Torture and Tourism in Oaxaca

In the city of Tlaxiaco, one victim of illegal detention and torture after another speaks to our emergency human rights delegation.  Some stop in the middle of the hard parts to cry; some listening cry.

Cuitlahuac Santiago Mariscal, a teacher with the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativos), stands before us. ‘I am doing my thesis at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) on the systemic use of torture by Mexican ‘security’ forces. Often, I have sat where you are [pointing at our delegation] listening to stories of abuse, now I stand before you, a victim, to give my testimony.’

His story is similar to that of 8 other men illegally pulled off a bus one day in November by Mexican armed forces, while on their way to a legal protest. On the side of highway, they were herded at gun-point into corn fields and were beaten over their bodies and heads, with fists, feet and weapons. Forced to kneel, pistols were placed at their temples and they were told to say their last goodbyes, alone, in the corn field. The good news: no one in their group was killed that day.

‘Desde Abajo’

Emiliano Zapata must be rolling angry in his grave, knowing that the Mexican Revolution, of the 1910 era, is long dead, constant rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

After the recent – and on-going – wave of brutal repression in the southern state of Oaxaca, Zapata would know that profound political and economic change is still needed throughout Mexico; Oaxaca is as urgent a starting point as anywhere.

Another global struggle ‘desde abajo’ (from below) is pushing its way into the consciousness of North and South America – this time in a place called Oaxaca. With a population of 3.5 million people (a majority being Indigenous and Indigenous-descendant), Oaxaca’s story of racism, of inequality and greed, of protest, rebellion and State repression is also Mexico’s story and of the unjust global order.

Though the short-term focus of the protests is the ouster of the undemocratic and repressive Governor Ulises Ruiz, the movement ‘desde abajo’ that has come together under the umbrella of APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca) is broad-based. They are working to change the historic and endemic conditions of a majority of Oaxacans: inequality and racism; an unjust, exploitative and environmentally destructive economic-development model; repression by the State and wealthy elites; and, impunity and a lack of justice and democracy.

"It is democracy for one day, every four years. If you vote, they call you a citizen. If you exercise your human rights and protest and demand change, they call you ‘guerilla’ fighters and delinquents." (Pedro Matias testimony, Oaxaca, December 20)

 Why the Oaxacan rebellion has risen this year, as opposed to next or last, is due to factors particular to Oaxaca and Mexico. Some recommended articles are: "Indigenous Rights Groups Meet the ‘Law of the Club’: Barbarous Oaxaca" (by Mitchell Verter, May 14, 2005); "From Teachers’ Strike Towards Dual Power: The Revolutionary Surge in Oaxaca" (by George Salzman, August 30, 2006); "Calderon Installed by Media and Military: Repression on the Menu in Mexico" (by John Ross, December 2006).

Whatever the reasons for the timing of the APPO led movement, the Oaxacan struggle needs to be known about and supported, from the most local to global levels.

Torture and Tourism

From December 16-22, I joined an emergency human rights delegation to Oaxaca organized by the Oaxaca Solidarity Network and sponsored by Rights Action. On short notice, 20 North Americans came to Oaxaca, firstly, to be an international presence and listen to testimonies of people tortured and of family members of victims of repression; and, secondly, to return home and work to bring more international attention to the brutal campaign of State terrorism and repression that is strongly backed by the incoming Federal government of President Felipe Calderon.

We listened to testimonies of torture and other atrocities, even as the government of Ulises Ruiz ordered a massive armed force presence to ‘protect’ the huge tourist industry.

"Along with selling its natural resources to foreign investors, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) cabal that runs the Oaxacan government gets much of its money from its lucrative tourist industry. Ulises has been converting the governmental palace located in the Zocalo into a commercial center, appealing to local businesses and preventing the public from petitioning the government in view of tourists. Ulises’ government severely punishes anything that gets in the way of commerce or detracts from its public image." ("Barbarous Oaxaca," by Mitchell Verter)

If tourists continue to flock to Oaxaca, pumping millions of dollars into the hands of the government and business elites that dominate the economy, then the chances of bringing about real democracy and rule of law in Oaxaca are greatly lessened.

