CIVICUS speaks to Yésica Sánchez Maya about the recent repression of the teachers’ protest in Oaxaca and the situation of human rights defenders in Mexico. Sánchez Maya is a member of the leading team of the Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Fairness in Oaxaca, and a member of the organisation’s Program of Movement Building and Public Advocacy. Established in 2003, Consorcio Oaxaca is a feminist organisation that promotes women’s human rights and gender equality through advocacy in legislative and public policy processes, articulating citizen networks, providing training and education for women, and promoting participatory, democratic and inclusive practices.
Q: A few days ago protesting teachers were harshly repressed by the federal and state police forces in Oaxaca, leaving several dead. What were the reasons for the conflict and the excessive state reaction to it?
There are several outstanding issues in Oaxaca, which were not solved with alternation in the governorship. The current governor, Gabino Cué, is the first in eighty years who did not run on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ticket. The inability to solve outstanding issues such as impunity resulted in a deterioration of public confidence leading to a breakup with some social actors. As of today, nobody has yet been arrested and convicted for the terrible repression that occurred in Oaxaca in 2006, that is, ten years ago. The Supreme Court issued a report on the facts stating that a puff would be all Oaxaca needed to catch fire again. The puff was the attempt by the federal and state governments to impose rather than negotiate reforms. Since President Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated in 2012, Mexico has been through twelve structural reforms, including one for education. Like the others, this reform did not undergo a serious process of discussion or analysis but was fast-tracked. There was an attempt to fool citizens by making a point about the quality of education, while the truth is that no decent conditions exist in schools and there is no adequate funding to ensure access to education for all girls and boys. The main aim of the reform is to fire teachers. There is also an economic crisis at play because the national oil company where funds used to come from, Pemex, is in decline. So the government did not accept to negotiate with the teachers. When the government refused to sit and talk, Section 22 – the teachers’ union in Oaxaca –resorted to occupations, its historic tactic and held on to it. The state insisted that there was nothing to talk about and simply ignored them so the situation stalled and radicalised.
As it became apparent to all of us that dialogue was indeed necessary, parents, students, and civil society organisations began to make public calls for the state and federal governments to sit at the negotiating table. As they refused to talk, harassment, intimidation and criminalisation against Section 22 leaders and members increased, leading to a climate of uncertainty. Instead of talking, the government sent the gendarmerie – the new police created by the Peña Nieto administration – to Oaxaca along with the military, planes and helicopters. There was a climate of terror because the 2006 repression had left many open wounds. Imagine a city that is suddenly flown over by helicopters and where it is announced that 500 to 1 000 troops have arrived to evict teachers. There was a lot of fear in the streets and at night there were at least forty vehicles of the federal, state and local police doing surveillance rounds, all of them with armed personnel, encircling the occupation camp established by Section 22 in the capital’s central square. The state sought to intimidate them by making a huge show of armed power. That’s when the parents organised in solidarity with teachers. In order to put pressure on the government, they launched blocking actions in Nochixtlán and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These blockades lasted two to four days, and the government was still not ready for dialogue. On the seventh day the government decided to send out the federal military police, without following protocol or even giving any eviction notice. They just stormed in with excessive force. At first the Oaxacan government claimed that their security forces were unarmed, carrying only protective gear, but then the federal government had to admit that they were indeed armed. The truth is that there are photos and videos showing armed troops repressing civilians who were resisting peacefully.
Civil society called for dialogue but the government did not respond. After the executions and arrests that happened last Sunday an international alert was sent out, warning that something even worse could still happen. A very significant social bloc made of artists, intellectuals and academics urged the government to sit at the table. On Wednesday at 5pm the first such table was established with the Interior Ministry. We hope it will be a high-level negotiation allowing for discussion of the deeper issues. Last night those who had been arrested were released; still pending are the report on the medical care provided to the wounded protestors, and the issue of the ones who were killed. Eight were initially confirmed dead, but now there is talk of eleven. It is unfortunate that there had to be so many deaths for the government to accept the need for dialogue. We are concerned that if this round of negotiations does not yield the expected results, anything could happen.
Q: This situation does not seem to be exclusive to Oaxaca. In fact, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has recently published a very critical report on Mexico. Do you think that report provides an accurate description of civic space restrictions in the country?
We clearly have a human rights crisis in Mexico. But far from admitting it, the government is dedicated to denying it. The IACHR report was just the latest episode of the saga: last year the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said that torture was widespread in Mexico but the Mexican government dismissed the methodology of the report and the rapporteur himself, and questioned the work of civil society as well – because it is civil society which brings cases to the attention international bodies. The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders was also denied entry to Mexico. Reports are always dismissed. So was the one produced by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) in charge of investigating the Ayotzinapa disappearances. So when the IACHR pointed at the major outstanding issues that Mexico has on freedom of expression, access to justice and enforced disappearances, the government denied them. I was just in Brussels for the fourth seminar with civil society prior to the dialogue between the European Union and Mexico and I had the opportunity to see the Mexican government in an aggressive state of denial. When the Mexican delegation, composed of some thirty CSOs, questioned the government representative on Oaxaca, he said government did not have information and did not want to get ahead of themselves but rather first investigate. How can they not have any information if they are the Mexican State? The Mexican’s government prevailing attitude is to not own the situation and instead blame civil society, the rapporteurs, the IACHR. They do not recognise corruption or human rights violations and they do not recognise that the reason those have not been eradicated is the lack of sanctions and non-repetition guarantees. There is a situation of permissiveness for human rights violations.
