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Undercover Notes From Oaxaca: Cops, lies and videotape

El Gringo Blanco | 11.08.2007 16:03 | Oaxaca Uprising | Repression | Social Struggles | Workers' Movements | London | World

It’s been a tough two weeks. From election coverage, police monitoring to murder for timber.

But now, as I should be on a bus out of this hellhole masquerading as a happy tourist resort, but a zone of paranoia for an undercover journalist, I am compelled to get all this down. For one thing, purely to document the situation should I not make it out of here.

The photojournalist is gone, out for good, the researcher is out in another direction, but due to overflowing buses I am stuck here on my own for another 24 hours. And that, in my mind, is not a good thing. Not at the moment.

I was told by the experienced to keep my head down, damn good advice, especially since PRI took the entire state again, in an election that saw a record near 80 percent abstention from voting.

Sure, Ulises Ruiz is out, but his goons are still controlling the entire state. And, in true Thatcher style, he is still in control, from deep behind the facade of democracy.

This morning, Friday 10 August sure proved that. Local and federal police wandered the Zocalo in full riot gear, batons in hand, ready, every last one of them looking as nervous as hell, like they knew something was about to happen.

Federal police in “camineta” trucks armed to the teeth - Heckler and Kock and Car-15 are flavour of the month here – they patrolled the Zocalo this morning, not many, but enough. But how many guns do you need to see before you get nervous?

The authorities have been so low key in these recent days, to keep what’s left of the tourist trade spending and putting into the economy. Tourism, according to Oaxaca state newspaper Noticias, is down by 40 percent.

According to my contacts, and this is unconfirmed, someone was killed yesterday, Thursday. My Spanish being far from fluent, I understood that it may have been linked to the workers protest. The workers were out again today - marching to the Zocalo, delivering black crosses to the Cathedral inscribed in white with the names of the dead. William Bradley Roland’s name was there, at the front. And so were the plain clothes cops, radios on belts, stopping hippy and activist types and questioning them.

This may have had something to do with the police panic this morning. This city, and the state in whole, is far from being reconciled. Or the country as a whole for that matter. Recent actions in three different areas on 8 August by Frente Nacional de Lucha por el Socialismo (FNLS) showed that much.

But still, this entire country staggers along a knife edge. Some you speak to say they just want peace and a good life - they want prosperity and a chance. But others talk of bombing campaigns, violent insurrection, weapons caches and bringing the government to justice by force. Anger is everywhere, and it is not unjustified. Seven months in prison being beaten and tortured would do that to anyone.

But for me, the police have moved in, which is why I am writing this, and why I’m trying to keep low until I can get out of here.

Three days ago, in a definite bar known to harbour anarchists and revolutionaries – okay, many of them are just revolutionary tourists – was the first incident.

First came one in plain clothes. He looked completely out of place in a bar playing music by The Clash, System of a Down, Los de Abajo and Control Machete. He drank beer, but very slowly and couldn’t keep his eyes of me. Then two more came in and sat next to me. One with an ear-piece squawking police radio calls. The other simply forgot to remove his Kenwood police radio from his belt. Obviously not a high IQ. I checked their shoes – police issue.

Then came the forth, drinking a can of juice, watching again from the doorway. A police car arrived outside, lights flashing. He exited talked to them, returned in seconds and walked straight towards me. He wasn’t happy.

“Como te llamas?” he asked.

I answered honestly.

“De donde vienes?” second question.


“Que trabajas tienes?”

“Yo trabajo con los viejos, para ayundar ellos.” Not honest.

“Un momento, permita me.”

He exited again and goes back to talk to the waiting officers in the car outside.

I hang on another 15 minutes, then finish my mescal and exit via another door.

Today it became more obvious. After watching the cops in the square, I jumped in a taxi to head towards my contacts on the environmental story. A police truck with six federales followed. I got the taxi driver to stop, got out and disappeared into the back streets of the north barrios, sweating my guts out carrying all my kit, two rucksacks and a tripod. After 20 minutes it looked like I had lost them, so I headed for safety.

When I returned to the Zocalo for food and a couple of beers, immediately a man came and invited himself to my table. I said okay. The talk was normal for several minutes. Then the same questions as before came out. Name. Country. Job. Then more. What was I doing in Oaxaca? Vacation. Mentira. Oops. I just kept smiling and denied everything.

He stood up and demanded to see my passport. I asked why, who he was and what I had done wrong?

He said, “policia” and demanded my passport a second time.

I passed it to him and he began writing all my details in a notebook he pulled from his back pocket. I checked his shoes, police issue again.

Inside the shit was starting to flow uncontrollably, but I maintained as best I could. He gave me my passport back and said he knew everything about me.

“Pero perdon, soy tourista, senor,” I said.

He called me a liar again and left me gripping my beer bottle in a sweaty hand. I moved out 30 minutes later. But I was stuck waiting for a seat on a bus that did not exist.

And so we are back to now, the laptop is dying from lack of power and I’m sat on the floor next to the only fluctuating power point, alone with eyes bursting infection, damage done from the German cop that pepper sprayed me some two months ago.

Oaxaca is trying to continue as normal. Most people just want to make a living, to be able to provide for their families, provide for food, education and health care. Revolution is the last thing on their minds. But just spending two weeks in this city you can see it is a façade that is not going to last.

“Oaxaca es muerto,” one man said to me last night.

That summed up the feeling of many I have spent time with here. Stalls in the Zocalo openly sell DVD after DVD of the conflict, the APPO cause almost seemingly become another tourist attraction, or perhaps a desperate attempt to educate the internationals passing through.

But in a city where four Catalonians can be arrested for watching a publicly displayed video of last years unrest, something that has been going on every day I have been here and no other tourists have been arrested, democracy is nowhere to be found in Ulises Ruiz land. No, here the law is the law, upheld with assault rifles, batons, helmets, riot armour and secret police who openly denounce APPO as propaganda merchants. And yet the only truth here is those very same videos showing police firing teargas rounds directly at people’s heads from low flying helicopters.

El Gringo Blanco


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