San Juan Copala – Mexico’s Gaza

San Juan Copala – Mexico’s Gaza

By Julie Webb-Pullman

San Juan Copala, political and cultural centre of the indigenous Triqui people, lies in Oaxaca State, and is one of the poorest and strife-torn areas in Mexico.

In an attempt to break the cycle of poverty, inequality, exclusion, and persistent human rights violations, and to unite the Triqui people and preserve their culture and traditions – as well as to distance themselves from the rampant corruption and violence of local political parties – the community declared itself an autonomous indigenous community in 2007.


Rejecting political parties and organizations, it governed using traditional indigenous forms of governance called ‘usos y costumbres’, or ‘uses and customs,’ headed by ‘natural leaders’, ie people chosen by the community because of their substantial record of community service, rather than by people who put themselves forward.

Fearing the loss of power such autonomy represented for them, it was not long before the existing political parties and leaders actively and violently sought to overthrow it by fostering divisions within the Triqui themselves, and supporting two paramilitary groups, UBISORT and MULT, not least because dozens of communities which had previously supported them joined the autonomous initiative.

UBISORT (Union for the Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region), is affiliated to the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party), the ex- ruling party, and a significant political force in Mexico. It is also the party of Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (Uro), notorious for gross human rights abuses, most notably in 2006-7.[i]

MULT is the Triqui Movement for Unification and Struggle, not to be confused with San Juan Copala’s MULTI, or Independent Triqui Movement for Unification and Struggle, to which MULT is opposed.

Violent Repression and Blockade

Since the declaration of autonomy, dozens of MULTI have been killed, allegedly by members of these two paramilitary groups, and in January 2010 San Juan Copala, a community of some 800 people, was blockaded by UBISORT.

As Amnesty International reported in early May:

UBISORT broke the water pipe into the community, forcing residents to use a contaminated water source, and have prevented damaged electricity cables from being repaired. Only a few residents are allowed to fetch food on foot from the nearest town. All vehicles have been turned back since early April. Shots have been fired into the community from the surrounding hills and on 17 April, José Celestino Hernández Cruz, a man from San Juan Copala, was killed by UBISORT. Since then the siege of the community has intensified. Teachers and medical staff cannot enter the community, restricting access to education and health services.[ii]

Attack on Humanitarian Aid Mission

Finding themselves cut off from the outside world and without clean water, sufficient food or medicine, the autonomous municipality sent out a call for help. As one of those who responded reports:

We answered that call because of the terrible situation faced by the people. These companeros had come to Oaxaca City during the uprising of 2006 and now it was our turn to go to them in their time of need.[iii]

What happened to the international group trying to bring aid was little different to what occurred last week in international waters 75 miles off the coast of Israel. Amnesty International continued:

On 27 April a group of human rights defenders, activists and journalists accompanied by international observers tried to reach San Juan Copala to raise awareness of the siege and bring aid. Armed members of UBISORT ambushed them, killing one woman, local human rights defender Alberta Cariño, known as Beatriz or Bety, and a Finnish man, Jyri Antero Jaakkola.

– and more deaths

Despite some national and international media attention to these two killings, the violence, abductions and murders continue. On 14 May UBISORT held two women for two hours and threatened them. The next day:

this same group, commanded by RUFINO and ANASTACIO JUÁREZ HERNANDEZ, kidnapped twelve inhabitants of the AUTONOMOUS MUNICIPALITY of San Juan Copala for an entire night; during which time they were beaten, threatened and stripped of all their belongings, including the food which they had previously bought in Juxtlahuaca, as well as money, denounced the Authorities of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala.[iv]

Only days later, on 20 May, there were another two murders – Timoteo Alejandro Ramirez, leader of the Triqui indigenous community in Yosyuxi ,and his wife Cleriberta Castro. Timoteo was one of the main drivers of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala, and a principal leader of MULTI.[v]

National and International Response

Neither federal nor state authorities have taken any action to end the siege of San Juan Copala, or to bring any of the killers to justice.

On the contrary, Oaxacan officials, like Israel, have resorted to victim-blaming. Jorge Alberto Quezadas Jiménez, the commissioner of State Police, reportedly declared the murdered Finnish human rights observer did not have permission:

to carry out this type of incursion….it’s a difficulty, we have seen in different mobilizations. Many people who are not from Oaxaca and for some reason we don’t know, try to intervene in some decisions that belong only to the state. Therefore, the state security police will solicit the collaboration of the National Immigration Service to look into cases of illegal action and deport foreigners to their countries of origin.

Davies went on to say that the campaign against foreigners was taken up and supported by the Mexican ambassador to the European Union, Sandra Fuentes-Berain, who assured the European Parliament that the caravan ambush and murders of two participants was an ‘accident’ which occurred due to internal conflicts in the Triqui region.[vi]

The international response has been somewhat more positive. Members of the European Parliament last week appealed to the Mexican Government to protect the international caravan that on 8 June will again attempt to deliver food, clothing, and medicines to the besieged community,[vii] and international human rights bodies such as Amnesty International plus numerous other social movements and organizations have echoed their call.

However, the indications are not promising – the San Juan Copala autonomous authorities reported today that near the community of La Sabana the road to San Juan Copala was blocked with large boulders on the night of June 5, probably placed there by heavy machinery to prevent entrance by the caravan.

The next 24 hours will show whether Mexico, like Israel, believes it can ride rough-shod over human rights.

Our international response will determine whether both can do it with impunity.

[i] Report Concerning the Events of Oaxaca International Civil Commission for Human Rights Observation (2006) , Informe Especial sobre los hechos sucedido en la cd de Oaxaca del 2 de junio 2006 al 21 de enero 2007 Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos , Oaxaca: Un conflicto todavía abierto Servicio Internacional para la Paz (S!PAZ) (2007) ,

[ii] Amnesty International report 41/03/2010

[iii] Oaxaca: Aftermath of the Ambush Ramor Ryan

[iv] San Juan Copala: On the second caravan and the autonomous project Authorities of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala

[v] Grupo paramilitar mata a Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez Contralinea Here is the link to one of their videos,” a testimony of the severe humanitarian crisis generated in the region, and a condemnation of the flagrant irresponsibility of both the federal and state governments.” (hispanicLA)

[vi] Oaxaca: The Ongoing Extermination of San Juan Copala’s Autonomous Triquis Nancy Davies

[vii] EU Lawmakers Ask Mexico to Protect Rights Caravan Latin American Herald Tribune

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