The Dream of San Juan Copala - by Claudio Albertani

The convoy after attack

On April 26, 2010, a convoy of some twenty militants and international observers was ambushed in Mexico. They were on their way to San Juan Copala, a village in the Sierra Mixteca region, to give support to the villagers in their resistance to the terrorism of a local paramilitary group. Their convoy was brutally ambushed by paramilitaries......

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 8, 2010

So much misery, so much blood, so many dead, so many disappeared. What is happening in the Triqui region? What has happened in the communities? The convoy for Copala was stopped; they were young friends, they were brothers. Words were answered by bullets, but you cannot stop words.
Manolo Pipas, Galician troubador, citizen of the world


On April 26, 2010, some twenty militants and international observers set off for San Juan Copala, a village of around 700 inhabitants located about 250 kilometers from the city of Oaxaca and belonging to the Triqui ethnic group who live in the Sierra Mixteca region. Arriving in Huajuapan de Leon, where the convoy spent the night, they distributed a text denouncing the paramilitary group UBISORT (Unidad de Bienstar Social de la Región Triqui, Unity of Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region), which had maintained a state of siege against the village of San Juan Copala, controlling the comings and goings of its residents.

The situation in San Juan Copala was alarming. Schools were closed, and on April 17, a local farmer, José Celestino Hernandez Cruz, was mowed down in a spray of bullets from an AK-47, the latest in a long series of homicides—around 600 in the last 30 years—none of whose perpetrators have been punished. Among those killed were Teresa Bautista and Felicitas Martinez, two young journalists from the community radio station, “La Voz que rompe el silencio” (“The voice that breaks the silence”). And now the paramilitaries had even cut off water and electricity to the village.

Why such fury? San Juan Copala is not just any place. For many decades, it has been the focal point of conflicts in a region characterized by particularly despotic structures of power and by strong protest movements against such power. Contrary to some journalists’ accounts, this was not an ethnic conflict, but a political struggle, one that revealed all the absurdity of the existing system of governance.

The history of this struggle goes back at least to the 1970s, when, following one of many episodes of repression, the Movimiento de Unificación y Lucha Triqui (MULT or the Movement of Triqui Unification and Struggle) was created, having as its objective to fight against the caciques (local political bosses) and to promote the autonomy of the Triqui people. This movement grew rapidly, to a point that it represented a threat to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), which had been the ruling party in Mexico since the late 1920s. Many of the founders of MULT were killed; others left for Mexico City; still others fled to the United States. In the end, the PRI took control of the movement (and the MULT). In 1994, UBISORT was created as an armed branch of the PRI and assigned the task of disciplining the Triqui region, by whatever means, including the most drastic.

By the first years of this century, this goal seemed to have been achieved. While the PRI lost the presidential election to the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party, currently in power nationally in Mexico), it still controlled the state of Oaxaca by means of repeated acts of repression, corruption, and some modest economic aid. This equilibrium was precarious, and unrest surged again in 2004 with the arrival of a new governor in Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who represented a fusion of the old system of corruption and a new technocratic authoritarianism.

A new cycle of conflicts began in the Triqui region, and splits took place in the ranks of both MULT and UBISORT. In the wake of this, MULTI was born, the “I” at the end of the acronym standing for “Independent” to better underline MULTI’s separation from the PRI and its methods. In 2006, MULTI joined the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), the large social movement that succeeded for a brief moment in shaking the foundations of political power in Oaxaca. On January 1, 2007, following the example of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the citizens of San Juan Copala, supported by MULTI and even some dissidents from UBISORT, created their own autonomous municipality, thus breaking with the state and the existing system of parties.

The dream was still the same: to struggle for autonomy and to create decent living conditions for the Triqui people, something that was blatantly impossible with Ulises Ruiz in power. Toward the end of 2009, due to the indifference of the judicial system as much as the federal government, the situation in the Triqui region worsened. On November 29, 2009, an assault by paramilitaries of UBISORT took place, and a child, Elías Fernández de Jesús, was killed by a stray bullet. On December 10, 2009, after numerous attempts, the paramilitaries succeeded in retaking the communal hall in San Juan Copala, where an autonomous authority had been established nine months earlier.

