For over two years the Triqui people of San Juan Copala, an autonomous municipality, have been a dispossessed people. Forced to leave their homes by a wave of paramilitary violence between February and September of 2010 these Triqui have been trying to achieve safe passage back to their lands ever since. The yearning for a peaceful homecoming lies at the centre of the Triqui of San Juan Copola’s recent struggles which also stand more broadly for the right of indigenous peoples to claim their autonomy without having to fear violent retribution.
In an attempt to secure a just return to San Juan Copala these Triqui have maintained an almost constant, peaceful presence in the state capital, Oaxaca City, since the summer of 2010. Here they have made their voices heard, creating a platform for negotiations with State authorities which have, thus far, proved fruitless despite many false dawns.
The Triqui protest camp has persisted in various guises despite forced evictions, broken promises, failed talks and the poor living conditions endured by those who comprise it. These hardships have not broken their resolve which was once again tested last month, almost three years since their trials began.
In the greying embers of 2012 reports began to emerge from Oaxaca City that the peaceful protest camp was once again under threat due to the impending Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes) festival. This event attracts a great deal of annual tourism to Oaxaca and given the protests camps’ visibility, situated as it was in front of the governmental palace, it became clear that state authorities would not stand for its continued existence.
Clearly wanting to show its acceptable face to the visiting masses the state government ordered the forced removal of the camp. State and municipal police sporting full riot gear carried out these orders on the 23rd of December. Accusations of violence and brutality quickly followed this action, utterly believable given the barbarity of previous evictions and the circumstances of the Triqui’s general plight.
Most disturbingly it is alleged that during the eviction a heavily pregnant woman was beaten by police. Triqui spokesmen from the camp report that this beating caused the woman to give birth prematurely to a baby boy named Jesus Hernandez. Tragically the child survived only four days. As if to add insult to greivous injury police forces subsequently blocked the funeral party’s procession to the church where he was to be buried.
Some rival Triqui leaders have questioned this version of events in the local press and have gone so far as to accuse the Triqui of San Juan Copala of intending to “profit from the death of a baby.” They claim that the mother in question was not even present in the camp on the day of the eviction. Protest leaders maintain ardently that she was, pointing to other incidents of children coming to harm in the camp at the hands of state aggressors. It has also come to the media’s attention that all possessions which had to be left at the previous camp were destroyed.
It is likely impossible to verify whose version of events are closer to the truth, even though the camp has already seen the tragic deaths of two other children for whom adequate medical response and care was not provided. Either way this is a further tragedy to have struck the protesting Triqui and there can be no excuse for blocking the funeral proceedings. Showing the depth of their commitment to resistance the Triqui re-established a new camp just one block away from the last as soon as they were able. Here a vigil was held for Jesus Hernandez.
The protest leaders also responded by sending an open letter to Oaxaca State Governor Gabino Cue re-stating for all how they have “suffered ambushes…forced evictions, prison, kidnapping, torture, hunger and despair.” Their continued presence in Oaxaca City acts as a defiant snub to those who have sought to crush their campaign.
This latest skirmish between the protesters and the State begs the question: why has there been a failure to deal with this situation? After all, the demands of the protesting Triqui are simply to return home safely and securely–and it is clear the state government wants the Triqui to leave the city.
The fight to return to San Juan Copala has now spanned the reigns of both current State Governor Gabino Cue and his predecessor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a representative of the PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party). Both have shown a calculated propensity to collude with paramilitary organizations against the Triqui of San Juan Copala.
Much has been written about the terror that has resulted from these partnerships with proxy paramilitary organizations UBISORT (Union Of Social Welfare for the Triqui Region) set up by the PRI and MULT, absorbed by the PRI, (Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle) who are essentially employed to govern Triqui regions. These groups are known to have been involved in the brutal occupation of San Juan Copola in 2010 and have been key agents in cultivating a climate of terror in the region through persistent killings, burnings and intimidation tactics. UBISORT members are also responsible for the fatal shootings of two human rights workers during the San Juan Copola blockade, the brutalities and frustrations suffered by the peaceful Triqui caravan which attempted to return to the town in 2012 and numerous other atrocities. Both organizations are known to receive huge sums of money from the government.
