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Introduction by Ron Jacobs
On December 11, 2006, CounterPunch published a letter from Bernardo Ruiz, an actor whose latest role is that of Four Drunkards in the film Apocalypto. The letter was a request for people to contact Mexican government representatives and urge them to free those arrested and disappeared in the wake of the months-long protests in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Ruiz’s particular interests in the letter were the artists Gerardo Bonilla and Dionisio Martinez, although he of course shares the concern of all those interested in justice that all those arrested and disappeared be released. Hilaria Cruz recently visited Oaxaca for reasons having nothing directly to do with the popular struggles. She asked me if I had any questions for her to ask people she might know in the movement there. I sent her some questions, which (along with some questions of her own) she asked Dionisio Martinez on December 23, 2006. Joy Turlo translated the exchange into English. I received the translation December 27, accompanied by a short email from Hilaria, which read in part, “The situation here is still difficult, but both Dionisio and Gerardo would like to express their thanks for all of your support. They would also like to emphasize the fact that although they have been released there are still many innocent people who continue to be incarcerated and are awaiting release.”
Dionisio had gone to the demonstration in Oaxaca on the 25th of November. After the demonstration he and his friend Juan de Dios went to get something to eat, during which time confrontations started up between demonstrators and the Federal Preventive Police (PFP). Upon leaving the restaurant, they headed toward the downtown area, which had become filled with tear gas and smoke. When they saw a woman and her children overcome by tear gas, Dionisio stopped to help, while Juan de Dios photographed the situation around them, and that was when the two men were arrested.
Hilaria: Today is Saturday, December 23, 2006
We are here with Dionisio Martinez who was one of the 149 people who were taken away by the Federal Preventive Police [PFP] on the 25th of November in Oaxaca’s central district and transferred to the maximum security prison Cerefeso in the state of Nayarit. Dionisio was released on Sunday, December 15, 2006.
Please give us your personal information, if you wish.
Dionisio: Okay, my name is Dionisio Martinez Luis. I’m 42 years old. I’m married and I have a 7-year-old son.
Hilaria: What were the circumstances of your arrest?
Dionisio: I was arrested the 25th of November between six-thirty and seven o’clock at night in the garden called Pañuelito, which is located beside the church of Santo Domingo de Guzman in the historic center of the city of Oaxaca.
When they arrested me, I was walking with an artist friend named Juan de Dios Gomez Ramirez, whom they also arrested and who was released as I was.
When they arrested us they forced us onto the ground and they started to beat us brutally with toletes, a long, thick club that members of the PFP carry. They hit us in the head and all parts of the body, and in fact they broke one of my ribs, which is still healing. Women and men were savagely beaten. At that time, when we were thrown to the ground to prevent anyone from putting up resistance, behind the PFP there were units with assault rifles, firing shots in the air and of course no one could put up any resistance.
Hilaria: What happened after you were thrown down in the Pañuelito garden?
Dionisio: Well, after they beat us they took us to the zócalo to the side of the cathedral, and there they gathered us with our hands tied behind us, lying face down. There we told them our names, where we lived, and there they started to insult us, and off and on they would beat us. After that they sent us to some trucks, which appeared to be white. I went in one of these trucks with ten compañeros. We were piled in face down with our hands tied behind us. When we got into the truck, they checked us completely, and they took away my wallet in which I had four hundred pesos. They also took my cell phone, my watch, and everything, absolutely everything, right down to the loose change I was carrying. They did this to everyone they arrested. They stated cutting the hair of those who had long hair, using a knife, and in that truck we were transferred to what we later found out was the prison of Tlacolula.
Hilaria: Did they continue torturing everyone on the way to the prison of Tlacolula?
Dionisio: In the truck approximately 10 soldiers watched us. They would put their boots in our faces and on all parts of the body. They continued insulting us. One of them had a container of gasoline and started to splash us with gasoline with his hand, and another had a lighter, and they were telling us they were going to set us on fire, and they were telling us: this is it, you’re in for it now. The entire trip in the truck they were hitting us in the head and scaring us every so often. Many compañeros were complaining although they tried to be strong. This kind of treatment lasted almost an hour during the entire trip from Oaxaca to Tlacolula.
