OAXACA CITY, Mexico — In San Juan Copala, paramilitaries from nearby towns violently rebuff would-be visitors. A blockade of large rocks prevents anyone from crossing into town.
Copala residents Mariana Flores Sanchez and Ila Sancha Gutierrez speak in strained voices about conditions under the blockade, which has lasted since April. They describe kidnappings, the constant threat of violence and rape and the vacuum of life in their town.
“We don’t have drinkable water, electricity, medical service,” Sanchez said somberly. “The children have lost their school year. The people of Copala are not dying of bullets right now, they are dying of lack of nutrition, dying of curable diseases, because there is no medical care. It's a ghost town.”
The indigenous Triqui residents of Copala want autonomy from what they consider a corrupt government. They declared independence in 2007, demanding the right to self-government by municipally elected indigenous leaders. They want to live by traditional indigenous law.
Other indigenous groups in nearby towns perceive this bid for autonomous rule as a threat to their financial and political ties with the state government. So much so that they have initiated the blockades and employed paramilitaries to patrol the town and the sole entrance to Copala. Armed with automatic assault rifles, the paramilitaries have been quite effective at limiting movement in and out of the town.
“The political initiative of the autonomous municipality caused the backlash from those who want to dominate and control the region to protect their own interests,” said Gustavo Esteva, a founder of Oaxaca’s Universidad de la Tierra and a well-known author and advocate.
Copala is not the only place where the struggle for indigenous rights has led to armed conflict. The Zapatista movement's fight for improved indigenous rights in Chiapas has come with spurts of violence, and there are numerous active land disputes around the country, some of which occasionally turn bloody.
However, Copala's recent call for self-government seems to have reignited existing tensions in the region, and caused the dispute to escalate to its current level.
Two Triqui groups — MULT and Ubisort — appear to be behind the siege, Esteva said. The PRI, Mexico’s most traditionally powerful party, openly backs the two groups.
In June, the paramilitaries fired warning shots to prevent a 300-person caravan of elected officials, journalists and activists from entering the impoverished region with 40 tons of humanitarian aid.
“The people don’t have a regular life there. No one sleeps because of fear the paramilitaries will come in the night to the village,” said Sanchez. “The paramilitaries want this. They don’t want to see Copala autonomous.”
Sanchez and a small group of women recently snuck past the paramilitary barricades in the night to travel to Mexico City to raise awareness through a live radio broadcast and conference. They also set up a stand in the city's main square to raise money.
“We are fighting for this because we know we can change this. We know it won’t be easy,” said Gutierrez. “We believe in the idea of an autonomous municipality that would be respected, that the paramilitaries will leave us alone in our region … and we can name our own autonomous president, that he won’t be a person like in years past that is named by the paramilitaries.”
Gutierrez and Sanchez’s words echo reports from the region for the past several months: that residents feel at risk outside of their homes, that parents constantly fear for their children and that basic goods and services are unable to reach the people in the town that need them.
With the election of a new government in July, observers hope an end to the conflict is near.
“There hasn’t been a clear declaration, but it seems like the new governor of the state will have to act distinctly differently to the outgoing one,” said Tomas Lopez Sarabia, president of CEPIADET, an organization in Oaxaca that provides legal counsel and translation services to the state’s large indigenous population.
Yet, at present, there is no clear path forward, and no road map for resolving the issue.
Despite this life under constant fear, residents such as Gutierrez and Sanchez remain devoted to fulfilling the community’s goals for autonomy.
“We are scared, but we have to return, because its our people, and we can’t abandon the people who are there,” Gutierrez said. “Copala has a better future, with more freedom for the people.”