The spiral of violence seemed inexorable, and it was in this context that the initiative was taken to send a humanitarian convoy to San Juan Copala. Among the organizers of the convoy were the group VOCAL (Voces Oaxaqueñas Construyendo Autonomia y Libertad, Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom), the NGO Cactus (Centro de Apoyo Comunitario Trabajando Unidos, Center of Community Support Working Together), and la Red de Radio y Comunicadores Indigenas del Sureste mexicano, an association of community radios in southeast Mexico.

On April 27, 2010, the convoy left Hujaupan de León in the early morning. In the meantime, it had been joined by two journalists from the review Contralinea, Erika Ramirez and David Cilia, who wanted to do a report on San Juan Copala, a village whose story was unknown to most Mexicans. The caravan also included some APPO militants and a delegation from Section 22 of the teachers union in Oaxaca who sought to reopen the schools in the village. The atmosphere was tense. The evening before, Rufino Juarez—the uncontested boss of UBISORT and agent of Evencio Martínez, the interior minister of Oaxaca state—had declared unequivocally that he had not authorized the entry of the convoy into the Triqui region. It was the kind of language used by gangsters, and not one based on any legal authority.

Rufino Juarez made good on his threat. At about 2:30 on April 27, the road was blocked at La Sabana, a locality around 1.5 kilometers from San Juan Copala. Suddenly, masked and heavily armed men appeared and opened fire without a word, killing Bety Cariño, the president of Cactus, and Jyri Jaakkola, a young Finnish national from the NGO Uusi Tuuli Ry (New Wind), both of whom were riding in the first vehicle of the convoy. There was at least one other person who was gravely wounded: Monica Citlali Santiago Ortiz, who was transported to the nearby hospital in Santiago Juxtlahuaca. After the ambush, there followed a moment of panic. The remaining passengers sought shelter on either side of the road. Some of them were taken prisoner; others hid in the bushes. A few managed to escape and sound the alarm.

Gabriela Jimenez reached Oaxaca, where she gave a press conference at the headquarters of Section 22. There, before television cameras and journalists, she revealed that the attackers, who for the most part were very young, were all UBISORT militants who had boasted that they enjoyed the protection of the governor, Ulises Ruiz. This would appear to clear up the mystery as to why the forces of order had refrained from intervening. “We won’t interfere. We are afraid for the safety of our men,” the commander of the Oaxaca state police had declared.

Meanwhile, the number of those who were unaccounted for after the attack on the convoy had risen. Among these were the Italian Davide Cassinari, the Belgian Martin Santana, the two journalists from Contralinea, and two well-known militants from VOCAL, David Venegas and Noé Bautista. Thanks to a video clip filmed and sent by mobile phone, it was quickly known that they were alive and still in hiding for fear of reprisals. Two of them—David Cilia and Erika Ramirez—were wounded, each with a bullet in their bodies. For them, the ordeal that began with the ambush lasted more than 60 hours. On April 29, all those who had remained encircled managed to escape. Venegas and Bautista reached Oaxaca in the evening, while Cilia and Ramirez were treated at the hospital in Juxtlahuaca, where they had been transported by a helicopter hired by the publisher of Contralinea and Cilia’s father, without the slightest help from either the federal government or the state authorities in Oaxaca.

In the end, nothing seems to have changed. Ulises Ruiz declared that the ambush was all the fault of Gabino Cué, the tame opposition candidate in the next state elections. The guilty ones enjoyed the impunity that is customary in Oaxaca. The federal authorities remained silent and the European Union abstained from any comment on the events. Nonetheless, everything did not go as smoothly as it seemed. President Felipe Calderón was booed when he appeared at the Berlin forum on climate change on May 2. A protest banner proclaimed, “Never again another San Juan Copala.” Furthermore, newspapers across the world spoke of the terrible situation in which the Triquis live. The deaths of Bety and Jyri will therefore not have been in vain. A recent communiqué from VOCAL announced preparations for a new caravan of solidarity. The citizens of San Juan Copala are not alone.

