Via IPS News
By Daniela Pastrana
OAXACA, Mexico, Dec 1, 2010 (IPS) – “A dark chapter has come to a close in the history of Oaxaca. A chapter that must never again be repeated,” said lawmaker Flavio Sosa, the head of the social movement that brought this southern Mexican state to its knees for several months in 2006 and was brutally repressed.
“Oaxaca needs reconciliation, on a foundation of justice,” he told IPS. “Those who ‘disappeared’, killed and tortured people will have to be punished. And on these foundations, legal structures will have to be built in this state, including a complete reform of the constitution.”
On Wednesday, a new state governor is being sworn in: Gabino Cué, who headed an opposition alliance that has put an end to eight uninterrupted decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Oaxaca, one of the three poorest states in the country, and the one with the highest proportion of indigenous people.
The opposition parties in the alliance won 28 of the 42 seats in the state Congress, one of which went to Sosa, the leader of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), who was held in a maximum security federal prison for eight months and spent another eight months in a state prison after the 2006 protests.
APPO, a movement made up of around 300 social organisations, including the teachers’ union, held protests that turned into a six-month uprising against the notoriously corrupt state government of outgoing governor Ulises Ruiz. More than 20 demonstrators and journalists were killed in the crackdown on the protests.
In the hours leading up to the change of government, people in Oaxaca, the state capital, and throughout the state were filled with a sense of hope, incredulity and uncertainty, although not everyone was optimistic.
“The first test for Gabino Cué is Ulises Ruiz,” said Florentino López, president of the Popular Revolutionary Front which, like the majority of organisations that make up APPO, supported the incoming governor in the elections. “His credibility depends on whether he will face real penalties or impunity,” he told IPS.
Tension has run high in the move towards change. Demonstrations, people who have been forced to flee their towns or state, and the recent murders of prominent rural leaders have fuelled rumours and worries.
Catarino Torres, an important regional leader who sympathised with causes like APPO and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), was killed in his offices in the Citizen Defence Committee on Oct. 22. He had also been held in a federal prison four years ago.
Heriberto Pazos, the leader of the Movimiento Unificador de Lucha Triqui (Mult) — a movement of the Triqui indigenous community — and the founder of the Popular Unity Party, the only party in the country based on the indigenous cause, was murdered the next day.
Mult, a sympathiser of the left-wing EZLN, has been active in the state for three decades, and for many of those years has been involved in a turf war with a paramilitary group, the Unión de Bienestar Social de la Región Triqui, for control over the municipality of San Juan Copala.
Pazos had survived an attempt on his life in 2003, when he was struggling to establish the Popular Unity Party. He is the seventh prominent activist to be killed or forcibly disappeared under the Ruiz administration.
The list also includes Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez, leader of the Movimiento Unificador de Lucha Triqui Independiente and a leading proponent of autonomy for the municipality of San Juan Copala, which was declared in 2007. Since the 1970s, the Triqui indigenous people have been involved in different forms of struggle for their rights.
“The investigation of the material and intellectual authors of these murders will mark the direction the Cué government plans to take,” Francisco Cerezo, of the Cerezo Committee, a human rights group that has documented more than 1,300 cases of politically-motivated detentions between 2002 and 2008, told IPS from Mexico City.
“The same phenomenon that occurred in the country when Vicente Fox was elected is now being seen in Oaxaca. People believe in the new government more because of hope for change than for any real reason, because actually the same old politicians, dusted off and recycled, are being sworn in,” Cerezo said.
Fox became president of Mexico in late 2000, when his right- wing National Action Party (PAN) ended seven decades of rule by the PRI. His successor, President Felipe Calderón, whose term began in 2006, also belongs to the PAN.
Nearly one-fourth of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities are in the state of Oaxaca. More than 70 percent of the state’s 570 municipalities are governed by the system of “uses and customs,” a form of government based on centuries-old traditions of indigenous community life. Another 152 are governed by the mainstream party system.
Half of Oaxaca’s 3.5 million people belong to one of 16 different native peoples in the state, an identification based on the preservation of indigenous languages, dress and customs.
Another of the big question marks hanging over the incoming government is what it will do with respect to the conflict in the Triqui region, where the community of San Juan Copala has been under siege since January by paramilitary groups, under the complacent gaze of state and federal authorities.
The harassment and attacks have led to the murders and displacement of dozens of local community members since the siege began.
An international convoy trying to break through the cordon to carry food and other humanitarian aid to the community was ambushed in April, and two people were shot and killed: a leading Mexican activist and a human rights observer from Finland.
But doubts with respect to Cué have emerged because he formed part of the administration of former governor Diódoro Carrasco (1992-1998), who was accused of the “paramilitarisation” of the area and an increase in violence against social organisations.
Nevertheless, the people of Oaxaca are hopeful.
In 2006, APPO’s protests were squelched when federal police were flown in, social leaders and activists were thrown in prison, at least 20 people were killed, and numerous cases of police brutality and torture were reported by demonstrators and detainees.
Ulises Ruiz remained in his post as governor, thanks to a political agreement with the federal government. But four years later, voters ousted him at the polls.
“The year 2006 marked a before and after for the social and political organisations that participated in APPO; this community is no longer the same,” López said.
From his new seat in the state Congress, Sosa concurred: “We have an active, participative civil society, in a new relationship with the government, and the changes will have to be seen immediately.”