“In Oaxaca, Because There’s Culture, There’s Resistance”:
A Full Report on the Battle for Oaxaca, July 16, 2007

By Kelly Lee, Michael GW, and James Kautz

On the morning of July 16, 2007, the people of Oaxaca poured into the Zocalo, intent on reclaiming their annual cultural celebration known as the Guelagetza. By late morning, the “People’s Guelagetza” had become a “megamarcha” with thousands taking to the streets. By early afternoon, it had become a battle for the city, after police attacked the peaceful march.

In the indigenous language of Zapoteco, Guelagetza means “to participate and cooperate at the same time.” For hundreds of years, it has represented a space where peoples came together from across Oaxaca to celebrate and share their cultures.

But in recent years, the festival has been turned into a commercial spectacle for the benefit of tourists and corporations, with native Oaxaqueños having to pay thousands of dollars to watch as cheapened versions of their traditions and histories are sold off. This year, the official Guelagetza is being sponsored by Coca-Cola, Inc. and the government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

“The official Guelagetza is not us,” explained one woman, a Oaxaqueña artisan. “Our Guelagetza has to be shared... It’s like our life itself,” said another artisan.

This year, in a bold attempt to reclaim an authentic traditional celebration from the government and big business, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) called for a boycott of the official Guelaguetza, organizing an alternative festival.

The People’s Guelaguetza was part of a resurgence of the popular movement to overthrow “the tyrant” Governor Ulises Ruiz, and to strive for self-determination of the people of Oaxaca, calling for “Todo el poder al pueblo,” “All the power to the people.”

“The movement hasn’t gone away,” said Dzahui and Patrocinio, two indigenous students who are activists with the APPO. “People have gained consciousness. We know that, yes, we can...The people can govern themselves.”

For a time in 2006, the people of Oaxaca did govern themselves, as popular assemblies successfully took over the city from the government. But last fall, government forces crushed the popular rebellion and regained control through violent repression, detentions and disappearances.

“The state strikes fear into the people,” Dzahui explained. “It’s something like terrorism. But the people are losing the fear.”

In Oaxaca, the resistance movement has been growing steadily over the past few months, with major actions marking the anniversary of last year’s uprising. But the repression has persisted. The Federal Preventive Police (PFP) still occupy and patrol the streets of Oaxaca City, aided by local gunmen known as “porros” and “pistoleros.”

Meanwhile, in the countryside, the government has suppressed popular movements by waging low-intensity warfare on autonomous indigenous communities. Recently, paramilitaries opened fire on indigenous protesters defending the forests around San Isidro.

Early this month, Oaxaca was declared in a state of siege after Leftist guerillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) reportedly blew up gas pipelines of the Pemex corporation. On July 14, the government used the attacks as its rationale for the military cordon formed around the Guelagetza Auditorium, blocking the entry of the People’s Guelagetza.

That day, Florentino Lopez, a spokesperson for the APPO, issued this statement: “We denounce that the state government tries to repress those who attend the People’s Guelaguetza. We denounce that it tries to massacre the people, for which we declare ourselves on alert and we hold Ulises Ruiz and the federal government responsible.”

Nonetheless, the APPO went forward with the opening events of the People’s Guelaguetza, the colorful Convite and the nighttime Calenda on July 14 and 15. The Lunes del Cerro, the biggest day of the festival, began early on a damp morning in the Zocalo. The rain came and went, but the people kept coming.

The plaza was already bustling with an alternative APPO street fair, encircled by a fair sponsored by the governing party of Ulises Ruiz. On many walls, fresh paint declared, “Long Live the People’s Guelaguetza! Boycott the Commercial Guelaguetza!” with stencils of a crowd of indigenous women, and of a man in indigenous dress, gun and machete in hand, a skull of mourning in his headdress.

At 9 am, the cultural delegations began streaming in from all across Oaxaca, from the mountains, the valleys, the isthmus. They paraded around the Zocalo to the cheers of waiting crowds of (mostly) Oaxaqueños who had come to celebrate their own Guelaguetza. The air was full of joy, festivity, defiance. The brass bands struck up a number, the dancers started up a dance, many decked out in bright colors, carrying flowers, flags and traditional symbols.

