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Mexico’s “Democratic” Transition: Impunity and Counterinsurgency

John Gibler
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Almost a year after President Felipe Calderon took office, “democracy” in Mexico continues its study of the theater of the absurd. As Calderon gives speeches on the rule of law, police and soldiers attack social movements, drug-trafficking gangsters murder with impunity killing 1,951 people since January, and femicides continue in Ciudad Juarez and spread to other states. Roughly 50 million people are dropping deeper into the wreckage of hunger and exclusion. The true design of the political class may be deciphered by juxtaposing Fortune magazine’s announcement that Mexican monopolist Carlos Slim, with an estimated wealth of $59 billion, is now the richest man in the world with the tales of impunity and counterinsurgency in two of Mexico’s most marginalized states, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

The divisions in Oaxaca could not be starker, or more revealing. As the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly (APPO) spent the late spring months preparing a cultural festival, the state government was preparing to crack skulls. Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz hired a North Korean Tae Kwon Do champion, Kim Myong Chong, to come to Oaxaca to train the state police in submission techniques using a four-foot long wooden staff.

The police debuted their new skills on July 16—the first day of the APPO’s cultural festival—ambushing an APPO march, and setting off a five-hour street battle that left 58 people injured. The predominant image from the battle was state police with their new sticks standing over APPO activists with faces bathed in blood. Police Chief Sergio Segreste Ríos, bragged to Milenio reporter Diego Osorno that they only used the staffs to “immobilize” by striking against leg and back muscles. Opposite Ríos’ quote in the newspaper ran a photograph of police with staffs in hand pushing and kicking a member of the APPO with blood gushing from his head.

The newspaper La Jornada published a series of three photographs taken on July 16 showing Emeterio Merino Cruz, a 43 year-old plumber who was apprehended on his way to work. The first picture showed a police officer with riot shield and staff in hand leading a compliant Cruz by the arm. In the second picture, Cruz is sitting on the street while an officer beats him. In the final picture, Cruz lies in the hospital in a coma, being kept alive by a life support system.

The July 16 battle was a severe blow to the APPO, though not a fatal one. After thousands of federal and state police beat and imprisoned over 140 people on November 25, 2006, the APPO spent months slowly rebuilding their movement: working to free the people detained during the 6 months of conflict and holding marches, panel discussions, and assembly meetings. Their patience and grassroots work was paying off, with more and more people overcoming fear of repression and taking to the streets in marches and short-term protest camps. By June 14, the one-year anniversary of the police raid that sparked the civil disobedience uprising and the creation of the APPO, hundreds of thousands once again jumped into the movement.

Polling disenchantment

Throughout the summer the APPO struggled with internal debates on how best to strategize around the upcoming state legislative elections on August 6 and municipal elections on October 7. Many of the indigenous organizations and smaller collectives argued that the APPO should have nothing to do with the elections, while some of the larger political organizations wanted to take advantage of widespread popular support for the APPO and launch candidates.

The APPO assembly eventually decided to remain autonomous of all political parties, supporting no candidates in the elections but calling for a “protest vote” against both Ruiz’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN). They also decided that individual organizations could participate further in the elections by running candidates, though no potential candidate could serve as a council member in the APPO.

The electoral debate is one of the most divisive issues in contemporary Mexican left politics. Throughout 2006, the Zapatista’s Other Campaign argued long and hard against participating in electoral politics, while supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sought to embrace his candidacy in order to effect change from within. The fallout from this division still haunts national left movements with sectarian attacks and counterattacks. Many groups associated with the Other Campaign—though not the Zapatistas themselves who have expressed their solidarity with and admiration for the Oaxaca movement—attack the APPO, erroneously accusing them of supporting Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution.

The APPO managed, for the most part, to avoid major divisions. Due to the extremely hostile climate in the press, the APPO agreed to curb mudslinging between individual groups who have taken contrary positions on the elections. Though tensions are constant, the APPO has maintained its unity and avoided the sectarian bickering that so plagues other movements. In recent interviews, APPO participants expressed both their individual positions and their willingness to respect diverging positions, careful to not attack the other side. “It is an agreement of the APPO not to participate in the electoral process,” said Florentino Lopez, an APPO spokesperson, “but to respect individual organizations if they decide to do so, but not in the name of the APPO.”

