A caravan carrying food and supplies headed to the autonomous town of San Juan Copala in the Mexican state of Oaxaca yesterday determined to break a paramilitary blockade just 41 days after pro-state militants attacked a similar caravan and killed two activists.
The caravan is named for the victims from the April 27 ambush, Mexican activist Alberta “Betty” Cariño and Finnish observer Jyri Jaakola. Two Mexican journalists were injured and went missing along with four others for two days after the attack, according to Amnesty International.
The web site Autonomy in San Juan Copala reports that the new caravan includes eight buses, 11 politicians and representatives from 43 Mexican and international social and human rights organizations.
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A communiqué released yesterday stated the caravan was on the move in the morning and learned it would meet the Oaxaca state attorney and about 15 police cars at the municipality of Juxtlahuaca. A paramilitary group was reported to have organized women and children to block the caravan. Activists posted updates on Twitter, reporting that paramilitary units attempted to block the caravan and also tried to be integrated into it, but the caravan refused to negotiate.
A human rights committee reported on Mexican IndyMedia on Monday that paramilitary fighters opened fire on San Juan Copala twice over the weekend, injuring one villager.
The indigenous Triqui people began self-governing San Juan Copala in 2007 after a teacher’s strike ignited a popular uprising in Oaxaca. The paramilitary group Union of Social Welfare for the Triqui Region (UBISORT) and its allies has blockaded the autonomous municipality of about 700 residents since late 2009, and its fighters are accused of executing the ambush on the first caravan.
UBISORT is recognized as a paramilitary group by the United Nations and is allegedly tied to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Gov. Ulises Ruiz. The PRI’s violent repression of the Oaxaca uprising made headlines across the world. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the alleged link between the PRI and UBISORT.
“The murderers [UBISORT], obeying the orders of he who hides his criminal face in the halls of government, have cut the drinking water and electricity and have obstructed the entry of food and teachers into the community, causing our children’s basic level classes to be suspended and for the health center’s medic to be forced to abandon the town,” stated a press release issued by the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala after the attacks.
Paramilitary violence has continued in the area. On May 20, indigenous leader Timoteo Alejandro Ramirez, 46, and his wife Cleriberta Castro Aguilar, 36, were shot dead at their home in the Yosoyuxi neighborhood of the autonomous municipality, according to Amnesty International. UBISORT gunmen on May 14 abducted 12 women and children who left San Juan Copala to get medical provisions from a nearby town. The victims were harassed and forced to spend the night in an abandoned building before being released the next day.
Amnesty International has demanded a government investigation into paramilitary violence against autonomous communities in Oaxaca and state protection of the caravan currently attempting to bring aid to San Juan Copala.
Federal investigators took over the case on April 30 after meeting with an Amnesty International delegation, but the group reported Monday that Mexican officials have not worked toward ending the siege or bringing members of the illegal paramilitary groups to justice.
San Juan Copala rests in the one of the most turbulent and poor areas of southern Mexico. By declaring their autonomy, the people of the community refuse to observe the authority of the Mexican state in favor of local rule based on traditional indigenous values. This defiance from an already marginalized group makes the community a prime target for paramilitary and state repression.
“We admit that in our region there are residents who, renouncing their culture and denying their history, serve the interests of the powerful who have always sowed division amongst us with the one goal of expelling the legitimate heirs to these lands in order to appropriate their natural wealth,” stated a press release issued by the Autonomous Municipality after the initial attack. “As residents of San Juan Copala, we know who committed these crimes, and we know not only because of all they have done to us before but because they are the same who in the days before the caravan made public threats in the media.”