On April 27, gunmen killed two activists on their way to the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, as a part of an international aid caravan. Oaxacan indigenous leader and media organizer Alberta "Bety" Cariño and Finnish observer Jyri Antero Jaakkola died, and three other Oaxacans were injured. The caravan’s goal was to break a paramilitary siege that has left San Juan Copala, in the indigenous Triqui region of southern Mexico, cut off from the outside world since January, and to deliver food, clothing, and medicine.
Survivors of the attack, which took place at the blockade near the community of La Sabana, said the gunmen identified themselves as members of the Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), an organization founded in 1994 by local members of Oaxaca's ruling party, the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), and classified by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees as a paramilitary organization. San Juan Copala authorities blame UBISORT for much of the violence that has plagued the municipality since 2006, when their popular leadership declared their municipality autonomous after the uprising that almost threw out Oaxaca’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.
Jorge Albino, a spokesperson for the autonomous municipality, said he believed the paramilitaries deliberately targeted Cariño, a key player in the ongoing Triqui peace process. “People from La Sabana who don’t agree with UBISORT say that she was well-known and that they shot at her directly,” Albino said. “The coroners report says that the body only had one shot in the head, but that that the shot was true. It was a well-placed shot from up close.” Attack survivor Gabriela Jiménez also said the shooters were aiming at head-level.
The attack was the latest in a series of killings in a region of Mexico where shootouts are frequent. Although the caravan ambush attracted international media attention, other killings in the region (at least 23 since 2007) have been lost in the wave of drug war violence that is gripping the country. Almost all killings in Mexico have been chalked up to the drug war, providing an all too convenient cover for the country’s pervasive political violence.
The violence in the Triqui region is the direct result of purposeful government machinations, according to Albino. “The political organizations are dividing us,” Albino says. “When we form organizations, the political parties come and they offer to make one of us a leader, or they offer us a position. And some of us wind up identifying with a political party and we kill each other as a result.”
The government has good reason to want to weaken the Triquis: They have historically put up some of the fiercest resistance to the colonial (and later neocolonial) project in Mexico. "As a result of their armed defense,” John Gibler writes in his book Mexico Unconquered, “the Triqui region today is a green oasis in the midst of the eroded Mixteca region where centuries of clear-cutting and goat herding have decimated the land."The natural and agricultural resources that the Triquis control, combined with their fierce determination to defend them, makes them a prime target for government intervention and repression.
The Oaxacan government has denied responsibility for the attack and blames the caravan organizers. "Whoever organized this caravan will have to answer for it,” Oaxaca state Interior Secretary Evencio Martínez told the Associated Press, “whoever invited these people ... without taking precautions, because I think these people did not know what the situation and problems in the area were. They (the caravan members) will have to answer, too, for having accepted the invitation."
According to sociologist Víctor Raúl Martínez Vásquez, the attack was a “deliberate act on the part of the government.” The idea, he said, was “to teach them a lesson and to dissuade those foreigners who want to help this town that is under siege, where they've closed the road to the community, they've cut the electricity.”
The sudden international media attention on San Juan Copala could leave the impression that the attack was an isolated incident or, at worst, yet another deplorable act linked to the Oaxacan governor. But paramilitaries have a long history in Mexico. They were a fixture of the dirty war in the 1960s and 1970s. After a brief lull in activity, they resurged during the Ernesto Zedillo administration (1994–2000). When Zedillo took office, he began a campaign of low-intensity warfare against the Zapatistas, an effort that involved the creation and maintenance of paramilitary organizations .
After the 1997 Acteal massacre, many traditional paramilitary organizations in Chiapas folded under increased international scrutiny. However, leaders reorganized themselves and formed a registered NGO to provide a cover for their new paramilitary organization, the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC). The nonprofit status and civilian membership give legitimacy to the organization's paramilitary nucleus. Leaked government documents prove the government conspires with the OPDDIC to bring Zapatista lands back under government control. Members often cruise Zapatista territory in government vehicles driven by police officers. The openly armed organization receives financial aid from the government through its NGO, and a federal government official has acted as the organization’s lawyer.
More recently, as the drug war has intensified, there has been a well-documented and drastic increase of violence and human rights abuses in Mexico. It also appears that a new strain of paramilitarism is on the rise: the narco-paramilitary. The most famous are Los Zetas, who received U.S. training when they formed part of an elite Mexican military unit in the 1990s. They later deserted—taking their training, uniforms, and weapons with them—and became the Gulf cartel's private army.
Although the line between narco-paramilitaries and paramilitaries sometimes blurs, they share one important goal: territorial control. This is why an unarmed international aid caravan was targeted. It sought to break the siege on San Juan Copala, which has driven out all political parties and political organizations, taking control of its territory out of the state's hands and putting it under indigenous control. Because the caravan aimed to bring food and other basic necessities despite a paramilitary blockade that aims to starve San Juan Copala into submission to the state, the caravan presented a serious threat to paramilitaries and the government.
Ambush survivor Jiménez says the gunmen made their goal very clear when they detained her. "They told us that they were going to take back Copala,” she said. “They said they were going to drive people from their homes. They said, 'Wherever you walk, this is all UBISORT territory.' "
Human rights organizations fear the government will use the caravan attack to further militarize the region. UBISORT has already called for the military to enter the area "in order to put an end to the violence that has spilled our brothers' blood." If the rest of Mexico is any indication, the military's presence would increase, not decrease, violence and human rights abuses.
The people of San Juan Copala, who have borne the brunt of the violence in this conflict, say that they don't want the government to send in the police or the military to resolve the conflict—not even to break the blockade. Instead, they want the government to guarantee the safety of civil society organizations so that they can enter San Juan Copala and begin to attend to residents' needs.
After all, a major goal of the autonomist Triqui leaders is to heal the divisions created by decades of outside interference by removing political parties and replacing them with usos y costumbres, or traditional governance. “We know there will be repression and that there will be paramilitaries sooner or later,” said Albino. “We are anticipating it. We don't have any other choice. But we know that we're not doing anything wrong. We're doing the best for peace for Triquis."
Kristin Bricker is a NACLA Research Associate. She reports from Mexico about social movements, militarization, and the war on drugs on her blog, My Word Is My Weapon.