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State of Crisis: Oaxaca delegation reportback

From March 1-9, 16 people ventured to Oaxaca, Mexico on this Mid-Atlantic sponsored delegation. Their objective was twofold: to explore the economic forces behind immigration and better understand the crisis that erupted in Oaxaca in 2006. Nine days of encounters with human rights advocates, small-scale farmers, and unionized teachers revealed some US policies at the root of both the 2006 uprising and the ongoing migration crisis.


Published articles on the delegation:

  • "Why Eat a Grasshopper," an article by Katie Striffolino, published in the Spring 2008 WFP Mid-Atlantic newsletter

NAFTA and Migration:

An extended homestay with a farming community provided a vivid demonstration of the devastation wrought by NAFTA. Once a vibrant community, San Juan Mixtepec now resembles a ghost town. Unable to compete with the US-subsidized grains that flooded Mexico after NAFTA, most of the town's farming residents, like millions of other displaced Mexicans, left their fields to make the dangerous and illegal trek to the US. Those still in the community welcomed us as guests, told us their own migration stories, and offered a glimpse at how our own US economic policy has exacerbated Mexican migration to the US.


2006 Crisis and US Military Funding:

In 2006 Oaxaca made international headlines as a teachers' demonstration, attacked by police, turned into a popular uprising. Human rights lawyers told us that during six months of fighting, Mexican security forces arbitrarily detained hundreds, repeatedly used torture, and killed 22 Oaxacans and US journalist Brad Will. We talked with teachers who helped mount the nonviolent uprising; we stood on the spot where Brad was killed. Numerous civil society groups informed us that no security personnel have been held accountable for the abuses of 2006.  They lamented that in the face of such impunity, the US now plans to send a $1.4 billion counternarcotics package, known as the Merida Initiative, to equip these same military and police forces.  While Merida will surely fail to curb the flow of drugs into the US, these Oaxacan organizations fear that the aid will be used to further criminalize them and their legitimate acts of protest. 

Partnership Will Jeopardize Mexican Rights
Sara Howard

Originally published in The Ithacan Online on March 20, 2008

Miguel Ángel Vásquez de la Rosa points to a black-and-white photograph projected on the wall. The picture shows a masked teenaged boy standing in front of a burning bus and police in their riot gear. He holds a Molotov cocktail in his hand.

De la Rosa turns back to his audience of 18 Americans who have traveled to Mexico for a human rights delegation. 

“If there is one photo, one image that can make you believe the democratic institutions no longer work,” de la Rosa says to his audience in Spanish, “this is the image.”

During the first week of March, I attended a Witness for Peace delegation in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southern states. Witness for Peace is a politically independent grassroots organization committed to nonviolence and positive change of international policies. Since 1983, Witness for Peace has hosted delegations between Latin American communities affected by human rights abuses and concerned U.S. citizens.

During the delegation, we met with teachers, lawyers, activists and community leaders, including de la Rosa. De la Rosa is a founding member of EDUCA, an alternative education program in Mexico that focuses on economic policies and indigenous rights.

While we discussed many different themes connected to human rights, one of the more disturbing things I learned about is the Security and Prosperity Partnership.

The SPP is a broad proposal constructed between the executive branches of the U.S., Canadian and Mexican governments. While development of the SPP has had no congressional involvement — and therefore no democratic accountability — it has seen the influence of an advisory board of CEOs.

The overarching goal of the SPP is to deepen economic and national security within and between the three North American countries.

That, in itself, is not such a bad idea. However, one key aspect of the SPP is the Merida Initiative, set to come to vote in Congress as early as April. If passed, the Merida Initiative would designate $1.4 billion U.S. dollars to Mexico during the course of two to three years.

The stated purpose of this money is to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. The reality is more complex.  Sixty percent of the funds in the first year would go directly to individuals and entities in Mexico known for committing grave human rights abuses.

Take the 2006 teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, for example. In May 2006, a branch of the Mexican teachers’ union called Section 22 went on its annual strike for increased educational funding. They gathered in the state capital and set up camp until their demands were met.

At 4:30 a.m. on June 14, 2006, police forcefully drove the teachers out of the center of the city. As more and more people poured out into the streets to support the teachers, the uniformed police and plainclothes officers became increasingly violent.

Eventually, the situation culminated on Nov. 25, 2006, when federal police marched into the city and drove 800,000 protesters out with tear gas, billy clubs and water canons. By then, dozens of people had been arrested and tortured. At least 18 civilians were killed, including U.S. journalist Brad Will. Six people are still being detained to this day, without access to lawyers. Those organizations who seek to defend the victims are subjected to threats and harassment.

“We live in a process of criminalizing organizational activities,” said Almadelia Gomez Soto, a teacher and member of a human rights organization in Oaxaca. “All of us live in a system of constant harassment.”

This is not an anomaly in the Mexican criminal justice system. All of the organizations I met with during the delegation cited similar experiences. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented decades of human rights abuses at the hands of the Mexican government.

