Justo Castigo in Oaxaca: Political Murders, Drug Murders, or Retributive Justice?

Two men approach. They shoot. They leave. Nobody sees or identifies them. The method repeats. Within twenty-four hours of each other on October 23, 2010 two more social leaders, one the Chinanteco indigenous leader Catarino Torres, and the other the “moral” leader of MULT, (Unified Triqui Struggle) Heriberto Pazos, were assassinated.


Catarino Torres Pereda

Two men approach. They shoot. They leave. Nobody sees or identifies them. The method repeats.

Within twenty-four hours of each other on October 23, 2010 two more social leaders, one the Chinanteco indigenous leader Catarino Torres, and the other the “moral” leader of MULT, (Unified Triqui Struggle) Heriberto Pazos, were assassinated.

Each time some well-known social-political activist is slain, voices shout for justice, but there is no justice. Impunity in Oaxaca remains at virtually 100%. The question of who did it apparently will never be answered. One can guess, on the basis of the social justice issues the victim espoused, the victim was slain by the government. Conversely, if the victim was affiliated with the long-ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), infamous for its murders, was he killed by a social activist? By organized crime? By guerrilla vengeance? Or on orders of the PRI governor himself?

A police official of PABIC (the unit dedicated to assistance to banks, commerce and industry), “a bad guy” identified as a killer during the 2006 teachers popular social movement, was assassinated in Teqio Park on January 25, 2008 near the Oaxaca airport, while doing his early morning exercise. (Two innocent bystanders were also shot dead in that episode.) Alejandro Barrita Ortiz was best known for protecting the thug Rubén Marmolejo, “El Dragón”, one of the university-busters. The Autonomous University of Benito Juarez has been brought down into dismal straits during the rule of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), apparently at the governor’s instigation. Barrita entered UABJO (illegal, it’s autonomous) on two occasions to intervene in internal elections; he launched tear gas among students. He intercepted vehicles whose drivers were perhaps university students to brutalize them. His death was widely celebrated by the university community.

Interestingly, when the Federal Police arrived in El Teqio, no shots had been fired against the executioners of Barrita Ortiz nor his personal bodyguard, who promptly vanished. Two other bodyguards waiting for Barrita claimed they were asleep in their vehicle when the assassination occurred. The PABIC commander received nine wounds, including a coup de grace, by an AK 47, an AR-15, and three other types of weapons. A protected government witness: dead.

Murder by shooters in traffic was the method used to assassinate Aristeo López Martínez on January 24, 2009. He was a former chief of police accused of commanding attacks against the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) in 2006 for a total of 26 victims.

Shooters were aided by two men traveling on a motorcycle who fled after the assassination. Aristeo López Martínez, ex-coordinator of Public Security in Oaxaca, also a former director of PABIC, was shot 25 times, during the noon hour, on Avenida La República in the center of the city. According to witnesses, shooters closed off his car, and forced López Martínez to stop. Immediately two men got out of the blocking car. They with pistols, four times in López’ head, ten in his thorax, five in his neck, four in his right arm, once in the left forearm and once in his right hand.
López Martínez led attacks on the barricades between August and November of 2006, as well as ordering forced arrests and torture. Among his crimes was the attack against APPO and teachers who attempted to enter Fortin Hill, the location of the tourist Guelaguetza, on July 16, 2007, when many were viciously beaten. Best known among the assaulted was the teacher Emeterio Merino Cruz, who has not recovered from the brain injury administered by the PABIC men. The brutality was documented by organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Commission for Human Rights, the Organization of American States and the Civil Commission for International Observation for Human Rights.

López Martínez was made a protected witness of the PGR (federal attorney general) during investigations of paramilitaries and the forced disappearance of Alberto Cruz Sánchez and Edmundo Reyes Amaya, militants of the guerrilla group the EPR (Ejército Popular Revolucionario). The men disappeared in Oaxaca in May of 2007 and have yet to be found. López Martínez also served as bodyguard for former governor José Murat.

