We don’t hear much news in the US regarding Mexico. Case in point, have you heard of the teachers’ union protest in Oaxaca? Chances are, probably not. My story today isn’t directly related to the Union Strike, but it is woven from it, so I want to give a little background before we talk about riots, revolts and men in masks.
Oaxaca is a state within southern Mexico. A conflict exists between the National Coordinator of Education Workers Union and Mexican State Police/Government. Blocking traffic as a way of protest, the teachers’ union cut off the main highway from Mexico City to Oaxaca. They held off traffic for about a week blocking all commercial shipments until riot police attempted to disperse the crowds. This attempt ended in the deaths of at least ten protesters. This then resulted in a giant protest in the capital, Mexico City, on June 27th. That protest then caused the government to deploy 4,000 police officers to the city to keep the peace.
I arrived in Mexico City for the first time ever on July 2nd.
Everybody hates the day or two right after a long haul flight, so I decided to use some credit card points and booked myself into the Le Meridien in the El Centro neighborhood. Per my usual habit, as soon as I was awake, it was time to get out and explore the city. I walked to the Zona Rosa neighborhood. I walked to the Roma neighborhood. Then I decided I needed to see the historic section for museums, official buildings and the main town square. There I was snapping away with my iPhone and I turn the corner into three lines of Riot Police standing at ease on either side of the road.
I am not Christiane Amanpour. I do not run after riots or revolts. Nor do I interview men in masks.
Maybe I shouldn’t think this way, but I was told many years ago when I visited Beirut to never take pictures of the military/police because they might confiscate your camera. Me and no iPhone = not going to happen. So sadly, no photos were taken of the police. I had to assess the situation. The guards could have been there for several reasons including: current riots within the city – ruled out because they were all relaxed and bored looking, a visit from the Pope – ruled out because there were tons of hotel rooms available, Mexico City just has a huge police force – that thought won even though it looked to have put the police to populous ratio at 1 to 5.
After an amazing sight-seeing day, I was talking to the concierge about what city to visit next.
“Oh, you should see Oaxaca. It is very pretty, but I think maybe you should not go now.” Why not I ask? “The riots with the teachers, it may not be best. It’s a revolution.” My brain finally clicked alive. CNN had had a story about those riots. I asked the concierge if it was normal about the police in the city. “Oh they are here to make sure of no more protests, no revolution.” Okay. What do you think of San Cristobal? “Oh yes, Chiapas, is very nice. You should go there.”
So I did go there after visiting the Yucatan Peninsula. With friends in town and the Mayan Riviera being a highly touristy area, I kind of forgot about all the social unrest, riot, revolting thing.
I landed in Tuxtla Gutierrez on July 19th.
Tuxtla is the closest city to San Cristobal de las Casas with an airport at roughly an hour’s car ride away. I went to get a Taxi. 800 pesos for the taxi for four people. Thankfully, a native San Cristobalian was returning home from a recent job in Spain and needed a ride as well. With a taxi driver from Tuxtla, and ride share buddy from San Cris, I not only got to my Airbnb safely but learned quite a bit along the way.
“Oh, the driver says that the way out of the city (Tuxtla) may be blocked.” Accident? I ask. “No, there are some towns around here that don’t like the government and they riot. They block the roads. It happens a lot. Sometimes its trees. Sometimes its garbage and trucks. I have missed many flights because of it.”
There was about a ten second pause, and he smiled and said “Welcome to Chiapas.”
Sure enough, the road was blocked to get into Tuxtla. Thankfully, they didn’t care if anyone wanted to get out of the city so we were okay. We learned at a gas station closer to San Cris that the way in was blocked there too. Surely there was another way into town, I ask my cab buddy turned tour guide. “Sure, if they haven’t blocked that too.”
They hadn’t blocked it. I arrived, and the city was everything I could hope for. It was amazing. More on that here.
San Cris is a city laid out in the Spanish colonial style, with a town square and a government building off of one side of it. My first day walking around I found the “Palacio de Gobierno” blocked off behind construction barriers. The building it turned out was in the last phases of a remodel. The barriers were plastered with graffiti messages and photo print outs speaking of liberty and justice or rather the lack thereof.
I typically use the town square as my starting point for exploration, so when I arrived the next day everyone was standing in a crowd looking at the palacio. While most of us would prefer not to remember a single day of middle school, it did teach us something about crowds. People standing in crowds means one of two things – either there is a parade or there is a fight. No matter what, you keep your distance so you can either catch the candy that is thrown or avoid an accidental punch.
This crowd was looking at a fight. A fight against the barricades surrounding the government building. Men in masks forcibly lowered surveillance cameras while others tore down and burned the barricades.
Again, I suppose I need to get over my fears of self-preservation, but sticking with the middle school mentality, I wasn’t getting caught up in the mix. Instead, I went to see what “everyone else was doing” in the city.
Was the entire town revolting? Did every square have a riot? How far flung were these men in masks?
The food market up the street by about 8 blocks was piled high with vegetables and running per usual. The young ladies were hawking their wares. It seemed that it was just the area around the palacio the men in masks controlled.
Passing back through the square from the market, the stores on the walking street, Calle Lupe, were giving off a different vibe than 30 minutes before. All the outside seating had been pulled in. Shutters were placed over windows. One proprietor looked out from each storefront toward the town square. I had seen this behavior a few months before. It was right before the bulls ran through the streets of Estella, Spain. In Estella, the proprietors were protecting their shops from possible damage from the animals. In San Cris, it was the possible rioters they were preparing for. All the while, everyone not shouting or wearing a mask just stared at what was going on.
The next day, on the 21st, the construction barriers were back up and roughly 50 riot police surrounded the building albeit from the inside of said barriers. Broken windows, some tagging, and reports of interior damage were the results of the event from the day before. The ladies were back selling their wares, and the gentlemen were sitting on benches chatting looking on over the proceedings.
The next day, July 22nd, someone asked for peace. The Festival of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of the town, was to occur on the 25th.
That marked the end of my visit to San Cristobal. The road was still blocked on my way out of town. I spent the night in Tuxtla and looked and looked for news about the riot, revolt, protest. I found some reports, but not many from reputable sources. I still don’t have clear answers to my questions:
- Was the protest related to the teachers’ union riot or was it a part of the Zapista movement?
- Why did the police allow the palacio to be harmed in the first place?
- Did the reinforcement police come from the massive presence in Mexico City?
What I could tell by the looks on the faces of the people with which I stood on the 20th was that the riot was indeed not the first riot or revolt they had seen. They had most likely known the masked men. It is also my guess that they were standing with the same people and perhaps in the same spot they would be standing to watch parade for San Cristobal on the 25th.