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En Planton, the Women of Loxicha
A band of women from Loxicha have been encamped under the eaves of the governor's palace in Oaxaca for three and a half years. Despite hardship and discomfort, they remain firmly “en planton.” Their presence is a persistent petition for the release of their sons, husbands, and brothers, incarcerated as suspected members of the guerrilla EPR, the Popular Revolutionary Army.
Loxicha (pronounced low-see- cha) is a poor and isolated region near the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. The only paved road in the region is to Pochutla, on the highway from Oaxaca city to the coastal resort of Puerto Escondido. As one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest states in Mexico, Loxicha is a desperate place even in the best of times. In Loxicha, according to John Ross, in his book, The Annexation of Mexico, “babies die in the priests arms during baptism.”
Seven of the area's 32 municipalities have electricity. Medical care is scarce to non-existent as is potable water. Spanish is a second language to many of the region's Zapotec people. They live by farming corn, beans, and coffee. Always, what little they have, is threatened by those powerful, who must have more.
Since 1996, Loxicha has been the site of low intensity warfare conducted by the Army, State, and Federal Police forces and private militias, headed by pistoleros, the hired thugs of the caciques (local political bosses/landowners). The Latin American Federation of Associations for the Detainees and Disappeared has called Loxicha the most militarized and repressed zone in Mexico.
Eighty-six men of Loxicha are in jails in Oaxaca and in the Almoya maximum security prison in Mexico State. The prisoners comprise what was the entire municipal government of San Augustin Loxicha, the main town. Several are teachers. All deny any involvement with the EPR.
One hundred thirty-seven men were scooped up in the initial sweeps. Fifty-one have been released for absence of any evidence of guerilla involvement. The encamped women, in their third anniversary statement, say the large numbers of those released without charge clearly demonstrates the spurious nature of the arrests in the first place. The women deny they or their male relatives have any involvement or contact with the EPR. They say the caciques and their allies in the government are using the anti-guerrilla campaign as a pretext to eliminate the local political opposition.
The women and their children cook and sleep in their encampment along the south edge of Oaxaca's central square. They sell baskets, woven by the imprisoned men, to tourists. The children solicit donations in the square. About 30 women and 20 children are in the encampment at any one time. They stay for varying lengths, traveling by bus between Loxicha and Oaxaca city. Some stay for months at a time.
In 1978, the people of Loxicha expelled the cacique families. This successful uprising followed years of the caciques cheating the coffee workers out of their wages, misappropriations from the public treasuries, intimidation, and murders. Oaxaca, like neighboring Guerrero and Chiapas, includes strong traditions of local decision-making. The people of Loxicha used their traditional forum to strip the caciques' authority and reclaimed a bit of political autonomy. The caciques gradually made inroads over time, but stayed largely absent until 1996.
In the meantime, Mexico underwent cataclysmic changes. The Zapatista uprising in response to NAFTA's neoliberal vision, inspired social struggle on all fronts, including awakening several latent guerrilla armies. The EPR is one of these. This army marched into the public eye in 1996, at the one-year anniversary of the massacre of Aguas Blancas.
In 1995, at Aguas Blancas, Guerrero state police, without warning, opened fire on farmers protesting the governor's failure to deliver promised fertilizer. Seventeen demonstrators were killed and twenty-three were wounded. Police put weapons into the hands of the dead before photographing the bodies. The television networks broadcast doctored footage of the attack as evidence that the police had defeated an armed guerilla force. Eventually the actual footage of the massacre appeared, corroborating reports of a police ambush of unarmed farmers.
Jogging out of the hills and into the anniversary memorial ceremony, the uniformed guerrillas initially frightened the mourners, who thought they were from the Mexican army, come to finish what the police had started a year before. Not the army, the EPR declared themselves “companeros,” and hoisted an EPR flag. They placed white flowers on the monument to the dead and read their “Declaration of Aguas Blancas,” calling for a popular uprising in support of old left style reforms.
