'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dispatches from Oaxaca 

Yesterday, I posted an interview of a Oaxaca activist by Ron Jacobs. Now, it is increasing evident that the government has not reestablished control, despite calling upon the military to suppress the movement:

Thousands of protesters hurling Molotov cocktails forced riot police officers with tear gas and water cannons to retreat on Thursday, as clashes intensified here in this popular tourist city.

At least eight people were injured in the violence, including a newspaper photographer who was hit by fireworks launched from the grounds of Oaxaca State’s university, a center of the protests. More than a dozen people have died in the conflict.

The federal police, who took over downtown Oaxaca last weekend, were pushed back by hundreds of protesters guarding the entrance to the university.

The riot police had the upper hand at first, when reinforcements arrived in armored trucks and helicopters, spraying water cannons and firing tear gas canisters.

But as they pushed through barricades of burned vehicles, the activists, who have blockaded the city for five months and demand that Gov. Ulises Ruiz step down, threw gasoline bombs at them. Local residents joined the demonstrators.

Greg Burger of Narco News has provided a more detailed account:

As helicopters, tanks, and scores of armed federal police approached the University campus, “la doctora,” the now famous host of radio APPO, urged the citizens of Oaxaca to rush to the scene to aid in the defense of the campus and particularly, of the radio station.

Scores of neighbors and students reportedly surround the PFP troops. Simultaneously, APPO supporters in Mexico City marched from the hunger strikers’ encampment near the Senate to the offices of the PFP to demand a retreat from the campus.

Mexican law prohibits the incursion of law enforcement into autonomous universities, unless requested by the university rector. The rector of the Benito Juarez University categorically rejects the presence of the PFP and did not give his approval to the agency to enter the campus.

Although it is unclear whether or not the retreat will be followed by a return to the scene tonight, one thing is quite clear at this moment; the APPO has dealt an important blow to the PFP and has proven that they are indeed capable of defeating the invading army.

The assault also marked an increase in the brutality of the PFP’s methods; at least 40 protesters were injured, according to radio universidad. Another “innovative” technique by the PFP today was the use of a staining agent mixed into the water shot by tanks at demonstrators. The staining agent presumably marks protesters for subsequent arrest.

There are additional reports of more prisoners being flown off into custody in helicopters, and also word of tear gas having been shot directly into private homes in the vicinity of the University.

George Salzman, also affiliated with Narco News, personally witnessed the intensity of the conflict:

The battle raged on University Avenue while I was there. University Avenue is a north-south four-lane road a little over a half-mile long that runs from the Periferal highway junction at the north, the Cinco Senores intersection, to the Plaza del Valley junction at the south. University City occupies a roughly square block a little more than 1/4 mile on each side. This is the main campus of the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO in its Spanish initials), located about 1.1 miles southeast of the Zócalo. This area is supposedly “autonomous” in the strict sense that the university authorities have exclusive control over the area. Police, military, federal authorities, state officials, and so on are, in principle, not allowed to enter the grounds unless explicitly invited by the Rector of the university. It is located on the east side of University Avenue, about a block or two south of the intersection.

This morning we heard that the PFP was going to invade the university on the grounds that there were reported to be firearms there. That’s a typical pretext the police use. It’s easy enough to get some corrupt state official or PRI-affiliated thug (PRI is the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in its Spanish initials) to file a denunciation that firearms or other illegal possessions are in a particular location. Radio Universidad was calling for citizens to come to protect the university, with a great sense of urgency. A friend dropped me off a few blocks from the Cinco Senores intersection, which was blocked on all sides by the PFP. As usual, I was able to circle the blocked intersection on a few side streets and soon was “inside” University Avenue in a mass of people, most facing north towards the lines of shield-equipped PFP troops.

Many in the dense crowd were busy photographing and videotaping the then-still-peaceful confrontation, several of them perched atop a burned-out VW-bug. Some people on a raised platform with a loudspeaker were telling the troops that they were the same as the protesters and shouldn’t have been sent to Oaxaca. The PFP lines stood inert, as trained. Several older women in the crowd, right at the front, not more than a foot or two from the plastic shields facing them, forcefully told the troops right in front of them that they are citizens, without arms, capable of running their own lives, and the PFP should leave Oaxaca.

By about 11:30 I started south. After the first barricade, which was north of university property, students were passing pieces of split wood through the barred fence from the university grounds to others on the street side with shopping carts. They use the wood for fires at the barricades. Suddenly an alert spread that an attack was imminent at the south end of University Avenue, and people streamed past me, leaving, I supposed, a smaller crowd at the north intersection. The shopping carts barreled by, along with people with cameras, many folks adjusting their bandannas getting ready for tear gas. Apparently the PFP, who had been massed at the Plaza del Valle end of the road, began advancing in a solid front. Then fireworks began. From the distance I saw clouds of smoke and/or gas and the wobbly arched paths of the home-made rockets launched towards the police, which left a trace of white smoke as they streaked across the space between the protesters and the PFP forces.

When one of the projectiles hit the ground and burst into flame in front of the first line of troops a wave of adrenaline swept the protesters, many of whom ran forward and hurled rocks at the police. I’ve written a lot about the teachers and APPO maintaining a militant but non-violent struggle, which I remain convinced is correct. But this was a different matter: this was people trying to protect their own turf from being invaded by lethally-armed forces, and there’s no way the attempted defense could be described as non-violent. Had the police been ordered to shoot, it could have been a massacre. All that can be said is that the imbalance of power was incomparably in favor of the police; had it been used, it would have been overwhelming.

Most of the defenders were younger men. But not all. Their major weapon was a stream of rocks. I think that in addition to their homemade incendiary rockets they may also have had some molotov cocktails. As the police shot tear gas canisters and began a slow step-by-step advance, I headed back a ways and entered the university athletic fields, located on the west side of the avenue behind a fence, and then came forward again, close to but separated from the exchange. Not, however, separated from the tear gas. People were taking large rocks and smashing them against other rocks on the ground to break them up into sizes suitable for hurling a considerable distance. Their courage and determination not to yield to the PFP was incredible. I’ve never seen anything close to it before.

And, finally, Radio Universidad has provided a translated, curt chronology of events. A brief sample:

13:47 Judicial state police, dressed in grey, entered into the Institute of Communication Sciences of the university of Oaxaca

13:46 Another person detained at the Noria Avenue at the entrance to the Five Señores intersection

13:41 Felix Jiménez Fabián a carpenter's assistant, was detained and was visibly beaten. 2 helicopters are dropping tear-gas, trying to take out the Radio Universidad antenna. There is a house on fire set by the police attacks. David Jarramillo, photographer from the Universal, was wounded, in the police attacks.

13:38 A dramatic report from a woman on the Radio Universidad in Oaxaca, who explains how the judicial state police (Policia ministariales) attacked people in the streets- the helicopters flying above dropping tear-gas bombs. Two helicopters are dropping concution grenades.

Perhaps, this is the sort of unrest that one associates with Mexico every 5 to 10 years. But this seems much more serious.

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