Oaxaca Votes Out Ruling Party as the Siege in San Juan Copala Continues

On July 4, Oaxacans made history: After 80 years of one-party rule, an opposition gubernatorial candidate defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) at the polls. However, Oaxaca's lame duck and divisive governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, will hand over a volatile political climate to the new administration. Oaxaca still lives in the wake of the 2006 social conflict that nearly drove Ruiz Ortiz from office. Now this tension is most prominently symbolized by a low-intensity war that continues in San Juan Copala where on April 27 gunmen ambushed an aid caravan to the town, killing two activists.

Kristin Bricker

On July 4, Oaxacans made history: After 80 years of one-party rule, opposition gubernatorial candidate Gabino Cué defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Eviel Magaña at the polls. This victory occurred despite last-minute media stunts and documented incidents of electoral fraud. Cué ran on a coalition ticket that united many of the opposition parties — particularly the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) — against the PRI.

The strength of Cué’s coalition will be tested as soon as he takes office. Despite the election results, Oaxaca remains a PRI stronghold. Furthermore, the PRI’s lame duck and divisive governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, will hand over a very volatile political climate that could destabilize Cué’s administration if he isn’t careful. Oaxaca still lives in the wake of the 2006 social conflict that nearly drove Ruiz Ortiz from office. Now this tension is most prominently symbolized by a low-intensity war in the municipality of San Juan Copala, located in Oaxaca’s Triqui region, one of the most violent areas in the state. Copala made international headlines on April 27 when gunmen ambushed an aid caravan to the town, killing two activists.

As Oaxacans voted in Sunday’s state elections, the autonomous municipality remained under siege. Gunmen from the Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT, a paramilitary organization founded by the PRI) have blockaded San Juan Copala since January.

San Juan Copala declared itself autonomous following the 2006 nonviolent popular uprising. Founders of the autonomous municipality played an important role that year as advisors to the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), which coordinated the protests. The autonomous municipality’s active resistance to the PRI’s one-party rule in Oaxaca has drawn the wrath of the state government and its paramilitary organizations.

In January these paramilitaries placed boulders and logs in the road leading into San Juan Copala, and then cut off its running water and electricity. Gunmen patrol the area and reportedly shoot at anything that moves. San Juan Copala residents report that food supplies are dwindling and that they are out of firewood. Without firewood, residents worry that they cannot boil river water to kill bacteria and parasites.

Much like flotillas carrying humanitarian aid have tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip, on June 8 another international aid caravan attempted to break the siege. However, the state government and paramilitaries thwarted the "Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola" caravan's attempt to bring approximately 35 tons of supplies into Copala. That caravan—the second to attempt to reach Copala this year—was named after the two activists who were killed during an attack on the first aid caravan on April 27. The gunmen who carried out the attack reportedly claimed to belong to the UBISORT.

The government has not been forthcoming with information regarding its investigation into the April 27 attack, leading two legislators from the European Union to travel to Mexico to meet with federal and state officials regarding the murder of Finnish citizen Jyri Jaakkola, who was killed during the ambush. The legislators met with the federal government, but the Oaxaca state government refused to grant them a meeting.

The new caravan embarked just three weeks after unidentified, non-indigenous gunmen assassinated Timoteo Alejandro Ramirez, one of the founders of the autonomous municipality and perhaps its most important leader. The Oaxacan government deployed state police to block this caravan at multiple points along the route to Copala. The caravan was comprised of 300-400 people from around the world and seven buses and trailers. Underscoring how entrenched the government is in this conflict, the state sent its attorney general, María de la Luz Candelaria Chiña, to Juxtlahuaca by helicopter to negotiate with caravan organizers. The attorney general told them that UBISORT's leader, Rufino Juarez, had put a condition on the caravan's safe passage into Copala: “that [the caravan] also dialogue with [UBISORT].”

Representatives from the autonomous municipality who accompanied the caravan told Candelaria that they do not negotiate with paramilitaries. The state police who accompanied the attorney general were forced to let the caravan pass when participants threatened to continue to Copala on foot. However, police stopped the caravan in nearly every subsequent town as it made its way to San Juan Copala. UBISORT also organized a human blockade comprised of women who stood in the road with banners. The police and paramilitary blockades succeeded in delaying the caravan until dusk, when gunshots were heard in the distance. Deciding that the risk of a paramilitary attack under the cover of darkness was too great, the caravan turned around before reaching its destination. However, before the caravan turned back, Julio César Hernández from the Mexican magazine Contralínea photographed the UBISORT’s permanent blockade made of boulders and logs. In his photo, state police—not paramilitaries—guard the blockade.

This is the Oaxaca that Governor-elect Gabino Cué will inherit after eighty years of uninterrupted PRI rule: A state where political violence and corruption are so normalized that no one attempts to hide it anymore. State police protecting a paramilitary blockade of an indigenous community doesn’t even make headlines in Oaxaca’s PRI-friendly media.

Although a collective sense of relief could be felt throughout Oaxaca’s capital city when the press announced Cué’s win, many Oaxacans wonder if the new administration will be willing or able to resolve the many contentious conflicts that are left over from 80 years of PRI rule. While Cué’s win is an important defeat for the PRI, it remains to been seen if the Cué administration—an opposition coalition comprised of parties from all over the political spectrum that are normally at odds with each other—can govern coherently and effectively. It will have to if it wants to overcome the PRI’s influence: Even with this defeat, the PRI remains the largest and most powerful party in the state, and it controls more municipal governments than any other party. As many Oaxacans revel in the PRI’s defeat, some ask themselves if Cué’s win will mean that “the color changes, but everything else stays the same.”

As for the siege of San Juan Copala—one of Oaxaca’s most violent conflicts—Cué only mentioned the issue during his campaign in order to make his opponent look bad. The governor-elect has remained conspicuously silent on how he plans to resolve the conflict. The blockade shows no signs of ending soon; on the contrary, armed attacks increased just prior to the election. Dwindling supplies remain the most pressing concern in the autonomous municipality. The "Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola”caravan left the supplies that were destined for Copala in a warehouse in nearby Huajuapan, where they remain as of this writing. Representatives from the autonomous municipality requested that the Mexican Red Cross deliver the aid to San Juan Copala, but the organization refused. Spokesman Casimiro Martínez Aguilar says that if the aid is not delivered within the next few weeks, the autonomous municipality will organize a women-only caravan.


Kristin Bricker is a NACLA Research Associate.

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