Mexican Government Targets Teachers Union
At dawn on September 25, Agustin Luna Valencia, a school teacher and the mayor of this tiny Zapotec Indian town deep in the fog-shrouded coastal mountains of Oaxaca, left for a meeting in the state capital. Just outside Loxicha he noticed a pair of headlights piercing the mist, the front end of a convoy carrying hundreds of soldiers and military police.Within hours, Luna Valencia and ten others, including nearly the entire city council, had been hauled off to jail, accused of murder, terrorism, sabotage, conspiracy, kidnapping and criminal association. The government alleges that the residents of Loxicha formed the backbone of the 80-man guerrilla force of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) that attacked the tourist town of Huatulco on August 29, leaving 11 dead.Government officials describe the arrests as a major blow at Mexico's latest rebel movement. According to testimonies taken from prisoners in Oaxaca and made available to the National Human Rights Commission, investigators believe the EPR extended its reach throughout Oaxaca through the organizing efforts of the Oaxaca state teachers union."They're saying that we led the people of Loxicha to take up arms," said Rafael Rodriguez, a union leader in Oaxaca City, the state capital. "But all we've done is help organize the people to fight for their demands. We respect the EPR and see it as a result of the misery of the people. But we haven't joined their fight."The EPR first surfaced in Guerrero on June 28 and has since launched military attacks or political acts in at least seven states. Its national mobility is in sharp contrast to the isolation of Mexico's other peasant insurgency, the Chiapas-based Zapatista Army of Liberation.The teachers' union, long associated with radical activity in Oaxaca, exerts a powerful influence in even the most isolated regions. Allegations that it is acting as a front for the EPR suggest that the government now suspects the rebel groups have a far more advanced political organization than first thought.Indeed, the union has a sophisticated legal and media strategy which could make a heavy-handed counterinsurgency approach by the government very costly.For example, after the detention last month several hundred teachers in Loxicha marched to the state capital and staged a sit-in outside the governor's office. Lawyers from the teacher's union have filed a number of legal petitions challenging the government's actions and faxed allegations of torture to the media and to human rights organizations in Mexico and abroad.The evidence that led government investigators to suspect the union began to emerge soon after the bullets stopped flying in Huatulco. One of the EPR guerrillas felled in combat was identified as Fidel Martinez Martinez, Loxicha's town treasurer. A few days later, according to government accounts, a military patrol near Huatulco discovered an EPR camp in the mountains and arrested six alleged combatants. All six turned out to be from Loxicha.Government investigators claim the men described how radical teachers convinced village authorities to support the armed movement. Mayor Luna, they allege, went from hamlet to hamlet recruiting combatants and even lent the town's pickup truck to help transport the men to Huatulco on the night of the attack.In their testimonials smuggled from prison, those detained on September 1 deny any involvement with the EPR and said they were forced to sign documents they were not permitted to read. "They beat me in the stomach, my nose, my mouth," said Cirilo Ambrosio Antonio. "They stuck a gun barrel in my mouth...and fired two shots next to my head."Nevertheless, the government moved against Loxicha, sending several hundred soldiers and police to the town to round up suspects, three of whom are teachers. Townspeople say the police were guided by two masked informers and that they entered houses without search warrants and stole money and other valuables.Those detained in the September 25 raid were questioned about the role of the teachers and shown photographs of professors suspected of holding clandestine meetings.Union leader Rafael Rodriguez -- who was named in the interrogation as an EPR organizer -- acknowledged that Erangelio Mendoza Gonzalez, the former secretary general of the union, has held meetings in Loxicha but only to attend to union business and promote democracy.The government's campaign against the union, Rodriguez alleged, is a response to its struggle to break away from the national teachers union, which is controlled by Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Many leaders of the Oaxaca union also belong to the FAC-MLN (the Broad Front for the Construction of a National Liberation Movement), a new coalition of leftist groups which the government has linked to the new guerrilla force.The EPR first emerged during a FAC-MLN meeting in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, on June 28, held to commemorate the one year anniversary of the murder of 17 campesinos by state authorities.While the possibilities of a rural-based guerrilla movement in a society that is 75 percent urban are clearly limited, the government is taking the EPR seriously, applying a classic strategy of repression and reform. Guerrero's municipal elections last week, for example, were the cleanest in the state's history.But in San Agustin Loxicha, the repression is having a chilling effect. Gaudencio Garcia Martinez, the substitute mayor, sat solemnly in his office, waiting, he said, for the government to arrest him despite his innocence.