Report from “Xochitl”; an American doctor in Oaxaca


Richard Moore

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Report from "Xochitl"; an American doctor in Oaxaca

Dear friends and family,

After about a week of traveling around Mexico, on the run after our arrest, we 
returned to Oaxaca for a few days before leaving the country. It was a 
beguiling, heart-wrenching and stressful time.

Beguiling, because on the surface Oaxaca continues to return to normal. The PFP 
have decamped from the zocalo, though they are still present in the bus station 
and other areas of the city. As you enter the zocalo you encounter a thin line 
of municipal or state police in regular uniforms, in the place of spiderwebs of 
barbed wire and gigantic garbage dumpster barricades, with dozens of PFP at each
entrance, decked out with shields, helmets, bulletproof vests and more backed up
by tanquetas ready to spray pepper spray while they videotape their targets, or 
even plow through crowds and barricades.

After passing through this gauntlet, until recently, as you entered the zocalo, 
you would have seen hundreds of PFP lounging around, playing games on their cell
phones, watching TV on the rigged-up electrical system, flirting, sexually 
assaulting people (there have been several reports of assaults), eating ice 
cream, sleeping in I couldn't count how many tents (though tents were deluxe 
accommodations ­ initially many of the PFP were sleeping on tarps or cardboard 
on the ground).

Now, from a first hand account from a friend (I didn't go any closer to the 
zocalo than I had to, though most of the banks are nearby, so I did take one 
trip all-too-close to there), other than the police lines at the entrances, the 
zocalo is pretty much back to normal. It is missing only one thing ­ tourists. I
would guess, from previous visits, that vendors wander around, though they are 
probably a bit more persistent and very much more desperate for business these 

But isn't strange that "normal" still includes lines of police, protecting the 
zocalo from the very people who pay taxes that pay the salaries for those same 
police, as well as the cleaners, the painters, and the "re-developers" (one of 
the points of contention with the Oaxaca state governor is an expensive and 
most-likely corrupt "make-over" of the zocalo)?

But beguiling it is. Most of the graffiti in the city has been painted over, so 
the exquisite vistas of building after building painted in different warm 
colors, as far as you can see, is unbroken by angry words and graphics such as 
Fuera URO y el PFP (URO and the PFP out), URO asesino (URO murderer) and one of 
my favorites from outside the zocalo, Asesina los pobres no soluciona la pobraza
(Murdering the poor does not solve the problem of poverty).

There are still frequent patrols of municipal police, and we tensed up every 
time one came near. We are not sure whether we are on their lists for 
apprehension and deportation, or worse. We were astonished and overjoyed to be 
released after just 4 hours of detention, but they may want to ask us more 
questions now. Or they may have released us as a strategic move, to follow us 
detain our friends. We do know that some of the people we know and love, and who
we spent time with in these last days in Oaxaca, are on those apprehension 
lists, so we were all always on the alert.

Oaxaca is heart-breaking because it is so beguiling. Where is the vibrant 
encampment at the zocalo or the Santo Domingo plaza, where people sold videos of
recent marches, engaged in debate and dialogue, and created a party/fair like 
atmosphere with a political theme? Where are the posters and banners demanding 
justice for teachers, for indigenous people, for all of the people of Oaxaca who
have been left behind as neo-liberalism and corrupt party politics continue 
their march towards economic polarization?

And worse. Because now, instead of groups of people discussing the most recent 
events, people even peripherally involved in the movement meet in public in just
2s and 3s, if they meet at all. Most of the movement has gone underground. 
People are hiding all over Oaxaca, all over Mexico. And when we do meet on the 
street, or in the market, or by phone, conversations often turn to the people 
who are missing, in hiding, seeking political asylum, or being tortured in 
prisons throughout Mexico.

Because under this state-imposed normality, the violence continues. PFP have 
entered schools, going directly into classrooms filled with children, and 
detained teachers while the children watch, terrified. Most, if not all, of the 
leaders of APPO are under threat of arrest. Human rights workers, medical 
professionals, journalists, students, anyone who was even seen at the University
of the Santo Domingo encampment may be on the arrest lists. Worse than arrest, 
the night-time death squads may come for them. There are rumors, totally 
unconfirmed but entirely believable, that police and political death squads are 
working together. The police may apprehend someone for questioning, gather data 
about their activities and whereabouts, then give that information to the 
usually PRI-affiliated squads that work in the night, making deadly house calls.
How many people have been killed or detained by these death squads? No one 
knows. The death count remains around 20, but there are hundreds and hundreds of
people reported as disappeared. Some may be in hiding, some may have just left 
the area, but some are undoubtedly dead, possibly their corpses layered like 
pancakes in a mass grave somewhere in the countryside.

