Oaxaca as a ‘Laboratory of Repression’: Interview with Human Rights Defender Alba Cruz

Following the 2006 uprising in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the official crackdown on dissidents, social movements and human rights defenders reached unprecedented proportions. Alba Cruz, a human rights lawyer working with the Comité de Liberación 25 de Noviembre de Oaxaca, has experienced the climate of fear and intimidation first-hand.

Following the 2006 uprising in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the official crackdown on dissidents, social movements and human rights defenders reached unprecedented proportions. Human rights organizations note with alarm that the presence of around 50,000 military and police personnel patrolling the streets and controlling much of civilian life – often under the pretext of a war on narcotrafficking – has made Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico increasingly dangerous.

Alba Cruz, a human rights lawyer working with the Comité de Liberación 25 de Noviembre de Oaxaca, has experienced the climate of fear and intimidation first-hand. Since taking on over 100 cases relating to human rights violations in Oaxaca, which include the murder, torture and forced disappearance of activists, continual threats have been made to her personal safety. She represented Juan Manuel Martínez Moreno, the man wrongly convicted (and subsequently released in February 2010) of the murder of US independent journalist and political activist, Brad Will. Eyewitness accounts suggest that Will was shot by police dressed in civilian clothing.

Outside the Middle East, Mexico is now the recipient of the United States’ largest foreign aid program. After numerous declarations from civic and human rights groups that the program – the Mérida Initiative – closely emulates Plan Colombia, an aid program which allowed Colombia to become the most flagrant violator of human rights in the Western Hemisphere, US Congress blocked release of the funds to Mexico unless the administration of Felipe Calderón could prove it was committed to protecting human rights and investigating alleged violations. The prosecution of Martínez, who was released this year after Cruz and the Comité de Liberación 25 de Noviembre de Oaxaca presented evidence which demonstrated that he could not have murdered fellow activist, Brad Will, was a particularly cynical attempt to secure the funds of the Mérida Initiative, while justice for the real killers remains elusive.

The work of Alba Cruz and the Comité seeks to expose those responsible for the continuing repression in Oaxaca. Because responsibility reaches the upper echelons of the state and federal government, throughout Mexico human rights defenders like Cruz have been facing innumerable threats to their safety. At the heart of the repression, notes Cruz, are broad objectives related to social control, control of resources and maintaining the economic and political status quo, while furthering the interests of international investors.

During the uprising of 2006 in Oaxaca, which began as a teachers’ strike to defend the public school system that was violently repressed by the police and army and subsequently escalated into widespread rebellion in which the state government no longer controlled the city, both the state and federal governments attempted to quell popular activism by force.

Throughout Mexico, according to human rights organizations like the Centro Prodh in Mexico City, the deployment of troops to the streets has resulted in a severe erosion of respect for human rights, with reported violations increasing by 472 per cent since Felipe Calderón assumed the presidency in 2006. In the war which escalated after Calderón took power and initiated a police and military crackdown on organized crime, around 30,000 people have been killed.

In the interview that follows, I asked Ms. Cruz about her legal work as a human rights defender and about the broader implications of the Mérida Initiative and the war on narcotraffficking.

Peter Watt: Can you talk about the nature of your work as a human rights defender?

Alba Cruz: At the moment I am working on legal complaints about what is happening in Oaxaca – about the grave human rights situation and particularly the climate of impunity for human rights violators in Oaxaca. Precisely because of this work I had to leave my home state. We have been subjected to continual harassment, particularly the members of our organization, the Comité 25 de Noviembre de Oaxaca, a civil rights group dedicated to reporting and defending human rights and to juridical defense of political prisoners. We also deal with cases of torture.

PW: When did this kind of harassment escalate?

AC: Following the popular uprising in 2006 in Oaxaca, the Committee was formed out of a necessity to defend the detainees at that time. Given that in the state of Oaxaca conditions didn’t exist to conduct our work properly, we decided to group together all kinds of intellectuals, artists, people with some political weight, throughout the state in order to perform our work. From then on we undertook various cases of arbitrary detention, grave violations of human rights, torture, and detention of children who had joined protests and had been incarcerated without trial.

PW: Which, presumably, is illegal?

AC: In the Oaxacan penal code there’s an offense called ‘sedition’, the only one in Mexico. The code specifies that whoever is against the government or is a dissident, whoever attends a protest, is guilty of the crime of ‘sedition’. And so they began to arrest people using this article of the code. It’s been in the penal code for decades but it was specifically applied in order to inhibit popular political organizing in Oaxaca. It’s characteristic of Oaxaca because it has always tended to have popular collectives and Oaxacans have always formed strong social movements.

