OAXACA, Mexico – Native filmmakers in the battle zone city of Oaxaca are on the front lines. A few, like Damian Lopez-Castillo, are also in the crosshairs of Oaxacan police and federal military.
Lopez-Castillo and a group of Oaxacan indigenous media professionals were in New York City in early December to attend the 13th annual Native American Film and Video Festival. He and a few of his colleagues came to show their work as well as to inform other filmmakers and the audiences about the tragedy in his home state. As a result of their outreach, many festival participants joined in issuing a declaration against the oppression that was posted on Web sites in Chiapas, Oaxaca and throughout Mexico.
For more than 20 years, international observers and indigenous activists have been reporting on acts of violence and repression against indigenous Oaxacans, whose numbers range from 500,000 to 600,000 in a state with a total population of 3.3 million (and the vast majority of Oaxacans have indigenous ancestry).
This most recent conflict originally started with a teacher’s strike – which is an annual event – in Oaxaca on June 14. Then the governor of the Oaxacan state, Ulises Ruiz, issued an order outlawing the protests and called for immediate arrests. Social justice and indigenous organizations joined the struggle soon after the edict and called for the ouster of Ruiz; six months later, 214 people have been arrested, 10 are confirmed dead including U.S. journalist Bradley Will, and more than 60 people ‘disappeared’ with family members of those arrested charging police, paramilitaries and official military with torture and rape. Now, Mexican human rights organizations are filing charges of false arrest and torture against Ruiz as Mexican government officials are beginning to publicly discuss the possibility of impeaching him.
In the middle of the chaos, which included mass arrests in late November, indigenous filmmakers, radio announcers and other media activists had become the voice of the whole community.
Many press reports assert that due to their gathering of information that could lead to the toppling of Ruiz and his potential arrest along with various other officials, media activists in Oaxaca have become targets.
While in New York, Lopez-Castillo learned that his name was on a list of those to be arrested. He still intends to return.
“The persecution of media is direct on the ground,” he stated in a brief interview with Indian Country Today. “We don’t go out on the street a lot these days. … The persecution of our media collective is increasing and we sympathize with the protesters, but we have not committed any crimes.”
Lopez-Castillo, 25, is from the mostly Zapotec community of Ixtepec and has been involved with media since he was 17, starting first in radio and then moving on to video and now the Internet with Indymedia Oaxaca. He noted that the repression and violence against indigenous and poor people in his region have been going on for years but that this latest episode “was the detonator for the movement.”
“We witnessed many things,” he continued, “and we have recorded the testimonies of the families of the disappeared and taken pictures of the bullet-ridden bodies; and now we have the testimonies of the faculty of the school of medicine who performed autopsies on some of the victims,” he reported.
“We do have to be careful,” he responded when asked whether he was thinking about staying in the United States. “I know my name is on that list but I will be returning on the 20th [of December].”
When asked about his impressions of the new Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, Lopez-Castillo reported that Calderon “has said there will be deaths [in Oaxaca] and that he will respond with the hard hand [mano dura],” a Latin American phrase that implies severe violence. He also asserted that a member of Calderon’s cabinet, Secretary of Governance Francisco Ramirez Acuna, is a member of a clandestine far-right group called “The Anvil.”
The young filmmaker said that he came to the United States to share this information as well as to show videos and films. “And it is important now more than ever for our friends to show solidarity with us, to see what is going on and to take action.”
The solidarity message was very well received at the festival.
Native filmmakers from throughout the hemisphere signed a declaration calling for the halt of repression in Oaxaca. The pronouncement, signed by members of 75 different peoples, described the historical repression of Native peoples and the current violence.
“For centuries we have resisted the politics of invasion, destruction and looting that continues to this day in the name of neo-liberalism, globalization and that they destroy our natural resources to benefit the giant multinational enterprises, causing grave economic, social and cultural impact,” it states. “For all of this, we issue this pronouncement to protest the continuous violations of human rights of indigenous peoples throughout the world … Particularly, we are concerned about the state of siege of Oaxaca, Mexico and the degree of violence unleashed against the people …”
The pronouncement/manifesto was posted on independent media sites in Chiapas, Oaxaca and in other parts of Mexico and throughout the world. Among the supporters of the statement were filmmakers from North American tribes including Navajo, Cherokee, Colorado River Tribes, Cree, Seminole, Chickasaw, Pawnee, Arapaho, Inuit, Dakota, Ojibwe, Choctaw, Apache, Osage, Comanche and many others.