Oaxaca Blockade - Chapter One
Santa Maria Coyotepec
I was cruising home in a borrowed car, an old ex-cab, feeling half-alive. The car and I were brothers. It had logged a million miles, worked all its life, sported a purple repaint job, and was finally taking it easy. I’d done everything it had but the repaint. We coasted down the highway together heading back home towards Oaxaca. Breezing.
No cars up front. Not much behind. A semi hung far back in the mirror. I hit sixty on the speedometer—always impossible to do on this stretch—but both lanes were almost empty that day. No one coming, no one going, but strangest was no one walking on the roadside. Lean-to food stalls were closed. Store signs turned off. Nothing. Dead. It’s never dead there.
I approached a pueblito that spread out from the main highway. Buildings lined the road; people did not. Maybe the little town was having a holiday in some hidden plaza. Every town had a saint, and every saint had a fiesta, and every fiesta a parade headed by a big wooden saint that lead the townsfolk like the pied piper with his rats and dancing little kids.
I slowed going under the sign stretched over the roadway, “Benvenidos a Santa Maria Coyotepec”—Welcome to Coyotepec. Nearly every town had a Santa Maria in its name, but no one used it except to be formal or religious or show off to passers-by. The town hung the sign years back when they widened the road and planted bougainvillea down the center of the highway. I drove watching the plants go by, choked and dying for water in the hot, dusty, late spring. Buildings lining the highway went by as well: one-story adobe-brick food shops, tire stores, a construction warehouse, poster printshops, hair salons, and half-built new houses. All dry and hot. All with no people.
I squinted ahead—too much sun for my gringo eyes—and looked for whatever was keeping cars off the road and emptying the sidewalks. Maybe the church had lured them away, blessing their cars or their dogs, or maybe a wedding procession marched by the town hall, or maybe a hearse and a mob of mourners walked two miles an hour toward the cemetery.
I saw nothing, slowed to fifteen to be careful, and then as I pulled around a big, roundabout curve, the problem found me. No saints or brides. No hearse yet either.
Cops formed a line five deep across the highway, wearing helmets, face guards, and body armor, looking like Star Wars heavies. Body-sized, clear-plastic shields sat beside them on the roadbed waiting while they swung batons like it was the last practice before the big show began.
The cops stared down a fifty-yard stretch of roadway towards a blockhouse fortress of a building, the local police barracks. The line of cops was not guarding the barracks; they were facing it, ready to advance on it. In attack mode. Maybe some striking teachers had taken it over. They took over everything else around here.
But across from them directly in front of the barracks, I didn’t see teachers. Another group of police stood there, helmeted, more ragged in formation and less disciplined looking than the other cops, half-hidden behind a bus and three commandeered delivery trucks parked sideways to block the entrance to the fortress. The two groups of cops stared at each other. They didn’t yell or gesture but looked ready to go at it. Their game would start soon, some sort of cop blood sport that most of me wanted to skip.
You never want to get too close to these things in Mexico. Usually they don’t turn out well, especially for bystanders. But we gringos sometimes can’t help our voyeuristic expat selves. We normally live above it all, above the everyday violence. We stay near the well-protected pyramid peaks, the highly rated restaurants, and the safe upscale sections of the city. Violence is something that happens somewhere else, in the front-page photos of men with pistols and bodies leaking blood. When we see evidence of the violence, it’s part of the spectacle like the street processions, the fireworks in the streets, the passion of the believers, or the strikes and blockades in the center of the city.
I braked hard and turned quickly up a side street only to see army trucks hidden there, jammed in, parked end to end, blocking the way. A dozen soldiers stood in the back of each truck casually holding rifles the way I’d carry an oversized baguette or a beach umbrella on a dark-looking day. Only the machine gunners standing and leaning over the top of each cab looked serious, holding their weapons tightly. The gunner in the closest truck looked at me. His machine gun nodded my way, too.
I threw it in reverse and backed out to the main road. I started liking cops with sticks better than gun-toting soldiers.