In the context of the Triqui ethnocide of San Juan Copala, anonther murder took place there, that of Anastasio Juarez Hernandez, brother of the leader of UBISORT (Unity for Social Well-being of the Triqui Region) who appointed Anastasio the constitutional municipal agent of Copala. Anastasio was hit with heavy weapons some meters from the municipal agency building. His brother Rufino claimed the murder was done by members of MULTI (Unified Movement of the Independent Triqui Struggle). He also claimed Anastasio had been elected by the majority of the San Juan Copala population on January 1, 2010, a “fact” denied by the MULTI leadership who pointed out that the townspeople voted in popular assembly for someone else. The autonomous municipality was declared dissolved on September 23, 2010 when Copala’s remaining living supporters of autonomy were forced to flee. MULT, the original organization MULTI broke away from, is affiliated with UBISORT.

In San Jose del Progreso, a Canadian-owned gold and silver mine dubbed Cuzcatlán, was met with protests. Violent beatings by state police resulted, with two leading activists obliged to flee for their lives. On the night of June 19, 2009, the municipal president Oscar Venancio Martínez Rivera, and the Health Registrar, Misael Hernández were shot dead on the street. Those two supported the mine, apparently receiving bribes. Immediately the attorney general, on orders from the governor, arrested local priest Martín Octavio García Ortiz, who already had been manhandled and beaten by followers of Oscar Venancio. Afterward, Father Martin spent some time under hospital arrest before being transferred out of San Jose del Progreso by the bishop of Oaxaca. He had been very active in promoting environmental education, which inevitably led to mining opposition.

Needless to say Father Martin did not kill Oscar Venancio nor Misael Hernández. The past events had been that the Canadian mining company Continuum Resources held a concession to mine in San Jose, in a mine then called Trinidad. The company undertook a campaign to convince the town-land (ejido) owners to sign contracts for thirty years’ use, and took possession of 200 hectares. In 2008, the mine was purchased by Fortuna Silver, using a Mexican company as a front, with the name of Minera Cuzcatlán.

The mine company assured the residents that no contamination of the water aquifer would occur; this generally was not believed. Cuzcatlán freely paid off various town and environment officials. The town divided into factions. Opposition voices were locked out of decisions, police attacks occurred in violation of human rights. (Mining rights in Mexico belong to the national government, but presumably should be in agreement with local residents, something which never happens.) On the night the two town officials were assassinated, nine opposition activists were arrested, along with Father Martin. The Church stepped in. The nine were released. Their defense: the Health Registrar was drunk and shot himself and the mayor accidentally. Father Martin was released and transferred to another parish.

Heriberto Pazos Ortiz was shot in the head by two men traveling in a small car, onOctober 23, 2010. A wheel-chair user (he was paralyzed by a prior murder attempt in 1999, after being shot in the back) Pazos was a passenger in his vehicle Saturday morning, in the Oaxaca neighborhood of Cinco Señores. Two men intercepted the car whose window was open, and shot him despite the presence of two bodyguards riding in the rear, bodyguards assigned by the governor, incidentally, and a third guard in another vehicle. The identification of Pazos’ corpse was made by state deputy Magdiel Hernández, of PUP (Popular Unity Party) which Pazos founded and promoted; PUP is especially prominent in the Triqui region and in the Isthmus. Pazos was identified as a leading figure opposed to the autonomous community of San Juan Copala; he was the leader of MULT. He wielded power which he used for or against the PRI as his personal views dictated.

Pazos’ three bodyguards were arrested by the orders of URO. They claimed they didn’t know what was happening because the killers’ pistols had silencers. In his public speech URO spoke out against violence. The incoming governor, Gabino Cue Monteagudo, asked for a halt to violence. The local deputy-elect for the Workers Party, Flavio Sosa, who was also a friend of Heriberto Pazos, described the assassination as a crime of State, and blamed URO, while telling the media he expects to be killed too.

The Pazos assassination occurred within twenty-four hours after the slaying of the leader of CODECI (Committee for Citizen Defense), Catarino Torres Pereda, an indigenous Chinanteco and hard critic of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Torres Pereda, a leader of the APPO, was murdered in the offices of CODECI located in the city of Tuxtepec, in the Cuenca del Papaluapam region. His personality was complicated, his friends say, because although he espoused horizontal governance he was often involved in solving local disputes, to the extent that two neighbors consulted him to resolve an issue of stolen chickens; that is, he was an old-time caudillo who, to minimize his strength among the people, didn’t attend local assemblies.

