Another Dispatch from Oaxaca


This is another dispatch I received last night from on the ground in Oaxaca. This one is from George Salzman, reporting from Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca:

Radio Universidad at 1400 am remains a strong voice at 1:30 pm, but how much longer it will continue is unclear. As the only station still broadcasting for the Popular Assembly movement of Oaxaca, it is a critically important link as well as a source of the most current information on the struggle. It was brazenly emphasized on the early Monday morning Televisa/Government version of “the news” that the last powerful transmitter aligned with the people’s movement was to be a high priority target of the so-called Federal Preventive Police (PFP in its initials in Spanish). This morning an army of troops dressed in PFP uniforms began the frontal assault on the University enclave, called University City, where the station is located. This “army” indeed looks like a mass of mostly grunts, young guys in their late teens and early twenties, most surely drafted by economic necessity into the military ranks. The battle raged on University Avenue while I was there. Avenida Universidad is a north-south four-lane road a little over a half-mile long that runs from the Periferal highway junction at the north, the CincoSenores intersection, to the Plaza del Valley junction at the south. University City occupies a roughly square block a little more than 1/4 mile on each side. This is the main campus of the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO in its Spanish initials), located about 1.1 mile southeast of the Zcalo. This area is supposedly “autonomous” in the strict sense that the university authorities have exclusive control over the area. Police, military, federal authorities, state officials, and so on are in principle not allowed to enter the grounds unless explicitly invited by the Rector of the university. It is located on the east side of Avenida Universidad, about a block or two south of the intersection.

This morning we heard that the PFP was going to invade Ciudad Universidad on the grounds that there were reported to be firearms there. That’s a typical pretext the police use. It’s easy enough to get some corrupt state official or PRI-affiliated thug (PRI is the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in its Spanish initials) to file a denunciation that firearms or other illegal possessions are in a particular location. Radio Universidad was calling for citizens to come to protect the university, with a great sense of urgency. A friend dropped me off a few blocks from the Cinco Senores intersection, which was blocked on all sides by the PFP. As usual, I was able to circle the blocked intersection on a few side streets, and soon was “inside” on Avenida Universidad in a mass of people, most facing north towards the lines of shield-equipped PFP troops.

Many in the dense crowd were busy photographing and videotaping the then-still-peaceful confrontation, several of them perched atop a burned-out VW-bug. Some people on a raised platform with a loudspeaker were telling the troops that they were the same as the protestors and shouldn’t have been sent to Oaxaca. The PFP lines stood inert, as trained. Several older women in the crowd, right at the front, not more than a foot or two from the plastic shields facing them, forcefully told the troops right in front of them that they are citizens, without arms, capable of running their own lives, and the PFP should leave Oaxaca.

By about 11:30 I started south. After the first barricade, which was north of university property, students were passing pieces of split wood through the barred fence from the university grounds to others on the street side with shopping carts. They use the wood for fires at the barricades. Suddenly an alert spread that an attack was imminent at the south end of Avenida Universidad, and people streamed past me, leaving, I supposed, a smaller crowd at the north intersection. The shopping carts barrelled by, along with people with cameras, many folks adjusting their bandanas getting ready for tear gas. Apparently the PFP, who had been massed at the Plaza del Valle end of the road, began advancing in a solid front, and the fireworks began. From the distance I saw clouds of smoke and/or gas and the wobbly arched paths of the home-made rockets launched towards the police, which left a trace of white smoke as they streaked across the space between the protestors and the PFP forces.

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When one of the projectiles hit the ground and burst into flame in front of the first line of troops a wave of adrenaline swept the protestors, many of whom ran forward and hurled rocks at the police. I’ve written a lot about the teachers and APPO maintaining a militant but non-violent struggle, which I remain concvinced is correct. But this was a different matter: this was people trying to protect their own turf from being invaded by lethally-armed forces, and there’s no way the attempted defense could be described as non-violent. Had the police been ordered to shoot, it could have been a massacre. All that can be said is that the imbalance of power was incomparably in favor of the police; had it been used, it would have been overwhelming.

Most of the defenders were younger men. But not all. Their major weapon was a stream of rocks. I think that in addition to their homemade incendiary rockets they may also have had some molotov cocktails. As the police shot tear gas canisters and began a slow step-by-step advance, I headed back a ways and entered the university athletic fields, located on the west side of the avenida behind a fence, and then came forward again, close to but separated from the exchange. Not, however, separated from the tear gas by the chain-link fence. People were taking large rocks and smashing them against other rocks on the ground to break them up into sizes suitable for hurling a considerable distance. Their courage and determination not to yield to the PFP was incredible. I’ve never before seen anything close to it.

Finally I decided to head back to make a report. Back on the Avenida some distance from the front line, I saw an older man picking up and “bowling” rocks to be used in the defense along the road towards the actual combatants. It brought back to mind, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” from the time of WWII. I expected then that it would not be very long before the PFP got into the Ciudad Universidad and captured and silenced Radio Universidad. But I was wrong. Things were still at a standoff at the north intersection, and I made my way out by the same roundabout route I’d used earlier.

Walking north along the periferal highway I saw many people both observing and putting up further barricades to block access to the intersection at Cinco Senores. Ten or a dozen men shoved a big heavy car from where it was parked to blockade the Periferico at the corner of Rayon, and then they practically lifted a VW-Bug that had been parked behind the first car and carried it around the corner to block the entry of Rayon into the Periferico. I thought about private property. There’s lots of destroyed property, and weighing against it in their minds, I know, lots of destroyed lives, which is why these valiant people are facing up to the ruling power structure.

It’s 8:40 pm and Radio Universidad is still alive. Don’t know what will happen later tonight or tomorrow. It appears that the PFP were driven back. The Oaxaquenos really believe that Los pueblos unidos, jamas sera vencidos (The people united will never be defeated). I hope to hell they’re right.

–G.S. 8:45 pm Central Standard Time