The annual teachers’ strike and encampment in the central plaza of Oaxaca began on May 22, 2006.  It is usually a benign event and lasts around a week or less.  This year it developed into a sever social/political crises that has touched all of Mexico.  Bill Wolf begins his observations on the crucial day of Wednesday, June 14, 2006.




“Observations From Southern Mexico”





            I sat up with a start.

            I had been sleeping and then heard noises coming from out-side the house.  It was dark.  I jumped out of bed and stepped onto the balcony.  Felipe was awake and alert, his ears and tail straight up.  He was looking out across the city.  It sounded like lots of voices chanting, yelling a “consigno,” one of the marching, war chants of the teachers’ strike, for example.  It seemed a couple blocks away.  I looked at the clock; a few minutes after five.

            The noises came and went.  It was not an organized chant, as such, but a considerable shouting and noises.  I thought, Oh God, he’s done it.  The governor of the state, Ulises Ruís, has been threatening to clear out the teachers and I remembered in a flash that pre-dawn raids are a common tactic of despots through history.

            Just then the phone rings.  Wow, at this hour? 

            A young woman said, Excuse me, is Ayax Cruz there?

            “Um, well …  Who’s calling, please?”

            “Eh, you see, I know his parents are both teachers and, well, you see, they’re attacking the zócalo, and I must …”

            “One moment please,” and I called to Ayax, waking him up.  He came upstairs and took the call.  I stood on the balcony, looking out on the city and hearing the noises and I put it all together.

            “They’ve attacked,” said Ayax, hanging up.  “Many wounded.  The teachers are fighting back.  Can I use your phone?”

            “Yes, of course.”




            Over the next several hours, we watched the sun come up and helicopters fly over dropping tear gas canisters and heard the shouts, and then the gunshots, and Ayax talked to just about everybody in his family.

            It’s a big family, both his parents were teachers, and he has lots of uncles and cousins in and around the government and the education department and health and security departments.  They all had the latest news and lots of opinions.

            He brought up his radio and we started listening around the dial.  Almost all the stations had live coverage of the fighting downtown, and we flipped from station to station.  They had people on mobile phones calling in to their studios.  A bus had careened into the demonstrators and crashed into the front pillars of the hotel Marquis de Valle in the zócalo.  Another had crashed on Bustamante Street.  We looked out the balcony.  Dark billows of smoke were rising from several places in the city.

            At one point we went downstairs to Ayax’s TV and watched some footage of people running from tear gas canisters in the early dawn light.  It was morning coverage from Mexico City.

            Aside from the noise of fighting in the distance, the city was eerily quite.  Not a car was passing on Crespo Street.  The radio announcers were saying “stay in your homes.”


            Then a strange thing happened.  I was listening to the radio about nine o’clock, and switching the stations, when the announcer said something like, “er … that will be all for a while … er … and now this.”  At that point they began playing a previously recorded interview with someone from DIF Estatal, which is the state government run family support project, and it was a very positive puff-piece about how helpful the state government, and the governor, Ulises Ruís, is being to the people of Oaxaca.

            I said, “Ayax, listen to this.”

            We switched around to some others.  One by one over the next half hour, all the radio stations abruptly ended their coverage of the teachers and switched to happy news or, more commonly, music.  We couldn’t believe it.

            All except Radio Universidad, our old friends in their little cabina in the fields out behind the big University UABJO, and were we’ve had lots of connections over the years.  For over a year, Ayax and Edgar had a weekly, half-hour interview show by the Frente Común and we were out there a lot.  Then too, that’s where we recorded the first nine tapes of our information in the native languages.  We have a great affinity with the little station and the kids who run it.

            They remained the one voice wtill open to the teachers and call-in listeners about what was really happening.  They, too, were taken off the air at noon that day, but came back on at around one.  There would be long adventures through out the next few days ad crowds of students tried to fight off police thugs sent to close the station and the roughing up and arrest later that night of three of the kids on the air, but the would remain for all the days of the strike and one heard them in the streets coming from stores and portable radios.

            Meanwhile, we listened to the news and watched the city burn.




            Later in the morning there descended an eerie calm over the city and word was the police had been repulsed from the city center, after burning the teachers’ goods and supplies, and retreated out to the edges.  The teachers had regrouped near the center and were holding ground.

            A little after noon, Ayax and I went out a bit to look at the streets and it seemed fairly calm.  He decided to go over to his family’s house and I said, sure, go ahead.  I walked on a couple blocks for cigarettes, heavily on my mind while trapped in the house, of course.  While I was out I ran into Susan Kaufman, strolling down the street. 

            “Is it over?” she asked.

            We chatted.  I didn’t want to alarm her unnecessarily and she said she was going to her gym.  I said see you later.

            She would later report her gym was closed and she had to come back.


