Attempts to repress peasant uprisings have backfired
Aug 5th 2010 | OAXACA
A Triqui situation
GUNFIRE rings out almost every day around the village of San Juan Copala, as marksmen in the woods take potshots into the town. Eight residents are recovering from injuries, including an eight-year-old girl who was hit twice as she tried to leave the village. The gunmen have cut electricity and blocked access roads, allowing only a single party of women out once a week on an eight-hour hike to fetch food. The siege is entering its ninth month.
The tiny hamlet of some 400 Triqui Indians lies in the north-west of the state of Oaxaca. The shooters are thought to belong to the Union for the Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region (UBISORT)—a deceptively beneficent-sounding group set up by the ruling party in 1994 to enforce its authority in the remote mountain area.
In 2007 San Juan Copala and various nearby villages declared themselves an “autonomous municipality”. Since then the violence has worsened: over 100 people are thought to have been killed since the beginning of 2008. The terrorisation of the village, probably orchestrated in part by UBISORT paramilitaries, is punishment for this rebelliousness, says Marcos Albino, a Triqui spokesman. The message to other indigenous towns is clear, he says: “You take the risks and you pay the price.”
The state’s backing of local strongmen has only made the region harder to govern. UBISORT is at war with the Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT), a resistance group wooed by the government in the 1990s. It now receives over 17m pesos ($1.35m) of public money a year, supposedly for social projects. Fighting between these rivals has made entering the area dangerous. On June 8th a caravan carrying doctors and federal deputies was turned back by gunmen. That followed an attack on human-rights activists and journalists on April 27th, which killed a local campaigner and a Finnish observer. Prosecutors have not inspected the crime scene because of worries about their own safety.
Two developments may force progress. First, on July 4th Oaxacan voters booted out the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI still acknowledges its links with UBISORT, although it says it opposes the group’s violent activities. In contrast, the new lot, an alliance of the PRI’s main rivals, will probably be less accommodating. Heriberto Pazos, the leader of MULT’s political wing, says he is willing to negotiate with the municipality’s leaders and ultimately with UBISORT.
Second, the murder of the Finnish observer has attracted outside attention. Juanita Cruz, a congresswoman, says her fellow lawmakers have become far more interested in the case since April. The often lethargic federal prosecutor’s office took it up within three days.
The case is being handled in Mexico City, free from pressure and intimidation. The families’ lawyer says he expects arrests soon—of funders and weapons-suppliers, as well as shooters. That would be a start. Brokering peace with Oaxaca’s indigenous groups may take longer.