Teachers, indigenous, students, rights and land defenders, victims’ relatives… between 2006 and 2016 the country has seen social struggle burst onto the scene, pushing against a system of repression, dispossession and horror: the road down which Mexico really has been moving
The year 2006 will be remembered for a series of resistance movements that burst onto the scene, challenging Mexico’s political, social and economic system. Numerous organizations, collectives and individuals found and declared themselves in rebellion, from the barricades of the Oaxaca Commune to the encounters of The Other Campaign along its 47,890-km route that wound around the country. These experiences continue to echo. Oaxaca, Chiapas and Atenco are once again reference points on the map of social struggle, and they re-emerge with new horizons, new forms of resistance and of engaging in politics. Together with other groups that have organized over the last eleven years, such as students and victims of violence, the movements are now multiplying like cracks in a system of domination that is splintering in the face of widespread indignation.
“What’s happening with these movements, which don’t conform to the mold of the classic social movement because they’re anti-systemic movements with an emancipatory perspective, is that they obviously show continuity, but also rupture and innovation. To think there is a continuous line running through these movements is pretty vague; you can imagine and recreate it, but if you look more carefully, you realize that completely new features are appearing that are totally different”, explains Jorge Alonso, emeritus research professor at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS de Occidente).
Subcommander Marcos at a protest march in the Zócalo (Central Square) of Mexico City (2006). Photo: AP
To cite examples, he points out that in 2006 the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) “was still set on sparking a national movement” with its Other Campaign, “but it realized that that effort somehow did not have the effect it was looking for, so it came up with other ways. When everyone thought that Zapatismo was spent, in 2012 it came back with surprising energy and in 2013 it organized the Zapatista School”, inviting thousands of collectives and individuals to learn about the road of autonomy that it has taken.
“That was something no one had done before, and lots of movements answered the call—the “indignados” en 2011 and the “#YoSoy132” in 2012 and many others who had the common denominator of questioning the situation”. Jorge Alonso also identifies changes in the struggle of the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), which continues to draw on its past experience, but is also participating in a broader popular movement. That’s why we should not “try to see the continuity without seeing the break with the past, the renovations and the new things they’re trying out”.
Protest by students and members of the #YoSoy132 movement in Mexico City (2012). Photo: EFE
Jorge Rocha, a researcher from ITESO, explains that “social movement by nature are not continuous processes; we can say that they maintain the same status at all times: we can talk of peaks or high points when it comes to public marches or collective actions, but then there are valleys where the movements keep on working”, but at the grass roots.
“The important thing is to recognize that people are organized. There’s a generalized deterioration in Mexicans’ lives, which is a breeding ground for the resistance of these organized people who, depending on the political moment, make their appearance again. It shows that we can’t go on thinking that movements only exist when they take to the streets (…) they remain organized in these processes of analysis and awareness-raining and linking with people at the grass roots”.
Members of the EZLN show their solidarity for the companions and relatives of the students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa (2104). Photo: suversion.org
They turned on the lights
2006 started on the road for the people who accompanied the Zapatista movement on their tour through the country with The Other Campaign. On their journey they tried to connect with “humble and simple people like us. It’s not that we’re going to tell them what to do, to give them orders (…) And we’re not going to tell them to give us orders, or to rise up in arms. What we’re going to do is ask them what their life is like, their struggle, their thoughts about the state of the country and what we can do so that we won’t be brought down”.
In 2005 the EZLN published the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle, from which the previous quote was taken. In that document the movement, among other things, took its distance from the presidential campaign that was already underway; that’s why the political action that started on January 1, 2006 was called The Other Campaign. That day, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the first stop on the tour, Delegate Zero (Subcommander Marcos) warned: “When we came marching in down the boulevard, as we made our way forward the authorities turned off the streetlights (…) That’s what this is all going to be about: the people up there are going to try surround us with darkness (…) And just as we moved forward in the dark, little by little, slowly, taking our steps carefully, that’s the way The Other Campaign is going to start. The time will come, as it already did on this march, when they give up and the lights stay on with a new brilliance, the brilliance that we produce with our struggles and our words that go from one person to the next, down and to the left”.
