The Battle of Ciudad Universitaria
By James Daria
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Oaxaca
November 3, 2006
The federal forces occupying the city of Oaxaca chose November 2, one of Mexico’s, and especially Oaxaca’s, most sacred days to attack the nerve center of the popular anti-government movement. The Federal Preventive Police (PFP) began to make incursions against Oaxaca’s University City which not only houses the Autonomous University of Oaxaca Benito Juarez, but also the means of communication of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, Radio Universidad. Under the threat of the violation of the constitutionally backed autonomy of the university and the silencing of the movement’s radio, thousands of Oaxacans chose to remember their recent dead, fallen in combat against the same federal troops, by pouring into the streets to confront the further aggression of the federal government. Through more than five hours of intensive street combat, the people of Oaxaca scored a decisive blow against the police and a symbolic victory over the government of Vicente Fox as they successfully out-fought and chased away the police.
In order to restore a semblance of law and order to Oaxaca, the federal police have begun to systematically clear away the numerous barricades scattered throughout the city. Around eight o’clock in the morning, federal troops amassed at the intersection of Cinco Señores, a major intersection connecting downtown Oaxaca, the University City and outlying residential neighborhoods. Protesters had built barricades out of burnt buses and semi trailers in this intersection to stop the incursion of the police into the university. The police operation was allegedly designed to break through the barricades surrounding the university. Since the occupation of the Zócalo by the PFP, the university has become the headquarters for the APPO and protecting Radio Universidad, a major preoccupation for the movement. Although the police had said that they would respect the autonomy of the university and not enter, the strategic importance of the site by the movement led them to fight for control of the principal avenue running in front of the university.
The police arrived early in the morning at both ends of this avenue, Avenida Universidad, and the radio sounded the alert. People began to arrive at the university from all over the city in order to defend it and the barricades from the federal police. The police chased away the protesters from the northern most intersection next to the neighborhood of Cinco Señores and began to work to clear the road of debris. As the protesters rallied an eventual conflict was inevitable.
The people began to yell at the police. While anger and hatred against the police was expressed, a few teachers began to give speeches to the human beings behind the shields and clubs. The orators remarked at the remarkable similarity between the faces of the front line of the PFP and those of the demonstrators. Pointing out the dark skin and indigenous features of the troops, the teachers tried to explain to them that the same poverty, racism and exploitation that drove the individual members of the police to leave their communities and search for a viable living for them and their families by joining the repressive forces of the state were the same reasons that the Oaxacan people chose to organize themselves and fight against the government. The speakers implored the officers not to repress their brothers and sisters but instead join them on their side of the struggle. Meanwhile, their superior officers, the majority “gueros” (or those with white skin) began to order their brown skinned orderlies into action. Instant barricades of burnt cars, telephone poles and barbed wire were constructed between the university and the police. At roughly 10 am the federal troops moved into an offensive stance and prepared for confrontation.
From behind the barricades Oaxacan youth, presumably university students, began to throw rocks at the police. The confrontation began as the riot police and their tanks began to move forward and break through the hastily prepared barricades. The police began to fire tear gas and use their water cannons and the protesters began to retreat strategically. As smoke and tear gas became visible on the south side of Avenida Universidad the protesters moved down the side street Reforma Agraria just north of the university. The police followed and pushed forward about a block into the community of Cinco Señores until reaching the corner of Plan de Ayala. The battle for control of the Reforma Agraria would last several hours and become one of the most intense conflicts in the struggle to prevent the federal police incursion into the university.
The back and forth advancement and retreat of the police came at a high price for them as many were injured in the confrontations. Protesters launched rocks from slingshots and slings and threw molotov cocktails at the police. The ingenious weaponry of the Oaxacan protesters included bottle rocket bazookas that shot homemade fireworks at the police on the ground and at the two police helicopters circling overhead dropping tear gas canisters. Eventually cars and buses driven by the protesters were burned in the street to block the advances of the police tanks. The police, apart from throwing rocks, used tactical emissions of chemical weapons to repel the advances of the masked youths. The water cannons shot a red chemical possibly made of dye and irritant chemicals from the tanks and at least two types of tear gas were used. The normal tear gas was thrown by hand or by gun and included a white smoke. Although potent it was not much of a deterrent against the people. At critical moments the police would launch an invisible and seemingly military strength type of tear gas that enveloped blocks and left the protesters retreating for air. Squads of street medics stationed themselves to receive the retreating troops of common citizens inundated by the tear gas. Flat Coca-Cola was used to wash eyes and vinegar soaked rags were used to help breathe amid the contaminated air. Roving medical clinics made up of doctors and nurses from the nearby communities treated the wounded as there was no presence of the Red Cross.
