movements, the teachers’ plantón expanded to include a broad spectrum of political, religious, neighborhood, and social organizations. Thousands of Oaxacans from diverse walks of life joined teachers in sit-ins and human chains targeting local government institutions. Through such actions, the APPO emerged as the central space for coordinating popular discontent and for defending neighborhoods, organizations, and activists from government repression and, in particular, from the caravanas de la muerte—death squads composed of government goons patrolling the city in police pickup trucks.

Eschewing traditional forms of vertical authority, the APPO quickly took shape as a space for discussion and coordination among its various participating organizations and individuals. Although members differed in their assessment of strategies and goals, most agreed that the APPO should function as a space within which its members maintain their political autonomy. In this way, the APPO—which includes labor unions and traditional left-wing parties, as well as human rights organizations, artists, anarchist collectives, feminists, ecologists, and street youth—has contributed to a renewal of Oaxacan political culture. It has done so, in part, by creatively incorporating indigenous political forms, like the consensual assembly, the philosophy that authorities “rule by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo), and the agreement that no single leader or group could speak for or represent the movement. More than a governing body, the 30 consejeros (advisers) who sit on the APPO’s Provisional Coordinating Council organize actions and disseminate ideas and information.

Among the more important forms of protest drawing together diverse participants were the “mega-marches,” which brought whole communities and organizations from across the state to Oaxaca city. With a crowd estimated at more than 400,000, the June 28, 2006, march attracted the largest multitude ever in Oaxaca’s political history. Since then, despite government violence and assassinations, some occurring during the marches themselves, the APPO has coordinated at least 12 other mega-marches. The most recent took place in November, when four columns of marchers converged on the zócalo to repudiate Ruiz’s annual government report.

During the early months of the insurrection, when Oaxacans still held out hope that the federal government might intervene to unseat Ruiz, the APPO launched several mass political actions designed to highlight the Ruiz administration’s inability to govern. Demonstrators closed Oaxacan state government offices and occupied the municipal police headquarters, padlocking its doors. Police forces vanished from the city streets. To ensure order and security in the city, APPO activists created the Honorable Cuerpo de Topiles, a group of civilians appointed by communal authority to enforce APPO resolutions, modeled on indigenous traditions of community policing. The teachers’ union police kept order in the city, particularly at night. Neighbors and merchants organized block committees and patrols.

Outside the city’s historic center, residential neighborhoods formed more than 1,000 barricades at key intersections throughout the city to protect themselves from both the paramilitary “caravans of death” and from thieves emboldened by the absence of state and municipal police. Established as a means of self-defense and security, the barricades quickly emerged as a crucial space for political discussion. Many were defended by workers, women, and youth who had never before participated in mass political actions. Singing and poetry contests for barricade participants were broadcast on Radio Universidad, contributing to the formation of a diffuse barricadero/barricadera identity. The festive cumbia “Son de las barricadas” became the emblematic hymn for the Oaxacan movement.

Closed out of their offices and unable to move easily around the city, legislators and other government officials abandoned their SUVs for less easily identifiable rental cars and held furtive meetings in private residences and hotels where they felt safe from the daily mass mobilizations demanding an end to their hold on power. Ruiz eventually fled to Mexico City, where he set up office in a hotel and worked to guarantee federal government support. During his surreptitious visits to the city, he was transported by helicopter from the airport to a “safe house” where he made regular—and increasingly surreal—statements reassuring the national press that nothing was amiss in Oaxaca.

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With both state and municipal authorities in hiding, the APPO assumed de facto responsibility for the control and policing of public space. To counter delinquency and to control for government infiltration, the APPO decreed its own laws on public order and security, festivities and celebrations, and mass mobilizations. In a bold move, popular organizations agreed to boycott the Guelaguetza, an annual state-sponsored celebration of Oaxacan culture widely viewed as a cornerstone of the city’s tourist industry. Although many opposed the boycott, most callers to Radio Universidad condemned the government’s cynical commercialization of Oaxaca’s indigenous traditions. Declaring culture a common good, the teachers’ union, with the APPO’s support, organized an alternative and free Guelaguetza in July 2006 and again the following year.

