Violence Has Gotten Oaxaca Deeper into Polarization

by Barbara Lopez on March 29, 2007

I just got back from Oaxaca in Mexico, where I grew up as a small child and visit every two years. My father’s family is in Oaxaca City, Tlacolula, and Tehuantepec and to me they are a fascinating slice of Oaxacan culture. Some are business owners, others intellectuals, and the older generation still work selling meats in the market place, preserving the Zapotec native dialect.

Oaxaca is a very diverse state, with about 18 different ethnic groups and Oaxacans are known for their cultural pride and resiliency. Corruption or mordidas are an ongoing part of life since there hasn’t been a democratic election process in over 80 years and it is the poorest state in Mexico. Oaxaca needs social reform and change and last summer, many marched with the teachers as a demand to change. Today, Oaxacans are critical of APPO (the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) or the coalition of groups seeking change, as the last eight months have been painful.

APPO Needs to Purge Itself of the Violent Elements:

Currently, APPO is having reflective meetings to make decisions on its agenda and membership. These meetings are extremely critical. While there are very positive elements to APPO such as the Indigenous rights group and NGO’s, APPO has also included very violent elements such as anarchists from the U.S., Mexico City, and Puebla and many street children and drug users who are rightfully angry, but whose actions have hurt the movement.

I did not meet a single Oaxacan who hasn’t had a violent confrontation with APPO – except for those very involved. My cousin, a single mother who lives near the television station, was told by a group of drunken “APPO leaders” to provide food and money or they would harm her and her children. The same group dictated to her when she could leave the house or not.

My aunt who owns a restaurant downtown was forced to give $22,000 pesos or her restaurant would be burned down. My uncle was stoned in his car because he had government plates (ironically he has them just so he can sell trinkets in the airport). Our housekeeper was also coerced into giving whatever money she had and a bus was burned in front of her house, scaring her and her family.

People we talked to at the bus corner spoke about wanting peace again while the APPO-controlled radio stations called for violence in the streets. The streets are covered in graffiti, including the 400-year-old churches made of green stone that cannot remove graffiti. This is not what a social movement should look like because violence only further divides a town, usually affects the poorest members of society, and brings on a stronger repression.

Governor Ruiz, the PFP and Repression:

Indymedia reporter Brad Will’s death had a huge impact on many people. It is also seen by the pro and anti-APPO elements as a turning point where Governor Ruiz could now bring the Federal Preventive Police as an excuse to repress. An American death has more value than thirty Mexican ones, even in Mexico. Some of our APPO-involved family friends fled for a few months.

Huge sweeps took place where innocent people were taken to a prison in Nayarit. The repression is still very strong, with police at every corner of downtown. Regardless of their opinion of APPO, Oaxacans don’t like the Governor – Ruiz or Ortiz. Ruiz and his predecessor – Murat – have taken corruption to new lengths, stealing million and millions of pesos from the Oaxacan people.

However, Ruiz’s ouster will be complicated because even though he is a member of PRISTA, he is aligned with PAN – President Felipe Calderon’s party – so the federal government doesn’t want him out. Those who do want him out include the PRD and even his own PRI party – in the shape of the former governor, Jose Murat Casab, who are thought to be partially funding APPO.

Platform and Agenda:

APPO desperately needs a clear agenda and rules of engagement to bring back the respect of the city. I spoke to one intellectual involved with APPO, who indicated many possible resolutions that most Oaxacans want. One suggestion was a request for government transparency, much like San Francisco’s own sunshine law.

She also spoke of resolutions requesting greater Indigenous autonomy and other environmental laws to protect the state’s natural resources. Indigenous autonomy is even more important in the face of Plan Puebla Panama – and the creation of other free trade zones.

Speaking to friends who are gay, APPO does not include the gay rights movement. However, it may be unfair to critique Oaxaca on this when we in San Francisco haven’t even accomplished the union of the gay rights movement with say, the immigrant rights movement, or have done so very minimally.


Tourism is the industry of Oaxaca. In the past there have been attempts to also develop its coffee and maize industry but it’s hard to compete against the already existing corporations. In Oaxaca City and the Coast, Oaxacans are hired as hotel and restaurant workers, independent guides. Tourism has affected the price of land and access to resources but it is a “necessary evil.”

There is very little tourism, except from Mexico City, in Oaxaca (amazing how state department warnings will do that) and stores, restaurants are closing. A recent article by Processo magazine indicated that in Oaxaca, people had used all their savings during the crisis.

Oaxaca is in a recession and sinking into a depression. I asked APPO members if there were any proposals on tourism and there aren’t any. There are ways of conducting tourism in a respectful manner, and I think this is a very needed conversation.

Solidarity Movements:

This begs us to ask the question – what is the role of Mexicans living abroad and American/European solidarity movements? First, we must support amnesty. Why? There are over a hundred thousand Oaxacans living abroad who still feel largely connected to their home state. To come out of the shadows of being undocumented will increase the political power of those abroad in affecting change in Oaxaca.

Secondly, as solidarity movements, we must promote non-violence and be careful of who we give our money to. All is not equal in APPO and violence got Oaxaca nowhere. For those Americans who plan to go to Oaxaca to throw molotovs, stay home. How dare you think you can do this in a foreign country but can’t even deal with your own repressive government?

Third, we must press for change in the West in dealing with developing nations and consider our own consumption. There is a saying “when the U.S. sneezes, Mexico catches pneumonia.” For those seeking less immigration, democracy in Mexico will curtail immigration. This means pressuring Bush on supporting democratic elections.

Our power is in influencing our own government and by pushing for government transparency, greater indigenous autonomy, and fair trade. We have the power of supporting our brothers and sisters in Oaxaca, but let us not go blindly into the struggle. Such acts are a great disservice.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Barbara “Bobbie” Lopez is a community organizer at La Voz Latina, which is part of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Send feedback to

Filed under: Archive