In rallies this week, many protesters linked Ruiz with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s economic policies, especially after Calderon affirmed Ruiz’s status as the legitimate governor in March during a photo op to launch a plant to generate wind power.
The words of Benito Juarez, a reformist hero and Oaxaca’s most famous native son, are found on their share of colonial-era buildings here: “Respecting the rights of others is peace.”
So it is no wonder that Oaxaca remains on edge, five months after a conflict that left at least a dozen protesters dead after teachers, union members, students and indigenous activists occupied the main plaza and triggered a police crackdown.
The clashes have ended, but protesters and government officials say the other side continues to use intimidation and is not respecting the rights of city residents. Some protesters continue to deface and block public buildings, while activists accuse state police of intimidation and arbitrary arrests.
The Oaxaca crisis has become a symbol for tensions that simmer throughout Mexico: bitterness over corruption and social inequality. Nevertheless, Mexicans were still jolted last fall to see one of their richest cultural treasures become a battleground blanketed with graffiti, divided by burning barricades, and overrun by masked protesters and heavily armed police.
This week, the plaza saw the return of hundreds of members of a broad-based group called APPO and its main allies in the teachers union, including a handful of protesters who damaged buildings. Leaders plan larger protests in May and June that will test their political strength and the government’s ability to keep order.
“This is just a first punch,” said APPO leader Eduardo Cruz as he and hundreds of colleagues set up an encampment in front of state offices this week. “Wait until summer.”
APPO and its allies have not let up in calling for the resignation of Gov. Ulises Ruiz, whom they accuse of repression and election fraud. Their demands include the release of jailed group leaders and a halt to a federal plan to privatize pensions for state workers.
State officials say they will not allow this southern Mexican city to be paralyzed again. While initially sympathetic, many merchants complain that protesters are merely a vocal minority that devastated their businesses.
The seeds of Oaxaca’s discontent were planted years ago, during the nationwide hold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The party’s lock on the presidency ended in 2000, but Ruiz’s critics accuse him of wielding PRI machinery to win a rigged election.
Ruiz clashed with the teachers union, who staged frequent strikes in pursuit of better benefits. The teachers took to the streets again last May, but the police attacked their encampment, causing a backlash from other liberal activists.
From strike to occupation
The routine strike became a months-long occupation by a fledgling group, the Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People, known by the Spanish acronym APPO. The conflict turned violent, as some APPO members burned buildings and set up barricades throughout the city. Meanwhile, armed police in plainclothes targeted protesters through arrests and violence.
Then-President Vicente Fox maintained a hands-off policy until October when he dispatched about 4,000 federal police to reclaim the streets.
The crackdown only heightened the hatred of Ruiz among protesters, who complain of trumped-up arrests, including the April detention of human-rights activist David Venegas. Officials with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said they plan to visit Oaxaca in June to investigate reports of abuses.
U.S. lawmakers and international media watchdogs are stepping up pressure on the Mexican government to probe the death of Bradley Will, an Illinois native killed in Oaxaca last fall as he reported for the IndyMedia Web site.
Will died Oct. 27 from two gunshot wounds, and state officials have floated the theory that members of APPO killed him. Will’s relatives do not believe that explanation, and say state and federal prosecutors are not properly pursuing the case.
In rallies this week, many protesters linked Ruiz with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s economic policies, especially after Calderon affirmed Ruiz’s status as the legitimate governor in March during a photo op to launch a plant to generate wind power. Calderon also called for healing and the end to human-rights abuses.
Luz Zarate, a state government spokeswoman, said government officials want to incorporate APPO into political reforms but will not tolerate street protests that involve destroying property and intimidating residents.
“They have every right to protest, but when it begins to affect the rest, that is when it has crossed the line,” Zarate said.
Ruiz has tried to deflate APPO’s influence by nurturing a splinter teachers’ group that is competing for members with Section 22 of the teachers union, the dominant force within APPO.
Internal split as vote nears
APPO, a loose coalition of students, feminists, environmentalists and indigenous groups, has faced internal divisions as this year’s municipal and state elections draw closer, group leader Castulo Lopez said. Lopez said he didn’t want to rule out alliances with political parties, but APPO decided to officially stay on the sidelines.
Several protesters this week said that was the right decision because they consider all three major political parties to be corrupt. Also, they worried that participating in the elections would grant legitimacy to a government that they say lacks it.
Veteran activist Rocio Ramos helped guard barricades near her neighborhood last year. This week, she looked on as activists peacefully took over a university radio station for two days to broadcast their message.
As activists exited the facility to the faint sound of a song, evidence that the station had returned to regular programming, Ramos said these protests are APPO’s strength.
“If APPO becomes a political party, it loses its essence,” Ramos said.
Zarate, the state government spokeswoman, said the group’s decision raises doubts about its willingness to pursue demands through the political process.
“They don’t mind throwing a rock, painting a building [with graffiti], blocking a street,” she said. “But when it is time to work together, you don’t see them.”
Victor Raul Martinez, a sociologist at Benito Juarez Autonomous University in Oaxaca, said both sides are proceeding cautiously after making mistakes last year. Martinez said the government does not want to crack down too severely and protesters want to gain the moral high ground by ensuring that their rallies are peaceful.
The next tests will be May 15, for an annual teachers’ protest, and June 14, during a march to mark the anniversary of the police crackdown.
Martinez, author of an upcoming book about the conflict, said he thinks the coming weeks will be important because Ruiz’s PRI and leftist political parties will see this year’s election as a referendum on APPO’s demands and the government’s response.
“If you alienate the majority, you pay for those errors,” Martinez said. “It isn’t enough to win over those who are already with you. The fight now is to win over the rest.”
By Oscar Avila
Tribune foreign correspondent
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