(Editor’s note: For some background on the situation as it is today in Oaxaca, please look here. This letter, from Emilie Smith, a Canadian Anglican priest, arrived yesterday, November 30.)

November 29: This horrible night is over, and the sun is up in the east (as usual, what a relief). The man who sweeps the streets just went by. I “slept” fitfully, and in my clothes and boots. Dragòn Barricada is curled up in a ball on my blanket. I’m on guard duty, and I’ve just walked the whole compound, and all out back. All is normal. Whether the phone calls we get late at night are real, or just to scare us, I don’t know. Houses around the city are being broken into, or burnt to the ground by PRI thugs. I don’t know why we’ve escaped so far.

The days after the march, Sunday, Monday and yesterday were marked by fear.

The violence of Saturday was the spark. The Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights (Limeddh) in La Jornada analyzes thus:

  • 12:04 p.m. — March begins
  • 4:01 p.m. — PRI provocateurs are arriving at the Zocalo. Shortly after, March arrives, begins to circle Zocalo
  • 4:30 p.m. — PFP (Federal Preventative Police) begins to launch rocks and tear gas from the roof ofbuildings on Morelos St. Some protesters armed with rocks, slingshotsand firecrackers respond
  • 5:38 p.m. — Confirmed that PFP are the initiators
  • 5:45 p.m. — Protesters dispersed all over the centre of the city with tear gas and tanks
  • 6:36 p.m. — Limeddh sends out urgent appeal and pleads with PFP to allow medical personnel onto scene
  • 6:46 p.m. — PFP and Ministerial Police begin house to house searches
  • 6:54 p.m. — Protesters and provocateurs begin to burn cars, buses and buildings

Then the violence goes on and on, police begin to sweep city and to make widespread apprehensions. It is a very confusing scene, but basically it breaks down like this: there were hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters, mostly teachers, people come down from the indigenous communities, women, etc.

There were some, a very, very small minority of what I would describe as hot-headed youth, who in their frustrated youthful way, really wanted to do battle with the authorities. The APPO error was to not contain this element, though I was witness to many of the older, wiser protesters speaking calmly and firmly to this group. There were several provocateurs in the crowd, who were there precisely to push people on to violence, for which the repercussions were to be horrendous.

There is lack of clarity as to who began the violence: protesters with rocks, or the PFP from the rooftops, which is most often reported.

However, the violence began, the police reaction was way out of proportion, resulting in the wounding of several hundred, and the detention, and torture of many more. Anyway, these actions, which perhaps may have involved a small minority of protesters have provided the authorities with exactly the excuse they needed to close down absolutely every site of legitimate protest. And that is what they are doing.

That is why I describe Oaxaca as having moved from a state of seige to a police state. I don’t know what to compare it to — Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Guatemala in the ’70s in the beginning of the repression, before the genocide. The police control the Zocalo, the Plaza Sto. Domingo, the parks, in reality, the whole city; they rove by day and by night in trucks, sometimes in uniform, often not.

Arbitrary detentions are constant, torture is almost universal along with detentions. PRI thugs have free range to do as they will. The priest of Seven Principes, one of the churches that offered first aid to protesters on Saturday night, one of the churches I criticized for not doing enough, was shot at on Monday.

Medical students are another particular target. Three people were shot and killed outside the medical building on Saturday night. On Monday, right during a press conference to denounce the shooting, PRI thugs showed up, and right then and there dragged off one youth. The whole affair was captured on camera, and published in the paper, but no sign of arrests, or of the disappeared youth.

Human rights groups are being attacked, as are the women’s organizations, and as usual, especially indigenous rights groups. It is an absolutely terrifying time in the history of this struggle. The hunt is on for all leaders of APPO elected at the recent Congress.

The University is the only safe spot, but under constant threat of attack. (On Wednesday the barricades protecting the university were taken down). I’m there late on Monday afternoon, and it is a sad, sad place, a place under siege. Night descends and we hear the eerie sound of the conch shell, ancient indigenous way of communicating.

Satanas asks me to take them, and I agree, but in the end, they refuse to leave, what and miss the last battle? I hug Lola and Miguel goodbye, and my heart sinks and I eat back my tears as I move out past the barricade, leaving them, and all the rest, and the children, and the last puppy.

Outside the streets are dark and terrifying. I slink in the shadows and truck after truck of police search the streets. Thank God for the Canadian filmmakers Velcrow and Claudia who accompany me in much of this. The next day we take a taxi to the Oaxacan Indigenous Forum, planned long before the situation became an outright crisis.

As we get out of the car, a pickup truck pulls up right behind us, and out leap seven men. They are so obviously armed and dangerous. We wait before moving on, and they patrol the street, in front of the church hosting the forum. Others are with them, I count at least 10 or 12. Inside the forum is another secure space.

It seems however that a military block has prevented most of the delegates from the Sierra Juarez. Tatic is here! (Bishop Samuel Ruiz). It is such a relief to see him, and to feel his calm, faithful presence. Later on the PRI radio, there is a call to attack the Forum tomorrow, and a prize for who can kill the Bishop. My heart aches in the face of such hatred. We hear again and again the story of these months of struggle as part of a much bigger struggle that the indigenous communities have been carrying on for centuries. Again, the focus is on indigenous community autonomy.

We come home before dark, to this chaos, and another night of anxious waiting. We have a plan now, escape routes marked and ready, and basically, just resigned.