We may have just missed one of those visits. I was detained, along with 2 
friends from the US, about 2 weeks ago. We had switched hotels and stayed inside
for several days after November 25, when the city became a war zone, filled with
police patrols and night-time raids. The day before one friend, W, was to leave 
we went to buy presents for his friends and family at one of the artisans 
market. The city seemed safe during the day, and we were seduced by the apparent
normality, so rather than return to our hotel, we continued our day as happy 

W cannot live without pizza, almost literally. And he prefers Domino's. So we 
walked over to the local restaurant for lunch. On the way there I stopped in the
market to look for one last gift, while they continued to the restaurant. As I 
walked down the street I saw a companero from the University. He had left his 
hiding place, where he and 3 others were staying, to get food. We talked for a 
moment, and moved on.

About 10 minutes after I had arrived at the restaurant W said, what are those 
police doing? Are we OK? A municipal police officer was peering into the window 
behind me, hands cupped around his eyes to shade the bright sun.

Were we being paranoid? Justifiably anxious? Crazy? These are the questions that
run through my head with every single concern about safety. During the worst 
times (and we didn't experience even close to the worst of the people in the 
movement, because of our level of involvement and the privilege endowed by our 
white skin and nationality) those concerns were as banal as where and how to get
food, whether to take a taxi or walk somewhere, whether to leave the hotel at 
all. Every action of every moment, is in question. Should we walk fast or slow? 
Should we take this route or that one? Should we avoid the police, or walk by 
them like we have nothing to worry about? Should we wear touristy clothing, or 
our regular clothes?

Each person has a complex mixture of feelings about safety, and because there is
some safety in groups, each group has to engage in constant analysis, reflection
and communication about what, when, how, where and why to do everything. And 
that, too brings stress. What if one person is very very hungry, but the others 
don't feel that it is safe to go get food? What if one person believes that a 
guard/night-watch is necessary, and the others do not and don't want to have to 
stay awake?

Then layered on top of that is the constant question ­ am I over-reacting? Am I 
being arrogant, self-important to think that I might be at risk? Am I crazy? Is 
this the entire point of this dirty war, to make us all so paranoid that we are 
paralyzed ­ not sleeping, not eating, not able to live even if we are not in a 
prison with bars we can see and touch?

Because relative to many people in the movement, I must repeat, we had it easy. 
Yes, we were detained. But we got out. Yes we were frightened, but we had much 
less to worry about than many others.

All of these thoughts were passing through my mind as the municipal police moved
over to block both of the entrances to the Domino's where we were quietly, a bit
anxiously, eating pizza. Then they moved in and asked us to come with them.

Why? We asked. Just come with us, they said.

We were put in the back of a small pick-up truck and driven to the local police 
station. We repeatedly asked why we were being detained, what we had done, and 
we told that all would be explained in just a few minutes. That's a few minutes 
police-time, meaning hours.

After the police gathered our basic information (name, where we were staying, 
etc), they separated me from my 2 friends, J and W, both men. I was brought to a
small office-like room, and they went through all of our belongings. They left 
us with our cell phones at that point, so we were all able to make some phone 
calls while we waited. I wanted to call the offices of human rights 
organizations, but no one answers the phone on the weekends. So I called a 
friend, the one who had originally encouraged me to come to Oaxaca. I explained 
where we were, and before I could say anything more he said, "I'll call you 
back." About 15 minutes later he called and said that a lawyer was on the way. J
and W called family and friends so they could call the US consul, and to 
mobilize more general support.

I was the sherpa for our group, so I had the backpack with all of the gifts we 
had bought. "They are just presents," I explained. "Just some wooden 
sculptures." But I forgot one thing ­ at the market we had found a collection of
Zapatista dolls, and W had bought them all, 11 in total. The police pulled out 
the bag and looked at me suspiciously. Well, what do we have here? the look 

"Un chiste, regalos comicos" (A joke, comical gifts) I said.

