Santiago Xanica: A Zapotec Village’s Fight for Autonomy in Mexico
Around two thousand indigenous Zapotec people live in the community of Santiago Xanica in the mountain range ‘Madre del Sur’ in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It takes two hours to travel here via a dusty dirt track that cuts through fresh tropical vegetation on the dry mountain sides. The tranquillity that resonates in Xanica and the warm welcome from the habitants hides a violent and tense past.
Resident Abraham Ramírez Vázquez explains: “In 2004, State Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortiz came to power and imposed his authority in Xanica. We didn’t want it. The government sent us 12 state police patrols to control everyone. A month later, on the 15th of January 2005, we were building a house when the state police took a shot at me and my two colleagues: Noel and Juvento García Cruz. They then accused me of having killed a police officer, as well as kidnapping and other assaults. For almost a year and two months we were in the penitentiary of Oaxaca. After we had a talk in the prison with Deputy Marcos, who told us what happened over the course of the other campaign, they moved us to the regional prison in San Pedro Pochutla. There we made many claims of violations against our human rights that were taking place in the prison. Following what was happened there, they moved me to the Miahuatlán maximum security prison, where I stayed for one year and three months. There I kept reporting, and, thanks to national and international support, they moved me again to San Pedro Pochutla. I was there another year and three months, when finally I was able to leave, having been found not guilty of all the crimes that they had accused me of.”
Abraham was in prison for more than six years for a crime he hadn’t committed, as the authorities didn’t allow him to present the proof that was capable of exonerating him. For the state, Abraham was an example to the other members of CODEDI (Defence Committee of Indigenous Rights in Xanica), an organization set up at the end of the nineties in order to guarantee respect for autonomy of indigenous towns.
In 1998, the state government of Oaxaca approved a law that allowed the communities to govern themselves by the “uses and customs” of their traditional indigenous system. Gerardo Froylán González Cruz explains how it works: “The communal assembly selects the authorities by majority vote: they put the names on a blackboard and put a tick for every vote that the candidate receives. We don’t just have a system of autonomous government but also judicial and police systems.”
Through granting this type of autonomy, the government thought it able to cool the calm the mood of the sixteen indigenous nations present in the region of Oaxaca. The government was afraid that they would take the Zapatista uprising that had taken place a few years before in the neighbouring state of Chiapas as an example.
At any rate, then governor José Murat imposed on Xanica an authority similar to the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the party that had brought large national and foreign companies to Mexico for seventy years.“CODEDI was set up in 1999 because they wanted to impose a government on us, so we organized ourselves, uniting our strengths and defending the right to choose our authorities,” says Sergio Ramírez Vázquez.
César Luís Díaz added: “We knew that the states authority would have followed the desires of the PRI, rather than that of the people the people. As CODEDI, we mobilized ourselves, because what the community wants is to name a person that has moral authority and someone who, with any decision, will consult the people, not the political parties. We then chose a popular authority that, for two years, governed parallel to the government, but also together with the people, and without state resources. In the end, the government had to recognize our authority, because they couldn’t govern that way. In 2004, there was another attempt by the government to impose a PRI authority, but through our mobilization, and national and international support, after 2007 we were able to again govern ourselves by our ‘uses and customs.’ In the years of PRI government, the Xanica region was militarized; they even brought in war tanks.” The Zapoteca mobilization occurred in the violent and tense atmosphere which surrounded the state of Oaxaca in 2006, in the years of the PRI government of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, when the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Oaxaca towns, of which CODEDI is one of the founders), occupied the capital city of the state for six months.
The latest attempt of manipulation of the Xanica government happened in 2010, when the PRI presented as a Ciro Flores García as a candidate, and Flores García gave favors and gifts to the town’s citizens. However, CODEDI fought to unmask this PRI deception, demonstrating that its candidate didn’t comply with the prerequisites of the election system of ‘uses and customs:’ to have been born and to have lived in the community, and to have carried out some posts or services for the town. The 2010 elections signaled another period of tension for Xanica: new aggressions and the militarization of the region.
For the PRI, the influence over the government of Xanica is necessary to be able to decide what to do with the great natural richness present in the region. It is enough to think that it was exactly during this period of PRI government that the Sergio García Cruz authorized the granting of the diversion of the water in the Copalita river towards the coast. “They told us that they were directing the water to the more marginalized towns close to Huatulco, but soon we found out that the water wasn’t going to stop in these communities but in the hotel area of Huatulco, where there are golf courses. Coca-Cola is interested in the water that starts here in the Xanica territory as well,” recounts César Luís Díaz.
There are various mega-projects that the government and the companies are implementing or want to implement in that narrow piece of land fromthe Xanica valley down to the Oaxacan coast. Today Huatulco, with its bays that follow one after the other, is one of the more touristy areas of the Mexican pacific coast.
Xanica Resident Sergio Ramírez Vázquez denounces these projects: “We know that within the tourist corridor forecast by the Plan Puebla Panamá is the highway that would destroy our forests. It would be the death of Xanica.” The March 2011 report of the International Brigade organized by the PIRATA network also revealed the government’s desire to commodify the Copalita River through the creation of eco-resorts, as an attempt to control the forests with a payment system for forest services and the commodification of the medicinal plants for pharmaceutical industry patents. “They also intend to exploit some uranium mines that are close by. CODEDI is fighting against these projects”, added César Luís Díaz.
Thanks to the participation of the Magonista Zapatista Alliance, who brought together the OIDHO organization (Indian organizations for the human rights in Oaxaca), the CAMA Collective (Magonista Collective Autonomy) of Mexico City and Nodo Solidale of Rome, CODEDI’s fight has gone beyond Xanica, even outside of Oaxaca state and across Mexican borders. The Magonista Zapatista alliance has won one of its biggest battles: the liberation of Juventino, Noel García Cruz and of Abraham Ramírez Vázquez.
At the end of last April, Abraham had returned home with his family, which had never stopped fighting for him. In January, the CODEDI radio station, Radio Roca, which had been silenced by state repression, went back on air to report on the struggle of this Zapotec community of Oaxaca. One of its first interviews was with Abraham’s brothers and son, along with other girls and boys from Xanica.