On August 1, 2006, thousands of women took part in a “pots and pans” march demanding that the governor resign. After women activists were denied airtime at the government-controlled radio and TV stations, they took them over. For almost three weeks, they reconfigured public television to educate listeners about Oaxacan history and the ongoing struggle, to coordinate mass actions, and to broadcast the whereabouts of government goons and paramilitary patrols. Renamed Radio Cacerola (Radio Pots and Pans), the public radio station joined Radio Universidad in opening its microphones to callers. Under the initiative of those involved in the media initiative, women coalesced to form the Coordinating Committee of Oaxacan Women (COMO). After government goons violently evicted the women from the TV and radio station and destroyed the publicly owned equipment, other APPO activists retaliated by briefly occupying all 12 of Oaxaca’s commercial radio stations.

Outside the city of Oaxaca, more than 30 communities recovered control of their municipal governments from corrupt authorities imposed by Ruiz. In indigenous regions with long histories of resistance to both federal and state governments, authorities and communal organizations pledged their support to the democratic struggle. In different parts of the state, APPOs were established at community, municipal, and regional levels. Abroad, organizations like the Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front (FIOB), which has a strong base in California and elsewhere, joined with exiled members of the Indigenous Popular Committee of Oaxaca (CIPO) and Canadian supporters to establish an APPO in Vancouver.

In late September 2006, in an attempt to gain momentum from growing public disapproval of Ruiz’s handling of the conflict and to pressure the Mexican Supreme Court to rule in favor of a legislative decree that would have unseated Ruiz, the APPO organized the March of Dignity from Oaxaca to Mexico City. Along the lengthy route to the national capital, thousands lined the road to cheer, feed, and assist the marchers. In the city of Oaxaca, lawyers, doctors, artists, and intellectuals, as well as a number of businesspeople, voiced their support for the APPO’s democratic demands. Human rights groups, NGOs, sectors of the Catholic Church, professional and academic associations sponsored the creation of a broad-based committee to mediate between the APPO and the federal government.

Bogged down in its own electoral scandal, the PAN government of then president Vicente Fox turned a deaf ear to Oaxacan demands and moved to consolidate its strategic alliance with the PRI by showing unwavering support for Ruiz. Finally, in late October, Fox mobilized the military and federal military police to repress the Oaxacan insurrection. In response, the APPO launched a 48-hour strike and blockaded the main roads across the state. Paramilitaries descended on the barricades in an unusually violent attack, during which Indymedia videomaker Brad Will and two members of the APPO were killed. On October 29, a force of 4,000 federal policemen, nine helicopters, 70 troop carriers, 15 combat vehicles, and at least 10 anti-riot vehicles distributed in two columns destroyed many barricades, while elements of the army and the navy set up checkpoints in the most conflictive areas of the state. Two people were killed and more than 100 detained. APPO activists, however, maintained control of Radio Universidad and the Plaza Santo Domingo, a few blocks from the zócalo. Defying the siege, members of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups convened the Forum of Indigenous Peoples of Oaxaca, representing the first time the state’s 14 different indigenous peoples in the state had converged on their own initiative. The Forum called for peaceful resistance and the strengthening of the APPO. Two days later, about 10,000 people marched to protest the federal police occupation.

On November 2, as the federal police (PFP) descended on the university, thousands rallied to defend Radio Universidad. After a seven-hour pitched battle, demonstrators fought back the police with stones and Molotov cocktails. Four days later, with indigenous authorities at the front of the demonstration, thousands of APPO supporters again marched. Finally, during yet another mega-march on November 25, government agents who had infiltrated a demonstration provoked a fight with the Federal Police, leading to a bloody confrontation. More than 400 activists were detained and many others were forced to flee. The police randomly and indiscriminately beat, detained, and raped people in the streets. Far from “liberating” the zócalo for tourism and the city’s elite, the Federal Police cordoned it off with razor wire, looted shops in the zócalo, hung their laundry out to dry from the plaza’s trees and central gazebo, and used streets and doorways as public bathrooms. Teachers and activists were picked up from their classrooms and labor centers in broad daylight and sent to distant high-security prisons in northern Mexico. Famed Oaxacan painter Francisco Toledo said it was as if a “great fear” had descended upon the city. He considered Oaxaca on the brink of a “civil war.”2