PW: So it’s about quashing challenges to traditional power centers?

AC: The climate of repression stems from maintaining control of power. There’s political control, there’s a political class which in this state until recently had been in power for 81 years. The same political party, the same groups of politicians. With this need to cling on to power, or to not lose power, they repress the people in the pueblos who challenge their authority. And the political and economic elites are united in this and in exploiting the state’s natural and economic resources.

PW: Which has been the case for decades, but has become more intense in recent years?

AC: In 2006 people got together and formed a formidable social movement with high levels of popular participation. There were up to a million people protesting in the state capital. So there was strong movement and for that reason the response of the federal and Oaxaca state governments had to be very strong. They opted for repression instead of dialogue, instead of calming the situation and allowing the organizations and movements to strengthen peacefully. They chose violence, sending in the police, the army and the marines. They began to sow hatred amongst those organizations, to initiate divisions within the People’s Assembly (APPO – Popular Assembly of the People’s of Oaxaca). They made great efforts to divide opinion within the Assembly, to generate distrust within the movement.

PW: Of dividing in order to rule and maintain political and economic control?

AC: Before the large-scale repression in Oaxaca in 2006, groups of paramilitaries were assassinating people. They exist in Oaxaca and their presence is constant. Those paramilitaries committed 26 executions in five months. Others were groups of people dressed as civilians but who used vans and arms belonging to the state police. Others still had private vehicles and were dressed in civilian clothing but used the police stations to incarcerate those captured. And of course they came out of those same buildings. As the repression – in which the army, the marines, all the armed forces, the state and federal police were heavily involved – developed, there was a series of human rights violations. There are 503 reported cases of arbitrary imprisonment and 249 people disappeared, who, during their extra-judicial incarceration were tortured. There are still seven disappeared people and in the current context the judicial system is simply unwilling to conduct a serious investigation which could punish those responsible.

PW: So, essentially, impunity reigns for the powerful actors behind the repression?

AC: The Committee for some time has dealt with participants in the movement who were imprisoned. We decided to compile all the documentation and evidence we could in relation to human rights violations. Yet there are political interests: the same groups in power have all agreed not to exercise any action against the then state governor. And he was maintained throughout by the political class who kept him there.

The violence has become institutionalized; they attempt to make protest illegal, taking us to tribunals; they have arrest warrants for those who organize street protests or for the activists who defend basic rights and access to natural resources.

PW: Which seems to be happening all over the country, no?

AC: The climate of impunity is the same in Guerrero, in Chiapas, in Sinaloa, in Guadalajara and in Chihuahua, where human rights defenders are criminalized and assassinated. 

PW: Have you and other members of the Committee also experienced threats?

AC: There have been threats made to us since 2006. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended precautionary measures in relation to threats made to eight members of the Committee. But the precautionary measures haven’t worked; there’s no means of implementation and the Mexican government has no desire to do so. It’s not that they say ‘no’; they always say ‘yes, yes, we’ll sign whatever document, we’ll hold a meeting’, but they never commit themselves to anything.

PW: Beyond the desire to keep a lid on dissent and popular organizing, what do you think are the wider goals of the current crackdown?

AC: Securing and maintaining exploitation of the gold and silver mines, the reserves of sulfur in Oaxaca, resources all exploited by transnational corporations. Control of energy is another. And then of course others like expanding the tourist corridor of that part of Mexico, protecting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its beneficiaries, the export of the state’s natural resources. There’s the issue of who controls water and the development of hydroelectric energy, which entails displacing entire communities. The economic interests involved are massive.

PW: Where does the narcotrafficking industry fit in all this?

AC: It’s another pretext for militarizing the entire region and for investigating what kind of popular organizing exists. The army arrive in communities – especially those in the sierra – and they build an outpost in which what they’re really doing is keeping watch on women’s organizations, groups representing indigenous people’s rights, environmental groups. What they’re doing in fact is looking into how to attack and who to arrest and remove by force. The people of San Juan Copala, for example, are under siege. They can’t leave and we can’t enter. All of this is permitted and ordered by those who hold political power.

PW: So you think the ‘War on Drugs’ also acts as a pretext for a type of social control?

AC: Oaxaca isn’t the main region for drug production. Drugs mostly pass through the state from South America on their way north. In any case, the violence has spread throughout the country. The context of narcotrafficking serves to prevent popular organizing in Guerrero, Chiapas and Oaxaca. Throughout the country violence has worsened under the pretext of combating narcotrafficking. At checkpoints the army will detain people, torture them, get them to talk, and it’s happening all over. Even the President has recognized that the war on narcotrafficking is a failure because in the end there hasn’t been a combat between the military and the cartels. The battles in Sinaloa and Chihuahua mainly seem to be between the cartels themselves. There hasn’t been a war on the cartels and on narcotrafficking but a war against civil society in general. There have been 28,000 deaths since 2006 as a result of the war on the narcotraffickers, but most of the dead have nothing to do with the cartels.

