On April 27th, a caravan of people intending to enter San Juan Copala was attacked by an armed group.
Residents of San Juan Copala had declared their autonomy in January 2007 from their municipality in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. This was in response to recent violence by paramilitary groups fighting for control in the region, but it was also a reaction to the annexation and subsequent fragmentation of Triqui communities. (The Triqui are a large indigenous group in Oaxaca.) This divided the community into many groups, some aligned with the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), and some supporting the autonomous movement. Some of these evolved into armed paramilitary groups. Conflict has erupted several times in the history of the region, and many people have been killed, including two female journalists from the autonomous community radio station in April 2008.
The caravan fired upon last month included members of local and international human rights organizations and the teacher’s union, as well as journalists. They were to take water and provisions, as well as supervise the re-entry of teachers into the town. This was in response to the state of siege enforced by armed groups that has kept water, food, and teachers out of the town for months. The caravan, consisting of about 37 people in several vehicles, departed from a nearby town and stated in their press release that, should anything happen to them, local government officials should be held responsible. In their demands, they included the participation of alleged PRI-aligned paramilitary groups in peace negotiations in the Triqui region.
The caravan was attacked. Two activists, a Oaxacan named Bety Cariño and a Finnish national named Jyri Antero Jaakola, were killed. Many others were hurt, and some were interrogated. Family members begged the state government to send in police to rescue the people who were wounded and trapped in the town, but the government said the conditions were not safe enough. When the family members started planning their own caravan of journalists to find the missing members of the caravan, the government finally managed to mount a police intervention and enter the town--two days after the attack.
The attack and murder of human rights activists bringing provisions into San Juan Copala is alarming. There are some important questions raised by this attack and the aftermath.
Does the local government’s reluctance to send police into town suggest government complicity with the group that attacked the caravan? Will this incident lead to further repression of the autonomous movement not by the paramilitary groups, but by an increased military and police presence in the region as the eventual response by the government to the violence there?
The 2006 conflict in Oaxaca taught us that the government will not hesitate to use great force to repress social movements, and to maintain control. Furthermore, in an interview, paramilitary group leader Antonio Cruz García, agreed that was the right government response. In stating that his group is currently congregating the elders of the communities that sympathize with the paramilitary groups to find a solution for peace in their region, Cruz says “we think that police and military presence are necessary to guarantee the rule of law.”
We already know that Mérida Initiative funding is being used to train Mexican soldiers and police. There are several instances where the very same police and military forces that receive the training and equipment have been enforcing a policy of criminalization of social protest, including in Oaxaca and Atenco in 2006. We have seen a six-fold increase in human rights violations committed by soldiers since 2006. The new Mérida appropriations for 2011 call for a cut to military funding, but also call for an increase in police funding. As long as the US continues funding the use of violence to create an image of security in Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, the human rights abuse will continue.