After months of paramilitary violence–including physical and verbal abuse, rape, kidnapping and murder–Indigenous authorities have ordered the total evacuation of the town of San Juan Copala. Kristin Bricker reports.
Authorities of the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, have ordered the total evacuation of the town, which has been under siege since February of this year. The authorities issued the order when alleged paramilitaries raided San Juan Copala and said that they would massacre all supporters of the autonomous municipality.
Alleged paramilitaries cut off water, electricity, and access to the town in February. They also stationed gunmen in the hills surrounding the town and shot at anyone they saw on the streets. For months, San Juan Copala survived off of the little food that women could carry into town on their backs, using trails through the woods to sneak past the gunmen who patrol the perimeter.
However, on September 13, the situation became unbearable when gunmen took over San Juan Copala’s town hall. The gunmen, whom the autonomous municipality claim are from rival Triqui organizations Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT) and the Union for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), have kept San Juan Copala under a constant barrage of bullets since they took over the town hall.
The autonomous municipality has reported at least five females injured—including a little girl—and one man killed, all by gunfire, since MULT and UBISORT took over the town hall. Gunmen shot a second man, David Garcia, and at this time it is unknown if he is alive or dead. According to Jorge Albino, a spokesman for the autonomous municipality, police handed his body over to the alleged paramilitaries who are occupying the town hall. The autonomous municipality believes that Garcia was alive when police turned him over to the gunmen who shot him.
In addition, two disabled people disappeared as they fled San Juan Copala. One-hundred-year-old Jose Gonzalo Cruz disappeared as he fled with other people through the brush under heavy gunfire. Cruz is blind, and it is believed that he was separated from the group and became lost.
A mentally handicapped woman named Susana López Martínez is also reported disappeared. She attempted to flee San Juan Copala with a group of other women on September 18 under heavy gunfire. When the women re-grouped out of the line of fire, 21-year-old López Martínez was gone. No one saw her disappear, and it is unknown if she was injured in the shooting. If López Martínez has fallen into UBISORT’s hands, she is in extreme danger. This past May, UBISORT leader Rufino Juarez allegedly kidnapped López Martínez and her mother. The two women escaped and denounced the kidnapping to human rights organizations and the international media.
The autonomous municipality reports that the gunmen who raided San Juan Copala went house-to-house and beat people they found inside. The gunmen are also burning the abandoned homes of residents who have fled the violence.
The autonomous municipality reported that fifty families remained in San Juan Copala at the beginning of the raid on September 13. All but two families have managed to escape. Those two families are in two houses that are completely surrounded by gunmen.
Triqui women and children have maintained a protest encampment in Oaxaca City’s town square since August to demand an end to the violence and justice for the victims. Those women declared a hunger strike on September 10 to pressure the government to send police into San Juan Copala to evacuate the two families who remain trapped inside. The striking women, who were driven out of San Juan Copala by the violence, want the government to bring the trapped families to Oaxaca City.
The Oaxaca state government said that it is preparing an operation to “restore order” in San Juan Copala. Oaxaca’s Undersecretary of the Interior Joaquín Rodríguez Palacios announced that Oaxaca state police planned to restore electricity and reopen schools in San Juan Copala. The plan seems completely absurd when it is taken into account that at most 25 residents remain in San Juan Copala—and all of them want to leave. Palacios did not mention any plans to evacuate the remaining residents.
It remains to be seen if the government will follow through with the operation. UBISORT leader Rufino Juarez told Noticias de Oaxaca that there would be a “bloodbath” if the government doesn’t “reach an agreement” with his organization regarding the proposed police operation.
Dialogue Failed Again
Lona Reyes, the bishop of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, and Father Wilfrido Mayrén of the Diocese Commission for Peace and Justice in Oaxaca, called upon MULT and the Independent Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT-I), a MULT splinter group that co-founded the autonomous municipality, to a dialogue mediated by the church. The goal of the proposed dialogue was to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict through negotiations. Past negotiations mediated by the government broke down because the autonomous municipality has refused sit at a negotiating table with MULT and UBISORT while those groups were allegedly murdering its supporters.
MULT-I refused to participate in the church-mediated dialogue because it claims that MULT is one of the groups carrying out the armed attack on San Juan Copala. MULT-I conditioned its participation in the dialogue on a cease-fire in the autonomous municipality and the presentation of the residents who disappeared during the attack.
The Mexican newspaper Milenio interpreted the failed dialogue and the evacuation of the autonomous municipality as a sign that the autonomous project is dead. However, a source close to the autonomous authorities said, “Once we get everyone out [of San Juan Copala] we will continue the project from the outside. Right now we are worried about getting those people out alive.”
The complete evacuation of San Juan Copala does not in and of itself mean that the autonomous project is dead: San Juan Copala is the name of a town and a municipality (a group of towns, like a county). Only the town of San Juan Copala, which is the municipal cabezera (county seat), has been under siege, and only the town is being evacuated.
Representatives from twenty Triqui communities reportedly participated in the founding of the autonomous municipality. In addition to the town of San Juan Copala, ten Triqui communities are officially aligned with the autonomous municipality. Autonomous authorities claim that an additional six communities support the autonomous municipality, but that they fear retaliation if they publicly declare their affiliation. In addition to the sixteen communities that give their full support to the autonomous municipality, the autonomous authorities claim to have supporters in another handful of communities that are controlled by rival organizations.
Of the ten communities that officially belong to the autonomous municipality, San Juan Copala was the only community under siege. The other communities have suffered attacks and assassinations, but they were not affected by the paramilitary blockade nor the recent invasion.
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