It’s also a problem of corruption. All the main public institutions are involved and bound up with the economic interests of the cartels. Which begs the question: Why not attack the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, why don’t they really get Chapo Guzmán, why don’t they attack the Cartel del Sur? Perhaps because they also have their interests. The war on drugs isn’t logical. It’s a war for drugs, for control of the plazas, but one thing it is not, is a war against narcotrafficking.

PW: What do you make of the Mérida Initiative, under which Mexico is now the largest recipient of US military aid outside the Middle East?

AC: After the assassinations of US citizens outside their consulate in Chihuahua, the Mexicans and Americans held a bilateral meeting. The Mexicans were told to allow US intelligence services to operate freely within Mexico and that they would further train and arm the Mexican military. They’ve given everything to the US government, especially under the Mérida Initiative, which is very similar to Plan Colombia.

In relation to Oaxaca, political and economic interests go hand in hand. Some have called Oaxaca ‘the laboratory’: the laboratory of repression, of the transnationals protected by NAFTA and the Mérida Initiative, the exploitation of natural resources. The laboratory in which the powerful can abandon established social norms. It’s where they conduct experiments. It’s a laboratory of electoral fraud, coercion, of institutionalizing violence via public institutions, of complete impunity, of paramilitary groups who live among the population and ensconce themselves in communities. All of which allows the elites to continue in power.

PW: The demands of popular organizations for the most part don’t seem unreasonable, or even that radical. Mostly, it seems, they’re demanding basic rights like improved working conditions and pay, investment in infrastructure, protection of the natural environment, the right to live free from persecution, better political representation; things which in the richer countries much of the population believes it has a right to. It’s as if both federal and state governments are determined to keep people in poverty and completely out of the political sphere.

AC: The government does provide some resources for infrastructure programs. But the money disappears into the pockets of politicians and of the paramilitaries who protect them. And the public works never appear. The federal government never audits them and doesn’t demand proof that the work has been carried out. And so the funds get used for other things.

These areas are home to among the poorest sectors of the Mexican population. There are many villages and communities without electricity and potable water has to be fetched on foot. These people are completely marginalized.

And those in charge get rich because they either own the companies contracted to complete public works or because they simply pocket the funds. And there seems little way of democratizing these same institutions.

PW: Coming back to human rights, do human rights defenders receive much international protection and recognition?

AC: There’s now an international presence and there are constant human rights delegations to Oaxaca. Peace Brigades International (PBI) now accompanies me and others personally for our own safety. This has strengthened the work that we do. There are other organizations which don’t maintain offices here but which observe continually the human rights situation. We now get visits from Amnesty International, from some Spanish and German observers and from the United Nations. They’ve received so much information about the gravity of the situation that they come to Mexico and also to Oaxaca. This does help, because it makes such problems visible.

Four years ago when I used to visit international embassies to highlight the problems we were facing, I would be told: ‘Mexico is advanced in the protection of human rights. At the United Nations they told me that Mexico was a ‘brilliantly developing country’. Now when we go back to the UN they have quite a different perception. This is thanks to the organizations which help make visible such problems.

PW: Is there a UN office in Oaxaca?

AC: In 2006, the year of the worst repression, they closed the Oaxaca office ‘for lack of funds’. There is, however, an office in Mexico City.

PW: What do you see as the main challenges ahead?

AC: We now receive so many threats that we can’t continue our human rights work properly. Many among us have had to leave the state because we can no longer continue our work. Others have had to leave the country entirely.

There are topics one cannot talk about. The media in Oaxaca, for example, were also victims of the repression. Many had their equipment confiscated. They threatened journalists. So that’s a serious problem which has to be countered.

We should start with a war against impunity. Even if one of the perpetrators of violence is brought to justice, it would serve as an example. I think that if we continue demanding that the guilty be punished – something which we all have to do – we’ll already be much further ahead.

Concretely, at the moment we should demand that the Mexican government observe international treaties and accords which it has signed. I think that at the moment such demands are hugely important and necessary because increasingly the security and safety of human rights organizations, social movements and civil society are at risk.

Alba Cruz is a human rights lawyer who works with the Comité de Liberación 25 de Noviembre in Oaxaca, Mexico. Peter Watt teaches and researches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK.