Mexico: International Human Rights Caravan Ambushed, Two Murdered En Route to San Juan Copala

A caravan carrying human rights activists from Finland, Italy, Belgium and Germany as well as members of the Oaxaca Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), of Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), and of the Network of Indigenous Radios and Communicators of Southeast Mexico was ambushed on the road near La Sabana in the Triqui territory of Oaxaca by paramilitaries identified as members of the Unión de Bienestar Social de la Región Triqui (Ubisort), a PRI sponsored organization. The caravan was attempting to break the siege of San Juan Copala by Ubisort.

A caravan carrying human rights activists from Finland, Italy, Belgium and Germany as well as members of the Oaxaca Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), of Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), and of the Network of Indigenous Radios and Communicators of Southeast Mexico was ambushed on the road near La Sabana in the Triqui territory of Oaxaca by paramilitaries identified as members of the Unión de Bienestar Social de la Región Triqui (Ubisort), a PRI sponsored organization. The caravan was attempting to break the siege of San Juan Copala by Ubisort.

The international community has responded with cries of outrage. In Germany, where Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon was meeting with Prime Minister Merkel, protesters greeted him with angry signs, such as, “I’m a human rights observer, Kill me!”

A call has been issued by David Venegas, APPO and VOCAL activist, to return to San Juan Copala in a larger international caravan. Venegas was imprisoned by the Oaxaca government for eleven months on a trumped up charge, in 2007.  A survivor of the human rights caravan ambushed on Monday, April 27, 2010  when two activists were killed, Venegas issued his call at  a press conference on April 29. A subsequent  political declaration was issued by VOCAL regarding the paramilitary aggression, and reads in part:

“The violent acts on April 27…by the paramilitary group of UBISORT-PRI which resulted in the assassination of  Bety Cariño Trujillo and Jyri Jaakkola, shows the extent of violence and impunity Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the party in power the PRI, the local bosses and the military presence sustain…power in the indigenous and rural communities of Oaxaca….”

“…The state of siege and the unpunished assassinations which  PRI-UBISORT maintains against the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala with the total complicity of the state government headed by Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Since November of 2009 there have been 19 assassinations of  inhabitants of San Juan Copala by PRI-UBISORT who also have cut off the electric energy and keep a blockade at the entrance to the community…”

“We firmly believe that a paramilitary aggression of huge proportions against the inhabitants is being prepared…(having) as objective to destroy the process which seeks unity in the nation of the Triqui …We believe this attack is also directed at the processes to construct autonomy…to construct a form of life distant from state power and the political parties…”

“We make an urgent call to all organizations of the social movement of APPO  and to the national and international movement to put attention on San Juan Copala and organize with us in the immediate future a grand caravan of solidarity to break the circle that  PRI-UBISORT holds around San Juan Copala, as well as support on the national level construction of autonomy in all places in Mexico where (a decision to seek autonomy exists)…”

At the ambush site among those who managed to flee, were Venegas and the wounded Noe Bautista, plus two Contralinea reporters. One, David Cilia, was wounded in the foot and hip by gunfire. He and his colleague Erika Ramirez remained for forty-eight hours on the mountainside while Venegas and Bautista crossed the country on foot for eight hours to seek aid. Although Venegas succeeded in making a phone call, the governor sent no aid to the site nor rescue for caravan members in hiding. A video documented that the reporters were alive when they were left behind. The father of David Celia, when an international outcry was already putting pressure on Governor Ulises Ruiz (URO) finally obtained use of the state’s helicopter to rescue the two journalists. Venegas and Bautista  emerged from their hike on Thursday. Others who escaped fled to Juxtlahuaca.

The convoy included five Europeans among the twenty-five traveling in four cars covered with banners declaring that press and international observers rode on board. The Section 22 vehicle turned back before the attack occurred. Meri Marjaana Mononen, from Helsinki and a representative of the Finnish Union for Peace, said she was invited by a civic group on a humanitarian mission to document the suffering of people reportedly living without schools, electricity and food; her friend Jyri Jaakkola died in what Mononen described as a war zone. The body of Jaakkola, 33, was recovered from the bullet-riddled SUV on Wednesday. Like Beatriz Alberta Cariño, he had been shot in the head.

State police claimed it took them a full day to retrieve the bodies because they feared rescuers might be attacked. The Puebla-based human rights organization Nodo de Derechos Humanos reported that Oaxacan State Police in the area refused to rescue the wounded “because they don’t have orders to do so from the State.”