Battles raged across Avenida Universidad as university students waged war from behind the walls of the university as well. The police did not actually enter the university but launched their chemical weaponry against the protesters gathered inside. Word circulated in the street that the police would retreat as supporters in Mexico City blocked Eje Central in solidarity with the Oaxacan movement. Hours passed however and there was no sign of retreat from the police. The battle continued in Reforma Agraria and spilled over into all the major streets at the entrance of Cinco Señores. The incredible amounts of gas launched indiscriminately from land and by air began to inundate the community and enter houses. A mother ran hysterically through the streets fleeing the gases as she clutched her small baby. She said the baby was chocking to death from the gases and couldn’t breathe. Behind her a man pushing a stroller with two small children was vomiting from the chemical contamination. Not trusting reporters or protesters they refused to talk but said they were residents of the community and not involved in the protest but had to flee their houses because the chemical weapons had invaded their home.
Throughout the course of the battle the residents of the community came out in support of the protesters. While the front lines ferociously battling police were made up mostly of Oaxacan youth, there were large numbers of older adults and many women among the ranks of the rebels. Whole families came out in solidarity with the movement. Many residents watched from their roofs and others brought out their mirrors to try and blind the pilots of the helicopters.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon the police sent what must have been a suicide mission into the principle street of Cinco Señores. This diverted the protesters into at least three groups and occupied them in many different confrontations. One of the police tanks drove recklessly into the mob of protesters and the riot police followed throwing rocks and tear gas. The military style helicopters made much more frequent flyovers at increasingly low levels dropping tear gas canisters indiscriminately. This diversionary tactic gave the PFP the opportunity to withdraw their troops from Avenida Universidad and begin retreating to the intersection of Cinco Señores. The spirits of the protesters were lifted and exhaustion felt among them was forgotten as they sensed the battle was almost over and that they were winning.
At almost a quarter till three in the afternoon the police began to retreat heading back to the Zócalo or the Park of Love where they are stationed. During the retreat they were literally chased by the protesters who continued launching attacks at them from various sides. The people began to occupy the intersection of 5 Señores and rejoiced. The cries of “Yes we could! Si se pudo” and “He fell, He fell, Fox has fallen! Ya Cayó Ya Cayó Fox ya Cayò!” could be heard. The people began dancing in the street hugging each other and yelling. The people of Oaxaca had successfully organized themselves and defeated the federal government in a historic battle that will be remembered for a long time. Although a significant victory, they understood as well that it was but one battle in a long and protracted war. The retreating federal police made statements to the media explaining that they did not lose but instead made a tactical retreat in order to respect the autonomy of the university. Although they may not have actually planned on entering the university, they completely failed in their attempt to remove the barricades and regain control of this strategic part of the city. The protesters began to once again reconstruct the barricades in the intersection.
After the victorious people released their rebellious joy in countless acts of camaraderie and solidarity, a meeting was quickly organized by members of the organizing committee of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. The first representative shouted to the crowed exclaiming that the long hours of struggle could be summed up in one word: VICTORY! The crowd went wild and began to shout. This being the last day of Muertos, after calming down the people held a minute of silence and then a minute of applause for their fallen comrades. In the meeting the representatives gave credit to the historic display of bravery and struggle on the part of all involved but especially the university students and the residents of surrounding communities. It was the base, and not the leaders, they exclaimed, that won this battle.
Communicating the next phase of struggle for the APPO, the representatives announced a four fold plan to continue the struggle calling for “offensive action” against the government. First, they called for the reinstallation and reconstruction of barricades throughout the city in defiance of the federal police operations to remove them and the reinforcement of Radio Universidad and the university campus. Second, the APPO called upon its bases of support from the seven regions of the state to converge on the capital to reinforce the struggle. Although they will have to pass through various military checkpoints intended on discouraging their participation, the organizers called for the sixth “Megamarch” to be held this Sunday. This march will not be directed at Ulises Ruiz but instead directed at Vicente Fox and the federal government. Lastly, they called for the people of Oaxaca to show the world that they are not only militant and victorious in battle, but also that they are a disciplined and respectful people. The order was given to avoid vandalism and looting, as well as to avoid indiscriminate detentions of government forces as a display of the rebel dignity of the Oaxacan people.
After the meeting the people began to disperse in order to return home, attend the wounded or begin to reconstruct the barricades around the university. Although victorious and reveling in their glory, the popular movement sustained many losses at the hands of approximately two thousand riot police. At least thirty people were arrested and more than seventy injured. However, the struggle continues as the protesters began to prepare for a possible offensive during the long, cold hours of the night. Word spread throughout the city that the federal police were defeated at the hands of the people. A major victory was won by the Oaxacan people against the federal government and further mobilizations are to follow. The battle for the university was won, but the battle for Oaxaca rages on.