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Another foreigner, another tragedy… for Oaxaca

30 April 2010

Tuesday afternoon a convoy of Zapatista “sympathizers” was attacked by an unknown armed group.  According to Kristen Brinkler (“My Word Is My Weapon”), the convoy

… was carrying food, water, and other basic necessities to San Juan Copala, which has been subject to a paramilitary blockade that has prevented anyone from entering or leaving the community since January. In addition to carrying much-needed supplies, the caravan was meant to accompany teachers who were returning to classes after paramilitaries denied them access to the community nearly five months ago. The caravan included representatives from the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), Section 22 of the teachers union, the Center for Community Support Working Together (CACTUS), Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty (VOCAL), two reporters from the Mexican magazine Contralinea, and international observers from Belgium, Finland, Italy, and Germany.

San Juan Copala is a Triqui  “autonomous municipality” under ELZN (Zapatista) control.  The attack occurred leaving an area under control of another Triqui organization, UBISORT, said by Ms. Brinkler to be tied to the state PRI.  UBISORT, according to La Jornada, blames another Triqui political faction, MULTI for the attack.

Although I think the Zapatistas are a pernicious influence in Mexican politics, they are, for better or worse, a legitimate faction in Oxacan politics. As are UBISORT and MULTI. Given the recognition of “usos y costumbres” in Oaxacan politics, and the role the ELZN has played as a spoiler (by refusing to participate in electoral politics), what had been an inter-Triqui feud between various factions over other matters like religious practices and water rights — often takes on a revolutionary and political dimension with disputes settled by armed gangs.

As always, there is no way to ascertain who is “right” in any of these struggles.  With the ELZN and other groups opting out of the ballot box and the court system, the traditional method of resolving disputes is going to be armed warfare.

Ms. Brickler may be a Mexican citizen, and she may even be a Triqui.  I am not a citizen, nor a Triqui, but have supported the rights of the various factions in Oaxaca to fight against the state government.  However, I recognize that there is no perfect side, and expected even an improbable victory by the opposition to be an imperfect compromise by competing factions.

What bothers me is that the situation in Oaxaca only seems to come up when foreigners are killed.  One of the victims of the attack was a 25 year old Finn, Juri Jaakkola.

As with the death of another “foreign observer”, American Brad Will, in October 2006, there are the usual questions about the foreigner’s legal status in Mexico (it appears Jaakkola, like Will, were traveling on tourist visas).   What exactly an “international observer” is doing in this inter-tribal faction fight is also a question.

As Brickler quotes a local human rights worker as saying, “the government will use this as a pretext to militarize the region.”  Which may be what the government wants, or what the people the ELZN is supposedly fighting want, and is the usual result of foreign meddling in Mexican politics.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. mexijo permalink
    30 April 2010 8:13 am

    I have been following this case in local media and international reports and you are the first to mention the EZLN in this context. I don’t believe this has a lot to do with the anabiotic zapatistas.

    International observers play an important rule in human rights campaigns. Outstanding organisations like Peace Brigades International ( have observers on the ground in Oaxaca (and in many countries around the world).
    Sadly enough the death of Juri from Finland proves there work efficient: they can deter agressions against the people accompanied by them and if they are harmed it is surely making waves. I understand that in this case he was in Oaxaca to promote organic coffee (he has been working on projects in this line). Probably just went along on the trip to the Triqui.
    The background of the conflict goes way back and can not be described in terms of left and right. But here it is so obvious who is agresor and who is the victim (and it has been over the last years). It was just after the killing of Brad Will in 2006 that the federal government stepped in. Let’s hope that the army now goes in and disarms the killers from the PRI-Militia that have been protected by Ulises Ruiz and his antecessors.

    P.S.: APPO and Section 22 of the teachers union who were on this aid caravan both have there own agendas – taking advantage of the situation. They are both corrupt and offer no alternative for the state of Oaxaca.

  2. Robert permalink
    30 April 2010 9:27 am

    It seems to me the Europeans brought along on this trip had no idea of the danger they were being put in. It will be revealing to find out who approached them and who invited them to be part of the caravan. The reporters for Contralinea would probably be aware of who the primary organizer of the caravan was. It appears Jyri Jaakkola might have been placed in the most vulnerable position so that in the event of a situation as occurred there would be maximum impact. Brad Will was foolhardy enough to put himself in front of the bullet that killed him, however it looks like Jyri had no idea he was being made a sitting duck.

  3. 30 April 2010 11:00 pm

    Richard, Kristin Bricker (please note spelling) is a well-regarded, sensible, and brave journalist whose work I have followed since the Oaxaca uprising and who publishes regularly in Narco News. She’s a NACLA associate. She was interviewed on DemocracyNow today, has been quoted in the LATimes blog and HuffPo, among other sources.

    I don’t think one can live in an area like Oaxaca, with its terrible injustices, and not end up on one side or the other.

    I don’t think this is an intertribal fight, as you characterize it. The EZLN is an indigenous rights movement, that wants the same recognition that Indians in the US receive, namely that the tribes are sovereign nations. The situation in San Juan Copala was clearly described over three years ago by Francisco Lopez Barcenas of La Jornada.

