The killings in San Juan Copala


On April 26, 2010, some twenty militants and international observers set off for San Juan Copala, a village of around 700 inhabitants located about 250 kilometers from the city of Oaxaca and belonging to the Triqui ethnic group who live in the Sierra Mixteca region. Arriving in Huajuapan de Leon, where the convoy spent the night, they distributed a text denouncing the paramilitary group UBISORT (Unidad de Bienstar Social de la Región Triqui, Unity of Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region), which had maintained a state of siege against the village of San Juan Copala, controlling the comings and goings of its residents.

The situation in San Juan Copala was alarming. Schools were closed, and on April 17, a local farmer, José Celestino Hernandez Cruz, was mowed down in a spray of bullets from an AK-47, the latest in a long series of homicides—around 600 in the last 30 years—none of whose perpetrators have been punished. Among the victims were Teresa Bautista and Felicitas Martinez, two young journalists from the community radio station, “La Voz que rompe el silencio” (“The voice that breaks the silence”), who were killed in 2008. And now the paramilitaries had even cut off water and electricity to the village.

Why such fury? San Juan Copala is not just any place. It has been for many decades the focal point of conflicts in a region characterized by particularly despotic structures of power and by strong protest movements against such power. Contrary to some journalists’ accounts, this was not an ethnic conflict, but a political struggle, one that revealed all the absurdity of the existing system of governance.

The history of this struggle goes back at least to the 1970s, when, following one of many episodes of repression, the Movimiento de Unificación y Lucha Triqui (MULT or the Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle) was created, having as its objective to fight against the caciques (local political bosses) and to promote the autonomy of the Triqui people. This movement grew rapidly, to a point that it represented a threat to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), which had been the ruling party in Mexico since the late 1920s. Many of the founders of MULT were killed; others left for Mexico City; still others fled to the United States. In the end, the PRI took control of the movement (and the MULT). In 1994, UBISORT was created as an armed branch of the PRI and assigned the task of disciplining the Triqui region, by whatever means, including the most drastic.

By the first years of this century, this goal seemed to have been achieved. While the PRI lost the presidential election to the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party, currently in power nationally in Mexico), it still controlled the state of Oaxaca by means of repeated acts of repression, corruption, and some modest economic aid. This equilibrium was precarious, and unrest surged again in 2004 with the arrival of a new governor in Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who represented a fusion of the old system of corruption and a new technocratic authoritarianism.

A new cycle of conflicts began in the Triqui region, and splits took place in the ranks of both MULT and UBISORT. In the wake of this, MULTI was born, the “I” at the end of the acronym standing for “Independent” to better underline MULTI’s separation from the PRI and its methods. In 2006, MULTI joined the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), the large social movement that succeeded for a brief moment in shaking the foundations of political power in Oaxaca. On January 1, 2007, following the example of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the citizens of San Juan Copala, supported by MULTI and even some dissidents from UBISORT, created their own autonomous municipality, thus breaking with the state and the existing system of parties.

The dream was still the same: to struggle for autonomy and to create decent living conditions for the Triqui people, something that was blatantly impossible with Ulises Ruiz in power. The situation in the Triqui region worsened toward the end of 2009, due to the indifference of the judicial system as much as the federal government. On November 29, 2009, an assault by paramilitaries of UBISORT took place, and a child, Elías Fernández de Jesús, was killed by a stray bullet. On December 10, 2009, after numerous attempts, the paramilitaries succeeded in retaking the communal hall in San Juan Copala, where an autonomous authority had been established nine months earlier.

The spiral of violence seemed inexorable and it was in this context that the initiative was taken to send a humanitarian convoy to San Juan Copala. Among the organizers of the convoy were the group VOCAL (Voces Oaxaqueñas Construyendo Autonomia y Libertad, Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom), the NGO Cactus (Centro de Apoyo Comunitario Trabajando Unidos, Center of Community Support Working Together), and la Red de Radio y Comunicadores Indigenas del Sureste mexicano, an association of community radios in southeast Mexico.

