After Oaxaca’s Popular Rebellion

Against the Current, No. 149, November/December 2010

Scott Campbell

“THINK ABOUT IT,” a popular bumper sticker read, “6 more years would be 86.” On July 4, 2010, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca held statewide elections. Despite open vote-buying and other fraud perpetrated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), it was not enough to ensure victory on this occasion, thereby ending 81 years of uninterrupted PRI rule in Oaxaca.

On December 1, 2010, the state will have the first non-PRI governor since the consolidation of the Mexican Revolution, which began 100 years earlier.

Few people, however, are under the impression that the triumph of Gabino Cué, the victorious candidate for governor, signifies a complete victory in and of itself. In the end, little more than 25% of eligible voters cast their ballots for him. Moreover, career politician though he is, even Cué will be hard pressed to manage the very unstable coalition that brought him into power, which consists of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), and the center-left parties of Convergencia and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

More than anything, the vote represented not support for Cué, but popular anger with the PRI, which translated itself into a punishment vote directed primarily against current governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who during his six-year term has fostered a climate of severe corruption, impunity and violence, which most notably led to the uprising in 2006 that is the focus of this article.

Ulises Ruiz came into power in 2004, having ostensibly won what is widely recognized as a fraudulent election against Cué. He was hand-picked by his predecessor José Murat Casab, whom political scholar Edward Gibson classified as “one of most authoritarian governors in recent memory.”(1) As Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO) sociologist Victor Raúl Martínez Vazquez notes, “The government of Murat left a balance of rancor, division, mistrust, exasperation of broad sectors of the Oaxaca population.”(2)

Murat’s governance (or lack thereof) alienated Oaxacans already attempting to deal with the traditional “instigators of chaos in Oaxaca,” which Martínez Vazquez classifies as disparities of income, high urban populations, unemployment and migration, environmental destruction, land conflicts, poorly functioning public services, and the failure of the government to address basic needs such as potable water or decent housing.(3)

Model of Repression

As Ruiz stepped in to pick up where Murat left off, those “traditional instigators of chaos” were being further battered by Mexico’s embrace of neoliberalism, in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the coinciding dismantling of federal corporatist benefit structures and social services. For example, Witness for Peace points out that “prices for tortillas, which represent 75% of the nutrition for Mexico’s 50 million poor, increased by 571% during the first six years of NAFTA, and by January 2007 nearly tripled again.”(4)

Gone were safety net initiatives such as the National Plan for Depressed Zones and Marginal Groups (COPLAMAR) and the National Company of Basic Popular Products (CONASUPO), which provided funding for the building of basic rural infrastructure and established stores selling goods at subsidized prices, respectively. Those two social programs were done away with when Mexico signed on to NAFTA’s precursor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), in 1986.

Running on a campaign promise of “No marches, no blockades, no encampments,” Ruiz followed the Murat model of repression and corruption. Before 2006, he arrested more than 150 political activists from dozens of organizations and even had Gabino Cué imprisoned.

Along with attempting to decapitate all civil society opposition to his regime, Ruiz outraged even broader segments of the Oaxacan population with his public works program. Awarding large contracts to political allies, Ruiz had numerous symbolic public spaces destroyed and rebuilt despite almost universal opposition.

The city of Oaxaca is designated a World Heritage Site, but that did not stop Ruiz from remodeling the zócalo (city center), the Plaza de la Danza, El Llano Park, Cerro del Fortín and Seven Regions Fountain, and expanding a first-class bus terminal in the city center, along with adding parking meters. He also built an “Administrative City” outside the capital city, relocating almost all state offices there, in an effort to keep people from protesting in front of the traditional seat of the power, the State Government Palace, which sits on the zócalo.

The outrages of decades of authoritarian rule and the ravages of neoliberalism would come to a unified head on the dawn of June 14, 2006, when one more repressive act by Ulises Ruiz would not go unanswered.

The APPO Emerges

On May 21, 2006, Section 22, the democratic Oaxacan branch of the National Teachers’ Union (SNTE), went on strike and established an encampment in the zócalo. Initially their demands were solely economic and did not garner much support from the populace.(5)

But then before dawn on June 14, Ulises Ruiz sent 700 police to attack and dislodge the striking teachers and their families, beating them out of the zócalo and burning the camp. The teachers’ tone changed and they began openly declaring their opposition to the government of Ruiz. As word spread of the attack and of Section 22’s opposition to Ruiz, inhabitants rallied to the side of the teachers and later that same day took the zócalo back from the police.

Thus began what many call the “Oaxaca Commune.” As Gustavo Esteva explains,

“From June to October 2006, there were no police in the city of Oaxaca, with its 600,000 inhabitants, not even to regulate vehicular traffic. The governor and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or houses because they could not go to their offices: the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) put into place permanent encampments in all the public buildings and public and private radio and television stations. When the governor began to send his henchmen to carry out nocturnal guerilla attacks against the encampments, barricades were constructed to protect them. More than 1,000 barricades were put together daily, at 11PM, around the encampments and critical intersections, and were taken down each morning to make way for traffic….Union members of the APPO carried out many services, such as the collection of trash.”(6)

Days after the attack on the zócalo, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca was formed. The APPO both guided the protests — demanding the resignation of Ruiz, including megamarches of up to one million people, almost one-third of the state’s population — and administered matters in the absence of the government and police. Inspired by events in the city, several towns throughout the state took similar action and soon most of the state was operating beyond the reach of the state government.