However, the August 6 elections themselves spoke to the prevailing sentiment among the grassroots: the over-all, landslide winner was disenchantment: 77 percent of registered voters failed to show up to the polls. The PRI took every seat in the state legislature. “The whole damn electoral process should just be disregarded from the beginning,” said Isaac Torres, a lawyer with the Mexican Human Rights League in Oaxaca in an interview before the elections, “it is only a perfected system of electoral fraud.”

Walking free

Over a year after the Oaxaca uprising exploded, still no one has been punished for the 26 assassinations and scores of documented cases of torture and arbitrary detentions. The killers of 25 Oaxaqueños and US independent journalist Brad Will not only walk free, but continue to wear their uniforms and patrol the streets. The impunity in Oaxaca has led the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to express its “extreme concern,” and Amnesty International to travel to Mexico to release a report on Oaxaca and meet directly with Ulises Ruiz and Felipe Calderon.

After a 45 minute meeting between Ulises Ruiz and the Secretary General of Amnesty, Irene Zubaida Khan, Ruiz said that the Amnesty report “was written by the APPO,” and completely disqualified the organization as “partial” and “irresponsible.” Zumbaida Khan in turn told the Mexican Congress that, “the cases of Oaxaca and San Salvador Atenco clearly show the urgent need to attend to impunity and the failure of justice.”

Ulises Ruiz embodies an entire political edifice constructed on centuries of authoritarian rule. He is not an aberration of democracy or justice, he is the personification of a system of social control predicated on the use of overwhelming violence to force compliance, a system that is obviously willing to do whatever it takes to maintain power. Ulises Ruiz—and the centuries of imperial dominion behind him—creates the necessity of resistance movements like the APPO, the latest in over 500 years of uninterrupted struggle in Oaxaca, and across Mexico. And like the Zapatistas, the APPO has shown that it will not fade away or bow down in the face of violence.

Resistance is not only throwing rocks at riot police or tending to piles of burning tires at the barricades. Resistance can be brewing coffee and taking it to the tired barricade watchers or gathering rocks in shopping carts to ferry up to the frontline. Resistance can also be taking pictures at mobilizations, listening to the occupied radio stations, making protest stencil art and painting city walls, holding neighborhood meetings, marching in the streets, writing new protest songs, telling stories of resistance. There are many battlefields and most of them go unnoticed as such, never making the front-page photograph or the television morning news. One aspect of genius in the Oaxaca movement is the unlimited opening of spaces of resistance on equal footing—all are members of the APPO, rock throwers, marchers, coffee brewers, graffiti artists, and songwriters alike.

Militarization in Chiapas

The facedown between impunity and resistance in Oaxaca is not isolated. While troubled President Felipe Calderon—still haunted by the surrealist vote-count of July 2006—has not so much as mentioned the persistent conflict in Chiapas, his administration has set in motion a new phase of counterinsurgency against Zapatista rebel communities designed to strip the Zapatistas of their land and thus uproot and destroy their autonomous municipalities.

An on-going series of new reports by the Chiapas-based organization Center for Political Analysis and Socio-Economic Research (CAPISE) document recent changes in military deployment, paramilitary activity, and highway projects that combine to form a counterinsurgency strategy to displace Zapatista communities: “Now taking the water from the fish means taking land and territory from Zapatista communities,” said Sergio Lascano, director of Rebeldía magazine, at a CAPISE presentation in Mexico City.

Between 2005 and 2006, the Mexican army withdrew 16 military bases from indigenous regions in Chiapas, leaving a total of 79 bases in the state, including 56 permanent bases in Zapatista territory. The withdrawals would seem to indicate a de-escalation in the militarization of Zapatista and other indigenous regions, said Ernesto Ledesma, one of the directors of CAPISE and co-author of the report The Face of War. Instead, the opposite is taking place. Now the army is reinforcing the remaining military bases with Special Forces, including airborne elite troops and special elite units from Mexico City without jurisdiction to operate in Chiapas.

These bases, now equipped with Special Forces, completely surround all the Zapatista Caracoles, the communities that house the various autonomous Good Government Councils, as well as other Zapatista communities where paramilitary groups threaten to dispossess the Zapatistas from their land. Paramilitaries that masquerade as indigenous rights groups like the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Farmers Rights (OPDDIC) continue, with the cooperation of the army, to encroach upon and threaten Zapatista communities. “The Mexican Armed Forces act as a guarantee for the various groups that want to displace Zapatista communities,” said Ledesma of CAPISE.

