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SOA Watch Delegation to Mexico and Costa Rica PDF Print E-mail
( Photo: Oaxaca, Mexico - two women in traditional attire great visitors at church entrance)

Ismael sat silently in the corner of the small and stuffy prison cell in the Oaxaca desert where eight of us huddled together, four SOAW delegation members and four of the hundreds detained during the recent conflict in this southern Mexican city. His compact body pressed into the corner as though willing it to flee the prison walls and magically return to his wife and four young children. Yet, his spirit was so very present to us as he looked up with warm brown eyes to answer our queries. “Why are we here? It is this simple: because we are poor. The government needs to punish someone for the uprising. They need to put fear into people, so they put us in jail. We will handle this, but it is really our children who they are punishing.”

Our conversation was being monitored by the prison authorities who had finally allowed us in, after hours of negotiating in the midday desert sun. Our small group, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Linda Panetta and I had come to Mexico as part of the SOAW Latin America initiative. Through the skillful organizing of Maryknoll lay missioner Randy Hinthorn and Sister Kathy Long, a former SOAW prisoner of conscience living in Mexico, we were granted a quick but clear snapshot of Mexican reality. In Oaxaca, Randy organized meetings with widows and orphans of the conflict, political prisoners and detainees, priests, catechists, grandmothers, lawyers, teachers, human rights activists and indigenous leaders involved in the events. Oaxaca was a window to understanding the strong role being given to military and police forces in Mexico in efforts to keep the lid on civil discontent that is approaching a boiling point.

The conflict that landed Ismael in prison six months earlier began as a teachers' strike, an annual tradition in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. The basic script, re-enacted over the past 20 years, involves teachers rallying every May in the capital to petition the local government for their annual raise. Teachers make about $440 per month. However, this time the script took a very different turn. Instead of negotiating this time, Oaxaca's Governor Ulises Ruiz unleashed helicopters, tear gas and beatings upon the striking teachers and their children as they slept in the streets.

This unchecked use of force set off furor among the citizens of Oaxaca. The next day, the governor found himself not just facing the 70,000-strong teachers union, but almost half a million Oaxacans, demanding his resignation. In the following days, which turned to months, Oaxacan citizens maintained the strike. Children came to chant to encourage their teachers to stay, Christian base communities cooked and delivered hot meals to strikers, grandmothers took their turn in the planton. Governor Ruiz called in the feared PFP who used violent tactics, leading to the deaths of 25 civilians and the illegal detainment of over 300, among them Ismael.

Like his fellow inmates at this prison, Ismael is neither a teacher nor was involved in the conflict He is a juggler who supports his wife and four children by entertaining on the busy downtown streets. His crime was that of being poor and working where the police decided to close in. His own jugging sticks were converted into billy clubs by police who smashed them over his head before throwing him, bleeding, into the paddy wagon. The detainees were piled so tight into the truck that fellow inmate Pedro received third degree burns on his leg that was wedged against a steaming muffler, almost losing it during ensuing months of neglect in prison. Another inmate, Flaviano, was taken because he couldn't explain in Spanish why he was there pushing his market cart through the crowd. Like two-thirds of Oaxacans, Flaviano is indigenous.

While the abuses in Oaxaca were perhaps the most dramatic example of growing repression in Mexico, they are part of a pattern which is clearly emerging there. Last year over 700 major conflicts erupted in the country. In recent years the rural state of Oaxaca has seen massive numbers of farmers leave the land tilled by their families for centuries to head north of the Rio Grande to pick someone else's crops. The wide doors of NAFTA burst open to allow cheap U.S. agro business corn to flood Mexico, but shut in the faces of those whose livelihood was stripped by this agreement.

The unraveling of local economies is being accompanied by the unraveling of political authority, evidenced in Oaxaca. Recent presidential elections left Mexicans questioning results that placed Felipe Calderon ahead of leftist opposition candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than 1%. Lopez Obrador's supporters held forth in the zocalo for several months after the election. Another large chunk of the population didn't even participate in elections, following the lead of Zapatista leader Marcos who led the “non-campaign”. The lack of legitimacy felt by Calderon is the reason human rights activists give to explain his embrace of the military and quasi-military police in dealing with social upheaval.

In our attempts to investigate any connection between the repression in Oaxaca and the SOA/WHINSEC, we ran into a wall, placed there by our own government. In past years, SOA Watch has been able to gain access to names of graduates of the SOA/WHINSEC via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This crosscheck was the key factor to the uncovering of connections between SOA grads and hundreds of human rights abuses in Latin America. In post 9-11 reality, however, this information has been blocked. Recent lists of SOA graduates obtained through FOIA are an exercise in the use of a black magic marker. Every single graduate’s name is crossed out. Needless to say, this makes investigating recent human rights abuses in Latin America, such as that of Oaxaca, impossible.

( Photo: Oaxaca, Mexico - SOA Watch delegation and local human rights activists)

However, what did emerge from talks with Mexican human rights organizations was a pattern of increased abuse on the part of military and police forces against civilians which roughly parallels Mexico's increased enrollment at the SOA. Until the last decade, Mexico had sent relatively few students to the SOA, especially in relation to its large population. The onset of the Zapatista uprising, however, saw a ten-fold increase in Mexican enrollment at the SOA for several years and a corresponding use of violent repression.

As Mexico's enrollment in SOA has come down in recent years, a new situation has emerged, similar to much of Central America. Police forces are taking on the former role and character of the military, using violent methods as a first response to social unrest. Even their dress is reminiscent of the military, evidenced by their use of combat boots and large weapons. Concerns such as gangs and the war on drugs give the police an ever-handy excuse for abuse of power.