By then police vans had pulled out from the side streets, gridlocking the main highway in both directions. I was stuck behind the line of attacking cops, next to a pack of ambulances. The scene looked like a military parade, only needing a marching band or a starter’s pistol to kick things off.
I saw my escape. An OXXO, the all-purpose Mexican convenience store, the home-grown 7-11 clone, had its neon lights on. It was open—the only thing open, I think, anywhere. Thank God for clueless, big Mexico City franchises moving to the southern part of the country and springing up like poison mushrooms. Any local shop would lock up tight when the police arrived. I bet this guy had to call in to headquarters and get permission before pulling the shutters and dowsing the lights. I pulled into the parking lot and hid my car next to a bakery truck.
I tried to look as casual as the soldiers I’d seen on the side street when I walked in.
“¿Qué pasa?” I asked the clerk
A helicopter flew overhead. The clerk looked twitchy and walked toward the back room.
The bakery driver left his cart full of bread and pastries in an aisle and followed him. They didn’t look back at me. The store was mine.
It was crazy, but I felt safe there watching through the plate glass, peeking between the two big red X’s of the wall-sized OXXO logo painted on the front window. I had a first-class view of the cops and the ambulances. I broke my stay-out-of-it-when-you’re-in-Mexico rule. Let the games begin.
Glass doesn’t stop much, but I still was thinking that the cops were in a sticks-and-stones event as I sipped a soda fresh from the cooler, so I wasn’t worried. I’d seen these face-offs before: police, the teachers’ union, taxi drivers’ associations, whole villages—they all go at it down here.
I needed to get into Oaxaca that morning. I’d made plans for lunch and didn’t want to be stuck south of the airport in a canned beer and cellophane-wrap donut shop. I needed something strong, lamb or goat, and some beer and mezcal. I was hungry. But I needed to find out what was happening to figure an exit strategy.
You never know what’s really going on in Oaxaca until you read the next morning’s papers, and they’re not telling the truth. I could have called one of my expat friends, but they only knew the upscale joints, so I called Efraím, a taxista out driving the city, one of my Oaxacan friends, the one who’d loaned me the ex-taxi sitting outside waiting for me. He heard everything and could clue me in on blockades, marches, police strikes, and new restaurants.
“¿Qué pasa, amigo?” I asked.
Nada was a popular answer that day.
“Cops are lined up on the main highway by the police barracks. Why?” I went full English to make sure I didn’t screw up what I was saying. No time for being polite in my high school Spanish.
“Don’t go that way. Los chingados Federales flew in. They are going to break up the plantón—the strike—of the state cops. The state cops blockaded themselves in their barracks a week ago, wanting more pay. I must leave you. A fare just waved. Talk to you later.”
That’s all I got from Efraím, but I understood the basics: the Federales, sort of like our FBI or DEA or ICE or ATF or all of them put together, were outside the OXXO, ready to attack the barracks. The state cops, the ones on strike, were holed up inside.
I figured I was OK. This was a strike, not a cartel raid. No big automatic weapons for the cops that day. Hopefully no little ones either. The army trucks I’d seen were a big-gun insurance policy tucked away on the side streets making sure that nothing newsworthy happened and everyone played by the rules, but the army was sitting out the main attraction, not taking part in the action. That was my guess.
I’d seen sit-down strikes, blockades, and worker marches. That day Oaxaca’s main square was full of striking teachers. They’d been squatting there for months, living in tents, parading up and down the streets, blocking businesses, making speeches. Nothing had happened—the current local government was running a live-and-let-live kind of rule. But the Federales in front of me were not local and they were not breaking a normal strike. The state cops had been declared illegal, and the feds, those damned Federales, were going to charge in and break the local cops’ heads. But not shoot them—they only had their batons.
I should have hidden with the clerk in the back, but I watched as though I’d tuned into some pregame show, sipping away. I popped open a beer. I didn’t know that the strikers holding the barracks had an arsenal full of guns and even a tank or two. I only saw the Federales with their batons, but now I bet some Federales had pistols squirreled away under their body armor.