On their tour, the caravan made stops to meet up with organizations, collectives and individuals in resistance, ranging from indigenous groups and farmers, to workers, students, housewives, teachers, street workers, sex workers, and opponents of megaprojects. One by one, people took the microphone to share their stories, while the rest listened. The Other Campaign that year was interrupted only once, on May 3, when the repression was set loose on the town of San Salvador Atenco.
Armed with machetes, famers from San Salvador Atenco march in protest in Teotihuacan, headed by Subcommander Marcos, in opposition to the construction of a Wal-Mart (2006). Photo: AP
Repression and impunity
Not long before, The Other Campaign had visited the town. There, Delegate Zero singled out the history of the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land (FPDT), which had gotten its start by organizing the inhabitants of Tocuila, Nexquipayac, Acuexcomac, San Felipe, Santa Cruz de Abajo and Atenco to defend their territory against the imposition of the New Mexico City Airport on Texcoco farming land. Even though Vicente Fox’s government in 2002 canceled the plan in the face of popular pressure, the shadow of the project hung over these towns, and they kept their movement alive.
On May 3, 2006, the police of Texcoco (governed by the PRD party) and of the State of Mexico (governed by the PRI) mounted an operation to forcibly relocate a group of flower vendors who worked outside a market in the municipal seat, in spite of the fact that Ignacio del Valle and other Front leaders had recently tried to negotiate with the authorities to let them stay. Members of the FPDT and sympathizers of The Other Campaign blocked the Texcoco-Lechería highway to demand that the vendors be allowed to return. The police charged the protesters, and the townspeople hid in private homes. The police broke down the doors and arrested over 80 people.
The protesters held 12 police officers hostage to demand the release of the people under arrest. The government of the State of Mexico, led by Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered the police to clear the protesters from the highway, but the almost 200 officers were driven back by the townspeople. At this point, private television cameras recorded a policeman being beaten by protesters while the reporters, live on the air, called for police reinforcements to “rescue” the officer. These images were repeated over and over on television.
Adán Espinosa, one of the persecuted leaders of the Front for the Defense of the Land. Photo: contrapapelnoticias.files.wordpress.com
The government prepared a large-scale offensive that started at 6:00 on the morning of May 4, when 1,814 state police and 700 federal troops made their entry into San Salvador Atenco and violently secured the release of the hostages. The repression cost the lives of two townspeople (including 14-year-old Javier Cortés Santiago, killed by gunfire); 200 people were arrested and 30 women were sexually abused by the police, according to FPDT sources. The Front’s leader, Ignacio del Valle, was sentenced to 112 years in prison.
In October the National Human Rights Commission issued a recommendation documenting 10 different forms of human rights violations perpetrated against 209 people: arbitrary arrest; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and injuries; home invasion; illegal arrest; detention without communication; torture; sexual abuse and rape; violation of the right to life, of the rights of minors and of the rights to legality and judicial security. In 2009 the Federal Supreme Court accredited the excessive use of force by the State and the violation of townpeople’s guarantees, but did not punish those who ordered the attack.
The memory of impunity did not go away. The attack on Atenco in 2006 has a close connection to another social movement that emerged in 2012 to the cry of #YoSoy132 (I’m number 132). On May 11th of that year, Peña Nieto, who was then the PRI’s candidate for the Mexican presidency, visited the Universidad Iberoamericana, where he defended the police action that day: “I take full responsibility for what happened in Atenco. Those responsible were turned over to the courts, but I affirm once again: it was an action taken to re-establish order and peace by resorting to the Mexican State’s legitimate right to use the public force”.
Peña Nieto’s words infuriated the students: shouting “murderer” and “we are all Atenco”, they ran the candidate off the campus. The seeds had been sown, and in just a few days a new social movement sprang up, one of the youngest and most dynamic to be seen in recent years.
Clash between police and protesters in San Salvador Atenco (2006). Photo: Reuters
Trinidad Ramírez, a member of the FPDT and the wife of Ignacio del Valle, commented that “the repression of May 3rd and 4th didn’t happen just because we came out in support on the flower vendors. It was more about challenging the State, reversing a presidential decree”, in reference to the failed airport project (Desinformémonos, May 13, 2010).