Q: It has been nearly two years since the 43 disappearances of Ayotzinapa. In a country where thousands of people disappear every year, why did this particular case have such repercussions? Has anything changed since?
The Ayotzinapa case exposed the sewers of enforced disappearances in Mexico. Some elements raised the profile of the case. These were poor youths, students with faces, personal stories, identities, who studied in a teachers’ school and went missing in a state like Guerrero. During the Calderón administration (2006-12) thousands disappeared, but as it was thought that organised crime was responsible for this, people were more afraid to report them, and the state itself did its part to make them invisible. In the case of Ayotzinapa they did not succeed in doing so, and so it was that while looking for those 43 so many others were found. It was a national tragedy but had the merit of placing the very serious problem of enforced disappearances on the national and international agendas. This is important because it raised questions on the permissibility for human rights violations in Mexico, which is huge. In fact, almost two years have passed and it seems that the Mexican state has enough intelligence to watch us and know everything about human rights defenders (HRDs) and women human rights defenders (WHRDs), but at the same time they are unable to determine what happened to those youths.
Q: Do WHRDs face additional risks?
According to the report we prepared last year on the situation of WHRDs in Oaxaca, the main perpetrator of human rights violations is the State, both by act and omission. On the other hand, there are companies with transnational megaprojects, which do not respect the right to consultation or the rights to land and territory. Those who denounce them are increasingly under attack. The statistics show that these rights are second in terms of the number of attacks they are linked to. Thirdly, there are civil groups that play a role that I’m not sure to describe as para-police, but in any case are armed and at the service of the powers that be. Up to this point HRDs and WHRDs are affected alike. But there is an additional source of risks for WHRDs: the violence and restrictions that exist in society and in the communities, and therefore also within the social movement, in terms of the reinforcement of gender roles and the lack of recognition of WHRDs’ contributions. This is where the violence suffered by women as women overlaps with the violence that they suffer as human rights defenders.
Q: Are there any civil society self-protection initiatives in Mexico and in Oaxaca?
When the National Protection Mechanism was launched in Mexico, many organisations focused on strengthening it. While we respected that position, other organisations such as ours committed to a process of protection initiated from within the social movement, and applied ourselves to the construction of alternative spaces. As women human rights defenders, at a regional level we participated in the construction of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, an alliance of organisations from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. As a derivation from that regional process, each country in turn has promoted its own network of WHRDs. In Mexico, a National Network of WHRDs was established in 2010 following the lead of three organisations: JASS, the National Women’s Network and Consorcio Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, Consorcio also started a process at the state level, the State Network of Women Activists and Human Rights Defenders. These are very diverse networks, in terms both of theme and ideology, to the point that in any other circumstances you would wonder how it is that all these organisations can stay together: and this is precisely because of the way we all see the human rights crisis, and because of the way we are all treated by the State.
In Mexico there are no guarantees for defenders to do our work. There has recently been a smear campaign against large organisations such as PRODH and the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, which seemed untouchable. So if they are able to defame, harass and persecute those larger organisations, what can community and local defenders expect? If they are able to disqualify a report by the IACHR, the expert on torture or the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, what guarantees are left for us?
All requests of protection made to the State fall short, because the State is the main aggressor. When you demand protection from the government, they first question if you are indeed a defender; then they question that you are really at risk; then they tell you they have no money or they trap you in a bureaucratic process, when what you need is really urgent. That is why we are building self-protection mechanisms. By doing that we are by no means relieving the Mexican government of its responsibilities, but we are raising awareness of the risks and producing security measures, because the work we do is not minor and the Mexican state views us as anti-systemic entities, virtually turning us into the number one public enemy.
Q: What specific actions should the Mexican government take in the short term to safeguard civic space and citizens’ rights?
First of all it needs to withdraw the army from the streets. The army’s role is not to intervene on matters of a political nature or against civilians. Second, it must prosecute those who have already been singled out as responsible for human rights violations. The State has so far been unable or unwilling to guarantee access to justice, even in cases where responsibilities were clear as a result of victims’ testimonies. This has generated impunity, and therefore permissibility for human rights violations. For these not to be repeated indefinitely, it is important that the military or police officers and the public officials who have been identified as having committed human rights violations be investigated and convicted timeously, thereby setting a precedent. In addition, the Mexican state must stop pretending and accept that there is a human rights crisis. The world already knows that human rights are permanently and massively violated in Mexico. Denial is not helping: the State is investing more efforts and resources in denying the existence of a problem that is apparent than in actually solving it.
Q: How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support Mexican civil society?
It is essential that they continue to look at Mexico. The day they look away, who knows what can happen. If something has prevented greater catastrophes from taking place, it has been the monitoring efforts undertaken by the United Nations, the IACHR and the international human rights organisations that accompany us in doing our work. Much of what Mexican organisations have achieved we have done through links, accompaniments, solidarity actions and coordination with defenders and movements from other countries. When we are alone in pressuring our government we do not have the same effect, because the government argues that we are just “two or three” and that what we denounce are “isolated cases”. The attention of the international community to what is happening in Mexico and in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and other states, is really what allows us to move forward feeling accompanied.