Calculated Brutality

Since the recent wave of repression began in Oaxaca in June 2006, at least 20 people have been killed; 350 have been illegally detained (most having been illegally jailed and tortured); and close to 400 wounded.

A particularly brutal night of repression and terror was November 25th. Federal PFP (Policia Federal Preventativa) and State forces spread through the central Zocalo district of Oaxaca attacking anyone they found on the streets, accusing them of being members of APPO (as if this were illegal). Hundreds were illegally detained; most were physically tortured and psychologically terrorized.

During the week of our visit, much of the activism was focused on securing the release of the illegally detained political prisoners and recording the testimonies of the victims. We did as much as we could.

An Architect Who "Attacked the P.F.P"

In the safety of a church that is a friend to and an advocate of the poor in Oaxaca, Porfirio Dominguez Munozcano (42 years) sat quietly as we set up camera and microphone. Then he talked for 40 minutes without stop. I thought he would cry; I thought we would, but on he went. Publicly telling the truth and fighting for justice are some of the best ways of healing (partially) from torture.

Because he was in the streets of the city where he lives on November 25th, Porfirio was almost killed. "I left my house to print some documents when I saw a bunch of PFP troops running towards me and a group of people I was near. I was left unconscious with the first blow they landed on my head. Two hours later, I came to: my head was wrapped in some sort of cloth and my body and face covered in blood; I had been beaten all over."

"I was in the central Zocalo, face down on the cement with many others. Soldiers kept coming by and kicking us or striking us with the butts of their guns."

Some time later the PFP herded everyone into trucks. Porfirio was put in the back of a pickup truck, face down on the floor; others were piled up on top of him. He thinks there were 5 or 6 other detainees in the same truck, but is not sure. They were not told where there were going. "They said they were going to take us in a helicopter and throw us into the ocean. We were frightened to death, even as they continued kicking us and grinding our heads and hands with their boots."

"We arrived at the women’s CERESO (Centro de Rehabilitacion) Tlacolula jail. It was 2 or 3 in the morning. There, they continued hitting and threatening us. You have to try and imagine the terror that we were feeling."

A few days later, he learned that he – like most of the illegally detained – was being charged with assaulting police, sedition, destruction of public property, and more.

The legal and penal systems are being used in Oaxaca as part of the apparatus of repression.

Due to swollen face and severely damaged left eye, Porfirio was finally taken to the Aurelio Valdivieso hospital where he remained for 7 days under surveillance by armed forces. After having his eye operated on – his vision is mostly restored, though much of the left side of his face remains paralyzed – , he was charged Pesos7000 (US$700) and sent back to jail for another week.

December 15th, Porfirio was released. No one had been told. He was left at the entrance of the jail, on a highway 30 minutes from Oaxaca, no money and no i.d. papers. Including Pesos7000 that he had in his pocket, when knocked unconscious, along with i.d. cards, credit cards, a driver’s license, etcetera, nothing has as been returned to him. He hitchhiked to the city. A kind person gave him Pesos50 and he got a taxi ride home.

He continues to pay for his own medical treatment; he has nightmares; he has lost his work; his story has been published in the media and denounced by human rights groups; no charges have been filed against anyone.

Hundreds were illegally detained, jailed, tortured and psychologically tortured in the four weeks following November 25th.

Santa Claus’s Gift List

"Dear Santa: This Christmas, I am not asking you for toys, I am only asking for the immediate liberty of my Papi." Derwin Coache Rivera – 8-year old son of political prisoner Marcelino Coache Verano (a member of APPO) – participates in all the marches being organized by COFADAPPO (Comite de Familiares de Presos, Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Oaxaca). Marcelino was illegally detained and jailed on December 4. Derwin wants to get Papi out "from that place where he is living that is so ugly." Derwin visited his Papi in a jail in Cosalapa, Oaxaca, near the border with Veracruz. "I hugged him and we cried. I said: ‘Papi, I love you very much. I don’t want to be separated from you’."