Is this where we want our tax dollars to go? 

Sara Howard is a senior journalism and politics major. E-mail her at

Why Eat a Grasshopper
(And other updates from the recent WFP-MA delegation to Oaxaca)

Katie Striffolino

Originally published in the Spring 2008 WFP--MidAtlantic Newsletter

I got over my fear and ate a grasshopper the last night I was in Oaxaca, Mexico. According to Oaxacan tradition, if you eat "chapulines," or grasshoppers, you will return one day. I intend on returning, mainly because of my participation in the most recent Witness for Peace delegation, A State of Crisis: The Roots of Migration in Oaxaca.

Prior to my participation in the March delegation, I had studied the crisis in Oaxaca, but the first-hand knowledge that I acquired during the delegation is immeasurable. It is this knowledge that will help me become a stronger advocate for human rights and social justice.

I was a little apprehensive before the trip--I had no idea who the other delegates would be or what was in store for us in Oaxaca. After the first night my apprehensions were eased and replaced by excitement, and I was ready to learn from various civil society organizations and activists the truth behind Oaxaca's migration and its social movement.

One of our first meetings was with two of the founders of an organization created to defend the rights of the victims of the social conflict that occurred in 2006. The two founders educated our group on the specific work they do: the defense of people tortured by Mexican officials, the legal representation of people still in arbitrary detention, and advocacy efforts for due process. The speakers made it very clear that many cases of corruption and impunity have been and are still prevalent in the Mexican criminal justice system; municipal, state, and federal police forces; and various governmental offices.

The next day, the founder of another organization expressed serious concern that these same institutions may soon receive U.S. funding. The Merida Initiative, the Bush administration's proposed $1.4 billion security assistance package for Mexico, would fund these exact institutions that have a long history of human rights violations, corruption and impunity. The speaker estimated that 60% of the U.S.'s $1.4 billion would finance the very military, police and governmental forces complicit in the detentions, torture, and murders committed in Oaxaca in 2006. Grave concerns regarding the proposed Merida Initiative were a recurring theme throughout the delegation.

Later in the week we met with a teacher who had been involved in the protests in 2006. He informed us that justice has not prevailed since the conflict, and that the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) and Section 22 (the Oaxacan Teacher's Union) are still in the midst of ongoing struggles. After detailing the unjust treatment of the teachers, he pointed out that "we are not afraid of the police or the armed forces because the demands we have are right and just." The determination expressed in his statement reveals that the factors contributing to the social movement in Oaxaca have not been resolved.

After hearing about the current status of the social movement, we traveled eight hours outside of Oaxaca to the indigenous community of San Juan Mixtepec. Through the coordination and guidance of FIOB (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations) we were welcomed into the community and arrangements were made for us to stay with members to learn about the impacts of NAFTA and the roots of migration from Oaxaca. Oaxaca is among the top states in Mexico for sending migrants to the US. Once arriving at the community, direct evidence of the impact of US trade policy became blatantly apparent in the form of countless abandoned and half constructed houses skewed across the landscape. The reason, we would soon find out, is that almost everyone in the community has either migrated to the US to work at some point, or has family members that are currently working in the US and sending back remittance money.

Through talking with the farmers and other members of the community we learned of NAFTA's devastating impact on small rural farming communities throughout Mexico. We toured their fields and learned about the care and pride that they take in the production of their goods, as well as the various techniques that they have utilized for hundreds of years. They wanted us to pass along the message that they still live and exist even though it is getting increasingly difficult to make enough money to survive in their communities.

This poverty causes migration, and thus the dissipation of their rich culture and traditions. They informed us that we need to be international advocates against free trade agreements because they will eventually do away with any market the rural communities have for the local goods that they produce.

Despite the financial status of the community, we were welcomed with open arms. They cooked us every meal with the same care and compassion that they used to nurture their fields and celebrate their culture every day. Being with this community for the short time that I was there has changed my perspective on a lot of things both personally and professionally. I now have a more thorough understanding of why community members feel the need to migrate, and that some truly have no choice but to send themselves, family members, or even their children to the US to work. After talking to people directly impacted by NAFTA, I understand how devastating these trade policies are. I am now able to use this first-hand knowledge as a tool in my advocacy efforts in the US in an attempt to influence US foreign policy.

So what did we learn and what can we do? We learned that we must be the voice for those who do not have the ability to tell the world their story because their ability has been taken away. We are planning on writing articles to educate people on our experience and share the first-hand knowledge we acquired on our visit to Oaxaca. We are excited to hold some meetings on Capitol Hill in an attempt to educate US policy-makers on our findings as well. We are also looking forward to keeping in contact and acting in solidarity with many of the people we met, both US activists on the delegation, as well as the many Oaxacans who inspired us on our trip. We need to join together in solidarity with all of these people to project one voice--a voice that is informative with truth at its core, advocating for fair and just policies both in the US and abroad.