Arriving at Tlacolula they dragged us and put us in prison cells in a bunch. Later we found out that it was the women’s prison of Tlacolula. In that place they similarly continued insulting us, and there were compañeros who had wounds all over their bodies, there were some who were bleeding from the head, the nose, the eyes.
They put several compañeros in one cell, they tore my shirt, they tore my pants and they took our shoes, and the cold was terrible there.
Early on Monday the 27th of November they gathered us in the patio of the prison to tell us what we were accused of, and I was toward the back and couldn’t hear very well what I was being accused of, but I think they were mentioning some molotov bombs and fires.
Without telling us anything, they handcuffed us and in single file they had us board two buses. In these buses they transferred us to the Oaxaca city airport.
Once at the airport, they had us all form three lines and there was a PFP airplane with its engines running. The place was full of PFPs and military dressed in green, watching us, and every so often they would tell us they were going to take us to Islas Marias, a prison in northern Mexico, or to Almoloya, a maximum security prison in Mexico City.
For me this was the most terrible moment of all that happened because the day before they were telling us they were going to throw us from an airplane, and when they had us board the airplane I said, well, this is it. At that moment I could only think of my son, my family, my wife, and at that moment, the fear was terrible, overwhelming.
This was one of the most terrible moments I experienced. When we were returning home after they freed us — in the prison they didn’t allow us to communicate with each other — I was asking my compañeros which was the most terrible moment for them, and I believe that no one agreed with me, but I felt that this was the most terrible moment. Well, once we were lined up they asked us for information while cameras were filming us, we boarded the airplane crouching, no one had the right to turn around and look at anyone, and in fact before leaving from where we were lined up we started to cry.
While we were lined up I recognized several compañeros, painters and teachers. For example, I recognized Juan de Dios, Gerardo Bonilla, and other teachers that I knew only by sight such as Benito Caballero, and another named Jesus Bolaños, and I know their names because they’re compañeros of ours. I saw them standing there, the same as me.
The other terrible, terrible moment, not only mentally, but physically painful was when the airplane took off, because many of us were seriously injured. For example, they injured my whole back and at that moment my entire body was in pain. And in fact everyone was complaining because we were all badly beaten. Many had lost blood the day before from the head, some were almost fainting.
When the plane took off, many started shouting. With us were many indigenous people who couldn’t speak Spanish and many had never traveled in an airplane. It was a terrible moment. I also heard women crying openly. The soldiers were yelling at us to shut up and stop complaining. How could we not complain, they had us in a crouching position and weren’t even allowed to raise our heads. The trip by airplane lasted 45 minutes to an hour.
When we finally arrived at what seemed to be our final destination, I thought that it was Mexico City. Upon arriving we got off the plane and onto a bus, and I started to sweat from the heat, and I said to myself, “This isn’t Mexico City, this is some other place.” A day later we learned that we were in the security prison Cerefeso (Federal Center for Social Readaptation of Nayarit).
Once we were in that place the PFP delivered us to the prison’s federal guards. Then the bad treatment started again, again the insults; they called us trouble-makers, stone-throwers, APPOs, and they were saying “we’ll see what kind of men you are.”
This was the moment of greatest terror for most of us. Here they received us in a dark room where all that could be seen was a small light in the back. In this room they had us kneel on the floor, and suddenly dogs started barking.
[Interviewer’s Note: Here we had to stop the interview for a while because Dionisio broke into tears. It was difficult for him, recalling this moment.]
The physical blows they gave us here in Oaxaca. When they detained us they hit us until they tired of it. I’m going to tell you about a guy who gathered his courage and, when we were lying on the floor, said, “Long live the APPO bastards.” And poor guy, they mangled his face; they left his face in pretty bad shape, and “long live APPO” he kept shouting. While he was saying this, against him were not one, but more like eight or ten police. They beat him up terribly. I found out later that they broke several of his bones and left him quite deformed.
