More News From Oaxaca

David Simmonds

The following is another first-hand account of Guelaguetza in Oaxaca City from Stan, a long-time resident and a personal acquaintance of mine.

Oaxaca City, July 19, 2007

Monday, July 16, dawned overcast but dry and we headed for the Zócalo at about 9 a.m., to attend “The People’s Guelaguetza”, a free alternative to the commercial (400 pesos’ admission) event that is scheduled for the following two Mondays.  A large crowd had already started to form.  There were at least six dance troupes forming up along with thousands of marchers, waiting for the signal to begin.  Some of the dancers were taking the opportunity to warm up.  The feeling was festive, peaceful, neighborly.
The signal was given.  The march began.  We were standing near the front of the parade, and heard one of the leaders shout “We are going to the hill” (the Guelaguetza amphitheater up on the Fortín hill).  This was news to us, and presumably to many of the folks who were there, but nobody seemed confused or upset.
Originally, the “leadership” of the popular resistance had let it be known that, because of the heavy police / paramilitary / military presence on the Hill, the performances would take place at the much smaller Plaza de la Danza, downtown.  According to other observers, that place was already quite full even as we were leaving the Zócalo, and dancing at the Plaza began while we were still walking up Garcia Vigíl.
My reading of the announcements put out before the 16th was that there would be a full-blown march up to the amphitheater; that if the march encountered official roadblocks there would be a peaceful demonstration; that the march would then resume, ending at the Plaza de la Danza.  As far as I could tell, the marchers were following the script.
Diana and I walked along with the marchers.  There was very little political chanting, virtually no signs or banners, and no graffiti painters that we saw – and we walked slowly enough so that by the time we were a little more than half way to Niños Heroes (the “International Highway” that marks the northern border of the “historical center”),  the whole parade had passed us by.
We decided to cut over toward the amphitheater, and climbed the “escalera” (stairway) to the top, where we found the entrance to the tunnel that goes under the highway and ends at the amphitheater plaza was blocked by heavily armored state police.  Like most of the people around us, we looked for an alternative entrance. Winding our way through an adjacent neighborhood, we noticed a lot of folks out on the streets.  We stopped and asked what was going on.  “Don’t go to the Center”, we were told, “they are tear-gassing the Zócalo.”
We had been in the Zócalo earlier, and saw no police presence, no menacing situation, nor anything else that made any sense of what we had just heard.  We continued downhill, coming out on Crespo, the easternmost of the north south streets that connect the center of town with Niños Heroes.  Crespo was being blockaded by dissidents who warned us not to go uphill (toward where the marchers had gone), because there was a lot of tear gas.  This was our first indication that something had gone wrong. We began to encounter small groups of folks who had either escaped the action or had arrived too late to be trapped by it.  Mostly they were saying “let’s go to the Plaza de la Danza”, which I assume they did.
We made our way to the nearby house of some friends, to use the bathroom, have a glass of water, and exchange information.  We got an eye-witness confirmation that the police and some young folks (but not all of them were young, we were admonished: several of the citizens were much older) were exchanging rocks and pieces of paving stones; that at least one bus was on fire; that there were many injuries on both sides; that the tear gas had driven staff and guests out of the Fortin Plaza and Victoria hotels.
Diana and I decided to walk back downtown, and see what was going on at the Plaza de la Danza. When we got back to Crespo, the barricade had moved down the hill a few blocks (as had the fighting).  We kept going downhill toward the dancing.