Mexico City, May 3, 2010


Bety_Carino.jpg (15.54 KB)



14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Django on May 8, 2010

Should that read "Mexico City, May 3, 2010" at the end?

Red Marriott

14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 8, 2010

Thanks Django - corrected.


14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by gypsy on May 8, 2010

Thanks Ret for this. Very shocking incident.

Caiman del Barrio

14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Caiman del Barrio on May 8, 2010

Contrary to some journalists’ accounts, this was not an ethnic conflict, but a political struggle, one that revealed all the absurdity of the existing system of governance.

Would be good to have some examples of the sorts of struggles they're undertaking. Maybe Escarabajo can comment.

Very interesting though, thanks.


14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Escarabajo on May 10, 2010

bit pusehd for time at the moment so can't really go into much detail re the background to this. for the spanish speakers amongst us this video gives a pretty good idea.

quite a few other vids about Copala up there as well.


14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Escarabajo on May 10, 2010

part 2


14 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Escarabajo on May 12, 2010

Statement from San Juan Copala regarding the ambush, calling for a second caravan
May 11, 2010

Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca

We will NOT look for you among the dead,
We will continue to walk together, now with your intercession,
until the complete liberation of your people, our people”


Comrades of the media, we have called you together at the request of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala. As the bearers of the voice of our people, we want all the people of Mexico to hear directly from us what happened on the 27th of last month and what continues to happen in our community.

That day, a group of criminals who call themselves the UBISORT social organization cowardly and treacherously murdered two human rights observers who were part of the caravan that departed from Huajuapan de León and who attempted, in a peaceful manner, to observe the criminal harassment which our people have been subjected to. The murderers, 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. This is how the powerful in this country seek to put down the resistance and the quest for a dignified life for indigenous communities in Mexico.

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. 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. They are the same who obstructed the passage of the comrades from San Salvador Atenco, they are the same who, with brazen statements to some media outlets, are now trying to blame us for their criminal actions.

It is necessary to clarify that the Autonomous Municipality project of San Juan Copala was not created on a whim, on the contrary, because we know and love our history, it is an agreement of communal assembly that arose with the intent of pacifying the region through an indigenous government which rules through uses and customs without the interference of political parties and organizations, as we are convinced that a government which LEADS BY OBEYING will bring forgiveness, reconciliation and peace to our peoples in order to achieve the social development that we so desire. We want those who govern us to walk with us with a deep respect for our mother earth, our culture and our indigenous cosmovision; because of this we issue a fraternal call to our brothers and sisters who walk with the dignity of being indigenous to let us strengthen the communal assemblies, as it will be those which, sooner rather than later, will carry the fate of the region and expel from our grounds those who, believing us incapable of thinking, make decisions without ever consulting the people, they are those who, in the end, foster division and violence.

We demand that the Mexican state punish those responsible for all the crimes committed in the Triqui region, particularly the murders of our comrade Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola and we ask all of you to assist us in denouncing this state of injustice and watching to see that there is no impunity.

Finally, and as a result of the grave state of injustice and despair which we endure in the Municipality of San Juan Copala, we have asked the Diocesan Commission of Peace and Justice and the Bartolomé Carrasco Regional Human Rights Center to assist us in convening another humanitarian and observational caravan, making provisions for all the security measures and coordinating with all the national and international human rights organizations interested in corroborating the situation we live under in San Juan Copala, we need everyone in order to reach the political agreements that will definitively break the paramilitary, economic, political, social, media and starvation siege which is confronting our town.

We send a hug to our brother Omar and reaffirm our commitment to never give up, because the future that we yearn for is near. We know and believe that the night is darkest before the dawn.

Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala

Related content