So I’m going to be honest with you, there they didn’t beat us up, but the torture was more psychological. The dogs jumped and barked and tried to bite us in the back, in the legs, while the guards made as if they were releasing them and pulling them back. And it wasn’t one dog, but rather a pack of dogs. The only thing that you heard in that dark room was the barking of dogs and more barking of dogs. It was terrible, terrible.
I recall that a kid was at my side, a young kid, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. He started to cry, and I told him, “Don’t cry, be brave.” He was telling me, “I’m not crying from fear, but rather from anger.” From anger, he said.
But I believe those who suffered more were the older people. There were a lot of people in their seventies, they moved really slowly and with them they got their satisfaction. Also, as I was saying a while ago, there were people who didn’t speak Spanish very well and couldn’t follow the instructions that they gave us when we arrived. For example, they told us that they were going to call us by our last name and that we had to answer with our first name. For example, they called me Martinez Luis and I had to say “Dionisio, sir!” You had to answer them like that without looking them in the face. No one was allowed to look an officer in the face because when we entered that room an official said to us, “You know what? You’re in a maximum security prison. From here on all of your responses have to be ‘Yes, sir.'” And those who understood Spanish followed the instruction.
Then they had us change clothes, they gave us uniforms, they took pictures of us, and there was also a camera that was filming everything. Afterwards we went to the barber who cut everyone’s hair short. In this same place we were assigned prisoner numbers. I was number 714 or rather the number ended in 714. They asked us to record this number because this was our identification number. Afterwards they took our fingerprints and asked us personal questions such as what our defects were. Then they took fingerprints from every finger and from the palm and gave us one last scan before they took us to the cells where we stayed every day.
Hilaria: What was the women’s experience?
Dionisio: There the men and the women were totally separated and I never had contact with the women there. We knew that the women were there but we never saw each other. I only saw the women on the return bus.
I have the impression that they were treated even worse than the men because on the return bus I heard how the officers treated them. For example, the officers let the men move around a little, but not the women. On the bus the female officers were stricter with the women. This is what I observed, but I haven’t spoken with any of the women about their experience, only what I have read, that’s all..
Hilaria: How did they communicate to you that they were going to release you?
Dionisio: At three in the morning on Saturday, December 16, they got everyone up and told us that those whose names they called should step to the front. Once our names were called, we left the cell in a group and they took us to the court. The man in the court told us that the judge of Tlacolula, Oaxaca had ordered our release, “under caution.” And from there they returned us to the cell. We got our things together, which were two uniforms, an air mattress, two sets of sheets, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and a glass. We wrapped everything in a sheet, and we completed all the official requirements that characterize the prison’s internal discipline. And that was how we left.
Once we were outside, there were already two buses waiting for us. There we were able to see the faces of the many compañeros whom we knew only by voice. Because I only knew the face of Juan de Dios, Gerardo Bonilla, and a few others, but in the bus I could see the faces of those whom I had only known by their voices.
Hilaria: Do you believe that the international pressure helped to get you released?
Dionisio: Look, I think that everything contributed to our release. The worst fear for me once in Nayarit was that the people had forgotten us. I would say, “And what if the people aren’t doing anything? And if the people haven’t protested?” Because we were detained in the most critical moment of the movement. We were detained when the movement was in its worst moment. The first news of hope was when some representatives arrived to tell us that all over the world there were demonstrations of solidarity, calling for our release. This news nourished us; it was like a tank of oxygen. With this we knew that in fact in the United States and in many embassies around the world they were fighting for our release. I feel that this pressure influenced those who granted our release.
Hilaria: How many of those arrested are still in prison?
Dionisio: Look, we were one hundred and forty-something in all, and forty-three of us were released in the first group, and about 16 in the second group. And there is a commitment on the part of the government to free the others before the 31st of December.
