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Report from Oaxaca: Federal Police Do Not Have Control of the City

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Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent in thousands of federal police to Oaxaca to crush the popular uprising there. We go to Oaxaca to speak with Gustavo Esteva, founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca. Esteva says, “The police can come and occupy with all their weapons and tanks. They can occupy one area, they can occupy one specific point, but they cannot control the city. They cannot take over our lives and our country.” [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to Oaxaca where Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent in thousands of federal police to crush the popular uprising.

Last night police stormed the city with armored vehicles, helicopters and water cannons. The police seized control of the city square.

Over the past four months, the residents of Oaxaca–sparked by a teachers strike–had turned the city into an autonomous zone. The police and official government had been kicked out–in its place the protesters formed the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca or APPO.

For months entire families have been camping outside to oversee barricades protecting the city. The protesters have been demanding the resignation of the state’s governor Ulises Ruiz and the formation of a more representative government.

But in recent weeks the authorities have used increasingly violent tactics to crush the largely non-violent movement.

On Friday gunmen linked to the government shot dead the New York Indymedia journalist and activist Brad Will as well as a local teacher named Emilio Alonso Fabian and a demonstrator named Esteban Zurita. Two more protesters were shot dead on Sunday.

We talk more about Brad Will’s life later in the show but first we go to Oaxaca to speak with Gustavo Esteva. He is the founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca and author of many books including “Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Culture.” Gustavo is also a columnist for La Jornada.

  • Gustavo Esteva, founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca and author of many books including “Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Culture.” Gustavo has also been a columnist for La Jornada.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll talk more about Brad Will’s life in the program. But first, we go to Oaxaca to speak to Gustavo Esteva. He is the founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca and author of many books, including Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. Gustavo is also a columnist for La Jornada. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Good morning. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the latest news right out of Oaxaca — the storming of the city square by the federal police?

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Well, basically, we have at least three persons dead. We have also lots of injured, people disappeared, and many people in jail. And they are transporting them to the military zone, involving the army in this illegally. And we have reports that some of them are being tortured.

The police is occupying several points in the city. What was most impressive yesterday, it was an amazing self-restraint of thousands of people, due to the decision of not confronting the police and abandoning the area for the police to occupy it, but then, immediately after that, surrounding the police. And then you have, yes, the police is occupying these critical strategic points, but the people are surrounding them. They are not in control of the city; the people are still in control of the city, of our lives, not confronting, using nonviolence.

I don’t know for how long we will be able to control the rage of the people to have this self-restraint. Yesterday, you could see many adults controlling the rage of the young people that wanted to attack. These are people that have been humiliated, offended, attacked and oppressed, and they have a lot of anger. But still, they controlled their anger and decided to use nonviolence. But we don’t know for how long we will be able to control the young people that are ready to confront the police and start more violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo, I want to play for you part of one of the last interviews that Brad Will conducted before his death. It was with a female protester in Oaxaca. We don’t know her name, but the footage was found on Brad’s last videotape.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: [translated] From the pickup you see over there, two men got out, gun in hand, and started shooting at us. From that pickup over there, they went there. Then they started attacking us. That’s why all the people came outside to defend us. This morning, one of our comrades was kidnapped. He was taken by three men, and he hasn’t been found yet. That’s why they burned that pickup.

These guys are the priistas, members of the PRI, from the municipality of Santa Maria Ixcotel, and are paid for by the PRI. They’re paid 300 pesos a day to come and beat us up.

As you can see, we’re not teachers here. We’re just people. We are people here, not teachers. We’re people, not teachers. We’re just people, the people fighting for our rights. We don’t want to live like this anymore. We don’t want to live in a constant state of repression, of blackmail, of murder and shabby deals. When Ulises leaves Oaxaca, at that moment we will have peace. If he does not leave, we are not going to leave Oaxaca.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo, can you respond to what this protester said?

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Yes. First, what they are doing, this woman is expressing exactly the very nature of our movement: it’s basically democracy now. And, of course, we can specify what kind of democracy we are looking for. Of course, we want a formal democracy. We want cleaner elections. We want legitimate representatives, not an illegitimate governor, as Ulises Ruiz, or an illegitimate president, as Felipe Calderon. But we want also participatory democracy — that is, the involvement of the citizens in the decisions, including referendum and recall and all these tools for direct democracy. But we also want radical democracy, what we have in our municipalities, in our communities, when the people themselves, through assemblies, they can take decisions about their lives. We want democracy now.

And this is a peaceful, democratic uprising of the people, trying to follow all the lines of the paths of the law or the institutions, trying to respect the law and the institutions, trying to be nonviolent, and attacked by the police, attacked by these people. This woman was showing what we had in photos and videos, what blood was happening. The video of blood, the last video of blood is showing the killers. And the killers, we have the faces, we have the names, We have identified everyone. It is people of the police, people of respecting, following instructions of police. This is a governor launching guerrilla attacks against unarmed people. This is the kind of situation in which we are here.