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Despite the government’s massive display of force, the APPO quickly regrouped. After a few days of cautious retreat, 5,000 APPO supporters marched on December 1, 2006, and again a week later, to demand the release of all Oaxacan political prisoners. Under the slogan “The fear is over,” the APPO organized its ninth mega-march to demand an end to the military occupation of Oaxaca. Then, in July 2007, the APPO and Section 22 again organized a festive, participatory, and well-attended Guelaguetza Popular, despite the government’s refusal to allow the event to take place in the public auditorium. When a contingent of teachers and dancers tried to enter the auditorium, they were met with tear gas and bullets from the armed state and federal police who had surrounded the auditorium.

The continuing resilience and creativity with which Oaxacans have met and moved past the paramilitary violence and police repression suggests that the APPO, and the many other groups that make up the Oaxacan movement, will continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping the political ideals and aspirations of the region. Perhaps even more significant than the occasional public marches are the impressive number of meetings, discussions, assemblies, exhibitions, and workshops in which Oaxacans reflect upon their experiences and assess the challenges ahead. In the months since June 2006, Oaxacans throughout the state have met to discuss media politics, rights to water and other natural resources, cultural resistance, and the need for a new constitution. Most recently, in January, youth groups and collectives from all over the state met in the opposition municipality of Zaachila. Defying the Ruiz administration’s violent persecution of all independent media, the community station Radio Guela broadcast the event in its entirety.

In this respect it is important to remember that Oaxacans have not only actively contested the abusive policies of their current PRI governor. They have also launched a debate regarding the political future of Oaxaca. In this debate, the APPO and other Oaxacan groups have insisted on moving beyond the limited temporal horizon of the electoral sexenio (or six-year presidential term) to create forms of autonomous action and organization that can avoid being captured by either political parties or the state.

Driving this rejection of “politics as usual” is an understanding, gained from experience on the barricades and in the plantones, that politics is rooted in the social and ethical responsibilities of daily life, and in promoting new forms of social engagement, media activism, art, and democratic participation. The diversity of such initiatives, and the proliferation of spaces within which “politics” unfolds, represents a move away from vertical, party-like organizations. Instead, the discussions and political initiatives constitute—as the Peoples of the Isthmus Regional Assembly aptly calls it—the “spider’s web” that binds together the diverse movements, initiatives, individuals, collectives, and organizations that give life to Oaxaca’s democratic resistance.3

This new approach challenges the network of PRI caciques, or political bosses, who “govern” through a combination of clientelism and violence. Following a call by the APPO to cast a “punishing vote” against the ruling parties, the PRI was soundly defeated in the July 2, 2006, national elections by a margin of four to one in favor of the center-left opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Voters did not, however, hand the PRD a blank check. In the local elections of 2007, popular disillusionment with the Oaxacan PRD’s support for federal police intervention and its failure to respect voters’ preferences in the municipal primaries led to a record-setting 70% electoral absenteeism in the state. Although the PRI walked away with a pyrrhic victory, it had retained its control of state government with only a small percentage of the popular vote. Once back in power, the old PRI caciques moved quickly to regain lost terrain from the APPO, leading in many cases to violent confrontations.

The Oaxacan experience also carries lessons for understanding the direction of Mexican national politics. Fox’s decision to deploy federal police and military to Oaxaca in October 2006 came on the heels of other savage police operations against workers and activists in Atenco (May 2006) and striking workers in Michoacán (April 2006). Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderón has given clear signs that the federal government will escalate the militarization of Mexican society and apply counterinsurgency doctrine to repress organized opposition. In Oaxaca, for example, the government continues to threaten APPO members with beatings, rape, and death. Indigenous communities that mobilize to resist the illegal incursions of international mining, power, and lumber companies into their communal lands are criminalized and in some cases have been killed. Twenty-eight political prisoners from the 2006 and 2007 mobilizations remain in jail.

