Who’s in Charge in Oaxaca?

Times Staff Writer

The trouble here started in the classroom and has spilled into the streets of this colonial tourist capital, where a three-month teachers strike has grown into a dangerous and, at turns, farcical Mexican revolution.

Thousands of protesters camp in and around the central plaza. They maintain makeshift barricades of stones, boards and sheets of corrugated metal that seal off entire blocks surrounding the historic downtown.

What began as the Oaxacan teachers’ annual spring strike for higher wages has turned into a leftist free-for-all supported by various groups of farmers, students, unionists and Marxists. Their demands include the governor’s resignation, an end to unfettered capitalism and better schools. The list grows with the addition of more and more splinter groups.


Oaxaca’s downtown plaza has for 26 years been the center of protest camps by teachers that usually last a few weeks and end with a marginally better contract. The state of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest, has been run for nearly 80 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held the power to resolve such conflicts during the seven decades it also dominated the federal government.

But the PRI’s fall to last place among the three major parties in the July 2 national elections trumpeted its further fragmentation since its grip on power was broken six years earlier.

PRI Gov. Ulises Ruiz is now finding out how unruly Mexico’s new democracy can be. Since negotiations with the teachers union have stalled, he’s all but disappeared.

Meantime, no one’s working at City Hall, the police station or the nearby state capital offices. Each of the buildings is blocked by hundreds of men and women living under tarps. Five radio stations have been commandeered, and two people have been killed during demonstrations.

No police officers are in sight, except for the occasional rogue cops shooting from the back of pickup trucks in midnight raids. Businesses are suffering their worst tourist season ever. And fearful residents, who try to stay indoors at nightfall, take turns guarding the entrances to their neighborhoods with piles of rock, lumber and burning tires.

So who’s in charge of the capital city? The initials on the homemade flag flying over City Hall say the APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca.

“They are violent radicals, people with an ideology from the 1960s,” said Heliodoro Diaz, Oaxaca’s Interior secretary. “Their only objective is to break our institutions and the state with the goal of putting in a populist government and making their own laws.”

Diaz said the APPO, a small but potent force of a few thousand members, was formed by political opportunists jumping on the side of the teachers union.

But nothing in Mexico these days is so simple. The trouble in Oaxaca is a reflection of both a growing discontent among the nation’s poor, as well as a shuffling of power as Mexico adapts to a multiparty system, analysts say.

When Oaxaca’s 70,000 teachers went on strike May 22, the governor paid little attention. Ruiz was preoccupied with the presidential campaign of PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo, said Porfirio Santibanez, a professor at the Benito Juarez University of Oaxaca.

Madrazo, part of the PRI’s old guard, failed to win a single state in July’s presidential election. Party tactics over the last decades included a combination of persuasion, corruption and force, methods still in play in Oaxaca, Santibanez said.

A year ago, for example, police and union workers loyal to the PRI shut down a local newspaper that had supported Ruiz’s opponent the year before in the neck-and-neck governor’s race, smashing equipment and disrupting the paper for months.

“Change has come late to Oaxaca,” Santibanez said. “The PRI way of doing business is still alive, but now there’s a strong opposition movement.”

Ruiz shares some of the blame, APPO supporters say. He ordered hundreds of police officers to clear out the teachers from the plaza during a June 14 sweep. Using clubs and tear gas, the officers injured dozens of protesters, but the encampments remained.

The strong-arm tactic drew wider sympathy for teachers, whose monthly salaries of $400 to $600 are among the lowest in Mexico, and attracted a host of leftist groups to their side. Teacher salary demands then widened into calls for social change.

With Mexico’s former ruling party now struggling, the challenge to the PRI-run state could not have come at a better time for teachers.

Longtime teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo had visions of helping return the PRI to the presidency and was a Madrazo ally. But they had a bitter falling-out that culminated last year with Madrazo blocking her bid to become party president.

Gordillo worked against his campaign and undercut PRI votes by helping start a new national party, the New Alliance Party, which obtained about 1% of the national vote in July. The PRI revoked her party membership last month, and Gordillo’s quiet support of the Oaxaca teachers is now seen by many as payback.

Since the loss of the presidency to the National Action Party’s Vicente Fox in 2000, the PRI has increasingly relied on its governors to maintain influence and power, said Rogelio Hernandez Rodriguez, a professor at the College of Mexico.

“Without a strong national leader, the PRI is now dependent on the style and experience of each of its governors,” he said.

Among protesters, Ruiz has fared badly. The graffiti sprayed from one end of town to the other portray Ruiz as a thief, a donkey, an assassin and worse. Conservatives criticize him for mishandling the crisis.

“I want to kill him, and all those protesters,” bookstore owner Elizabeth Gutierrez said. “Three months of this and we plead, beg the federal government to intervene.”

President Fox has for weeks tried to stay out of the fray, despite such calls for help in settling the conflict. He’s had his hands full with protesters who have taken over Mexico City’s main boulevard to back demands for a national recount in the election apparently won by fellow party member Felipe Calderon.

Second-place presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has galvanized supporters with charges that Calderon won by fraud. His campaign to help Mexico’s 50 million poor has raised hopes of change among those who have failed to benefit from the country’s decade-long turn to open-market capitalism.

PRI party leaders accuse Lopez Obrador and his Democratic Revolution Party of having a hand in the Oaxaca protests, which the APPO denies. Both leftist movements express support for each other, but the national and local conflicts appear distinct.

Oaxaca is near last among the states in spending on education and economic development and suffers great disparities in wealth, especially among its many indigenous people. They flee in great numbers to Los Angeles, Fresno, the Napa Valley, Chicago and Atlanta.

Teacher Adolfo Lopez sits at a table in the center of the plaza encampment and serves as a spokesman for the APPO. Schools here need books, equipment and, in small villages, even bathrooms, he said. Free education goes only to the ninth grade, and there is little scholarship money even for the brightest students.

The group has agreed to talks with Fox’s Interior secretary in the next few days, but the prospects for a quick resolution seem thin, given the APPO stance.

“If Ruiz quits tomorrow, we’ll leave,” Lopez said.


Cecilia Sanchez and Carlos Martinez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.