As the school year starts, teachers in the highly indigenous Mexican state of Oaxaca are revving up their struggle against neoliberal education reform – two months after federal police massacred protesters near the town of Noxichtlán. The radical National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) has recently called for continuing road blockades and has pledged to continue its strike, and the freeing of political prisoners has been one aspect of their continuing negotiations with the Mexican Secretary of the Interior.
The following is an Aug. 4 interview with Victoria Tenopala Juárez, a member of the Council of Oaxacan Autonomous Organizations [COOA], who discusses the state of the movement as well as the case of her husband, the indigenous political prisoner César León Mendoza.
On June 19, eight Oaxacans were killed when federal police attempted to dislodge protesters’ highway blockade at Noxichtán, which they had maintained to pressure the government to undo the federal education reform, first fully enacted in Oaxaca in 2015. The independent journalist León Mendoza had long worked to support and document the movements against this and other neoliberal reforms, and was arrested in late 2015. He currently faces four charges, including attempted homicide. He was originally held at a state prison in Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, 2.5 hours from his family. Direct action campaigns in February 2016 in Oaxaca led to his transfer to the Ixcotel prison, in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, which is closer to his family and support networks.
This interview was conducted in Spanish by Eric Larson*, who translated it and edited it for length.
EL: How is the situation in Oaxaca now?
VT: The situation in Oaxaca is very difficult. It’s not just the education workers’ union, but it’s the people. There are calls to attention [to support] the education workers from different authorities – agrarian and municipal authorities – and different communities. They’re going to enter into the struggle now that there is vacation [from school]. In the communities [of Oaxaca], they’re not going to accept teachers [who arrive to start classes]. The teachers will be ran out of town if they’re not part of the struggle now. …
EL: What is the state of the movement in Oaxaca? How are the road blockades and the occupations going?
VT: The occupation [in the capital city, Oaxaca City] remains in place. Today, municipal authorities and organizations that hadn’t been part of the movement installed a joint encampment at 12 pm. Today, we as COOA have our encampment and our demand for the liberty of César León, along with the organizations CODEDI and OIDHO. The blockades also remain. …
EL: Why and how did they arrest César?
VT: They detained him on Nov. 20, 2015. They detain him because we have always been in struggle. He’s a person fortunately that the people have faith in him, [including] for his support of the education workers’ union. He works for free, independent media, and the web site “La Otra Oaxaca,” and he dedicates himself to documenting different social struggles. That was the principal reason for detaining him, both his support of the education workers and for his support of the people of different social organizations. It was a form of saying, “If you keep supporting, this is how it’s going to go for you.”
Is it true that the prison in Miahuatlán is newer, and more of a U.S.-style prison design?
VT: Actually, César was in the regional prison, not the federal one, because the four crimes attributed to him are of the local jurisdiction. But I know a bit about the federal prison in Miahuatlán. They’re new prisons, directed by companies. They’ve been privatized; the people there work for a company. In fact the work that [prisoners] do in these federal prisons is a kind of modern slavery, because you or your family don’t have the right to receive your money. They supposedly save the money you earn into an account and give it to you when you leave so you re-integrate into society. They’re prisons in which everything, even socks and shoes, are certified [by prison authorities]. The compas who have been there say it’s horrible, in that they don’t want to just end you physically, but also destroy your emotional and spiritual being, as people of struggle. In César’s prison, it’s a very poor prison. There, the people are inside because they stole a piece of bread. …
EL: You had told me that the treatment was different in Miahuatlán than in Ixcotel.
VT: It’s that [in Ixcotel], you can at least get out a little bit and play basketball, cook something on an electric stove. When I took him things to heat … they weren’t letting me bring in more food. At Ixcotel at least you can bring an egg in to be cooked. In Miahuatlán they didn’t even let me bring in a book. Here, at least you can bring in a novel … It’s a great win for us as a family. He can see his children two times a week. Before it was only once. Now, they’ve implemented inspections. Before, they only half-inspected my children, but now they take off their shoes, raise their t-shirts, take down their pants. Although we complained to the Human Rights Advocacy Office, which filed a written complain, the government doesn’t care. Now that they have emitted the other two charges, [one day] the prison director entered and told César that now his safety is not his responsibility. We took it as a threat. …
EL: Talking a little more about you, how has your life changed with César’s detention?
VT: We’ve always been very active; we’re really good together. We have similar ideologies but not the same – nothing can ever be the same. I took a bit of a break [from the social struggle]; we had my baby, the small one. Now with the detention everything has really changed. Now I’m not just the mother and the father, but I have to be [his] voice and everything. It’s been super-wearing on me. My children need me. All the time I’m pressured with the things I need to do … I feel in these kinds of moments that I’m losing them and I won’t recuperate them. Sometimes I feel guilty, you know? But I know that we’re not bad. We need the children to fight so that we leave them a better world and a better life. So for me it’s been lots of pressure. All the responsibilities fall on me. Everything, of everything, from the political to the family. It can be very strong to feel that burden, because the burden is very large, and sometimes you make a wrong decision.
EL: Have the government strategies and forms of repression changed since 2006?
VT: There are new strategies. Now they have us more studied, and they try … to break everything from the inside. In 2006 there were the “death caravans,” and now there has been Noxichtlán, where there were assassinations and injuries. In Noxichtlán, it’s very big. A hundred injuries are known about, but there are more than a thousand, with people’s arms and legs rotting because the people are scared of those who could attend to their injuries – [they’re scared] that they’re detaining people in the hospital. The strategy of the government has changed a lot. Before it was a little more disguised, but now they just shoot to kill, you know? Now wherever you look you see people dressed as civilians with guns. …
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
VT: More than anything that in Oaxaca, things continue to be hard. It’s important to note that the (local) authorities and communities are rising up not just against the [education] reform, but against the 12 reforms. As the authorities have said, “If they go after one of us, they’re going after us all.” … Now, it’s about supporting not just César’s case but about all the political prisoners, not just in Oaxaca but in Mexico and at the world level, but there are many injustices. …
The family and friends of César León are raising money for his legal defense. Contributions can be wired to the account of Victoria Tenopala Juárez in the Mexican bank BANAMEX (account number 4766840321305299)
* Eric Larson is Assistant Professor of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.