            So, I sat around with Felipe and Dottie and listened to the news and ate tuna and had one of the worst days of my life.


            I talked to Sergio on his cel-phone; he was with the teachers and we would check in from time to time.  At around two, Nancy called.

            “Oh, hi, Bill,” she said.  “I guess you’re about ready for your nap, huh Bill?  Shall I call back later and let you have your nap now, Bill?”  She was quite hesitant and unsure of her words.

            “Uh, no, Nancy, I’m not having a nap right now.  We can talk,” I answered.

            “Well, I just thought, … if you want to … take a nap.”  

            “No, Nancy, I’m fine.”

            “And Russell’s coming,” she said brightly.  I figured he must have called her.

            “Eh, yeah, in a couple weeks.”

            “That’ll be nice.”

            I didn’t know what to say.  “Well, I’m just here on Crespo, Nancy, trying to stay out of things.”

            “Eh, … that’s good.”

            “And, the office is closed today.  We didn’t open, of course.”

            “Well, that’s probably a good idea.”

            Finally I said, “Gee thanks for calling, Nancy, I’m just fine and I appreciate the call.”

            “You’re welcome, Bill.”  And we hung up.


            So I sat around with the dogs and smoked cigarette after cigarette and it was one of the longest days of my life.  The fires over the city proved short-lived, trash fires mostly.  I later learned the police had gathered up all the tents and belongings of the teachers and burned them in the zócalo.  An eerie calm prevailed.


            Finally, I took a sleeping pill and went to bed.


*  *  *


Graffiti during the strike:

                        “LA SOLUCIÒN ESTÀ EN TU CORAZÒN…

                                    …LAS PIEDRAS ESTÀN EN EL SUELO.”


                        “VOVERÈ Y SERÈ MILLONES” –ESPARTACO


                        “NO ES CUESTIÒN DE RESPETO DE LA LEY,

                                    SINO DE LA JUSTICIO.” – H. D. THOREAU



*  *  *


On July 15, I wrote, “We’re two days from the Guelaquetza and no one knows if they’re even going to have it, nor where.”

On July 17, I wrote, “Guelaguetza cancelled.”


*  *  *



            Another long night started at around midnight of Monday, August 21, after ALL the radio stations had earlier been taken over by the strikers.  Russell had come home, rather late from the studio and I had gone to bed with the cat.  Pretty soon, the bells at nearby Soledad began sounding like crazy.  I woke with a start as Ayax came running up the stairs.  We turned on the radio and heard that a number of attacks were under way.  We all sat up for a long time, listening to the sounds from the street and the news from the radio, and them tried to get some sleep, to be woken various times in the night, and up early, unable to sleep.


The population is ready for this to stop.


*  *  *


On the 24 of August, I wrote to a friend:

Whatever you’re reading about Oaxaca can not possibly describe how awful things really are here at the moment. The teachers’ strike, which was still fairly benign when you were here, has been joined by a large popular movement and has evoked violent and bloody reprisals by the state government. It is extremely tense and unpleasant. The city center is a disaster. Roving gangs of hired thugs and civilian-dressed police are moving into the neighborhoods throughout the night and threatening the populace. There is NO uniformed police anywhere in the city. I would not recommend anyone visit the city under these conditions.

There is a feeling that we are closing in on a resolution of the problems but it could take some time and most probably will get much worse before getting better. I suggest you keep your eye on the situation but look into alternatives for your group.

As I say, if the governor were to resign, the problem would be resolved very quickly and the city could bounce back in a day! Unfortunately, he shows no inclination do to so and his powerful friends appear determined to hang on at any cost. Unfortunately, the situation in the rest of the nation is so tense over the election fraud that there is very little notice about Oaxaca, federal officials are content to look away and Ulises is taking advantage of their indifference to launch full-scale attacks on the population.

Like most businesses and organizations in Oaxaca, the Frente Común has experienced a dramatic reduction in activities; visitors to our Center are down by a good 80 percent. However, our group is strong and have expressed solidarity with our cause and our determination to stay open, offering our important services to the public. (Our public stance is expressed in a brief “monthly letter” newly posted on our website, by the way.)

Meanwhile, we are healthy and working hard. …”



*  *  *


            September came and Ayax and I loaded up our second “monthly letter” from the Frente on our website.  Saying, well, things haven’t changed much and this would be a good time to make a donation to the Frente Común.  We’ll see.  We wrote:


We at the Frente Común greatly appreciate the many messages of concern and support which we are receiving these days.  Many of you are aware of the terrible socio-political situation currently gripping the state of Oaxaca, and which was mentioned briefly in our last monthly letter.  Some people have contributed generous donations to our organization in these difficult times.

We are sorry to say the situation has not improved and looks to worsen even further, possibly soon.  We recommend your read about it through whatever search engine of the Internet.

