Mexico: 26 peasants killed in ambush in Oaxaca state

On May 31, 26 peasants were ambushed and murdered in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. They belonged to the community of Santiago Xochiltepec, and the authorities initially blamed the massacre on intercommunity conflicts. However there have been allegations concerning the role of logging companies that operate illegally in the area and receive protection from state and paramilitary forces.

Rural poverty, the exploitation of natural resources and state and paramilitary repression

Late on Friday, May 31, 26 peasants were ambushed and murdered in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. The victims, belonging to the community of Santiago Xochiltepec were killed on their way back to their community, while they were in an area known as Agua Fria. The first versions of events circulated by the state government pointed to land disputes with the neighbouring community of Santo Domingo Teojomulco as the reasons behind the massacre. Given the scale of the massacre and the national and international interest it had attracted, the Oaxaca state prosecutor's office (PGJ) was quick to arrest 16 people from Santo Domingo Teojomulco for their links to the killings.

But as more information came out it became increasingly clear that other factors were at play. First of all, in their hurry to produce some "culprits", the arrests carried out by the Oaxaca PGJ were quite indiscriminate. Amongst those detained were old men and women and four minors. Human rights organisations pointed out that it was quite unlikely that these people could have travelled on foot the 50 km that separate their community with Agua Fria (a place far away from the limits of Santo Domingo Teojomulco) and back again in less than 24 hours. Human rights and peasant organisations also point out that it would be very difficult for Santo Domingo Teojomulco peasants to have access to AK-47 assault rifles and R15 rifles. A joint statement by peasant and indigenous organisations and the local branch of the teachers union (SNTE 22) said that those arrested were being used as "scapegoats by the state authorities". Many of those arrested have accused the authorities of treating them with violence, arresting them without a warrant and of stealing from them.

It is true to say that there are plenty of very bitter conflicts over land in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. These kind of disputes have already caused more than 500 deaths in this region of Oaxaca in the last few decades. Most of these conflicts are caused by poverty and in many cases are used by the authorities to keep the different communities divided. In fact, of the 400 micro-regions considered as suffering from extreme poverty by the Social Development Secretary in the whole country, 60% of those are concentrated in Oaxaca.

But land conflicts between different peasant communities do not seem to be the immediate reason for the Agua Fria massacre. Sergio Acosta Salazar, a member of parliament for the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) explains that the extreme poverty and ignorance that people in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca suffer from, are not reasons enough in themselves to explain the Agua Fria events. "To these factors we must add logging interests, corruption on the part of the state authorities, and above all the fact that the state refuses to exercise its main functions, leaving the field open to the flourishing of violence, insecurity and impunity."

PRD Senator for Oaxaca Daniel Lopez Nieto points directly at illegal logging interests as being responsible for the massacre. "It was done by white guards, armed groups organised by the logging industry and tolerated by the different police forces that operate in the region since 1994 - at the time of the emergence of the EZLN - and which increased their presence from 1996, with the appearance of the EPR". To support his theory he adds that the woods in the Agua Fria region, where the Santiago Xochiltepec peasants were killed are rich in very valuable wood. Illegal logging is estimated at 7 million cubic metres of wood per year. Political violence in the state against those who defend their rights and fight for better conditions has been widespread for years. Many PRD members and members of peasant and indigenous organisations have been killed. Lopez Nelio mentions the recent assassinations of the PRD president of the council in San Agustin Loxicha and the PRD candidate in Putla in the recent elections. This explosive combination of poverty and violence is the reason why armed guerrilla groups have enjoyed support in Oaxaca. In 1996 we saw the emergence of the EPR and later on of the ERPI, the main basis of which is in Oaxaca. Lopez Nelio remembers how in 1996 more than 100 zapotec Indians were also arrested and used as scapegoats to prove that the authorities were able to dismantle the EPR.

A group of peasant and trade union organisations from the region, including the Zapatista Magonista Alliance (AMZ), the Flores Magon Indian Peoples Council (CIPO), the Cuenca Council of Independent Social Organisations add to this an additional explanation, the existence of mineral resources in the region. A representative of CIPO stated: "We say that the reason for the lying words of [Oaxaca governor] Jose Murat, is that he protects the regional caciques and paramilitary groups which we have denounced many times…We think it is a big coincidence that everywhere were there are strategic resources we see the rise of intercommunity conflicts, assassinations and the existence of paramilitary groups, or that communities are displace by institutional violence." He further appeals to look beyond the "explanations" given by the state governor and at the question of mineral resources, particularly the important silver and gold reserves in Santo Domingo Teojomulco, and neighbouring communities. This was confirmed by Carlos Cruz Mozo, a leader of the Sierra Sur Civil Front who pointed out that "it is in the interest of the government that the communities are fighting each other so that they can take over the mines."

This is not the first massacre that takes place in Mexico in recent years. In December 1997, a paramilitary group in Acteal, Chiapas, massacred 47 Zapatista supporters while they were attending mass. The only people arrested in relation to this case have now been freed. In June 1998 10 peasants and one student from the UNAM University were killed during an army ambush while they were having a meeting in a rural school in El Charco, Guerrero. They were accused of being members of the ERPI. Ericka Zamora, also a UNAM student, and Efren Cortes who survived the massacre, have been in jail since, only being released at the beginning of June this year when the accusations against them collapsed. The military commanders responsible have not been put on trial. In October 2001, human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was shot dead while entering her office in Mexico City. She had been defending a group of peasants from Guerrero who were fighting against illegal logging. During their arrest in 1999 another peasant was shot dead. The official line of investigation in Ochoa's murder is that it was a "crime of passion". These are just some of the cases that have received more publicity, but there are plenty of others.

For all the promises of the new right-wing government of President Fox, on the question of human rights, his government's record has not substantially changed. As long as the greedy interests of capitalism, in the cities and in the countryside, continue to exist in Mexico, there will be no real peace. Only the united struggle of workers and peasants to overthrow this rotten system can put an end once and for all to all the violence, poverty and suffering.