On April 27, 2010, the convoy left Hujaupan de León in the early morning. It had meanwhile been joined by two journalists from the review Contralinea, Erika Ramirez and David Cilia, who wanted to do a report on San Juan Copala, a village whose story was unknown to most Mexicans. The caravan also included some APPO militants and a delegation from Section 22 of the teachers union in Oaxaca who sought to reopen the schools in the village. The atmosphere was tense. The evening before, Rufino Juarez—the uncontested boss of UBISORT and agent of Evencio Martínez, the interior minister of Oaxaca state—had declared menacingly that he had not authorized the entry of the convoy into the Triqui region. It was the kind of language used by gangsters, and not one based on any legal authority.

Rufino Juarez made good on his threat. At about 2:30 on April 27, the road was blocked at La Sabana, a locality around 1.5 kilometers from San Juan Copala. Suddenly, masked and heavily armed men appeared and opened fire without a word, killing Bety Cariño, the president of Cactus, and Jyri Jaakkola, a young Finnish national from the NGO Uusi Tuuli Ry (New Wind), both of whom were riding in the first vehicle of the convoy. There was at least one other person who was gravely wounded: Monica Citlali Santiago Ortiz, who was transported to the nearby hospital in Santiago Juxtlahuaca. A moment of panic ensued after the ambush. The remaining passengers sought shelter on either side of the road. Some of them were taken prisoner; others hid in the bushes. A few managed to escape and sound the alarm.

Gabriela Jimenez reached Oaxaca, where she gave a press conference at the headquarters of Section 22. There, before television cameras and journalists, she revealed that the attackers, who for the most part were very young, were all UBISORT militants who had boasted that they enjoyed the protection of the governor, Ulises Ruiz. This would appear to clear up the mystery as to why the forces of order had refrained from intervening. “We won’t interfere. We are afraid for the safety of our men,” the commander of the Oaxaca state police had declared.

Meanwhile, the number of those who were unaccounted for after the attack on the convoy had risen. Among these were the Italian Davide Cassinari, the Belgian Martin Santana, the two journalists from Contralinea, and two well-known militants from VOCAL, David Venegas and Noé Bautista. Thanks to a video clip filmed and sent by mobile phone, it was quickly known that they were alive and still in hiding for fear of reprisals. Two of them—David Cilia and Erika Ramirez—were wounded, each with a bullet in their bodies. For them, the ordeal that began with the ambush lasted more than 60 hours. On April 29, all those who had remained encircled managed to escape. Venegas and Bautista reached Oaxaca in the evening, while Cilia and Ramirez were treated at the hospital in Juxtlahuaca, where they had been transported by a helicopter hired by the publisher of Contralinea and Cilia’s father, without the slightest help from either the federal government or the state authorities in Oaxaca.

In the end, nothing seems to have changed. Ulises Ruiz declared that the ambush was all the fault of Gabino Cué, the tame opposition candidate in the next state elections. The guilty ones enjoyed the impunity that is customary in Oaxaca. The federal authorities remained silent and the European Union abstained from any comment on the events. Nonetheless, everything did not go as smoothly as it seemed. President Felipe Calderón was booed when he appeared at the Berlin forum on climate change on May 2. A protest banner proclaimed, “Never again another San Juan Copala.” Furthermore, newspapers across the world spoke of the terrible situation in which the Triquis live. The deaths of Bety and Jyri will therefore not have been in vain. In a recent communiqué, VOCAL has announced preparations for a new caravan of solidarity. The citizens of San Juan Copala are not alone.

Mexico City, May 3, 2001

Originally published as The Dream of San Juan Copala by Claudio Albertani
“So much misery, so much blood, so many dead, so many disappeared. What is happening in the Triqui region? What has happened in the communities? The convoy for Copala was stopped; they were young friends, they were brothers. Words were answered by bullets, but you cannot stop words.”
Manolo Pipas, Galician troubador, citizen of the world

See the statement on these events