As the days of the SOA appear to be numbered (the fact that 203 members of Congress voted for its closing does not go unnoticed by the Pentagon), a brand new U.S.-sponsored academy is on the rise, which offers training to Latin American police. And, it's conveniently located in tiny El Salvador, far away from U.S. vigils and demonstrations. The International Academy for Law Enforcement (ILEA) in San Salvador refuses to provide ANY information on their students or graduates (we met with them last March, and they told us this directly). If the increase in police repression in places such as Oaxaca is any reflection of what this school is teaching, Latin Americans have much to worry about, even if SOA is closed.

Leaving Mexico behind, we headed to tiny Costa Rica, where we were met by Rita Calvert, one of many U.S. citizens who have chosen to retire in this country because of its commitment to peace (Costa Rica doesn't have an army). The former director of the Dallas Peace Center and a longtime SOAW activist, Rita had invited us to visit Costa Rica as soon as she learned of the Latin America initiative. It took us 13 other countries to get there, and by the time we were scheduled to visit, Rita had broken her shoulder. “I quite literally fell for my new granddaughter” as she put it, explaining the scene where she tripped on a hospital rug after visiting the latest of her 12 grandchildren. Not one to give up easily, when casts and surgery didn't work, she pulled out the pins, and set to work to organize our visit.

With limited Spanish and one working shoulder, Rita set in place a whirlwind of talks, interviews, and meetings. Showing up early our first morning to go over our schedule, she climbed laboriously down from the van, in obvious pain but determined enthusiasm. Looking at her clipboard she read: meeting at 9, radio at 11, interview at 1, forum at 3, and then almost as an afterthought, “Oh yes, and the president has agreed to meet with us.” Her prizewinning smile was matched by our delight. Aided by another tireless peace crusader, Quaker Center Director Isabel MacDonald, they had obtained the meeting by sheer persistence, including going to the president's house several nights in a row to to make he had received the request.

On our last evening in Costa Rica, Roy, Rita, Isabel and I were shown into the office of President Oscar Arias, re-elected last year, 20 years after his first presidency. The Nobel Peace laureate ushered us in with a warm welcome. Looking at a room filled with photos of Arias with other former recipients of this coveted peace prize, I found myself hoping that they could somehow inspire this president to continue on the peacemaking path. Our task was not easy. Costa Rica was a faithful client of SOA, sending more than twice the number of students as Mexico, in spite of its tiny size and no army.

Roy launched into our concerns about SOA, sharing his own story and the testimony of so many prisoners of conscience, in his unique form of bayou-accented Spanish. Arias turned to me to clarify what we wanted him to do. Caught off guard in my invocations to these peacemakers, I simply said “don't sent any more police to study at the SOA.” Then I explained how Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela had chosen to stop sending any troops to the SOA. With almost no hesitancy, Arias responded, “it is done. We will send no more”. Forgetting my president-visiting protocol, I jumped up spontaneously hugged President Arias, thanking him “in the name of the martyrs who had been killed at the hands of SOA grads”. Realizing the significance of his decision, Arias appeared genuinely moved and said, “that means a lot”.

( Photo: From L to R - Rita Calvert (SOAW activist living in Costa Rica), Fr. Roy Bourgeois, President Oscar Arias, Lisa Sullivan, Fernando Berrocal Soto (Minister of Government, Police and Public Security), Isabel MacDonald (Director of the Peace Center in Costa Rica))

A few weeks later, I joined numerous SOAW activists who almost wore grooves down the marble halls of Congress, lobbying intensely for the bill calling for SOA's closing. I was energized in hearing the amazement expressed by many congressional aides for the volume of faxes, emails, letters, calls and visits that they had received from SOAW activists around the country. Several mentioned the significance of the withdrawal of 4 countries from SOA, especially that of Costa Rica.

To our disappointment, the bill was defeated in a midnight vote, by a tiny margin of 6 votes. Before going to bed, I dejectedly sent off an email to our allies in Latin America in the wee hours of the night, explaining the defeat. To my surprise, by the next morning I had received over a dozen replies from Chile to Venezuela, and Mexico to Panama. They did not refer to a defeat, but congratulated us for our “victory”. A human rights activist from Peru wrote: "The struggle that you all are carrying out in the heart of the U.S. Congress is in and of itself a triumph. Even though the school wasn't closed, you have awakening a sense of hope among many peoples. The campaign to close the school is a visible sign of this and has promoted communication and understanding between the people of North America and the people of the South. This has built trust, something which is very necessary and urgent in these times.”

These words reminded me of a conversation our last evening in Oaxaca with Kiado, a young Zapoteca leader. Trying to explain how so many pulled together in the Oaxaca struggle, he said “in our language, there is no word for 'I'. We only exist in relation to one another”. Well, in our language, there certainly is, and we even name our biggest selling gadgets after it. Yet somehow I think that the SOAW movement and the connections it weaves between citizens of the Americas from North to South affirms this necessary connection, to the benefit of all.

Two footnotes to the story. Shortly after our return, Ismael was released from prison and is now with his family However, the young lawyers who have worked tirelessly for his release, have received numerous death threats and harassments on the part of the government. Oh, and Rita recently had successful shoulder surgery. As a friend from Costa Rica noted “imagine what Rita will do with TWO working shoulders.” Imagine what we all can do.


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