The leaders of both MULT and UBISORT (Rufino Merino and Julio Martinez) have been allowed to sit on either side of Governor Cue in negotiations with the Triqui of San Juan Copola who have endured talks with their oppressors and murderers for years now to no avail.
Less has been written about why the government has helped form (in the case of UBISORT) and aligned itself with these heavily armed forces and why San Juan Copala has been targeted specifically. It is an enquiry into this relationship that reveals at least a glimpse of the state’s motivations for attempting to destroy the lives of the Triqui of San Juan Copala, rather than to resolve their situation.
Put simply: it is all about political and economic resources, a desire to control them and that ever confounding issue for those that want this control – indigenous autonomy.
The Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala (MAJC) was created by dissidents from both UBISORT and MULT in 2007 in an attempt to end the violence wrought by these agencies in the region. By forming a unifying indigenous government under the legal provision of ‘usos y costumbres’ (customs and traditions) it was hoped peace could be achieved.
Unfortunately for this movement, the campaigns of violence in the region that it sought to end and the presence of UBISORT and MULT are key to the State governments’ political influence there. UBISORT and MULT have been bankrolled by the State in an attempt to secure voting and control in the region and quash any oppositional currents. By creating the PUP (Party of Popular Unity) in 2003, supposedly to give indigenous peoples a voice, and by forming and arming paramilitaries UBISORT and MULT have sought to inhabit and control communities. In doing so, they have channelled political mobilization in the desired direction and crushed resistance.
Meanwhile the State, having generated its own stability, blames the victims of the violence for its occurrence. Shaking off its own clear association with the terror, it has cultivated a rhetoric relying on indigenous stereotyping to discredit the Triqui. This public discourse centers around the supposed existence of ‘ancestral inter-communal feuds’ which the state claims are responsible for the area being plagued by incendiary violence.
The emergence in 2007 of the MAJC therefore represented a dangerous shift from the government and its partners’ political vision for the region. Strong leaders of the kind UBISORT and MULT were meant to terrify had emerged to champion a cause for peace and self-governance as so many other have done in other indigenous communities around the world.
Compounding the State’s concern was the fact that the area claiming its autonomy is thought to be resource rich. Its passing into autonomous indigenous hands would of course create an obstacle to any attempts to set up extractive industry in the area, potentially limiting governmental access to new revenue streams.
In response to these perceived threats to its control the State acted to shut down the emergence of the MASJC, keeping its own hands clean by using its Triqui agents in the region. Bent on punishing San Juan Copala for its attempt to claim independence the brutal siege of the town was brought about; other communities aligned with the MASJC were also made to suffer. Accompanying this on-the-ground repression the state launched an aggressive media campaign to try and discredit the MASJC, claiming in 2009 that it was ‘dead’.
This aggression, perpetrated by the State since the MASJC’s founding and its motivations for repression, help us discover just what the Triqui of San Juan Copala’s struggle stands for as well. It also reveals that the State’s apparent apathy toward their cause would be better described as an active and brutal opposition despite the fact that Governor Gabino Cue does not represent the PRI party.
The most recent meting out of violence against the protest camp in Oaxaca City is the continuation of the campaign of State sponsored terror waged against indigenous autonomy, political freedom and peace. This is what the Triqui of San Juan Copala continue to campaign for in their attempts to return home. Their resilience is a shining example of indigenous resourcefulness and resistance in the face of tyranny.
From their new camp they continue to bear forth their key message, borne by a placard at the protest camp:
“Autonomy is not a disease. The Triqui are not dying because they are autonomous. They are dying because of the paramilitaries and State Governor Gabino Cue.”
As succinct a summation as ever–and one that the Triqui will not see ignored.