31 January 2008

Tragedy in Oaxaca

Upon hearing yesterday that armed men drove into the popular sports park El Tequio and killed a police director and his bodyguards with a barrage of gunfire before driving away again, my first thought was "narcotrafficking." Apparently I'm not the only one who assumed that. Ronald Waterbury at the Oaxaca Study Forum seems to think the same thing. I received a link from him in my inbox today, along with a note that read "La narcoguerra ha llegado a Oaxaca": the drug war has arrived in Oaxaca.

The officer who was killed, Alejandro Barrita Ortiz, was head of the powerful PolicĂ­a Auxiliar, Bancaria, Industrial y Comercial. This branch of the police force, I was informed by a student, protects banks and businesses where large sums of money frequently change hands. Though many security services are privatized, police guards are posted with assault rifles in bank lobbies and powerful business centers. These are the officers who stand guard at the doors of the bank when the armored truck pulls up and private guards remove or deliver the money.

Given Barrita Ortiz's role as head of the division, and given the slope of the playing field in Mexico, my first assumption was that Barrita Ortiz was probably corrupt, and when you talk about banking, business, and government in Mexico, the conversation eventually comes around to drugs.

In the first report I read yesterday, from El Enimigo Comun, the suggestion was made that the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) had taken responsibility for the killing:

Unofficial reports have surfaced indicating that a phone call was made to the local emergency services hotline by someone claiming to represent the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), and that the caller clarified there were “two more left to go”.

Suggesting the EPR is involved in a political crime is like suggesting a patient has a virus; it's the catch-all for what ails you, whether you know what it is or not. It is possible that the EPR is involved, but it is equally possible, if not entirely more likely, that powers that be want the public to believe that the EPR is to blame.

This is where things get tricky. An acquaintance who was here throughout the conflict of 2006 told me this morning that Barrita Ortiz was the police boss responsible for the kidnapping, disappearance, and torture of political dissidents during the height of the siege. Dozens of people were arrested, kidnapped, assaulted, and tortured in 2006. Some are still missing today. The man was hated, I am told, and there would be any number of people in Oaxaca who would want to see him done harm.

Also, while not directly related, news broke yesterday that Flavio Sosa, the APPO figurehead imprisoned since December 2006, has been charged anew, despite reported pressure from the federal government to release him as a gesture toward reconciliation in Oaxaca. Instead it seems that the new charges (something like destruction of property and interfering with police--recycled versions of the original charges) have been pushed through despite testimony that places Sosa in jail at the time of the alleged crimes. Welcome to Oaxaca.

Narcotrafficking now seems like such a simple explanation. Variables become slippery; best guesses are only that. Maybe a revolutionary terrorist group is to blame. Maybe angry, vengeful citizens, or splinter groups from the conflict of 2006 (which is far from resolved), carried out a retribution killing.

In addition to Barrita Ortiz and his two bodyguards, athletic instructor Virginia "Vicky" Galan Rodriguez was killed while exercising nearby in the park. Another bystander was also injured. Galan Rodriguez was an active member of the community, by several accounts a strong role model and teacher dedicated to providing youth with healthy options instead of leaving them to drugs, violence, and crime. She worked to promote health and happiness with people from all over the city, independent of political organizations or activist groups. Two vendors who I see regularly at the Mercado Juarez tell me that Vicky's death comes as a shock to Oaxaca and a monumental loss to the community.

More news and analysis to come as events unfold.