Catarino Torres early on became an adherent to the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona. On August 6, 2006, he was the first APPO activist arrested, in Tuxtepec; he was imprisoned for seven months in the maximum security prison at Almoloya de Juárez in the state of Mexico, the only prisoner sent to a high security federal facility.

He campaigned vigorously in the July 4 electoral campaign on behalf of the Coalition United for Peace and Progress, although he reported to CODECI that Heriberto Pazos offered him money to either join the PRI campaign, or at least remain neutral. The Coalition won the governorship, the mayor’s office of Oaxaca, and mayoralties in various other cities. Catarino brought out voters in the Cuenca of Papaloapan in support of the Coalition. He was shot dead in Tuxtepec. For the past ten years he had been the target of unceasing political persecution due to his political and social activity. According to CODECI activists, he expected to be killed, and spoke to the CODECI members about how to carry on without him. He was also one of the founders of a small left-allied group, CIPO-RFM

Since Catarino’s death was followed within hours by that of Heriberto Pazos, were the two related? It depends on one’s theory of perpetrators. It should be noted that CODECI and MULT are the two largest and strongest social organizations remaining in Oaxaca.

Other violent deaths with many of the same traits:
April 6, 2009 Beatriz López Leyva, an activist on behalf of the first Gabino Cue run for governor and leader of opposition to the construction of a gasoline station on ejido lands in San Pedro Jicayán
March 27, 2010 Assassination of Sotico Silvestre Lopez Quiroz, leader of the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) in San Andres Huaxpaltepec
May 21, 2010 Assassination of Timoteo Alejandro Ramirez, MULTI leader
August 17, 2010 Assassination of Tomas Matús, leader of Cobao, (the Only Union of Workers of the School of Secondary Education of Oaxaca)
October 8, 2010, Assassination of the mayor-elect of Martires de Tacubaya, Artemio Tomas Jimenez Baños

Investigating lines of possible responsibility yields three main currents of thought. The most numerous group says that the departing governor is exterminating those who impeded his consolidation of PRI power among the power blocks. URO will want those blocks to function for the PRI after he leaves office. He presumably will work for a PRI candidate’s election in Mexico State in 2011, and then for the presidency in 2012. The MULT can muster half a million voters, and CODECI is not far behind. The “blame Ulises” theory also includes the men who followed his instructions for assassinations and were potential government witnesses.

Another theory avers that the Zeta drug cartel selectively eliminates those who oppose or betray them. Progreso, the national Mexican magazine, in the issue of October 23, 2010 notes that the Mixteca region of Oaxaca is one of the areas controlled by the Zetas. That’s Triqui territory, where the UBISORT-MULT-MULTI battles have raged, and it terminates in Tuxtepec before crossing into Veracruz. URO clearly made deals with the Zetas who govern the Oaxaca western strip. UBISORT may be the Zetas shooters, moon-lighting as it were. (However, several individual deaths in Tuxtepec appear to be have been strictly drug-related, not political.)

A third theory: those who tired of impunity have eliminated certain persons, one by one. In the absence of law enforcement, those for justo castigo are making felt their unnamed presence. The danger ahead: an endless cycle of retaliations, until such time as Gabino Cue might manage to restore justice in Oaxaca. Statewide, a string of “do-it-yourself justice” events have been reported, of the type where an impending lynching was slowly being arranged; the cops show up in the nick of time and rescue the criminal, usually a robber. No individual thief, to the best of my knowledge, has yet been burned alive or hung. Those stories sell newspapers, and leave me wondering if there is now among the population a tendency in that direction, that is, retributive justice where otherwise there is no justice at all. One would also categorize guerrilla forces as retributive, but no such force has claimed responsibility

If all of the above theories apply in some part, the future governor has his hands full. Fortunately, Cue is regarded not as a killer, but a purchaser, a style of negotiated governance which will provide some respite for Oaxaca. If a murder occurs, however, he will be faced with the task of immediately bringing justice, or perhaps destroying the last best hope.