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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A sportswriter at the barricades by David Bacon, Matamoros, MEXICO



15 December 2006

While turmoil in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has been in the headlines for weeks, little media coverage has noted that at its centre is a crusading newspaper, Noticias (The News). The daily’s sportswriter is now a leading spokesperson for the teachers, doctors, nurses, newspaper workers and others who have joined together to call for greater democracy, and a new direction for the state’s economy. David Bacon interviewed Noticias’s Jaime Medina in northern Mexico, where the writer was seeking support from the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. I work for the Oaxacan daily newspaper Noticias as a sportswriter. I’ve been there 23 years, covering sports all that time. After only three years I received state recognition for being the best sports reporter in Oaxaca.

I played pro soccer for two years after I finished school, but I actually had to work fulltime in a film-processing lab to support myself. I injured my knee, and when I couldn’t play anymore I decided to write about it. I love it. At Noticias, you have to be a reporter and a photographer at the same time. I was the first photographer in Oaxaca to use a high-power telephoto to get good action shots, and got another award for that work. Now everyone does it.

Our newspaper has been fighting government persecution because it’s the only independent newspaper in the state. It started with former governor Jose Nelson Murat. We published articles regarding corruption in his administration, so he tried buying our paper. Murat is now one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. He was refused, and that’s when government persecution began. First they suspended government advertisements, but we continued to function with private ads. Then Murat ordered an invasion of the newspaper’s warehouses.

The newspaper wasn’t against the government; it was simply writing about an administration that was clearly taking advantage of its position. We just give the facts. That’s why we are the best selling newspaper in the state and also why we’ve been on the government’s bad side.

We belong to a protection union [a pejorative term for a sellout union], the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers (CROC). Protection unions are common in Mexico. They protect the employers and the government, and when an employee complains, he is fired without the union ever getting involved. The local CROC leader is so close to state leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [the PRI — Mexico’s former ruling party, which still governs Oaxaca] that he was given a position as deputy in the state legislature.

In nine years we never even had a union meeting. Many workers didn’t even know who the leaders were.

The PRI is used to operating in a closed-door fashion, with little interference from outside. After [Ulises Ruiz Ortiz] became governor the union contract at Noticias came up for renegotiation, and the union announced it had made a decision to strike. No-one asked for our opinion. There was no vote. Even though we were unhappy with our pay, we saw the game they were playing, and we didn’t want any part of it.

When the CROC struck without our support, the leaders came in with 300 military personnel dressed as civilians. I left because I was afraid. Thirty-one of my coworkers stayed behind. They were getting ready to print the paper, and some reporters were still finishing up last minute stories. They were basically kidnapped. Through the windows we could see them being assaulted. They were trapped for 31 days, and finally beaten once again on their way out.

The military blocked the exit and we were no longer able to print. That didn’t stop us. We rented space for six months from another paper in Veracruz. We worked out of internet cafes and sent our articles in by email for two months. It was very expensive to produce, but the paper was printed daily. The newspaper would arrive in Oaxaca between one and three in the afternoon, and people would form lines to buy it. The people of Oaxaca helped us survive.

During this time, the state’s teachers were demanding a pay increase. Oaxaca is a tourist state, so the cost of living here is very high. In rural parts of Oaxaca, a school sometimes consists of four poles and palm leaves for a roof. Students sit on rocks, logs or anything else they can find. A typical teacher earns about 2200 pesos every two weeks (about US$220). From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils and other school supplies for the children.

Ruiz said the state didn’t have anymore to give. So in May 2005, the teachers decided to strike and took up residence in the plaza at the center of the city. The government’s denial infuriated them. They almost didn’t complete the 2005-06 school year. But teachers have such a love for their students, they stopped the strike, returned to class and finished out the term.

Then government tried to force them to do the same this spring. The teachers refused, and again struck and occupied the plaza.

On June 14, the government sent in the military to force them out. Two helicopters dropped tear gas and Molotov cocktails on them. All the unions and organisations throughout the state united in one organisation, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). They came to the rescue of the teachers, and all agreed they wanted Ruiz to resign. The protestors put up barricades for fear that they would be attacked, as they had been in the past.

Noticias reported the truth, unlike other papers. Radio stations wouldn’t allow the teachers time to state the reasons for their actions, because they were under the control of the government. So the teachers first took over Channel 9, and then others.

Meanwhile, they were being assaulted and shot at by police in plain clothes. Finally a US reporter was killed when demonstrators were fired on. After that, federal police were called in.

Three thousand five hundred officers arrived to take over the plaza, with tear gas, water and pepper spray. When the Federal Preventative Police reached the center of town, the confrontation turned violent. The protesters held off tanks with rocks and sticks against the guns. A nurse was killed. At Channel 9, a 16-year-old protester was killed. Since the attack on June 14, 16 people have been killed, the majority teachers. Not one government official.

Three journalists are fighting legal charges, and I’ve been warned about overstepping boundaries. In October, two pistoleros fired guns into our office on Independence Street and fired guns. Four workers were injured, and one still has a bullet lodged close to her heart.

The challenge now is to stay true to our stories and maintain the newspaper in the top spot. We have to fighting for our constitutional rights and pressure the pro-government union to give us back our old offices. And we are in the process of trying to form our own independent union.

Since the days of the revolution, Oaxaca has been in the forefront of change and a picture of things to come. People here are not looking to win or lose, but to improve their lives. Something has to give. It sometimes seems like Oaxaca and southern Mexico aren’t even part of Mexico, the way they’re ignored by the federal government until some big crisis erupts.

This could definitely affect the US because we are such close neighbours. If the United States spent more money on the poorest neighbouring regions instead of for wars, we wouldn’t need a fence to divide us. What is dividing us is the economy. It’s incredible that many of our people get an education here only to spend their days working as farmhands in the US

I’m not really an activist. I’m involved in this struggle because we’re defending our paper and our rights. But I hope to eventually go back to just writing and photography. I never stopped writing my sports section, although I became more involved in politics. I think I’m going to die writing sports. Nevertheless, this has been a very memorable experience, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #693 6 December 2006.

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