However, as we reported last month, our group is strong and have expressed solidarity with our cause and our determination to stay open, offering our important services to the public.  Our beautiful, bi-lingual Website remains an active and positive project at the Frente.

Again, thank you for you interest and best wishes for the important work of the Frente Común, and do consider making a contribution to our ongoing activities.

Finally we say:  Work hard, members and volunteers and Amigos of the Frente Común, because we are:

“Unidos en la Luchas Contra el SIDA.”




*  *  *


On September 16, I wrote:


… The city of Oaxaca has never looked worse.  Huge piles of trash in the streets.  Heaps of smoldering tires burning at each corner, the dirty wire hoops left over when the rubber has burned and, of course, smoke and soot everywhere.  Lots of political graffiti covers every wall in town, “Ulises OUT!”, and such, and then, too, the tag artists have free reign and cover everything else, and BIG!  Wall-sized letters and initials and doodles.  Piles of stones and rubble on the corners to block the cars and traffic at night.

            The local police were ordered out of uniform shortly after the attack in mid June, and since then there have been no police on the streets.  Many have organized and refused to attack the populace.  These are being held in “quarters.”  Those who obey are wearing sky-masks or bandanas and drive around in pick-ups in the night terrifying the neighborhoods, especially out of the city center, shooting indiscriminately into the air.  Crime is soaring.

            A lot of the streets have hung across them big banners which read, “This block is watching you, Thief!” where the neighbors have gotten together and organized to prevent robberies and assaults, now that there are no police anywhere in the city.

            Businesses close early and the streets are no-man’s-land after dark.  An eerie silence falls at night as the people sit in their homes and listen to the radio.  News of disturbances and shootings are reported every night from the out-lying communities.  The people’s movement has taken over more than thirty cities in the state.  Recently the governor announced that the three branches, executive, legislative and judicial, would be moving to the Isthmus city of Juchitán, as all government offices in the capital have been closed by the strikers.  Within hours, communities throughout the Isthmus began organizing in protest and the mayor of Juchitán was forced to announce that “conditions did not exist” to allow the government office to open there.  The next day the idea was dropped.  State affairs are being conducted in private homes, or the occasional hotel meeting hall, all outside the city. …”




*  *  *



            We were walking back from the studio to the house, my dog, Felipe, and I and my friend Chucho, who had come by to help me walk him.  Felipe always likes him and likes to walk with him.  It was a nice day, Sunday afternoon, and I was carrying the papers.

            On Morelos Street, a few blocks from the house, we looked up and some kids were running toward us, sticks in their hands.  Then more, and men and women soon, all running up the street and turning up Reforma.  I thought, Oh brother, let’s get going.

            It’s been tense.  The day before, governor had issued his “last ultimatum.”  The teachers would go back to teaching school on Monday or be permanently fired.  Everybody was wondering what was going to happen tomorrow.

A kid ran by with a big machete.  I looked at Chucho.  He shook his head.  He lives right in the center, like me, a couple blocks away, and has three little kids.  I asked him how his family was taking all this.  We stay in, he answered.  We picked up our pace.

            We were soon back at the house and I thanked Chucho and said see you soon.  He smiled and took off up the street.

            I went in and turned on the radio.  Turns out it was the governor, Ulises Ruiz, and he had been in El Llano park earlier, trying to give the impression everything was calm in Oaxaca.  There would be photos of him in the papers the next day, smiling and laughing.  But soon some protesters saw him and a crowd soon gathered and began yelling and chanting.  The governor was hurried into some waiting vans and rushed off.

            From there his caravan took him to the Hotel Camino Real, the biggest and fanciest hotel in town, near the center, a couple blocks away, and hurried him inside.  Now word got out, thanks to the radio stations, and lots of people started descending on the hotel from the nearby zócalo.  That’s when we had seen them running by.

            A large crowd formed around the front of the hotel.  The big front doors were closed tight.  The crowd began chanting and calling for Ulises.  They took up a No-Parking sign and soon broke open the doors, pouring into the hotel lobby.  They found the place empty, no workers, no guests.

            Meanwhile, some of the crowd ran around the block to the back entrance where they found Ulises and his bodyguards hurrying into their vans.  They began running towards them.  That’s when the guards of the governor pulled their guns and opened fire on the protesters.  Three were hit before the vans went careening off, none seriously.

            Inside the hotel, the crowd found a few of the employees huddled around the back doors.  They also encountered a few guests hiding in their rooms, including one who later was identified as a national reporter with his film crew.  He made the stupid mistake of saying he was with the government and showed some papers to that effect.  He was hauled away by the protesters and taken to the zócalo.  He was held about two hours before it was cleared up, the protesters apologized and let him go.  He left town in a hurry.