At The Other Campaign’s April 26th meeting with Atenco, Delegate Zero had warned that the FPDT had defeated “Fox’s government and the powerful wealthy interests who wanted to get their hands on these lands”, which “are still coveted by the powerful; they are a strategic point in their whole development plan”.
In September 2014, when he made his second State of the Union address, President Peña Nieto announced the construction of the New Mexico City International Airport, a project that national and international investors had long salivated over; it would now cost close to 200 billion pesos. The site chosen was, once again, Texcoco land.
Since then, the FPDT, together with other towns affected by the project, have resisted by taking political action, like marches and protest camps, along with legal recourse: it has filed for seven court injunctions and is waiting for a ruling from the Inter American Human Rights Commission, where it filed for precautionary measures in favor of the towns and communities in the airport’s area of influence.
Since April 11, 2016, the FPDT has maintained an occupation camp to defend the territories, in the face of aggression of the builders and shock troops affiliated with the government. On August 20th it denounced the aggression by 100 individuals who used sticks and rocks to attack Front members who were manning the camp, but the locals succeeded in setting the camp back up. The Front also belongs to the National Campaign in Defense of Mother Earth and the Territory, which emerged in 2016, bringing together 180 organizations and collectives, like the town of Temacapulín, in Jalisco, that are fighting against dispossession at the hands of mining interests, the oil industry, large-scale dams and government mega-projects.
APPO barricade in the streets of Oaxaca (2006). Photo: Reuters
The Oaxaca Commune
In response to the repression in Atenco, The Other Campaign set up camp in Mexico City, where it called for protests to demand the release of the prisoners. A few days later, teachers from Section 22 of the CNTE marched in Oaxaca, adding the release of the citizens arrested in Atenco to their demands for promotions and raises for thousands of Oaxacan teachers. The state government, headed by Ulises Ruiz (PRI), who was already up against widespread social repudiation, refused to consider the petitions.
On May 22, 2006, thousands of teachers on indefinite strike, with the support of other social organizations, set up an occupation camp in downtown Oaxaca City. In this context, with a criminalization campaign and calls by the business sector to bring out the public force, Governor Ulises Ruiz ordered a police operation to clear the square. At 4:30 in the morning on June 14th, over 2 thousand police attacked the protect camp and the offices of the teachers’ union, including Radio Plantón, which broadcast calls for support from teachers. Thousands of people answered the call and reinforced the protesters’ positions. They managed to push back against the police aggression, but at the cost of 113 wounded.
Ruiz’s repression was severely criticized in Oaxaca and the rest of the country. Far from weakening the movement, the police action strengthened it. Over 360 organizations, trade unions, associations, collectives and individuals came out in support of the teachers and on June 17th they formed the Popular Assembly of the Oaxaca Peoples (APPO). The teachers’ labor demands were joined by a collective cry of “Enough!”, aimed at the political and social system that dominated the state. Aside from calling for the resignation of Ruiz, the APPO fought to defend territories and natural resources, and for justice in cases of assassination and human rights violations in the state that went back to long before the uprising.
Clash between sympathizers of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) and police (2006). Photo: AP
The movement grew steadily even while buffeted by attacks from security forces and paramilitary groups close to the government; public authorities in the meantime vanished from the public eye. Between June and November, the individuals and collectives in resistance developed experiences of autonomy, organizing self-defense brigades, erecting and maintaining barricades, and doing communication work over Radio Plantón and Radio Universidad, which was taken over and operated for months by the population.
The journalist Luis Hernández Navarro wrote in La Jornada that “the APPOsynthesizes the local political culture that emerged from the popular assemblies, the teachers’ union, indigenous communalism, municipalism, religious extensionism, the radical left, regionalism and the state’s ethic diversity. It also gives expression to the new forms of association that arose in Oaxaca out of the peaceful popular uprising: the organizations of poor neighborhoods in Oaxaca City and the surrounding area, the libertarian youth networks, and the barricades. Orbiting around the APPO, but extending much farther, a sociopolitical movement known as the Oaxaca Commune has arisen. It is the autonomous organizational expression of popular resistance, the germ of a distinct kind of power”.