The Zapatista community 24 De Diciembre is an example of the process being used to displace Zapatista communities throughout rebel territory. The community was founded in 1994 on 525 hectares of land reclaimed by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and distributed to landless indigenous families who had supported the Zapatistas. In February 1995, then President Ernesto Zedillo (now a professor at Yale) broke the ceasefire and ordered the Mexican army into Zapatista territory to capture the EZLN’s commanders and sub-commanders. The families in 24 De Diciembre fled the army’s persecution and lived as refugees for 12 years in other Zapatista communities before returning to their land on 24 December 2006. During their absence, no one inhabited or worked the land.

Magical legalism

On July 17, over 50 members of the PRI-affiliated Union of Ejidos of the Selva, which sells coffee to the Mexican café chain, Café de la Selva, marched through the community wielding machetes and threatening the residents. The PRI members built a camp on the edge of the village, blocking the path the families use to walk to their fields. They have since built small one-room houses with wood stolen from the community right in the middle of the path. They go daily to the military base located only a few hundred yards from 24 De Diciembre to receive basic supplies and give them reports on the Zapatista community. They play soccer with the soldiers.

The Union of Ejidos, like the OPDDIC and other PRI-affiliated paramilitary groups, has used magical legalism to create claim to the Zapatista lands. They create new ejidos—communal land holdings authorized by the state government that include Zapatista territories—which they then use to declare the Zapatistas land invaders.

Most of the Zapatista land was actually stolen from the indigenous by land barons like General Absalón Castellanos. Castellanos, a former army general and governor of Chiapas, was taken prisoner by the EZLN in 1994 and released on condition of surrendering land to the landless indigenous rebels, many of whom lived and worked as slaves for Castellanos before the Zapatista uprising. The government paid Castellanos for his reclaimed lands, but Castellanos then issued separate land grants to the state government.

These land grants are now used to authorize the new ejidos offered to PRI groups that have never lived or worked the land. “They told us to stop working the land, to leave voluntarily in order to avoid the spilling of blood,” one member of 24 De Diciembre told me during an interview in July.

The Zapatistas are on alert, rotating support groups from different communities near La Realidad to accompany 24 De Diciembre, though the community continues to be surrounded by both soldiers and paramilitaries. Ledesma pointed out that the counterinsurgency actions in Chiapas involve full governmental support through both administrative and military institutions. The Secretary of Agrarian Affairs; the National Defense Secretary (the army); police forces on municipal, state, and federal levels; the Transportation Secretary; and Congress are all participating in overlapping counterinsurgency activities in Zapatista territory.

Threatening alternatives

As a further example Ledesma showed that the Mexican Congress is quietly building a new “super-highway” through rebel territory to connect military bases and the Montes Azules bio-reserve (where police violently evicted 39 tzeltal indigenous people from their village on August 18) to other national highways. The highway is cutting through mountains, ostensibly to minimize curves for large trucks, and in some cases cutting directly through communities.

The EZLN created the Good Government Councils to advance indigenous autonomy in rebel territory after the Zedillo administration (1994-2000) refused to implement the San Andres Accords—signed by the administration—and the Fox administration (2000-2006) gutted the indigenous rights law drawn from the San Andres Accords, striking the autonomy provisions and instead further subjecting indigenous peoples to federal control.

“The Good Government Councils constitute the threat of an alternative,” said Ledesma, “now even local indigenous PRI members go to [the Zapatista Good Government Council of] La Garrucha to resolve their land and other conflicts in their own languages, according to their customs, and where they find an honest response to their conflicts. The Mexican army, with its elite Special Forces, is trying to fracture the entire project of autonomy and the functions of the Good Government Councils.”

It has become somewhat fashionable to criticize the horrors of the PRI regime, and that fashion is made possible by the myth of the democratic transition, the myth that everything changed with the PAN’s victory in the 2000 elections. But in 2007, the same pattern prevails: where social movements dare to defend dignity, work, and land, the state unleashes both old and new tactics of repression.

John Gibler is a human rights media fellow with Global Exchange reporting on Mexican social movements for Left Turn, In These Times, Flashpoints on KPFA, and other alternative media.

For more information about resistance is Oaxaca and Chiapas, see: the APPO website at; a new documentary on the Oaxaca movement at; the EZLN website at; and the CAPISE website at