            An improvised rally formed in the zócalo, with a lot of shouting and yelling.  Roadblocks were reinforced.  It was a long night and tense.  The governor’s ridiculous attempt to appear in the city had clearly backfired.  Everyone was more angry than before.  Including him.  The next day he promised to use the “public force,” his civilian-clad police and security forces, to end this, and soon, he said.



            The next day the papers were full of it all.  It turns out in the melee, a big fancy van was left behind.  It was seized by the protesters and taken to the zócalo.  It was registered to Rito Salinas, president of the PRI faction of the state legislature (!), and inside was found expensive, wrapped gifts with the names of state officials and a big, bound bundle of cash which came to five-hundred thousand pesos in large bills.


*  *  *


            Ayax and I were walking home through the zócalo when someone came running up and tapped me on the shoulder.  It was Nicéfero Urbieta, the artist and long-time friend, who I’d been observing in the papers as being very involved with the strike and the APPO assembly.  I gave him a big hug.  I told him I greatly admired what he was doing.  We talked a bit.



            He was doing a poster, he said, and wanted to know if I could help get it printed, as it was going to cost quite a bit of money.  I didn’t care much for the design, but it was for the big march which was currently on its long, slow way from Oaxaca to Mexico City and this was to be distributed along the route and encourage people to join.  He asked me if I could help.

            I thought a minute.  I certainly had NO money to help.

            I asked him if he knew Claudio Sánchez, the printer and strong supporter of the cause.  He said, yeah, a little.

            “Listen, come by my studio tomorrow and we can ask Claudio if he’ll print it,” I suggested.  He thought that was a great idea and said see you tomorrow.  I said one o’clock, and we waved goodbye.


            I was a bit nervous about offering Claudio’s help and so went over there early to see him.  He was great, as usual, and said, sure, Bill, bring him over.  I kissed Martha.

            When Nicéfero showed up promptly a one, we walked over together and I presented him to Claudio.  Claudio agreed to print two thousand copies for free by Saturday and Nicéfero was very grateful.  We said, see you later.



*  *  *


At about 4:20 in the afternoon on Saturday (Sept. 30), two big military helicopters appeared in the sky and began making big zig-zags across the city and circling the downtown.  The city gasped.!

After a few turns of the helicopters, one could see the native rockets and fireworks being shot off in their direction, always falling short, of course, but the image was disturbing, to say the least.  Roaring and shouting could be heard from the zócalo.

At 4:30 I told the people in the optical shop they should close at once and that I was on my way to our store to close it also.  They agreed.

Carlos was alone in Condón-Manía when I got there and looking out kinda wide-eyed.  How you doing? I asked.

“Did you see the helicopters?” he asked.

I convinced him to close the shop and helped him count up the day’s sales.  Chuy had sold two, Carlos one.

By 5:30 I was walking back to the house.  All the streets I could see had been closed, blocked with buses or stones and rubble in the street.

Later at 6:40 pm, a lumbering slow military transport plane of some sort began circling the city center.  Its low, bass rumbling engines were shaking the houses.  Lots of noise was coming from the zócalo.

At 7:30 it was almost dark.

By 7:50 it was completely dark, a half-moon hanging overhead.

At 9:00 there was complete silence in the city.

Around 10:30, I listened to a little Count Basie and tried to read.  A short time later I took a sleeping pill and went to bed.


            The next day, Sunday (1 Oct) morning at around 10:30, a single helicopter appeared and zoomed the downtown for about 45 minutes.

That night around midnight, I sat up.  The big, deep sounding military cargo plane was back.  In the utter silence which is Oaxaca these days, one could hear it making big circles around the city, then flying off way up the valley, only to return in half-hour for more circles of the downtown.  This was repeated at around 1:00 and again at around 2:00 am.

The next day, several people commented to me how hard it’s been to sleep.



*  *  *


More recent graffiti:


“El gobierno es una institución necesaria para defender los intereses de la clase capitalista.”

- Ricardo Flores Magón



“Los gobiernos no pueden hacer otra cosa que cobrar contribuciones para pagar soldados y esbirros que protejan los intereses de los capitalistas.”

- Ricardo Flores Magón


“Más vale morir de pie que vivir cien años de rodillas.”

- Emiliano Zapata





*  *  *


Then the most cynical of the killings to date:  On October 5, a teacher, Jaime René Calvo Aragón, who was a part of an “alternative” group of teachers supporting the governor, on his way to one of their meetings near the crossroads of Cinco Señores and the University, an area that’s had a lot of violence recently, was gunned down by government thugs and APPO slogans painted on the walls to make it look like the teachers had done it.

Ulises Ruiz had killed one of his own supporters for nothing more than the small pleasure of trying to make the teachers look bad.

The city was aghast.


*  *  *