"AhŠ." The policeman said with a raised eyebrow, and put them aside, along with 
a bandanna, into the pile of incriminating items. Fortunately, the pile was 

I was then questioned, first by a social worker who said he was our appointed 
advocate. He would explain our side of the story to the police, so I should tell
him everything. I said that I didn't feel comfortable having someone paid by the
police as our advocate, and that in the US a suspect would have a lawyer who as 
an advocate, and that our lawyer was on the way.

"Well, you cannot have a lawyer here." I was told.. I felt like I didn't have 
much of a choice, so I talked with him. He was, quite honestly, very nice and 
did seem to want to help. But he was totally wrong about the lawyer part. I 
learned later that we had every right to a lawyer in every part of the process.

They took photos, took a video of me stating my name and why I was detained 
(eating Domino's pizza? Being seen in the Santo Domingo encampment? What?). And 
I waited and waited.

Then the mean cop showed up (were they playing good cop bad cop? Don't know) to 
question me. He was clearly schooled in intimidation tactics, and I believe he 
was from one of the special forces police based in Mexico City. He asked me why 
I was at UNAM (a Mexico City university), and I said that I had never visited 
UNAM in my life. He had to ask another police officer the name of the university
in Oaxaca, which was a center of the resistance. He sat very close, directly in 
front of me. He gestured in my face, he spoke very loudly, he seemed very angry.
He would repeat the same question over and over, including accusations in his 
questions, "We know you and your friends slept at the University every night. 
What were you doing there?" Well, I had spent one night there when I couldn't 
leave because of violence in the surrounding streets. My friends had never slept
there, not even once.

I explained that we were working on a documentary, and that I was a doctor and I
did occasional first aid.

After more questioning, a visit with the medical office to document any 
allergies or illnesses, we were re-united and brought before the magistrate who 
would decide what to do with us. By then our lawyer had arrived, and he chided 
everyone for not allowing him access to us earlier. The right to legal 
representation is fundamental in Mexico, as it is in the US.

We then stood before the magistrate to hear our charges. We were accused of the 
Mexican version of disturbing the peace ­ yelling obscenities, pushing people, 
taking pictures without permission. We laughed out loud when these charges were 
read by the magistrate, and I suspect he also found them ridiculous, especially 
since one of us spoke almost no Spanish at all. Regardless, the charges were 
quite welcome, given the possible alternatives. As we were paying the small fine
the US consular agent arrived, a bit late but still helpful. When we asked for 
our property, we received everything except our cell phones, "We are keeping 
them for a little while," we were told.

We returned to our hotel, which fortunately had not been searched during our 
detention, and tried to figure out what to do. Should we stay in the same hotel?
Should we leave town immediately? Would it be better to drive at night (it was 
dark by then), or wait until day?

At about 8 pm the phone rang, and the receptionist said that the police were 
there to see us. I asked to speak by phone with the police officer, while J and 
W went to the window. There were two unmarked white pick-up trucks parked in 
front of the hotel. They had not been there before, and we had been checking 
every few minutes. The person I spoke with said he was from the police, and that
they needed us to go down to the station to identify our phones.

"We will go tomorrow at 10, with our lawyer, as previously arranged," I said. He
said okay and hung up. A short while we checked outside, and the trucks were 

We called our lawyer and the consul to advise them of this new development. The 
lawyer suggested that we meet immediately at the police station to recover our 
phones. Even though it was late, and dark, and we really really really didn't 
want to go back there, we decided to go.

We arrived at the nearby Plaza of the Dance, met up with our lawyer and 
proceeded to the police station. The officer in charge said our phones were 
locked up, and there was no way to get them. He also said he knew nothing about 
the "police" who came to our hotel. Who had come to visit us? Was it a real 
police patrol, that had for some reason not communicated with the police 
station? Or paramilitaries, rogue police or someone else?

Needless to say, we were pretty freaked out. We returned to our hotel, 
barricaded the door, and wrote to everyone we knew about the situation. What 
should we do? Would they come back? Should we leave immediately even though it 
was 10 pm by then? Should we try to change hotel rooms? What would we eat? We 
ordered some food, set up a night watch and tried to sleep.

The next day W left town, as planned previously. We pretty much gave up on our 
phones, because we just didn't want to go back to the station. It seemed like 
maybe the police would change their minds, and arrest us again, but this time 
they might keep us a lot longer.