AMY GOODMAN: Indymedia journalist Brad Will had been covering the situation in Oaxaca for four weeks. In his last dispatch from Oaxaca, he wrote about a demonstrator named Alejandro Garcia Hernandez, who was killed on the barricades. Brad wrote, quote, “one more death — one more martyr in a dirty war — one more time to cry and hurt — one more time to know power and its ugly head — one more bullet cracks the night.” Well, on Friday, Brad Will died at those same barricades. He had his video camera in his hand. His camera kept recording, even after he was shot.

[footage from Brad Will’s camera]

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Will died as he was being taken to the hospital. He was 36 years old. The Mexican daily, El Universal, has published photos of the alleged executioners. On Saturday, the mayor of Santa Lucia del Camino, Manuel Martinez Feria, said five men had been turned over to state authorities for possible involvement in the killing. He identified them as two members of the local city hall, two municipal police officers and the former justice of the peace of a nearby town.

Reporters Without Borders said it was deeply shocked over the killing of Brad Will. The organization called for Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz to be summoned before the new prosecutor’s office dealing with attacks on press freedom. It also urged federal authorities to investigate Ortiz and the Oaxaca municipal police.

John Gibler, as well, joins us on the phone from Oaxaca, an independent journalist who knew Brad Will. John Gibler, can you talk about Brad?

JOHN GIBLER: I met Brad in Chiapas, when the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign began last January. We traveled together with a number of other people throughout a month, as we were filming — or he was filming. I was mainly conducting interviews and writing for ZNet about the people, the everyday people who were coming out to join the Zapatistas’ movement there.

And then I saw him in the streets about a month ago here in Oaxaca for the first time since then, and we went off to get coffee and talked about what was going on. He said he had been trying to get here more or less since the state police came in the June 14th crackdown. It had taken him time to work up enough money to come down here and take time off work. And he was most interested in filming interviews with just the everyday people and the people that he thought their voices would slip through the cracks in international media coverage and not get out to the people that he was hoping would be paying attention to what was happening here in Oaxaca.

At first, he was saying he was really nervous. He didn’t want to walk around the barricades at night until he kind of got a feel for the town, which I thought was definitely very wise, and spent a couple of weeks just going out and hitting all the barricades, all the protest encampments, and conducting hours and hours of interviews with people. I saw him in several of the mobile brigades, where we joined the people who had commandeered city buses and go around to spray paint government offices. And he was definitely fearless, once he had gotten a feeling for the town, and just going wherever the action was. But he was also being smart. He was hanging out with all the national and the local press corps here who know the scene pretty well. But you can only be so smart when paramilitaries jump out of houses with machine guns.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Esteva, you also knew Brad Will. You also, in addition to founding the University of the Land in Oaxaca, are a columnist for La Jornada, the Mexican newspaper.

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Yes, yes. He was coming to our office. We were collaborating with Indymedia. And he was fantastic. I liked the guy a lot. He had a peculiar genius for reporting, and he was, of course, very courageous. Yes, he was prudent, as was just mentioned, but he was very courageous. He had no limits on his activity with the people, and he shared this element of being unarmed and doing his things and being attacked by these people. Yes, he had a peculiar genius for reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and when we come back we’ll continue this discussion and also the extended struggle, why the teachers originally went out on strike five months ago. We’re talking to Gustavo Esteva. He is a columnist for La Jornada. We’re also speaking with John Gibler. He is a U.S. journalist who is based in Oaxaca, like Brad Will, who was killed on Friday at one of the barricades, shot by men who have been identified and apparently have been taken into custody. The break today is Brad Will singing.


AMY GOODMAN: Federal police have laid siege to the city square in Oaxaca, as of last night. We’re talking today also about one of the people who were killed over the weekend. It’s believed six people were killed. Our guests are Gustavo Esteva, columnist for La Jornada, as well as in John Gibler, a U.S.-based journalist who is in Oaxaca right now and has been reporting for us. Gustavo, can you go back and talk about why the teachers went on strike five months ago? What is the significance of this uprising that has taken place?

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Well, the question was that the teachers started their strike, as usual. Every year, they are forced to do this kind of strike to get some improvement in their terrible conditions, terrible economic condition. But that was not something special. That was the usual thing.

But then, after three weeks of their strike, on June 14th, they suffered a terrible, stupid, barbaric repression by the police of Ulises Ruiz, the governor, and that was the detonator of the movement. People started to react immediately, joining and supporting, expressing solidarity with the teachers and expressing the decision to oust the governor. And then this was the detonator of the accumulated discontent of the whole state.

After that, five days later, we have APPO, the creation of this Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. We have a march of almost a million people. That is a third of the population of the state. We have every kind of activities after that, with — that was the consolidation, the expression of a very well organized discontent of the people. This is a movement without leaders, in which the people themselves, very well organized, with amazing courage and amazing capacity of expressing their will. They are organized first to oust this governor, and then to change our society, to create a different kind of society. We don’t want anymore this kind — as the woman said, we don’t want anymore this kind of repression, of corrupt government, of imposition of authoritarianism, and we want a different kind of conviviality in our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Gustavo, that you said that, in fact, the federal police don’t have control of the city, whether or not they’ve taken the city square. It’s certainly not what’s being reported in the U.S. press. The reports are that Vicente Fox, as a result of an American journalist being killed and others, moved in thousands of federal police to restore order to Oaxaca, and they have taken the city.