Within this bleak scenario, the Oaxacan struggle speaks of the unique resilience and creativity of Mexico’s popular political movement. Rather than taking power, the APPO seeks a new mode of governance and a new constitutional regime that respects “human rights, indigenous communal life, and municipal autonomy.” At the same time, it also struggles to build modes of political autonomy that do not depend on either state handouts or government recognition. It is here as well that the indigenous histories and cultures of Oaxaca come into play. As the state with the largest indigenous population in the country, the importance of the Oaxacan movement for understanding emerging popular politics resides in its ability to unite around principles of autonomy that are not restricted to either “identity politics” or the politics of recognition.

Although the defense of indigenous territorial and political autonomy, cultural rights, customary authority, and cultural patrimony are all central to the Oaxacan political struggle, Oaxacan demands for autonomy are not restricted to indigenous communities or organizations. Like the EZLN in Chiapas, the Oaxacan movement goes well beyond the traditional domain of “ethnic politics” by acknowledging and incorporating indigenous political traditions and philosophies as a source of political renewal. Oaxacans have a centuries-long history of rebelliousness grounded in local struggles for municipal and territorial autonomy.

In a recent article Zapotec activist Carlos Beas Torres aptly describes the current situation in Oaxaca as that of an “underground war.”4 Not a single week goes by without a march, demonstration, or other collective action defending democratic liberties, freedom for political prisoners, and public goods, or protesting impunity and the abuse of power in Oaxaca. In February, farmers and indigenous communities in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec renewed their struggle against concessions given to multinational corporations to build 5,000 windmills on community-owned land. Many communities have also rejected the imposition of PRI candidates to local office. And several community radios, defying repression, have recently linked efforts through the Oaxacan Radio Commune. In the face of the government’s attempts to break the union by handing over resources, appointments, and schools to a new pro-government union, teachers from Section 22 are holding their ground as the government is trying to break the union, handing over resources, appointments, and schools to a new pro-government union, the Section 59. They held massive demonstrations in February, followed by a 10,000-strong march leading to the installation of a plantón in Mexico City on March 3. Together, these collective acts of defiance reveal the extent to which PRI hegemony has been effectively broken in Oaxaca, although the party still retains nominal control of public offices and the state legislature.

While these conflicts persist, the APPO is going through a process of evaluation and reorganization. Through workshops, encounters, and assemblies, different groups, communities, and collectives have been actively engaged in a lively discussion and debate on the APPO’s future. These debates are dominated by two broadly defined positions: On the one hand, the verticalistas, backed by more traditional Leninist political parties and groups, sees the APPO as the means to centralize and institutionalize popular organizations in Oaxaca. Opposing the APPO’s decision not to participate in electoral politics, those identified with this position participated in the past 2007 state congress elections in alliance with the PRD. On the other hand, the libertarios want the APPO to remain a broad space of decision making and organizing that respects the political autonomy of its members. Rather than electoral participation, libertarios aim to radically transform politics through horizontal and nonhierarchical relations between participants in the struggle. Despite the sometimes bitter exchanges between the two sectors—inviting press speculation as to the APPO’s decline or even collapse—both agree on the need to strengthen the APPO. The continuing popular expressions of political struggle in Oaxaca today suggest that the debates have, if anything, consolidated the APPO as a site and symbol of the Oaxacan insurrection and as a vital center for creating new political positions, opposition, and resistance to the PRI’s attempt to reclaim control over Oaxaca’s social and political future.


1. Red Oaxaqueña de Derechos Humanos, VI Informe, “Situación de los derechos humanos en Oaxaca,” Oaxaca, Mexico, December 2005.

2. “Toledo: Oaxaca esta al borde de la guerra civil,” La Jornada, December 4, 2006.

3. Primera Asamblea de los Pueblos del Istmo, http://oaxacalibre.org/oaxlibre/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&i....

4. Carlos Beas Torres, “Oaxaca, la guerra subterranea,” March 2, 2008, http://oaxacalibre.org/oaxlibre/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&i....


Gerardo Rénique is Associate Professor of history at City College, CUNY, New York. Deborah Poole is Professor of anthropology and Director of the Program in Latin American Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Tags: Mexico, Oaxaca, commune, autonomy, dignity, struggle, mass movement


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