A series of EPR attacks around Guerrero was followed on August 28, 1996 by coordinated assaults on police forces and Federal Electricity Commission installations in six states. Among these were assaults on police barracks in Acapulco, in Guerrero State and Huatulco, Oaxaca, a developing resort much touted by the Mexican government.
This threat to the lucrative tourist trade made the EPR an instant priority for Mexican law enforcement and the military. It also seems to have become an excuse for political reckoning, southern Mexico style. When the military and the Federales invaded Loxicha on September 5, 1996, several once expelled pistoleros were among them, dressed in Federal Police uniforms, pointing out the men who should be taken away.
The prisoners were reportedly tortured to extract predetermined “confessions.” Mexican government reports indicate that torture is common in the jails of Oaxaca and other states. One prisoner described being tortured as men in FBI caps stood by. The FBI explained that U.S. agents had probably exchanged caps with Mexican Federal Police agents during a recent training encounter. Other witnesses describe the FBI cap wearers as looking like gringos and “not speaking Spanish well.”
There was U.S. interest, at least peripherally. More than a dozen U.S. timber companies were building up for NAFTA operations in Mexico. Boise Cascade, through its Mexican subsidiary, Costa Grande, had begun logging operations in Guerrero. They were reported to own timber properties in Oaxaca as well. Wide-scale ecological destruction resulting from logging was a key issue in the farmers' protest movement that the EPR endorsed.
Boise Cascade has since ceased all operations in Mexico and liquidated its assets there. The company's web site says that Boise's pull out from Mexico had nothing to do with local opposition. The company claims to have discovered there was opposition only after the fact, by reading about it in the news.
Discussing the EPR in relation to the prisoners of Loxicha, even as background, is perhaps to continue the mischaracterization of the situation. The people of Loxicha share many of the same complaints as the EPR, but that is not evidence that they are guerillas. Most of the evidence points the other way. The EPR is wealthy enough to have several times abandoned large arms caches subsequently discovered by the government. The EPR, whoever they are, have access to money. This is not a characteristic of the struggling people of Loxicha. A report by K. Ramirez and A. Frumin, published by Global Exchange indicates persistent doubt that Loxicha is the hotbed of EPR activity that the government claims. “The EPR has yet to make an official public statement concerning Oaxaca. The published communiques have appeared in Huasteca, Mexico State, and in the daily liberal paper, La Jornada (Sorroza, 12/29/96). For this reason, many people feel the EPR's intellectual authors are not centered in Oaxaca.”
The women encamped in the square do not deny that there are members of the EPR to be found among the Zapotec of Loxicha. They firmly insist however, that the local community leaders are not among them, nor is the EPR in any way connected with the local institutions. What EPR support there is, is isolated and individual, and by attacking the whole region, the government has other goals in mind than destroying the EPR.
Despite its peripheral involvement in EPR activity, Loxicha is where the Mexican Government has centered its counterinsurgency campaign. The Mexican army has bases in four of the towns in Loxicha and regularly patrols the region. Federal and state militarized police have a heavy presence. Foreign visitors require a special visa to venture past Pochutla. Human rights groups visiting the area are routinely harassed by the army and threatened and attacked by militias. Oaxaca's governor has said that he cannot guarantee the safety of any outsider who visits Loxicha. Farmers are afraid to take their crops to town for fear of the authorities.
The women of Loxicha remain encamped, pressing their case, not only for the release of the prisoners, but also for the demilitarization of Loxicha and improvement of the infrastructure.
While there are occasional grumblings in editorials about the unsightliness of a long-term encampment in Oaxa- ca's picturesque city center, local sentiment is accommodating, if not enthusiastically supportive. No one denies that the women have legitimate grievances. The government doesn't try to refute it, nor does it have the will to confront the women. It ignores them, while it does its brutal work miles away, in Loxicha, effectively invisible to the world. Z
Troy Skeels is an editor of Eat the State, a biweekly journal published in Seattle (www.eatthestate.org).