My Story: unjustly arrested in Oaxaca

During my junior year abroad, I studied in Oaxaca, Mexico for six weeks. On May 1, 2006, protests in major cities around the U.S. took place for immigrant worker rights, and similarly many people in Oaxaca took to the streets to support their friends and family members abroad as well. Although I had been warned that a foreigner’s participation in political demonstration was illegal and carried the risk of deportation, it was important for me to show support for Mexican workers’ rights. I knew to separate myself from the march if protestors began taking direct action. When an anarchist collective spray painted the sides of homes and businesses, police just watched. We learned later that half of the marchers had actually been undercover law enforcement agents. After the rally, I walked along the streets with my fellow student Andy and our professor. Suddenly, we were stopped by three plain-clothed people. They approached Andy and told him that they had pictures of him defacing private property and that he needed to come with them. Andy, however, had not even attended the march. We asked them for identification and for proof of the supposed pictures. We tried unsuccessfully to walk away, get onto a passing bus and into a taxi. One man shoved Andy up against a wall. My professor fought to try to free him. In broken Spanish, I yelled for help as a crowd formed around us but people just watched. The police arrived, grabbed us and threw us in the back of two marked pick-up trucks. We sped out the city with no idea of what lay ahead. First we were taken to a holding jail at the Governor’s compound on the outskirts of Oaxaca. We were told that we were charged with defacing private property and inciting others to do so. The authorities stripped us of our possessions and locked us in jail. We were repeatedly denied a phone call to someone on the outside. Luckily, two other detained protestors had managed to call people within our activist network. Word of our situation reached our program coordinator, who was then able to hire a lawyer for us. We were transferred to two other holding jails where “amigos” brought us food, water and warm clothing out of solidarity. I will always appreciate their support. The guards never gave us food or water. We learned that while we were being held, police had personally informed the households and businesses whose property had been defaced that we were in custody and that they should sign a document incriminating us. The police were portraying themselves as protectors of the public to garner support for the governor, who had supposedly been elected into power by less than five percent of the vote. We were being used to push a corrupt political agenda. The U.S. Consulate came to talk to us in the morning after being contacted by one of our parents. He said that it must have been a case of mistaken identity, and that there was nothing that he could do. We were told that after 48 hours in the holding jail we would be transferred to the permanent jail, where we faced six months to six years imprisonment in Oaxaca. Our lawyer used his connections successfully to bribed the home and business owners to drop charges against us. After 31 hours of panic and uncertainty, we were finally set free. Our arrests were part of what came to be known as the Oaxaca Seven. To this day I am unsure of the whereabouts of two of the seven activists, who did not have the resources to hire a lawyer and remained in prison when we left Oaxaca. Although our lives as students separate us by thousands of miles, language barriers and distinct cultural lines from our global neighbors, the struggle of people everywhere against repression is not as distant as it may seem. My experience in Oaxaca shows that being an American does not make you invincible. I will never forget the generosity of total strangers and the importance of network solidarity. Nor will I forget that in Mexico, and elsewhere, people continue to be arrested, beaten, sexually abused, kidnapped and unjustly killed.