It’s hard for us gringos to imagine a police strike—police are always on the other side in the States—but no one here seemed surprised. Everyone goes on strike or holds a march in Oaxaca, even the beggars. Even the police.
I kept my eye on the barracks. The government had built it strong to keep out protesting teachers, farmers, revolutionaries, taxistas, mothers, students, leftists, villagers, anyone with a grudge. They never thought about needing the feds trying to storm in. A two-story wall surrounded the place. You couldn’t see anything but the bricks and concrete. Small windows looked out from the top, keeping an eye on the highway. A single entrance funneled everything through a guarded passage. I’d seen designs like this in old castles, where knights dumped boiling oil on the invaders and then finished them off with long pikes. I hoped the local police had more modern methods.
Government slogans painted in forty-foot letters on the police barrack walls proclaimed “Lealtad y Fidelidad,”—Loyalty and Faithfulness—maybe to the policemen’s union, maybe to more money, but not to the government. A coat of arms for the State of Oaxaca topped off the slogan showing the state flag and two hands breaking free of chains along with the words, “El Respeto al Derecho Ajeno es la Paz”—Respect for the Rights of Others’ is Peace. I didn’t see much respect in the street as the Federales moved into a tight formation and lifted their shields. There wouldn’t be any peace, either. Not for a while.
The barracks entrance was blocked by portable metal gates and stacks of tires behind the side-ways trucks and bus. A crowd of a hundred or so striking cops stood behind all this. They had uniforms similar to the feds and wore helmets and carried shields, but they held clubs cut from local trees, bigger than the slim batons of the Federales. The two sides looked like twins from a faceoff during the Middle Ages. All they needed was a siege tower and battering ram.
Right on cue a modern-day battering ram, an armored car with a welded metal grill, pulled to the front. The Federales moved alongside. I reached for some chips. You know how it is when you want to see how things turn out and you forget to run and hide. You need to munch something. I planned to pay the cashier later when the show ended. I stood alone in the front of the store, taking it in. The cashier and his new bakery truck friend were locked in the back.
It started. Three blue lines of feds marched toward the State Police barracks, not fast, but steady. Behind them black vans with the Federales logo crept forward, ready to be filled with strikers after this was finished. The lines stayed tight and straight as the Federales advanced with their shields butted together, side by side, a wall of thick transparent, but deeply scratched plastic. The feds advanced to about fifty feet from the entrance when rocks, brick-sized rocks, flew from the roof of the barracks. The line raised its shields, but one cracked in half after taking a hit, and the officer went down.
The armored car pushed ahead, shoving aside tires and metal gates. The Federales ran at the entrance. The state cops formed into a circle, swinging their tree branches and hiding behind their shields. The two sides mixed together for a minute. There were not enough Federales to break through, but some state cops fell and were pulled away from the barracks toward the buses. Both sides were yelling. Then I heard the pop of bullets. Two Federales went down and the feds retreated. They forgot their straight-line formation and bunched in a huddle of blue bodies, ducking rocks, retreating until they were back a hundred yards, near my OXXO. A car pulled up in the parking lot beside them next to my car. A high-ranking cop with a line of stars on his hat yelled something garbled.
I moved behind the beer cooler. The Federales looked angry, and I didn’t want them to think I was spying for the other side. I’d seen videos of cops kicking and beating and shooting guys on the ground. And those were USA cops. Down here it’s even harder to get away if they don’t like your looks.
A troupe of civilian men and a one woman ran towards the feds. Three had cameras. Two had microphones. The press had arrived. They were cut off by some rear-guard cops and held back from the front lines that had reformed facing the barracks as the Federales’ four-star leader shouted orders. The feds stood out of range of the rocks, and no more bullets were fired. There were rules, and bullets were cheating. But cheating had worked for the state cops, and everything was back to where we’d started. Except for the two or three lying injured on the ground in front of my store.
