The Context of the Conflict in San Juan Copala

Shannon Young May 8, 2010

The ambush last month that killed a prominent Mexican human rights defender and a Finnish observer near San Juan Copala, Oaxaca may be the first time in Mexican history that paramilitaries have opened fire on an international humanitarian caravan, but it’s not an isolated act of violence. The fiercely independent Triqui nation has been steeped in years of bitter internal fighting which was itself preceded by decades of military occupation.Francisco López Bárcenas, an academic who has written extensively about Triqui history, traces the current crisis back to the 1940s when the government withdrew recognition of San Juan Copala’s status as a county seat municipality – Mexico’s only political district with a distinctly Triqui identity.

“The municipal county seat is the base upon which the political structure of Mexican society is organized” explains López Bárcenas. “They were divided among 4 districts and dismembered politically, but that’s not all. The army was sent in and stayed from 1940 to about 1999″.

The military campaign aganst the Triquis was particularly harsh and included an aerial bombardment of their territory in 1956. Francisco López Bárcenas says it’s the only bombardment he’s aware of in post-revolutionary Mexico prior to the Zapatista uprising of 1994.

The division of the Triqui Nation among 4 political districts has also reduced Triqui control over their territory’s natural wealth, including forests, rich farmlands, water, and minerals.

The author says that in the past few decades the state government has created organizations to dominate the Triquis; “One of them is the organization accused of perpetrating the ambush, The Union for the Social Well-Being of the Triqui Region (UBISORT) which was created in 1994″. The UBISORT paramilitary group was founded some months after Mayan rebels in the neighbouring state of Chiapas launched an uprising for indigenous self-determination.

Another major player in the Triqui conflict is the MULT; the Movement for the Unification of the Triqui Struggle. The group formed to resist local political bosses and landlords but repeated assassinations of its leadership has weakened the organization. Fighting turned inward with MULT and UBISORT mutually accused of murdering each other’s members.

It was in this context that the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala was born. Residents of the town include former members of both adversarial groups who decided to form a new organization and focus on self-determination and autonomy. The reaction has been violent, with targeted assassinations of Copala residents and a physical blockade of the town, home to at least 700 people.

Daniel Arellano, a Oaxaca City activist who survived last week’s ambush with minor injuries, says the purpose of the caravan was to break the siege and document the situation. “For the past 5 months the community of San Juan Copala has been held incommunicado, under siege by paramilitaries, without clean water, without electricity, without teachers – because they had to leave, without a doctor – because he abandoned them” says Arellano, “Every night paramilitaries fire shots into the town and this situation persists because people don’t understand or have information about what is happening there”.

Demonstrations to protest the paramilitary ambush on the aid caravan and to demand justice for the two dead were held over the weekend in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and in several European and US cities.

“We ask that all the attention awakened by the murder of our two friends be shifted to the situation of grave humanitarian crisis in San Juan Copala” says ambush survivor David Venegas. He hid in the bush for two days after the attack with two journalists and a wounded friend. While all persons who went missing in the attack have been accounted for, Venegas says the town of San Juan Copala remains surrounded by paramilitaries. Another survivor of the attack, Gabriela Jimenez, said the armed men who captured her bragged of having protection from the state governor.

Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz publicly denies having ties to the UBISORT paramilitaries or that the ambush was an incident of electoral violence. In an impromptu press conference this weekend, he said the conflict in the Triqi region “has been going on for more than 40 years” and that it’s “an issue that goes beyond elections”. The governor has also called into question why international observers were in the region and asked that the National Immigration Institute investigate foreigners who “come here to cause problems”.

The PRI ruling party has dominated state politics for 80 years and has fired up the formidable party machinery in favor of its gubernatorial candidate Eviel Perez Magaña. A number of political opponents and their family members have already met violent deaths this election season in the Northern Cueca region and along the Pacific Coast.

The April 27th attack on a caravan carrying human rights defenders, activists, international observers, and journalists has prompted concern that even more extreme incidents could occur ahead of the July 4th elections.

Shannon Young is a radio and print reporter based in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca. Read more of her work at

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