So that’s where we are, fighting to carry through with this commitment of liberating all of our compañeros.
I visited several families of prisoners who couldn’t visit their relatives in Nayarit. For example, I visited a family in Huajuapan de Leon. I went to offer them solidarity and to give them the good news that prisoners were already in Oaxaca.
Hilaria: Are you a member of a political organization? Why do you belong to this organization? If you’re not associated with a political organization, why not?
Dionisio: Look, I’ve never denied that I belong to a political organization, primarily Section 22, the union of teachers. As a member of this organization I attend all the marches in a peaceful manner. Also, within Section 22 we have a team called Teachers Zapatista. We are very few, but we were doing support work for the Other Campaign [of the Zapatistas]. We also publish a magazine disseminating [information about] the problem of the indigenous people not only in Chiapas and Oaxaca, but in all of Mexico. For that reason, when they arrested me, I was a little more fearful than the others. But I have never denied my ideals. I believe in the Zapatismo of Emiliano Zapata.
As an artist I have donated my work to EZLN, to the Red Cross, and for everything that supports the common good. I have donated work; to many people it’s clear.
Hilaria: I understand that besides your militancy with the union and your donations of art, you also work with children. What is it that you do with children?
Dionisio: In school I give painting classes to the children and when possible I give open classes in the visual arts to the general public.
Hilaria: What has been happening in Oaxaca since November 25 and 26?
Dionisio: Oaxaca is living what I read was happening in other countries, as in Chile in the 70s, and in Mexico in 68, but I never thought the state of Oaxaca would be militarized. You go to the historic center and it’s full of police. They search the backpacks of young people. Just yesterday in the Plaza del Valle, a commercial center on University Avenue on the south side of the city, they were searching bags and backpacks of every citizen circulating in that direction. It’s terrible how the people are afraid to go out into the streets.
A criminologist and a psychologist asked me in Nayarit if it was worth it to be arrested in the struggle for what I believe in, and I answered that the people had learned many things in the movement and that the people are not going to leave it. I believe that the great education given by those who go to the streets to protest in a peaceful manner is that people now are not going to leave and that what we do we carry out for all the people. And I believe that it is worthwhile. It’s sad and lamentable that in Oaxaca that one person, who is said to be representative of the people, governs by means of force, by means of imprisonment, by means of incursion, and by means of breaking into and searching the homes of citizens who protest peacefully in the streets. In the course of the first week of our arrest, the terror that Oaxacans experienced was terrible. The PFP went to the houses and searched them. The PFP entered the schools and took away the teachers. In fact, we filled all the jails of Mihuatlan de Etla and of Tlacolula. For that reason, many of us were sent to prisons in other states.
Hilaria: Do you think that the government of Calderon will respond more to the demands of APPO?
Dionisio: The person in charge of internal policy of the country is Ramirez Acuña. He’s the ex-governor of Jalisco. Being governor of Jalisco included prohibiting young girls from wearing miniskirts, among other things. The one in charge of that policy is the now Secretary of Government. Or, to be precise: I believe that this government comes iron-fisted and is not going to allow more demonstrations like those that have been done in Oaxaca. In fact, he already said so.
What hurts me the most is that among the imprisoned compañeros are innocent people, young people from the best men and women of Oaxaca, those who have struggled for a just society, they are inside. Well, in those prisons are senior citizens, campesinos, young people, they’re in there. And from the way it looks, Secretary of Government is not getting involved, and in the same way it’s lamentable that this rigidity is governing our country.
To be honest with you, I don’t see any possibility of reaching an agreement with the Secretary of Government, based on the history of Ramirez Acuña.
There are still prisoners in Jalisco among the youth who demonstrated against world capitalist policy. These young people are still prisoners, they haven’t gotten out.
The message that we have in Oaxaca is exactly our strong hand, but I trust in the force of the movement, not only of Section 22 but of all the people of Oaxaca, that those unjustly imprisoned will be liberated.
