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Oaxaca’s Best Kept Secret: The Siege of San Juan Copala

2010 November 14
by Randa Tawil

I moved to Oaxaca about three months ago to improve my Spanish and get a better sense of the country with which we share our border. On my first Saturday here, I was walked down to the city square (Zocalo) to check one more tourist attraction off my list. As I walked along the main square, admiring the indigenous clothing and pottery being sold by women in strange outfits speaking a language that didn’t sound like Spanish, I came across something that I had been warned was a rather regular occurrence in Oaxaca: a protest. In the main square there were people camped out with signs and banners that I, with my rather elementary knowledge of Spanish at the time, could not make out. With every new Mexican I met, however, one of my first questions was always about those protesters in the Zocalo. Who were they? What were they protesting? Each person seemed to give me a different answer that gave me quite the introduction on how politics functioned in Mexico.

“They are being paid by the government to be there.”

“They are there to appease the other political parties here.”

“Well, which version do you want? The government version, the truth, or the lie?”

In Mexico, and specifically Oaxaca, where politics and political protest are complicated by corruption and backroom deals, it seemed impossible to obtain any sort of understanding of the meaning of this protest that lasted for the first 2 months of my stay in Oaxaca.

And so one day, when I felt my Spanish was actually good enough to carry on a conversation, I went to the source. I asked one of the protesters what they protesting. “San Juan Copala,” he said. “Haven’t you heard of it? It’s Mexico’s Gaza.”

No, I hadn’t heard of it. But the situation in San Juan Copala is one of the most dire in Mexico, and also could potentially be the spark to change the way that the government functions in the whole country.

In 2007, sick of the corruption and oppression of Mexican political parties, the town of San Juan Copala declared its autonomy from the rest of Mexico. Primarily populated by the Triqui peoples, the town declared law of “usos y costumbres” (uses and customs) as their main form government. They wanted to attempt a government based on indigenous knowledge, rather than a government that had been placed upon them by colonizers. The Triqui people have maintained their culture despite 400 years of colonialism, and this declaration of autonomy was a way to put in practice the knowledge to which they had held on, and get out of the cycle of poverty, crime, and unemployment that defines the southern (and indigenous) regions of Mexico.

As soon as this community declared itself autonomous, however, the existing government exerted their power, many times violently, in order to maintain control of the region. The government in Oaxaca began to support two paramilitary groups, UBISORT (Union for the Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region), and MULT (Triqui Movement for Unification and Struggle). These groups have led a siege on the town, not allowing fresh water, food, or medical supplies in or out of the town. When on April 27, 2010, a humanitarian aid truck attempted to drop off supplies into the town, they were shot at, resulting in the death of Betty Carino, a local humanitarian aid worker, and a Finnish man Jyri Jaakkola. Countless Triqui people have been killed by the paramilitary groups, most of them women and children. The town is still under siege today.

Despite this large humanitarian crisis in San Juan Copala, the government of Mexico does not acknowledge the right to autonomy by the Triqui people, nor does it see the paramilitary groups as a problem. In response to the death of the humanitarian aid workers, the government blamed them, saying that it was illegal for foreigners to get involved in local politics, and thus Oaxaca would not be held responsible for Jaakkola’s death. There is hardly any discussion of the siege in local or national politics, and most of the information on the siege is through informal blogs and Facebook groups. The only news source I could find that covered it is the leftist newspaper in Oaxaca.

The government’s bloody response and silence surrounding the siege of San Juan Copala is a prime example of the tenuous position the Mexican government has over the indigenous populations in Mexico. The states with the highest indigenous populations here are also the poorest, stuck in cycles of poverty due to lack of education, industry, and the unequal distribution of power in Mexico. If an indigenous community was able to govern itself based on its own laws and customs, then Mexican government would have to recognize its own irrelevance and its continuation of a colonialist model among these communities. This could potentially have huge repercussions around Mexico. While I certainly do not claim to be any sort of expert on the complexities of Mexican government, it seems that the silence on this crisis in Mexico is very intentional. The government knows the great threat of this 700 person community in rural Oaxaca, and the power it has to directly potentially show what a post-colonial world might look like. And the government seems to be doing everything it can to make sure that this fact never gets realized.

2 Responses
  1. juliadwentzel permalink*
    November 16, 2010

    There are a number of communities in Mexico that do govern themselves autonomously under usos y costumbres – an example from Oaxaca would be Benito Juarez and the rest of the Pueblos Mancomunados. It would be interesting to find out more about why this particular case has been so much of a cause for conflict.

  2. November 17, 2010

    firs it is very important to know that MULT is not paramilitary group, as you say in your comment, thats what you have thought, It is very important to learn the history of triqui people, and not just agree everything what other people say to you. In fact the paramilitary group are from MULT-I and NOT MULT ( learn more about Triquis first and not just about a group of them and then come with you own Conclusion.
    I do invite you to send me an email and talk more about the situation and lets not forget the other side of Triqui communities. at

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