When we arrived at the Plaza de la Danza, it was mobbed.  We were barely able to maneuver, and getting close enough to actually see the dancers was too hard on our aging bodies, although because of my height I was able to catch a glimpse now and then.  Everyone was in a very festive mood.
Caught in the crush around the Plaza, we ended up making our way slowly down the stairs, past the Nieverias (flavored ice stands) and Soledad church, exiting on Independencia.  By the time we reached the Zócalo, we were ready to sit down and rest our weary feet, and have a look-see.  Apparently, the rumors of police attack had reached the dozens of sidewalk vendors that we had seen there earlier, because just about all of them were gone.  There were no police in sight.
The cops had continued to chase the demonstrators down the hill, all the way to the corner of Morelos and Tinoco y Palacios (the next street west of Crespo), where a good friend who happened to be going by got a snootfull of teargas.  Whether or not the police would have continued to the performances, two  blocks away, is not known, because – according to a very reliable witness – hundreds of citizens decided to sit down on Morelos and block any further police progress.  I’ve no doubt that this action prevented scores of casualties that would have occurred had the police began lobbing tear gas into the densely packed crowd.  The cops turned around, and the performances went off without a hitch.  By this time, we were home.
As the day went on, we gathered more information from friends and the internet, and by Tuesday morning, a few things had become clear.
*The cops started it.  Before the marchers were within shouting distance, tear gas canisters were flying through the air.  There was no attempt whatsoever to defuse the situation.  It is reasonable to infer that the police were acting to break up a legal demonstration and to frighten and harm as many dissidents as possible; that for the police it was a welcome chance to demonstrate their power and let off some steam.
*The crowd did not come prepared to fight.  There were no Molotov cocktails, no rocket grenades; the rocks that were thrown came from the nearby sidewalks.
*The police were especially brutal, aiming for the head with their batons, kicking fallen marchers in the spine repeatedly, and sexually mauling female prisoners.
*Reporters and photographers were specially targeted.  In one case, a high-ranking police official is said to have pointed out a particular cameraman and told his squad to “get him”.
*People known to be leaders in civil society, who had not even been in the march, were rounded up as much as a mile away from the scene.
*Dozens of protesters “disappeared”.  Although relatives and friends and colleagues wrote down their names and the time of their detention, their names did not appear on any official lists.  Most of the minors have been released.  Reports persist of systematic torture and multiple rape, of all women and some men.
Monday night, we attended the premier showing of Jill Friedberg’s latest film, “A Little Bit of So Much Truth”, a chronology and analysis of the months of resistance and repression in 2006.  It was shown on the plaza of the Cathedral. There was a pretty good crowd, in spite of the fact that it was drizzling.  At one point, about four large open trucks full of “law enforcement” officers, fully outfitted to do battle, pulled up on Independencia, about a block away, for a couple of minutes.  Several people got up and left, and while the troops were there I doubt that many in the crowd were watching the film.  Nobody knows whether they might be next: snatched off the street while walking home from work or the grocery store without reason or warrant.
The level of tension, of anger, of division and rancor has risen.  Positions are hardening.  The APPO and the Teachers are determined to do what they can to scuttle the “official” celebration, and the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) is determined that they will not do so.  Last year, as a ploy to show how mean those dissidents are, URO cancelled the Guelaguetza (as if he had a choice: the APPO controlled the streets, and had already said “no way”; they held their own (at no charge) and drew over 20,000 people).  This year, since hardly anybody is coming anyway (cancellations are said to have exceeded 50% since Monday’s fiasco; and they were being put at a hopeful 50% of capacity before that – although the organization that supplied the figures is not necessarily reliable), URO would like to take the opportunity to ratchet up the anti-insurgency action, and the dissidents are just angry enough to challenge him.
For the battered tourist industry, there is little hope of good news any time soon.  The head of the Hotel and Restaurant Association called the Monday fracas a “coup de gras” for tourism.  Of course, there’s no rule that a visit to Oaxaca during this period has to include attendance at the amphitheater.  There are many Guelaguetzas being performed in outlying villages.  They will be free and in some ways more authentic; and they are likely to be overseen by friendly and generous local folks committed to the comfort and enjoyment of visitors.
Things could get pretty ugly in the next couple of weeks.  Some gringos are already talking about leaving town for a while.  We just got back a few weeks ago, and we’re not going anywhere.  We still believe that Oaxaca is safe, although more caution must be exercised.
We will continue to monitor the situation as best we can without getting tear-gassed or beaten.  We are not heroes, nor are we looking to be martyrs, so we will be careful.
Care, however, is the watchword. At the moment, Oaxaca is in the midst of another in what may prove to be a long series of convulsions.  There will be periods of relative calm, interspersed with violence, as the armed elements of state repression battle desperately to hang on to the status quo in the face of massive civic unrest.