Women With "A Highly Dangerous Profile"

Mercedes Cumplido Pantoja (47 years) and Ruth Cabrera Vazquez (48) were illegally detained and tortured physically and psychologically by the PFP (Policia Federal Preventiva) on November 25th. Mercedes: "They told me they were going to kill me. They touched my legs, they hit me, they spoke to me in a most vile way, they said to me ‘you are going to die, you are a bitch, an idiot, an asshole. Who paid you to be in the city center? How much did they pay you’?"

Ruth: While PFP agents were hitting her, "they were saying that I was too old to be involved in such bullshit, that we had no ethical values to destroy a beautiful city like Oaxaca." After she was illegally detained by the PFP on November 25, she was put in the back of a truck with 11 women. "They threw us on the floor and took photos of us while they continued insulting us. They threatened us, not letting us know where they were taking us. They finally took us to the CERESO (Centro de Rehabilitacion) jail in Miahuatlan."

"I told them I had nothing to declare because I had done nothing other than help people with coca-cola and vinagre who had been asphyxiated with the tear-gas (shot by the PFP). Is this a crime?"

"My hand was really swollen and painful [from the beatings]. I asked to go to the infirmary. An hour later, they told us that we were going. I was happy, thinking they were going to liberate us, so I was surprised when I learned they were taking us to who knows where, all hand-cuffed, forced to look at the ground, like some vile and bloody delinquents."

Members of our delegation have hours of filmed and taped testimony, some of which will be reproduced and distributed on Rights Action’s list-serv, and elsewhere. Listening to the many testimonies, it is easy to confuse the stories – they are systematically brutal and head-achingly repetitive.

Listening, it is sometimes too sad to continue to taking notes … "They put blankets against our bodies, before kicking us, so as not to leave marks."

"Torture is the government’s preferred method of collecting information, extracting confessions, and gaining political concessions." (Yessica Sanchez Maya, Liga Mexicana de Derechos Humanos)

Wedding Interrupted

In front of the women’s CERESO Tlacolula jail we spoke with 19-year old Mariela who has been waiting for days to see if her boyfriend would be released. Using the legal and penal systems as part of the apparatus of repression, the authorities don’t tell anyone when they are releasing the people that they have illegally detained and most probably tortured physically and psychologically.

In early November, Mariela’s boyfriend came from Baja California to ask for her hand in marriage. They had planned to marry in early January; repression got in the way. Illegally detained on November 25, he was disappeared for a week – part of the terrorization tactic.

Mariela went from hospital to morgue trying to find her boyfriend. She learned that hundreds of people were detained in jails so she started visiting the jails. Finally arriving at the women’s CERESO Tlacolula jail, that the government had emptied so as to fill with the political prisoners, she met other family members of the detained and disappeared; since that time they have worked together to find their loved ones and to help free all the political prisoners. They formed COFADAPPO (Comite de Familiares de Presos, Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Oaxaca).

She hopes today is the day her boyfriend will be released … and then he will start to tell his stories.

The Modus Operandi of Repression and Terror

The "errors and mistakes" argument is showing up in the media these days, as testimonies of torture emerge – inside Mexico and internationally. Yet, the illegal detentions, psychological and physical torture and dozens of killings in Oaxaca, are not "errors and mistakes" committed by "bad apples" in the various security forces.

"The objective of this counter-insurgency campaign is to totally finish off with social organizations and unions and, in general, with all opposition so as to implement the economic plans of the rich sectors. . These are projects that result in poor communities losing their lands, the forced displacement of ‘colonos’, misery and hunger." (APPO statement, Noticias, December 20, 18A)

State of Fear and "Protection" from What?

Friday, December 22: Our delegation has ended. A few of us spend the next days doing follow-up interviews. At least 1000 heavily armed forces occupy every entrance to the Zocalo center of Oaxaca. All day, thousands of Mexicans and tourists come and go, walking by the rows of armed forces and barricades blocking every entrance to the Zocalo.

APPO is having yet another march, so government forces prevent them from entering the Zocalo where most tourists go and where the reknown "Noche de los Rabanos" (Night of the Radishes) celebrations take place on December 23. APPO takes its peaceful protest in another direction, and holds a meeting with thousands – courageously strengthening their movement.