Jaakkola was a member of a small, Finnish civil rights group, Uusi Tuuli (New Wind), based in the southwestern city of Turku. The Finnish spokesman Jani Nevala  stated, “We shall continue this work even more vigorously than before. We are trying to help the indigenous people of Mexico; during the past few years their human rights have been trod upon.”

Daniel Arellano Chavez, 24, another VOCAL activist, described the caravan’s mission as both to act as observers, and to show support for villagers seeking greater independence from the state and its ruling party. The caravan carried food, water and clothing. At the attack, Arellano ran for his life, with his face bloody from shattered glass. Eventually he found his way back to the road.

One young woman, Mónica Citlalli Santiago Ortiz, who saw Bety Cariño collapse shot in the head, managed to make it to a hospital where she received treatment for a wound on her back.  She estimated the wounded at fifteen people. No clear count has been made, several suffered minor wounds not treated.

The caravan had been organized by Bety Cariño, who worked in the Triqui region and knew first hand of the siege of San Juan Copala, a town which declared itself autonomous on January 1, 2007. Jyri Haakkola, a Finnish human rights observer and activist, died beside her in the car’s front seat. The caravan had approached the town of La Sabana in the Triqui region of Oaxaca. The road was blocked with stones. When the three vehicles attempted to turn around and leave, as the activists had previously agreed to do in case of confrontation, an attack began with high powered army-type weapons. According to survivors, the hail of bullets lasted twenty minutes.

Why is this area a battlefield? What is there? What is the source of so much violence? And what do the federal and state governments do about it? Who is providing the weapons? Some speculation has been offered regarding minerals in the ground, but URO has sold mining rights to transnationals with no hesitation—he wouldn’t need a war zone. Another possible reason has been suggested: narco-trafficking. As a sidelight to that possibility, Jorge Franco Vargas was threatened by narcomantas — the big banners hung from bridges. Apparently the cartel operating in Oaxaca knows who he is.

The Triqui population is about 16,000, so discard a theory of political votes; if you count adults of voting age it’s a minuscule number of ballots in favor of, or opposed to, the PRI. At this time it’s estimated that 50% sympathize with MULT, 30% Ubisort and the remaining 20% belong to  Yosoyuxi and independent neighborhoods like Tierra Blanca and Carrizal which comprise the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala and thus MULTI.. The Mixteca zone suffers great poverty. Another theory suggests  that federal indigenous relief funds amounting to 43 million pesos in programs exclusively for the Triqui zone, goes to town authorities instead of to individual mothers, as is the case elsewhere.

San Juan Copala has been under siege by Ubisort  in an ongoing effort to destroy the autonomy of the town and reincorporate it into the municipality of Santiago Juxtlahuaca. The municipal agent  Anastasio Juárez Hernández was installed by force as president of San Juan Copala, although people elected their own president in assembly according to usos y costumbres.

Fighting and murders have been ongoing in this Triqui territory for decades. In 1994 the governor of Oaxaca brought Ubisort into being as a counterweight to Movimiento de Unificacion y Lucha Triqui (MULT). MULT was founded in the seventies by Guadalupe Flores Villanueva, as a base for independent campesino activities. She envisioned democratic elections of authorities, clear delineation of communal land boundaries, and cooperatives for coffee and banana farming to benefit the whole community. She was murdered on November 14, 1972.

After her death the attempt to found cooperatives in the San Juan Copala area devolved onto Luis Flores Garcia, then in charge of some Triqui areas. He was murdered on August 11, 1976 by caciques.

In 1982, recalls Carlos Beas Torres, leader of AMAP (an association of community radio stations), “a caravan led by Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, in which there were 30 journalists and dozens of activists, was attacked with gunfire”. Beas, a survivor, remembers, “we’re talking about an act of intimidation against doña Rosario, and those with us, for denouncing the violence in the Triqui region caused by the local  caciques, who in that epoch, it’s said, had the aid of the military barracked then in San Juan Copala”.

Battles continued, with various murders and murder attempts  such as the 1997 attempt on his life which left Heriberto Pazos Ortiz using a wheelchair. MULT morphed into a political party in 2003, called PUP; it presently has one representative in the Chamber of Deputies.