Then, with the brass bands blaring and the delegations leading the way, the People’s Guelaguetza took to the streets. They were headed for the Auditorium at the Fortín Mountain, military cordon be damned. The people began to chant:

“Oaxaca lives, the struggle continues!”

The march route soon became a river of bodies with people chanting, dancing, singing and playing music. The cultural delegations, in their traditional dress and costumes, performed, danced and chanted as they walked.

“Ulises, understand, the culture is not for sale!”

The mood of the crowd was festive and determined, its displays of spontaneous celebration reflecting the hopes and frustrations of peoples seeking to reclaim the dignity and authenticity of their cultures and traditions, which they felt had been betrayed and commercialized for profit in the official Guelaguetza.

The growing crowd was made up of people both young and old, male and female, indigenous, mestizo and foreign. Mothers and fathers marched with children at their sides or in their arms. Students chanted with working people, as older men and women sang and danced. Oaxaqueños and visitors moved freely among each other. Resistance and unity in motion.

“Women to the center!” some cried, and the women of Oaxaca took the center of the street, clapping, chanting, cheering.

As the crowd approached the Fortín Mountain, it had grown to over 10,000 participants and observers, according to the official estimates of the Oaxacan newspaper Noticias.

“You see it, you feel it, the people are present!”

Just hundreds of feet from the auditorium, the march was met with hundreds of police, who lined up to create a wall across the avenue, preventing people from accessing the auditorium. Nearby, trucks were full of reinforcement officers waiting for escalation. There were Federal Preventive Police, Municipal Police, Industrial and Bank Police, the Elite Police of the Mexican Army.

They stood in full combat gear, ready to make war with the People’s Guelaguetza. Some chewed gum, smug and smiling. Some, mere boys, looked on terrified. They all wielded big wooden bats. They sported shields, helmets, ammunition belts, tear gas guns, real guns.

At first, only a few hundred people approached the police line, with the rest of the march about ten yards back, continuing to chant and play music:

“We must press, we must press, the People’s Guelaguetza!”

The APPO attempted to negotiate a way for people to enter the auditorium, but no go. Orders were orders. They had come from the top: “If there is no permission, order must be enforced” were the words of Sergio Segriste Ríos, Secretary of Citizen Protection, in a statement to the press two days before.

As the crowd’s hope was transformed into anger, there grew an explosive tension in the air between the people and the police. The unarmed crowd was decidedly unafraid of the armed officers standing before them. These were people accustomed to such repression, yet still infuriated by it. The crowd began to fill in towards the officers, and people moved between each other, bodies in conversation.

The people wanted only to pass, they declared. They wanted no violence. Old women scolded the police, children looked up and asked why not. People held out empty hands to show they were unarmed. They demanded to pass, but held back from pushing forward towards the police. A cushion of space still separated them.

Only the cultural delegations turned back—they would resist in their own way. On the other side of the police line appeared another, smaller crowd, supporters from over the mountain who had come for the Guelaguetza. They raised their hands and cheered. ¨Join us!¨ cried the crowd across the police line, but they could not. The police now had two fronts, one behind and one ahead.

Over the course of 15 minutes, anger continued to mount at what was seen as an occupying army, standing in the way of the People’s Guelaguetza. Some in the crowd chanted, some joked and talked, their words intermittently interrupted by the pop-pop of firecrackers. Others stood silent, ready for the attack which they knew would eventually come, and which many had experienced in other places and times.

“Assassins! Assassins!” they shouted, for all the times they had seen it before.

There was an atmosphere of normality at the scene, as if this show of governmental force and repression was expected and familiar. “Once again, ” as Florentino Lopez of the APPO commented, ¨the state will try to drown in blood the struggle of the people.”

Fists were raised high now. Voices, too: “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

In the middle of the chants, the police line systematically pushed into the crowd, batons raised, attempting to drive people back down the street. Again, people held up open palms: We are unarmed. We are families, children, old women and men. We are the people of Oaxaca. But the police were charging, batons swinging, striking bodies and cracking heads.