On November 25th, one of the most brutal repressions occurred as thousands of people took part in the seventh mega-march in downtown Oaxaca City, with the aim of peacefully encircling thousands of federal troops who had taken up positions in the central square, or Zócalo, since October 29th. The police broke up the civil action by launching an attack that lasted over six hours and left several dead and over 40 wounded; about 150 people were arrested, most arbitrarily. But this was just the beginning of a persecution that would stretch out over several weeks.
The final toll of the continued aggressions against the social movement in Oaxaca between 2006 and 2007 was 25 dead, 500 arrests, close to 380 people tortured, and 5 missing, according to the International Service for Peace (Sipaz). In March 2016, the Oaxaca Truth Commission submitted its report, concluding: “The State massively and systematically violated the following human rights: violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence and violation of the right to due process and judicial guarantees; arbitrary detentions; and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It also carried out forced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial executions, considered grave human rights violations. The torture was systematic and generalized, inasmuch as over the time the conflict lasted detention accompanied by the practice were an almost daily occurrence. For this reason the existence of crimes against humanity can be assumed”.
March protesting the education reform promoted by the federal government. Photo: AFP
An unstoppable movement
The teachers continued their mobilization, and since 2013, Section 22 of the CNTE has been one of the main collectives struggling against the educational reform imposed by Peña Nieto’s government that year: the repeal of the reform is the core demand of the 2016 social mobilization, the biggest since the Commune in 2006. Now, like then, the teachers have been embraced by the population, not just in the capital but throughout the state, similar to what has been seen in the neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero.
On June 14, 2016, while Section 22 and civil society commemorated the repression of 2006 in downtown Oaxaca City, and in the framework of the strike that the teachers had called on May 15th, the residents of Asunción de Nochixtlán saw “14 buses pull up, full of police; everyone thinks they are going to repress the comrades in the Zócalo, and people decide to block the highway. Nobody expected this; it was a spontaneous reaction by the people”, recalls Gustavo Esteva, activist and founder of the University of the Earth in Oaxaca, who participated in the action.
On June 19th, hundreds of state and federal troops attacked the blockade for hours. The toll, according to the Defense Council for the People of Oaxaca, was 8 dead and 198 wounded, 84 by gunshots. The consequences were similar to those of June 14, 2006: the repression brought out even greater solidarity. “After June 19th it stopped being a teachers’ struggle. Before June 19th people were aware that the educational reform affected them, too, not just the teachers. But after June 19th, they began to make demands unrelated to educational reform; they had to do with corn growers or other farmers, with life in Oaxaca”.
The popular teachers’ struggle of 2016 was nurtured by decisions made by people and teachers in collective. One example is the General Assembly of Authorities of the Peoples of Oaxaca, where communities from around the state are represented; at the meetings, they outline their plans of action.
Confrontation between the police and residents of Nochixtlán, Oaxaca (2016). Photo: AFP
Standing up to barbarity
For Javier Sicilia, poet and activist, drawing a “parallelism” between the events of 2006 and 2016 is a mistake: what we are seeing today is “the continuation of a disaster foretold. The Zapatistas were very clear on this: just revisit their speeches from 20 years ago, when they said: ‘If you keep going down this road, you’ll be opening the gates of hell.’ We already are in hell. It’s the logic of governments that have been rotten since the Revolution, that have treated this country as if it were their private property and that have corrupted the moral skeleton of the nation”.
On December 11, 2006, Felipe Calderón, just a few days after assuming the presidency of Mexico with a decidedly shaky mandate after a conflicted electoral process, launched a military operation in Michoacán for the alleged purpose of combating the gangs running drugs in the state. It was the beginning of what came to be called the “narco war”, which from that point until 2014 cost the lives of 164 thousand people, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). This number is higher than the deaths that occurred in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the journalist Jason M. Breslow, of the web portal Frontline. Aside from the dead there are the almost 28 thousand people who have disappeared since 2007, plus the thousands who have been violently displaced: 281 thousand, according to the Center for Monitoring the Internally Displaced.