MULTI, the independent MULT, was founded in 2006 in the heat of the social movement. Thousands of Triquis joined the teachers social movement, marched the marches and declared a separation of MULTI. After the declaration of autonomy by San Juan Copala, the government did not register it; formally Copala still is part of Juxtlahuaca, one of the three Triqui municipalities in the region. (The other two are Putla and Constancia del Rosario.) San Juan Copala henceforward faced three enemies: Ubisort, MULT, and the PRI government. Residents additionally blame Jorge Franco Vargas  and Carlos Martínez, local PRI candidate for state deputy, for the assault on the caravan as well as for the series of murders. Over two years ago, two young women were murdered for their participation in community radio La Voz que Rompe el Silencio. In 2009 at least fourteen were killed. In San Miguel Copala, eleven people were murdered. A child was shot on the street on February 5, 2010. On February 7,  2010, in less than seventy-two hours, nine people— eight Triquis and an official from the National Water Commission— were shot. The current self-appointed municipal president Anastasio Juárez Hernández complains, “These people don’t want to conform…”

According to MULT’s figures, 300 militants were assassinated in 37 years, about 10 per year.  On August 7, 1996  seven women were raped in the limits of San Pedro Chayuco.  In the San Juan Copala region, 16,000 have been killed. Virginia and Daniela Ortiz, daughters of a  MULT leader, disappeared on July 5, 2007. The radio broadcasters Felícitas López and Teresa Bautista were allegedly shot by another paramilitary troop  belonging to MULT in April of 2008.  Another Bautista son was also murdered, in 2009. Fourteen others were assassinated in this year, with  five attacks occurring in thirty-seven days in San Juan Copala. On April 17, José Celestino Hernán­dez Cruz was accused of being the author of the assassination of other indigenous residents of Copala. He was then found executed in the municipal city hall.

Many townspeople fled to other towns and areas such as Mexico City. They had no way to leave their village for food or supplies; schools are closed, and stepping into the streets invites death. The San Juan Copala president issued a communiqué saying they were  “surrounded by highly armed groups on the hills around the community, generating conditions of isolation to prepare a massacre as in the case of San Miguel Cópala, where eleven people were assassinated”. Blame was placed ahead of time if any harm came to the humanitarian caravan, on Jorge Franco and Carlos Martí­nez.

All indications point to prior knowledge by Governor Ulises Ruiz (URO) of the caravan’s visit. A police report obtained by Noticias voz e imagen de Oaxaca daily indicated that police tracked the vehicles on route and knew the identities of  many who traveled in them. The governor had been informed at least two weeks in advance of the caravan’s arrival, through Miguel Álvarez, president of Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz (Serapaz). According the municipal president  of San Juan Copala and  Serapaz, “the Secretary General of Government for Oaxaca, Evencio Martínez Ramírez, always knew of the visit” to deliver food to some 700 families trapped for four months by the Ubisort blockade.. “The government of Ulises Ruiz lied when, to avoid connection with the events, it claims they had no knowledge that the caravan would arrive.”

Albino Ortiz, a member of the autonomous town, asserts that behind the  “amnesia” of Ulises Ruiz is the fact that Ubisort represents the armed PRI in the region; its leader Rufino Juárez Hernández was a student of Evencio Martínez in the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO), in the law school. “Monday, April 26  Rufino Juárez said in a radio interview that he would not be responsible for security of people on the caravan, therefore he is responsible for the events.”

Because of the participation of international human rights activists, outcry has been quick. Although photos of the paramilitaries exist, impunity has reached almost 100% in attacks in Oaxaca, including those like the murder of journalist Brad Will in which video evidence exists. The demand for justice is shared by the Subcommittee for Human Rights of the European Parliament. Delay by Ulises Ruiz to rescue the victims aroused the interest of the European Union and the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights (CIDH); separately both sought from the reporter Ana Lilia Pérez, of Contralínea, “a detailed bulletin of the facts”, about the two trapped reporters. The concern of the accredited diplomatic corps in Mexico — representatives of  United States, Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany,  France, Finland and Portugal, as well as personnel of the High Commission of the United Nations for Human Rights (ACNUDH) and the International Red Cross met with human right organizations and friends and families of the reporters, to learn details of the ambush. The refusal by URO to send police into the zone was denounced; only after forty-eight hours was the state helicopter placed at the disposal of David Cilia Olmos, father of the photographer, and of Miguel Badillo, director of the magazine, for their search for the two missing Contralinea reporters.

Other organizations who joined the condemnation are Front Line, Amnesty International, Article 19 and the  International Federation for Human Rights. The Oaxaca State Attorney General “is investigating”. Ubisort claimed that MULTI was shooting itself to look like martyrs. URO claimed that his government never aids any group, and certainly not Ubisort.

Bety Cariño was buried in Puebla, in Chila de las Flores, on April 29 . Her husband, and father of their two children, Omar Esparza, said, “Be sure, Bety, we’re not going to bury you, we’re going to sow you, because the most beautiful flowers always bear fruit.” She was thirty-five years old