In response to this offensive action, the crowd began throwing small rocks from a decorative trough that lay before the Plaza Fortín Hotel. Immediately came the tear gas, boom, boom, canister after canister, tracing long arcs through the air. The people began to scatter, but not far. They turned back around to hold their ground.

As a young participant named Carlos would later describe it, “The repression came from the government. We did nothing more than defend ourselves...The repression was a weapon of the government against those who raised their voice.”

The strongest weapon in the hands of the government was the tear gas. People crying, covering their faces, cradling their heads or others’ heads. Running, stumbling, fighting their way through the gas clouds for dear life. Men and women grabbed the smoking canisters and threw them back, sacrificing their eyes and skin. Groups of medics and supporters rushing in to aid people impacted by the gas or injured by projectiles.

Still, the movement of people seemed fluid and almost natural, approaching and retreating from the line of officers. It was the motion of people tired of this customary violence and repression, but also of people who seemed to know how to take care of and defend each other. Women and men, old and young, threw projectiles, administered aid, carried their comrades to safety.

The gas attack intensifying, more rocks flying in both directions. Women and men of all ages began breaking off pieces of pavement and brick, making piles in the street for others to throw. A woman, older and dressed in her Sunday’s best, cracked the roadway’s divider, chiseling free large red bricks to be thrown back at the Federal Preventive Police.

The crowd began to see the rising cost of resistance in the combatants and bystanders being helped or carried back from the frontlines, heaving from the gas, bloodied and broken by batons or projectiles thrown by the police, some of the people obviously unconscious.

Police reinforcements now attempted to surround the crowd from the side streets. To halt their advance, barricades went up—makeshift barricades made of street signs, poles, advertisements, whatever people could get their hands on. They recalled the barricades built by the hundreds to defend the neighborhoods here in 2006.

A bus was driven into the middle of the avenue, then a second, then a third. They formed a much bigger barricade. As officers attempted to seize the buses, the crowd forced them out. Others proceeded to push back the entire police line, this time with fire. The buses were set ablaze with molotov cocktails.

Soon, big plumes of black smoke were wafting through the air, mingling with the tear gas over the buses and barricades. On one of the buses was spraypainted, “Resistance can do it.” Other buses reportedly commandeered and driven by supporters soon arrived on the avenue.

Reporters and photographers—ourselves among them—scrambled throughout the crowd, recording the clash of people and police. “Let people see what is happening,” said one bystander. “Let everybody see what this evil government is doing to people.”

Police and army reinforcements were coming from all sides. They swarmed down from the top of the hill, over rooftops, down stairs, through people’s gardens. In the face of this overwhelming force, the remaining crowds beat a retreat. Small fronts held their ground at nearby intersections, vowing to defend the streets.

It began to rain, hard. Boys and girls stood in the rain, handing each other sticks and masks for security. An empty Coke truck, burst open and ransacked, sat lonely on an empty side street. As it turned out, Coca-Cola, Inc., which had supplied its sponsorship for the official Guelaguetza, had also supplied the combatants with their cocktails and the street medics with their solutions.

And as a man down the street displayed for onlookers, Combined Systems, Inc., of Jamestown, Pennsylvania had supplied the police with CN Gas, their weapon of choice.

Mothers and fathers looked for their children along streets still thick with the gas. “I lost my daughter,” cried one woman, weeping as another helped her walk. “She went to the front and I can’t find her, I can’t find her.”

A few blocks away, the streets of the center were clogged with traffic as tourists and some residents drove out in horror, staring from fogged windows and shaking their heads.

After over five hours of combat, the day´s battles were coming to an end. On the other side of town, at the Plaza de la Danza, the delegations had managed to resume the Guelaguetza on a makeshift stage, in spite of the repression, in spite of it all.

Roman, a Oaxaqueño teacher and APPO activist, later argued, “It’s another victory for the people’s resistance in Oaxaca. Because it didn’t happen that the People’s Guelaguetza was suspended. To the contrary.”