Javier Sicilia and Luz María Dávila during the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity (2011). Photo: Reuters
While the horrors and accusations of abuse committed by the armed forced piled up, the government tried to criminalize the victims, insisting they took part in organized crime. Thousands of family members of the casualties began to organize in search of their missing relatives or demanding justice for the dead.
“When the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity started up, in 2011, in response to a massacre, my son Juan Francisco and his six friends was there (all killed in March). It was a very important thing for this country: the movement gave dignity back to the victims, it made them social subjects again”, explains Javier Sicilia. In the face of the government’s “disdain” for the victims, “they became aware of their status as social subjects, and victims’ organizations have multiplied since then”.
Jorge Rocha explains that, unlike the experiences of the APPO or The Other Campaign, run by people with “sociopolitical indignation”, the movements of the victims of violence “embrace people who, I believe, never in their lives imagined they would be speaking with a Minister of Government [...], now they are forced into the political arena because their family member is missing [...] they were living their day-to-day lives in very different settings and now they’re engaging in politics because the situation pushed them there. It’s a different characteristic. Sure, there are people like Sicilia, who was already an activist before the tragedy hit him and he took on a leading role in the Movement for Peace, but for the vast majority, the story is different”.
March protesting forced disappearances in Mexico (2016). Photo: Reuters
The last ten years have seen the rise of groups like Families United for Our Missing, with representation in different states; For the Love of Them, and Following Their Tracks, in Jalisco; as well as other collectives that are looking for their loved ones on their own, like The Others Gone Missing in Iguala (Guerrero) or the National Brigade for Finding the Missing.
In the view of Alejandro Solalinde, priest and activist, “people are waking up, people are maturing, and understanding that they have to speak up. They’re overcoming their fear, they’re beginning to organize, and this is a good thing because every day we’re seeing the country slip through our fingers, and we see the government’s lack of control: it lacks the ability to respond to all the challenges that the most aggrieved sector of the country is facing. I think people realize that they’re on their own, that the government is never going to worry about them, so they’re trying to organize and do things”.
Brenda Rangel, relative of a person who went missing, during the presentation of the Amnesty International report on forced disappearances in Mexico (2013). Photo: EFE
“It was the State”
On the night of September 26-27, 2014, students from the Rural Normal School Raúl Isidro Burgos were attacked in a joint operation by security forces and organized crime in Iguala, Guerrero, leaving six dead and 43 missing. This crime is considered one of the most important events of recent years as far as social movements are concerned, because it laid bare the human rights crisis in Mexico and the government’s responsibility in the disappearance of people who get in the way of its interests. Millions of people in Mexico and around the world have raised their voices in solidarity, demanding the students’ return and denouncing the Mexican State. “Ayotzinapa is still a current issue because it is the first clear and public proof of what we’ve known all along: the world of crime and the world of institutions are the same world (…) this evidence continues to be compelling, and is connected to the teachers, to the normal school, where they form teachers who are committed to the farmers and not separated from the people’s movement”, says Gustavo Esteva.
March in Montevideo, Uruguay, during the Caravan 43 in South America (2015). Photo: EFE
The interview with Javier Sicilia for this article was left unfinished. The poet had to excuse himself in the middle of the conversation because an emergency came up in the mobilization of the Broad Front of Morelos, in which he participates and which is calling for the resignation of the governor of Morelos, Graco Ramírez. Added to the list of denunciations of violence and insecurity now comes the discovery of clandestine graves in Tetelcingo containing 117 bodies buried by security forces; activists claim that crimes of humanity could have been committed there.
His final reflection on the social movements that have sprung up between 2006 and 2016 was: “We are in the middle of a struggle that now belongs to the victims, and to the original native peoples; the Movement for Peace has also brought the indigenous communities to the dialogue because they are victims as well, structural victims. So there are countless grievances and countless social subjects who are joining forces, who are coming together because the State no longer represents the people’s interests. It’s important to say it loud and clear: we are in a moment of revolution, because we’re trying to bring back the country’s morality. Those of us who belong to these organizations are trying to bring about revolutionary change in a non-violent way”. m.