"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

A Conscientious Civil Servant

 

There are many women and children from the municipio (county) of Loxicha, in the southern coastal mountain range of Oaxaca state, living as refugees in Oaxaca city. Some sleep under the porticos of the government building, pictured here. They say that it is dangerous for them to return to their community because the state government has a grudge against them. Their husbands / fathers / sons (pictured on the pillars) are "disappeared" or being held in prisons far away where they cannot afford to go to visit them. They sell the baskets and other woven items to support themselves, and hopefully send a little money to their imprisoned menfolk. Many blame Ernesto for their plight.[Photo by Diana Ricci]

Ernesto is a Mexican of average size, about 55 years of age if his white hair is any indication. He is highly educated, having received advanced degrees in Law and Social Science. He is a very successful attorney in Mexico City, to which he moved more than twenty years ago from his native city of Oaxaca. His despacho (office) includes his wife, a Columbian by birth, and one of his daughters.

Ernesto is a connoisseur of contemporary Oaxacan art, and deals in fine oils and watercolors while maintaining an impressive personal collection, some of which decorate his temporary home in Oaxaca. He lives in relatively modest accommodations for someone in his position: a two bedroom bungalow in a quiet compound not far from the center of town. After all, he says, this is just a temporary job and when it is over he will return to his home and his family and his office in Mexico City, and take up the life he put aside out of a sense of duty.

Ernesto is the head policeman of Oaxaca state. He was asked to serve by the current governor, Diódoro Carrasco Altamirano. Diódoro's father and Ernesto were very close, and Diódoro needed someone in whom he could place total confidence: someone whose loyalty would be personal and absolute. His sense of honor and duty - and his love for Diódoro - would not permit Ernesto to refuse such a request. Ernesto is a gentleman of the old school.

As head policeman, Ernesto is in charge of the machinery of justice, including the uniformed police, the "special" police, the motorized police, the policia preventiva (investigative branch), the prison system, the judicial police, and others. Altogether, perhaps as many as ten thousand individuals come under his jurisdiction.

Some of his minions are said, by peasant organizations, reporters, and human rights groups, to abuse their positions. Almost daily, there is a demonstration in front of the government building, asking for relief from extrajudicial arrests, torture, disappearances and simple extortion, alleged to be being committed by forces of the State that operate under his purview. Recently, there have been a series of reports by Human Rights Watch and others, detailing abuses which are said to be systematic and merciless. There was a riot in the local State prison in which seven were killed and another score wounded by gunfire from a prison gang said to have been supplied with weapons by the warden. Ernesto's job is not an easy one. He says he doesn't get enough sleep, or enough time to see his family.

We happen to meet at a party given by a good friend of mine who lives in the bungalow next door to his. The day is a perfect Oaxaca late-winter extravaganza, with the bougainvillea burgeoning and the blue sky dotted with little fleecy white clouds. There are empanadas (stuffed wheat tortillas) of cheese or chicken, a table filled with salads, and lots of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. About half way through the afternoon, Ernesto and I find ourselves drawn together by a bottle of exceptionally good mezcal that he brought. We end up talking politics.

When it comes to the U.S., we are in total agreement: drugs should be legalized to remove the profits which drive the industry; the certification process is a joke, coming as it does from the largest per capita user of drugs in the world; the U.S. exportation of tobacco products kills a lot more people in the rest of the world than are killed by imported drugs in the U.S.

When it comes to Mexico, I am loathe to offer opinions. First, I do not feel comfortable, as a foreigner, in doing so. Second, I don't know enough, really. Third, I wish to avoid argument, since I suspect that neither of us is likely to change the other's mind. Ernesto, on the other hand, is very interested in instructing me.

He tells me that the Exército Revolucionario Populár (Popular Revolutionary Army: EPR) are just a bunch of crazies, without any real plan or base among the people. This can be seen by their methods: hit and run raids against low level law enforcement officers. The reason that they are reduced to this pointless action is because the people do not support them. The reason for this lack of support is that in Oaxaca, things are not so bad as in, for example, Chiapas (Zapatistas) and Guerrero (various popular leftist movements). The reason that things are not so bad is the intelligent and compassionate rule of Diódoro.

In most ways, he says, Mexico is no worse than the U.S.: plenty of corruption, political spin doctoring, prejudice and injustice. The difference is that there is "impunity" (from prosecution for crime, if you are important enough) in Mexico. However, he says, that is changing.

I remember, as he speaks, that Ernesto's judicial police are rumored to have planted drugs on priests and lay workers in the mountains of Oaxaca, and then arrested them. I recall the newspaper articles I have read alleging that reporters and human rights workers have been snatched off the streets by unidentifiable men in cars without license plates (usually a sign of police), to be tortured and later released. I change the subject, inquiring about his family, his plans for the future. It is hard to be in the presence of absolute power and not feel a little vulnerable, a little deferential.

When we leave, I remark to Diana that it never hurts to know someone of Ernesto's stature personally. Only later do I understand this as a sign of my own corruptibility: that currying favor as protection from some vaguely possible future adversity is no less unconscionable than buying in on the gravy train. It is I, not Ernesto, who has equivocated in this situation. He has made his decision; he knows whose side he is on; his conscience is clear. If, as some would argue, I have looked upon the face of Evil, I have to tell you that it is a face remarkably free of doubt or regret.

(September, 1997)

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

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