B and I hit the road, to get away from Oaxaca and continue work in his video 
project (Alive in Mexico in other places. Although I was 
able to help with translating, and even shooting some video, I felt pretty much 
useless because I was unable to use my medical skills while we were traveling.

We returned to Oaxaca to gather some things we had left there, and to meet up 
with some people working on Alive in Mexico. For the 2 days we were there we 
were constantly vacillating between anxiety about the situation, and 
appreciation for the city of Oaxaca.

I had one more scare while leaving. I was taking a night bus to Mexico City, to 
fly from there to the US today. B had planned to take me to the bus station, but
he got suddenly and badly sick earlier in the day, so I had to go alone. I 
learned, once again, never, ever, go anywhere alone when there is risk of 

I arrived at the bus station with my piles of luggage, and waited. A security 
guard approached me and asked for my ticket. She looked at it, looked me 
directly in the face, then handed it back to me. She went to speak to two other 
security guards nearby, and then walked directly to the security office. Oh no. 
What was going to happen?

About 2 minutes later the PFP walked by. One officer stayed to my right, while 2
others went over to the ticket desk on my left. Were they staking me out? Were 
they checking on my name in the bus computer? Who would know if I was arrested? 
Would I disappear? I desperately searched through my bag for a pen and paper to 
write down my name and how to contact B and my family, if anything were to 
happen. I couldn't find one. And why didn't I already have that information? And
why didn't I have a phone with me? Damn it. Lulled into complacency once again.

Two tourists from Switzerland were standing next to me, and I asked them for a 
pen. Shaking, I wrote down my basic information, then asked them for a favor. If
anything should happen to me, could they please contact B?

"Why would anything happen?" they asked. I explained the current situation in 
Oaxaca. They had been visiting for just 2 days, and as far as they could see 
everything was tranquil. But no, I explained, and gave them a brief history of 
the movement and the current repression.

Should I run? I wondered. Should I just leave my bags and go? Should I try to 
borrow a phone and call the hotel where B was, waiting for a flight from Oaxaca 
city today? Or is this nothing, and I am unnecessarily worried? Am I going to be
arrested, deported? Am I going to lose all of the gifts I have in my bags? What 
should I do? And damn it, why didn't I insist that B come to the bus station 
with me, or find someone else since he was so sick? Why did I relax? Why did I 
let my guard down? What is going to happen to me?

I saw 2 people who had been staying in the same hotel across the bus station 
lobby, and went to ask them, too to call the hotel if anything should happen. 
They agreed, and said that they say the police buying bus tickets. That helped 
me relax a bit, but I was still worried.

Shortly thereafter the PFP went away. Did they go to the wait alongside the bus?
Or were they gone. Finally, finally, my bus was boarding. Fortunately, all my 
new-found security friends were boarding different buses, but at the same time. 
They were so generous and kind, making sure that I was nearby them and fine, 
until I had boarded my bus (after a bit of flirting from the luggage man, which 
helped break the tension a bit).

As we were leaving Oaxaca city, as I started to feel sleepy, the bus stopped at 
a check point. A municipal police officer boarded the bus, and walked up and 
down the aisle, checking out all the passengers. Would I be pulled off the bus 
then? Or was I being crazy-paranoid? The officer left the bus, and I let felt my
muscles unclench.

But I still had one more worry. About 2 weeks ago there were rumors that the 
buses were being stopped at Nochixtlan, a nearby town, search passengers and 
check their documents. So I couldn't relax just yet.

We passed Nochixtlan and I fell asleep. I now write this from the Mexico City 

I write the above detailed description not to focus on myself, but to give the 
tiniest taste of what it is like to live in a state of such constant and severe 
repression. And despite those threats, the movement in Oaxaca continues. On 
December 10 thousands of people marched in Oaxaca, some with death warrants, 
many in fear for their safety from the police and others.

Though many people involved in the movement in Oaxaca have been forced 
underground, are in prison or have been disappeared, the struggle will not be 
snuffed out so easily. For on-going information about the situation, see Oaxaca 
Indymedia,, the APPO website,, El Enemigo Comun (one of several places
on the net where you can make donations to support the movement in Oaxaca), and Narco News,

So now I head home. I am lucky to have a home to return to, one where I feel 
relatively safe. The people of Oaxaca don't have anywhere else to go, and they 
live the struggles of poverty and injustice every day. Please keep them, and all
people fighting for justice around the world, in your hearts.



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