Torture Is Alive and Well in Oaxaca

The 19-year-old Oaxaca college student shuddered as he recounted the events of November 25th to the Rights Action emergency civil rights delegation in the city of Oaxaca last December. Along with nearly 150 others, including his mother, he was charged with sedition, instigating a mutiny, robbery and destruction of public property. The day after his apprehension he was helicoptered to a federal prison in Nayarit, hundreds of miles from Oaxaca. During the flight the federal police left a door of the helicopter open and threatened to throw the shackled prisoners out one by one. “Say your prayers!” the police joked. “You’ll never be heard from again!”

None of the nearly 150 persons arrested during that night of terror was questioned before their arrest nor was asked to show any form of identification. All of them were beaten before and during their apprehension, some so brutally they suffered broken ribs, arms and skulls. All were manacled, refused medical treatment and spirited out of Oaxaca despite the fact that no justification for their arrests existed.

Many of the detainees had not even participated in the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO for its initials in Spanish) march that preceded the police attack. Those beaten, manacled and sent to prison included a 50-year-old illiterate woman who’d just gotten off work, a man walking towards a bus stop and a woman who’d been shopping near the Zocalo and in trying to escape the tear gas had broken the heel of one of her shoes and fallen.

The violent apprehensions did not begin or end with the November 25 assault. Supporters of current governor Ulisés Ruiz beat a retired professor to death when he participated in an attempt to block a roadway near Huautla to prevent Ruiz from making a campaign appearance in 2004. Authorities then jailed the retired professor’s closest friend on murder charges despite videos that identified the killers. When Oaxacan teachers declared a strike for higher wages and better school conditions and set up an encampment in the center of the city of Oaxaca last June, Ruiz dispatched state police to break up the protest. The teachers fought back and forced the police to retreat. Various non-aligned NGOs and indigena groups backed the teachers and formed APPO.

Ruiz’ government responded by subsidizing escuadrons de muerte (death squads) that included former and current municipal and state police to attack and intimidate APPO members and human rights workers. To counter these nightly depredations, APPO supporters barricaded street throughout the city, making transit virtually impossible after dark. Nevertheless, snipers hiding in the Hospital Santa María shot and killed José Jiménez during an APPO-sponsored march in August. The husband of an activisit teachers, Jiménez had taken part in a number of anti-Ruiz protests.

Two months later armed off-duty municipal police attacked an APPO barricade in Santa Lucía del Camino, a city of Oaxaca suburb, and shot and killed American photographer Brad Will. Despite the fact that the killers were photographed, Oaxacan authorities released them and filed murder charges against one of Will’s companions at the barricade.

For the past 80 years Oaxaca has been governed by a tight coterie belonging to Mexico’s dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI for its initials in Spanish). Though PRI lost the past two presidential elections the party nevertheless remains strong and controls the majority of governorships within the country. Both Ruiz and his predecessor, José Murat, have been under investigation for fraud and misappropriation of funds. Ironically, during the November 25 federal police assault, a building housing the financial records of Ruiz and Murat went up in flames and the records were destroyed. State officials accused APPO members of setting the fire by throwing Molotov cocktails into the building but a tour of the damage indicates that that would have been impossible.

The arrests and federal detainment of APPO leaders, threats against human rights activisits and continuing disappearances of APPO supporters continue to terrorize the state despite state assurances that Oaxaca again is safe for tourists.

For tourists, perhaps. But not for Oaxacans.


Photo from