The power of Oaxaca’s social movement made the state ungovernable by the PRI. Ruiz responded by unleashing a wave of assassinations and torture by police and paramilitaries. From June to November, 26 protesters were killed and many more were tortured and held incommunicado.

On October 29, President Vicente Fox of the PAN sent 4,500 paramilitary Federal Preventive Police (PFP) to Oaxaca. On November 2 and November 25 they carried out violent attacks to remove the barricades and end the occupations of buildings. The PFP arrested 149 people on November 25, many of whom were tortured, denied medical treatment and legal council, and transferred to a prison in the state of Nayarit, 1,000 miles away.(7)

Four Years Later

While the barricades may have been removed and the ruling classes have come out of hiding, the struggle is far from extinguished. Looking back four years later, that is the most striking aspect is that the events of 2006 served as a rupture or paradigm shift from which there can be no return.

The severe violence of a state (with the implicit or explicit consent of all major political parties) willing to take any measure to regain control, coupled with the dignity and empowerment of collectively resisting for months on end, produced what Bernardo Ramírez of the Front of Binational Indigenous Organizations calls “an awakening. And the struggle continues to grow.”(8)

The continuity of that struggle can be seen not only in the election of Gabino Cué, but in the multitudes of projects and protests occurring across the state: militant mobilizing against dams, mines and multinational wind farms, and for autonomous communities, justice for the victims of 2006, and for political prisoners; these are accompanied by workshops to spread popular knowledge, the use of appropriated technologies, the proliferation of independent indigenous community radio stations, and the annual celebration of the People’s Guelaguetza festival.

A closer look reveals that while indeed resistance continues, there is an element missing that was so potent in 2006, and simultaneously the movement’s greatest strength and greatest potential weakness: a cohesive unity amidst diversity.

What made the APPO such a powerful force was precisely that it was as its name suggests, a popular peoples’ assembly, not formed by political parties or organizations, but by spontaneous unity congealed around the rejection of the state violence and policies of Ulises Ruiz.

At the struggle’s height, ideologies and differences amongst the adherents were subsumed by the intensity and demands of the moment. That such unity could not withstand both the internal contradictions and the external repression unleashed upon it is certainly understandable, but still lamentable. As the struggle stretched into months, and in particular after it was repressed on November 25, that unity did not hold.

Some media-created leaders and spokespeople sought to take advantage of their recognition for their own ends. Some organizations sought to use the power of the APPO, and their involvement in it, to strengthen their positions in negotiations with the state government over various issues. Some launched political careers based on their connection to the APPO. And on top of it all was the 70,000 strong teachers’ union, which at any time could pack up and go home, thereby removing a major foundational section of the social movement.

The government fostered such developments and used all this to their advantage. Soon unity devolved into mutual recriminations, ideological and practical differences surfaced and became entrenched, and the APPO deteriorated into a shell of what it once was. As an example, the first major policy conference of the APPO was held in November 2006. Due to internal disagreements, the second would not be held until February 2009, and would achieve very little.

Currently, in the place of a statewide movement one can see the constituent groups of the APPO operating independently and with little coordination, while the APPO as an assembly has largely ceased to function. Large marches and events do occasionally bring these groups and individuals together, but such gatherings are primarily commemorative, looking back instead of uniting to move forward.

To critically understand the lasting significance of the movement, it is important to recognize the developments of the past four years, especially as the APPO and the inspiring resistance it embodied captured the attention and solidarity of individuals and groups around the world. As discussed above, that resistance continues, albeit in a more dispersed form.

As 2010 marks the bicentennial of the independence struggle and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, its legacy of resistance is alive and festering in Oaxaca, an example and inspiration for the rest of the country and internationally.


  1. Edward L. Gibson, “Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Democratic Countries,” World Politics 59 (2005), 102.
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  2. Victor Raúl Martínez Vazquez, Autoritarismo, Movimiento Popular y Crisis Política: Oaxaca 2006, trans. Nancy Davies (Oaxaca: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociológicas de la Universidad Autónoma “Benito Juárez” de Oaxaca, 2007), 28.
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  3. Ibid, 28-29.
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  4. Witness for Peace, “Dreams and Broken Promises: NAFTA at 15,”
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  5. Gustavo Esteva, “The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Coming Insurrection,”
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  6. Ibid. Esteva also notes that during that time period, there was less crime in the city than there had been in the previous 10 years.
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  7. Amnesty International, “Mexico: Oaxaca — clamour for justice,” July 31, 2007,, 6.
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  8. Interview with author, July 13, 2010.
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ATC 149, November-December 2010