GUSTAVO ESTEVA: Well, the disorder has not been created by the people. It has been created by this barbaric, psychopathic governor. You see hired killers, and you’ve seen the structures of authority, that should protect the law, to violate the law. It is not the people themselves who have created disorder in the city. That is the alibi of President Fox, using the police to support this governor in a very peculiar structure of cynicism and complicity. It is a combination that is forcing the people of Oaxaca to pay a very heavy price for a democratic, peaceful struggle.

And I cannot avoid but remembering, it was Napoleon, they say, who said that “My units can be used for many things, except to sit on them.” You cannot govern or control the city with the police. The police, yes, can kill us. The police can come and occupy with all their weapons, with all their tanks. They can occupy one plaza. They can occupy one specific point, but they cannot control the city. They cannot govern the city. They cannot govern our lives and our conscience. We are in control of the city and in control of our lives. And we will surround these police with our bare hands, and we will still control our lives, not the police.

AMY GOODMAN: John Gibler, this report of the five men that have been taken and that Gustavo also commented on — on Saturday, the mayor of Santa Lucia del Camino said five men had been turned over to state authorities for the killing, identified as two members of the local city hall, two municipal police officers, the former justice of the peace of a nearby town. Just before Brad Will was killed, you did a piece on paramilitaries and death squads. Can you talk about them?

JOHN GIBLER: Absolutely. It’s really important to remember, and this kind of reinforces Gustavo’s point about who creates disorder in Oaxaca. Since August, paramilitary groups who have been identified in photographs have been driving through the city killing protesters at barricades, and they’ve been doing this with total impunity. The fact that they’ve claimed to have apprehended and turned over to authorities the five gunmen who were killing people on Friday is of little consolation, since they’ve had these people identified for months. And the very authorities themselves have taken steps back to actually trying to enforce the law and bring the gunmen to any kind of justice. Both the government and most of the press, especially the international press, has made much more of a fuss about protesters wearing bandannas and spray painting pretty buildings than they have about paramilitary death squads who have been driving around town, with total impunity, killing people for months.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to the response in New York to Brad Will being killed. And also, I want to let our radio listeners know that we are broadcasting this on television, of course, as we do every day, and all of the video here is available online at democracynow.org. But in New York, demonstrators gathering outside the Mexican consulate this morning at 9:00 a.m. to protest the murder of Brad Will and the killing of other peaceful protesters in Oaxaca.

Brad Will was a well-known and much loved activist and journalist in New York and around the world. He was involved in countless struggles over the past decade. Many in New York remember him standing on the roof of a squat on 5th Street in Manhattan just as New York was trying to demolish the building. The scene was captured in a documentary made by Paper Tiger Television. Brad would later play a key role in trying to protect the city’s community gardens. He hosted his own radio show on the pioneering microradio station, Steal This Radio. For years he was involved in the Indymedia network in New York, as well as in Latin America. He spent much of the past few years documenting the peoples’ movements in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, most recently Mexico.

On Saturday night, an emergency rally was held outside the Mexican consulate in New York. Speakers included longtime New York activist Beka Economopoulos.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: Our friend Brad Will was murdered by government-backed paramilitary forces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Now Brad’s death is being used as a pretext by the government and the media to send in more of those same troops. Brad was there to support and document the resistance of teachers and other civilians. We demand that his death not be used as an excuse to increase of the oppression and violence against the people of Oaxaca by government forces.

In solidarity with the people of Oaxaca, we demand that the federal government negotiate directly with people on the barricades in Oaxaca, remove all armed forces acting on behalf of the government against the people, the immediate removal of the illegitimate governor, Ruiz, all guilty parties at all levels be identified and held accountable for the assassination of Brad Will and other civilian victims in Oaxaca. We make these demands in support of the Oaxacan people’s efforts to establish a new autonomous popular government that recognizes local traditions and values.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Beka Economopoulos. Brandon Jourdon of the New York City Independent Media Center also spoke outside the Mexican consulate.

BRANDON JOURDON: Brad Will went to Oaxaca, because he was a firm believer in direct democracy. He went there to document what was happening amongst people there, who are trying to create a system of direct democracy. He died doing what he loved. He died with his passion, doing media activism and creating a radical alternative to the corporate media.

The Independent Media Center is a network of over 160 Independent Media Centers worldwide. This developed out of the movement against corporate globalization in 1999 in Seattle. Brad was a volunteer from the very beginning. Brad was close to all of us. He will be missed. He was a wonderful, gentle, beautiful person.

AMY GOODMAN: Indymedia journalist Brandon Jourdan outside the Mexican consulate.

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