    As for the paramilitaries, they represent Ulises Ruiz Ortiz’s gang. They’re a local mafia. See here for the human rights report on URO & Co.

    As far as anyone can tell, this was an assassination of Beatriz Cariño, a very effective organizer. There is absolutely no evidence, zero, that Jyri Antero Jaakkola was being used as a human shield. That’s a kind of unworthy blame-the-victim slander. As for the EZLN wanting the government to militarize the situation, I think that’s ridiculous. The whole countryside has been militarized ever since Calderon’s inauguration. Tens of thousands of innocent bystanders have been killed, many of them in Oaxaca. It’s an outcome that was predictable from even the earliest days of the Calderon Administration. I know. Juan Velediaz predicted it in El Universal (no longer online, but an overview is here.

    People who fight for social justice very often aren’t terribly attractive. They tend to be hopeless idealists, completely unreasonable, sometimes even narcissistic. As Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail makes clear, for those who are willing to tolerate injustice, no time is ever right for resistance, and no leader of non-violent resistance is ever worthy enough… until he’s dead.

    The killings of Cariño and Jakkola were wrong. They were crimes committed by violent, hateful criminals. That’s really all one needs to know.

  4. Robert permalink
    1 May 2010 11:39 am

    “the government will use this as a pretext to militarize the region.” Which may be what the government wants, or what the people the ELZN is supposedly fighting want…
    is what Richard wrote.
    “the people the ELZN is supposedly fighting want”
    “..the EZLN wanting the government to militarize” as you misinterpret.

  5. 1 May 2010 4:34 pm

    That’s a fair point, Robert. I did misinterpret.

    I would point out, however, that if this is envisioned as an “inter-tribal faction fight,” then the implication is that the people who want the place militarized may be Indians opposed to the EZLN.

    It’s very muddled thinking, in my opinion. The people who want the countryside militarized are very clearly the Calderon Administration and the Americans running the drug war. I’d be surprised if even URO wants soldiers under the command of PANista occupying his fiefdom.

  6. 9 June 2010 8:09 pm

    So, Richard… is Father Wilfrido Mayrén “foreign meddling”? How about Alejandro Encinas? It looks to me that a lot of Mexicans are involved in “foreign meddling” in Oaxaca.

  7. 10 June 2010 12:06 am

    HUH? Wilfrido Mayrén is from the Diocese of Oaxaca, and Alejandro Encinas is a PRD official. Both are Mexicans.

  8. 10 June 2010 11:09 am

    My point exactly, Rich. You stated that ” [Militarization of the region] may be what the government wants, or what the people the ELZN is supposedly fighting want, and is the usual result of foreign meddling in Mexican politics.” which sticks in my craw. The abuses in Oaxaca are a Mexican matter which a very few foreigners, notably from human rights organizations, have been drawn into in trying to prevent violence. Your statement seems to me to be an attempt to blame the victims. I find it unpleasant.

  9. 10 June 2010 1:23 pm

    Sorry, but either you didn’t read what I wrote, or are completely missing the point.

    Incidents like this, and the Brad Will incident, lead to demands for special consideration for the aggrieved foreigner, which not only complicate (or end) the search for a solution to the original issue, but are likely to backfire on those supporting the foreigner’s cause.

    Whether the foreigner is in the right or not is immaterial — it is seen as interventionist, and — if anything — damages the very people the intervention is meant to support. I’m still of the opinion that the Friends of Brad Will did more to damage the Oaxacan “people power” movement than any single group. As the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    That prominent MEXICANS (and, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the Roman Catholic Church and a leader of the former Communist Party working together on this) involve themselves is much more fruitful and much more likely to result in a solution than pressure from U.S. or Finnish groups.

  10. 10 June 2010 3:53 pm

    I think I understood you quite well, Rich.

    The situation in Oaxaca most recently “came up” *not* when Brad Will was killed but when the people of Oaxaca rose up against their corrupt governor. The issue *makes it into the press* when a foreigner gets killed because there’s the possibility of repercussions from the government of that national. But to those of us who have been following these issues *a lot* longer than you, the issues have never gone away. Some foreigners have been helpful, others not, but they are not what is driving the violence. A few of them, like Nancy Davies and Kristin Bricker–and even Brad Will– deserve our admiration for putting themselves in harm’s way to try to help the rest of the world understand what is going on.

  11. 21 June 2010 2:05 am

    Hi there. I have just come across this case and it caught my attention as I am involved with Peace Brigades International, although not with the Mexico project. Please also note that my comments are personal, not on behalf of PBI.
    This, of course, is tragic news but does highlight the dangers that people can face when they, perhaps unwittingly, get involved in such situations. Globally, no PBI volunteer has ever been killed and we put this down to our practices of working extremely openly, having the right visa, regular dialogue with the relevant authorities and building up a detailed understanding of the security situation. We also find it helpful that we don’t participate directly in the work of people we accompany. This is driven by a belief that local people are best placed to solve their own problems and that the best thing we can do is to try to create more space for them to do their work.
    Personally, it worries me that very well meaning foreigners can put themselves in extremely dangerous situations when there are well established organisations with safer track records that would benefit from their skills and who, due to their well-developed political links, can arguably have a much greater impact.

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