The response of the mainstream press to these events of July 16th has been either silence or spin. The Associated Press reproduced the Oaxacan government’s statement verbatim: “About 200 people wearing masks and carrying sticks, stones and bottle rockets began to provoke the police...The police repelled the attack using tear gas.” But independent media reports, photos and video have all debunked the government’s version of events.

The world is only now learning how dearly the people of Oaxaca have paid for their Guelaguetza and their resistance: 65 detained or disappeared, 50 seriously injured and possibly one protester dead (still unconfirmed) at the hands of the police. There have also been widespread reports of torture, beating and sexual abuse inside the prisons.

The APPO is now mobilizing all its forces against government repression and police violence, and for the release of all prisoners and disappeared. At the same time, the APPO refuses to negotiate with the government as long as Ulises Ruiz remains in power and the PFP continues to occupy the city. They have issued three immediate and non-negotiable demands:

“For an end to police repression, harassment, and intimidation of the social and popular movements in Oaxaca. Condemn governmental actions and indiscriminate use of force by the State and Federal police. Demand the release of all political prisoners, making Federal and State officials responsible in the case of arbitrary detentions and disappearances of civilians.”

The movement in Oaxaca is now joined in this campaign by national and international human rights organizations, and by a global movement of solidarity.

The APPO has issued an international call for “mobilizations in your own places of origin, to integrate yourselves into a human wall to stop the massacre against the people of Oaxaca.” Already protests have been initiated by the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign in Mexico and by the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) in California.

Back in Oaxaca, thousands marched again on July 18 to denounce the police brutality, and to cast light on the plight of their imprisoned, their disappeared, their wounded. La Marcha del Silencio, The March of Silence, began at dusk. Its participants, wearing black, marched silently from the Llano Park, down the winding streets and converging in the Zocalo.

Massive banners stretched the entire width of the street, displaying the names and faces of all those detained, disappeared and in police custody. Giant wooden crosses reading “Repression,” “Poverty” and “Misery” lined the march. There were puppets of fallen comrades, displays of flowers, entire families all masked in black, linked together by homemade chains. All silent.

The march concluded at the Zocalo with words shared from the victims’ families. The crowed responded to these speeches with a chorus of chants, echoed from one end of the square to the next:

“Liberty, liberty, to those imprisoned for struggling!”

The day before, the APPO had met in an emergency assembly, where “agreements are made...democratically, with the participation of all.” On July 18, the assembly announced its plan to push ahead with the boycott of the commercial Guelaguetza, to hold massive “marches of mourning” every three days, and to reestablish its encampment in the Zocalo.

Many here see the Battle of the Guelaguetza—or the “Guerraguetza,” as some are now calling it—as something much deeper than a one-day protest. Movement participants see it as a battle for Oaxaca itself, for its culture and its people.

Patrocinio, indigenous student activist, said the demonstration was about “reclaiming the traditions, rescuing the culture of our ancestors...The government doesn’t give the people what they need, so we say ‘Ya Basta!’ [Enough is enough!]”

As one of the anonymous women in an APPO artisans’ collective put it, the night after the repression, “The government can rob everything, but it can’t rob your dignity, your culture, your customs and traditions…In Oaxaca, because there’s culture, there’s resistance.”

Teacher-activist Roman had this to say after the day was over: “We will no longer permit our traditions and our culture to be sold to the best bidder. Today demonstrated that the Guelaguetza has recuperated its origins, in which the peoples of Oaxaca can coexist without selling the culture.” “For this,” he continued, “the people of Oaxaca have decided to struggle until their victory.”

At his side that night of the 16th in the Zocalo, another teacher, a poet and indigenous activist, offered these words to those who would listen:

“When I sing and speak the truth, this is my protest. And when I sing, I open other songs. But my song of Oaxaca doesn’t exist today, because the police are here. Where are you, Oaxaca, where are you? I love you, Oaxaca, and I am with you.”

Written by three eyewitnesses and independent reporters: Kelly Lee (Boston), James Kautz and Michael GW (New York City). Photographs and interviews by Michael GW.