(Testimony, December 18; LaJornada)

Midday on December 18, teacher Pedro Garcia gave testimony to our delegation. On October 1st, he had been shot at, pistol-whipped, taken ‘incomunicado’ to the Tlacolula CERESO jail, suffered beatings, forced to sign false declarations denouncing this and that person, and the like; standard operating procedures. He was released due to activism mainly from other members of APPO.

The story of his first detention and torture were hard enough. In the middle of our meetings that same night, we got a text message: Pedro had just been re-detained, along with Florentino Lopez (APPO spokesperson) and Otalo Padilla. Pedro was re-beaten and re-tortured and later re-released.

Florentino: "[the men who detained us] said: ‘we are a death squad. You now know us and now you will know what it is like to go to hell.’ They kept saying they were going to kill us." Pedro, Florentino and Otalo identified Alejandro Barrita Ortiz, director of the State Policia Auxiliar Bancaria, Industrial y Commercial (PABIC) as being one of the men.

Interviewed at the inauguration of the hastily convened and widely rejected "Reform of the State" process, Governor Ulises Ruiz was asked – referring specifically to these three men – whether it was the right time to initiate this ‘Reform the State’ process when government forces were arbitrarily detaining and torturing people.

Ulises Ruiz: "I understand that there was no detention, there was no legal process, they were not in the procuraderia ." (Noticias, December 20, p13A). The next day, the Noticias newspaper published photos of the three men – clearly beaten in their faces.

"On the one hand, they call for "reconciliation and dialogue", on the other they continue with arbitrary detentions, assassinations and disappearances." (APPO, Noticias newspaper, December 20)

After attending the well-attended-by-high-society inauguration of the "Reform of the State" process in the Palacio del Gobierno, governor Ruiz went to the Terranova restaurant in the Zocalo, owned by the family of the Secretary of Tourism, and had coffee with business leaders. They were surrounded by a detail of heavily armed "security" forces.

One of the businessmen who attended governor Ruiz’s Reform the State show was Jose Escovar, president of the COPARMEX Oaxaca business coalition. We had formally asked him to meet with our delegation, but were told by his assistant he was away from Oaxaca until early January. (Neither would the State Attorney General’s Office meet with us).

Shoot the Messenger

After Iraq, Mexico has the highest levels of repression against journalists, according to the Mexican Comision Especial para dar Seguimiento a las Agresions a Periodistas y medios de Comunicaion. Over the past 6 years in Mexico, 30 journalists have been assassinated; 3 remain disappeared. Recently in Oaxaca, killer’s bullets have ended the lives of Mexican Raul Marcial Perez and American Brad Will.

Detaining and Torturing Cannot Keep the Good People Down

December 23, Noche de los Rabanos: Struggling for a decent and just society is also about singing, dancing and reciting poetry. After hundreds of heavily armed forces closed the Santo Domingo park area, where APPO was going to have its alternative Noche de los Rabanos celebration, the festival was held in a smaller outdoor space – armed forces at either end of the pedestrian-only street.

After 6 months of struggle, after weeks of illegal detentions, physical and psychological torture, a thousand or more came out to celebrate. One of the main singers and speakers was none other than the twice detained and tortured Pedro Garcia.

No Conclusion: Support and Get Involved

The struggle in Oaxaca is happening right now; the reactionary repression and State terrorism is happening right now; the mainstream media cover-up (not addressing the underlying issues; obfuscating the repression) is happening right now; the wealthy sectors of Oaxaca are maintaining their long-term relations with the wealthy and powerful of Mexico, Canada and the USA right now.

Rodrigo, Indigenous campesino from western Oaxaca – also illegally detained and beaten – told us: "We know that they can kill us at any time but we know that our struggle is just."

"If you have come to help me, please go away. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together." (Lila Watson, Indigenous activist)

"There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: search for understanding, education, organization, action … and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future." (Noam Chomsky)

Grahame Russell works with Rights Action and can be reached at info(at)

For more information about the on-going situation in Oaxaca and to learn of future delegations: oaxacasolidaritynetwork(at)

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