Hilaria: In your personal case, do you intend to keep politically active in spite of all the torture that you suffered?
Dionisio: Look, I’m primarily grateful to my family for all their support. Yesterday when there was a march, my sister said to me, “Look, for your own good, don’t go to the march. Your release is under caution, which is to say that in fact you are still not completely free.”
My judicial case is still in process. And they can still grab me at any moment, so, personally, I’m taking care.
Now I’m writing a few things that happened to me, but that’s it. I’m doing it also for my family because those who suffered most when they arrested me straight away were my son, my wife, my mom, my dad, and my siblings. All of them cried when they heard we were beaten up and kept incommunicado for more than ten days. So it’s because of all this that right now I’m waiting to see what happens.
Hilaria: How has your family been affected by events happening in Oaxaca and by your capture and incarceration?
Dionisio: Look, at home in fact they suffered quite a bit when I was detained. One thinks that detention is something that will never happen to your family. In Oaxaca, day by day, there have been arrests since the month of June, July, August, September, and October of 2006. These detentions at times were huge, and at times selective, but you think that this will never affect you.
My family first found out about my situation because I was on the list of those who had disappeared. No one knew anything of me. In fact everything that I had, the paintings, the magazines, or the photographs in which I appear, they hid. In fact my family was planning to live in another house because houses of the detained compañeros were being illegally searched. My mom got a hold of herself and said, “If I didn’t do anything why should I have to flee? I’m going to stay right here.” And my wife did the same thing. And that was how my family gathered their courage and decided to stay there where we have always lived.
Hilaria: How do you see the future of APPO and of the movement? Is it expected that the people will stay united and will be able to demonstrate openly to demand better government without having to do so clandestinely?
Dionisio: This is a matter to which I have always given a lot of thought. We have a lot of work to do in the marginalized communities. The people of the barrios, housewives, artists, thinkers, and academics of the city are with the movement, but if you look at the communities distant from the city there are still people who are humble, people who don’t know how to read and who believe in the government in a mechanical way, who believe in Ulises Ruiz. We have to commit ourselves to improving the profile which the people must demand of its government.
Currently, I believe, we are going through a stage of terrible crisis in the movement, and we have to recognize this. The people don’t want to go out and protest because they’ll be incarcerated, because they’ll be killed, and this attitude of Oaxacan society is understandable. The people are afraid to go out in the streets because it is militarized and because a few PRI party members point them out, saying, “That one marched, that one created barricades.” Well, of course the people are afraid, but I strongly believe that we have to convince the humble people and continue convincing ourselves that it’s possible to achieve a better world, and it’s not crazy to think that a citizen candidate who is elected through the voting process can be on our side. In this way we can have a governor and representatives who legislate laws that benefit the people. I don’t believe it’s crazy to think this way. My desire is that, in the coming months and years, we have independent candidates with conviction and commitment to the ideals of the people, so that they create laws that benefit the people. This we have to discuss, although it has never been tried in Oaxaca. On this point, a lot of people don’t believe this can happen, and others say yes. Personally, I believe very much that this movement has to overcome many things and that in the end we will come out triumphant.
Hilaria: What has been the support of civil society at the national level and the international level toward the movement of the Oaxacan people?
Dionisio: There are several popular assemblies in support of Oaxaca in Mexico City, in Michoacan, in Guerrero, and now, for example, it gives me much pleasure to read that, in Barcelona, in Italy, in Paris, and in many parts of the world, they are calling for the release of Oaxacan political prisoners and the exit of Ulises Ruiz. These acts of solidarity nourish us, give us the will to not give in and to move ahead.
Hilaria: Do you feel that the people of Oaxaca have been influenced by political situations that have occurred in Mexico or in other parts of the world?
