The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Coming Insurrection

From Antipode: The Journal of Radical Geography

Was the “Oaxaca Commune” an ephemeral insurrection, an explosion of popular rage, without enduring consequences? Was it a specific expression of autonomous movements, an experiment anticipating the direction some of them are taking? Or was it an isolated, singular episode of people’s struggles? As yet we do not have enough of an historical perspective to fully appreciate the nature and impact of the events of 2006 in Oaxaca that attracted the world’s attention. But it is worth exploring them and discussing a tentative hypothesis about their nature and meaning for autonomous movements in Mexico and beyond, when the gap between means and ends is closed and the shape of the struggle is also the shape of the society the struggle attempts to create. These provisional notes can thus be seen as an introduction to a research agenda.


From June to October 2006, there were no police in the city of Oaxaca (population 600,000), not even to direct traffic. The governor and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or private homes; none of them dared to show up at their offices. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had posted 24-hour guards in all the public buildings and radio and TV stations that it controlled. When the governor began sending out his goons to launch nocturnal guerrilla attacks against these guards, the people responded by putting up barricades. More than a thousand barricades were put up every night at 11 pm, around the encampments or at critical intersections. They would be taken down every morning at 6 am to restore normal traffic. Despite the attacks, there was less violence in those months (fewer assaults, deaths and injuries or traffic accidents) than in any similar period in the previous 10 years. Unionized workers belonging to APPO performed basic services like garbage collection.

Some observers began speaking of the Oaxaca Commune, evoking the Paris Commune of 1871. Oaxacans responded, smiling: “Yes, but the Paris Commune lasted only 50 days and we’ve already lasted more than 100.” The analogy is pertinent but exaggerated, except in terms of the reaction that these two popular insurrections elicited in the centers of power. Like the European armies that crushed the communards who had taken over all the functions of government, the Federal Preventive Police of Mexico, backed by the army and the navy, were sent to Oaxaca on 28 October 2006 to try to control the situation. On 25 November those forces conducted a terrible repression, the worst in many years, with massive violation of human rights and an approach that can be legitimately described as state terrorism. The operation, which included imprisonment of the supposed leaders of the movement and hundreds of others, was described by the International Commission for the Observation of Human Rights (which visited Oaxaca in January 2007) as “a juridical and military strategy … whose ultimate purpose is to achieve control and intimidation of civil population”.2 For the authorities, this strategy would dissolve APPO and send a warning to the social movements in the whole country.

This same strategy has been employed since then and has had a profound impact in Oaxaca. The results increased and exacerbated polarization. Some activists are in jail and others exiled out of Oaxaca or even Mexico. It has been impossible to identify all the disappeared; their families are afraid of revealing their names. Many professionals are now joining the usual migrants, out of fear or for lack of economic opportunities. Some people are afraid of exhibiting any support to APPO or participating in autonomous initiatives. People of different sectors of the society blame APPO for whatever economic difficulties they are confronting. Some others take for granted that the movement is over and the tyrannical governor will remain in office for the rest of his term, and are thus trying to accommodate themselves to that prospect. All this is true; there exist many symptoms of intimidation. However, the opposite is increasingly predominating. Marches are growing, as are sit-ins. Everywhere there is intense effervescence. Oaxaca is boiling. There is an increasing risk of violent confrontations in this highly polarized society, which may be used as a pretext for more authoritarianism. Many factors, however, may block this option and nourish the hope that the movement will be able to peacefully evolve and consolidate. The impulse for a profound transformation is very deep and strong and perhaps inevitable.

On 23 November 2006, a week before Felipe Calderón took office as the new, rightist and contested President, subcomandante Marcos, the speaker of the Zapatistas, declared that he “is going to start to fall from his first day” and that “we’re on the eve of a great uprising or civil war”. When asked who would lead that uprising, he replied: “the people, each in their place, in a network of mutual support. If we don’t accomplish it that way, there will be spontaneous uprisings, explosions all over, civil war …”

He cited the case of Oaxaca, where “there are no leaders, nor bosses: it’s the people themselves who are organized”. That’s how it is going to be in the whole country; Oaxaca serves as an indicator of what’s going to happen all over. “If there isn’t a civil and peaceful way out, which is what we propose in the Other Campaign”, Marcos warned, “then it will become each man for himself … For us, it doesn’t matter what’s above. What matters is what’s going to arise from below. When we rise up, we’re going to sweep away the entire political class, including those who say they’re the parliamentary left” (La Jornada 24 November 2006). This is a clear definition of the challenges that lie ahead.

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One Response to “The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Coming Insurrection”

  1. The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico

    […]Trump statement sober and responsible[…]

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