Dionisio: Look, the project of capitalism and its expansion around the world has always had a response from the people, and not just here in Oaxaca, but also in Bolivia, in Venezuela, and including in the United States, there is civil resistance against this project. Only in Oaxaca have the problems gotten worse. In Oaxaca we are looking for the mechanism for linking all of these struggles for the benefit of everyone
Hilaria: How can the people of the United States and Canada support this movement in Oaxaca?
Dionisio: Look, from what I’ve read, although for a long time I had no access to information there inside the prison, there are demonstrations at the Mexican embassies, there are letters of solidarity with the Oaxacan people, even the migrants there have done what they have to do to support their people. They have gone to the embassies to demand that individual guarantees for all Oaxacans be respected, and also to ask for the release of the prisoners. For us, if these appeals from Canada and from all over the United States had not come . . . these acts of solidarity encouraged us quite a bit.
Hilaria: Do you have another comment to make?
Dionisio: I would like to report the case of a compañero. I don’t know his name; we were on the same corridor. I was in cell twenty-nine and I believe he was in cell thirty-something. This compañero spoke Spanish quite poorly and his work is selling razors for shaving the beard. The way he ended up at Nayarit was that he was invited to come to the march, he accepted the invitation, and later he had no way to return home and decided to go back to the sit-in, and that’s where he was when they took him. They treated him very badly because he didn’t speak Spanish. For example, they would call him by his surname, “Perez Sanchez,” and he was supposed to answer “Pedro, sir,” but every time they shouted his name, he said “I’m called Pedro,” to which the officers would respond, “I’m telling you that . . . ,” but he never caught on, the poor guy. He also had, I believe, some facial paralysis as a consequence of the arrest. He injured his foot as well.
No one went to see him in Nayarit. When I was released, I went with my son to visit his family. I brought them the news that the prisoners were now in Tlacolula, and I offered them some economic help.
Now, if you’ll allow me to, I’d like to tell you some other stories. I had compañeros in my cell, an 18-year-old kid named Uriel, and the other was Ignacio Legaria. Uriel’s father was in the cell beside ours. Every morning he would say, “Good morning, Dad.” His dad would say to him “Good morning, son. Eat your vegetables.” “Yes, Dad, you too,” Uriel, my prison mate, would answer. Well, the father was taking something like 15 pills for diabetes. His foot was swollen, his kidneys were bad. I don’t know how many ailments this man had. We never saw each other until one day we went out to the dining area so that a psychologist could see our high risk profile, I imagine. In the dining room, they asked us to draw a man or a woman or a tree, etcetera. Uriel hadn’t found a place to sit yet, so he remained standing. And there he saw his dad, and he dared to tell an officer, “Let me see my dad.” “Who is your dad?” the officer asked him. “He’s the man over there,” Uriel said, pointing out his dad. The kid, after ten days of not seeing his dad other than to talk across cells, went and tapped him on the shoulder and said to him, “Dad,” and then the man stopped and they embraced and cried. The mother didn’t know they were both in Nayarit. They were kept totally incommunicado. Scenes like this were repeated daily.
Hilaria: Would you be able to recall other names of those still in prison?
Dionisio: I recall one called Angel. We only know each other by voice. I never saw his face because that prison is quite special; they don’t let you go out to the patio, and every time that you have to leave or enter the cell, you have to do so in seven movements. First you have to lift up everything and then lower your pants, lower the underwear, and then put everything back on, and you had to do it without looking around.
We know each other by name — Edgar Valdivia, Jaime Legaria, Jose Luis Oropeza. Luis was the most encouraging. He told us, “Take heart, we’re going to get out of here.” Because in the prison everyone cried, suddenly one would start crying, and then you’d hear crying over here and crying over there. Jose Luis Oropeza, who is from Huajuapan — I didn’t see his face, but from his voice I would estimate he was thirty-something years old — always gave us a lot of encouragement. He’s still in prison.
Hilaria Cruz was born and raised in the Oaxacan highlands. She is an NSF Linguistics Fellow at the University of Texas and is currently working on the Chatino language documentation project. MRZine received her interview from Ron Jacobs.