The clerk came out from the back room.
“No puede quedarse. Debe salir.” You cannot stay. You must leave.
He looked ready to go; I was ready to go. I’d seen enough.
“Follow me. I’ll drive out the back exit from the parking lot.” His Spanish was fast and scared.
I crouched down and followed him out the door. The bakery driver ran out, too, and jumped into his truck, but he was hemmed in by the general’s car. The one with the stars on his hat also had stars on his car.
I crouched down trying to look small as I walked out. I was too tall and too pink for the police to think I was Oaxacan. Who knows what they’d think? I wanted to get to the clerk’s car quickly before they noticed me, but I slowed in front of the OXXO sign where a cop covered in blood—one of the captured state cops—was being guarded. He lay on the ground, and his scalp was split—probably with some good baton work. A Red Cross worker was hooking up an IV.
I stopped dead. I knew him—one of the relatives of my cabbie friend Efraím, his cousin, Emilio. He lay still turning the ground red around his head. I called out his name.
He looked up. “Santo Gordo?” People call me that name. I’d gotten used to it.
“Stay with me. Don’t let the Federales take me away. I know what they do. Even to cops.” He was alive, just split a little on the top.
Santo Gordo was my name down here. I’d been christened a saint. Some said I saved a town; some said I helped the bad guys board an express to heaven; some said I was nothing more than a 260-pound gordo, and never very santo. But the name was carved in the chair I used in my breakfast hangout, and more people knew that name than they knew my pre-Mexican, pre-expat, pre-forced-retirement name: Robert Evans, ex-hydrologist, ex-Americano.
I slouched low against the front wall of the store next to Emilio and phoned Efraím. I told him about Emilio. He yelled Spanish curses I still don’t understand.
“Stay with my cousin. I do not want the Federales taking another whack at him. He is not a great cousin, but he is a cousin. Watch out for him.”
I had to stay. You can’t walk away from a friend here. Or even a cousin of a friend. A Federal cop turned toward me and motioned to get away.
I improvised. “I’m a US Citizen, a human rights watcher. I’m watching you. You cannot stop me unless you want problems with the United States of America and the UN”
That’s what I answered in my basic expat Spanish. I wanted to say something fancy like: “you cannot deny me access without major international repercussions,” but that was not at my Spanish 101 level of talking. I held out an old, red, white, and blue striped bus pass from the States that had lain semi-lost for years in my jacket pocket. I stood straight and smoothed my white beard to look official. One of the news photographers was taking our picture.
A white gringo has privileges in Mexico. Anyone local would be hauled away. The officer left to confer with the multi-starred General standing like a statue and watching. I took pictures with my cell to look official—a good, bloody one of Emilio— and bent down to talk to him.
“¿Emilio, ¿estás OK?”
“They can’t hurt me.” He mumbled in Spanish. Blood dripped down from his nose as he lifted his head.
Emilio was a tough guy. I usually stayed away from him.
An officer walked up. I expected a grilling and a body search.
“Sir, we are arranging a prisoner exchange. Would you care to observe?”
He’d swallowed my human rights act. Officers don’t want to look like full bozos in front of the world. They want to look like they play by the rules when someone is watching. I took the officer’s picture. He posed beside Emilio after checking to see if his Federales’ uniform was in good shape.
“Are your men injured?” I said in my best Spanish, acting in my new observer role, but he didn’t answer. He motioned ahead. I walked behind him as he moved towards the State Police barracks. Two soldiers lifted Emilio onto a stretcher and carried him beside us while another man in State Police uniform limped along, held by two low-level feds. A group from the opposing side State Police was waiting for us.
I figured out the difference in the uniforms. The Federales’ uniforms were pressed and ready for inspection; the Oaxaca State Police looked like they slept in theirs. A week on strike causes wrinkles.
The State Police carried three men out from the barracks and set them down in front of us. They had Red Cross IVs hanging over them just as Emilio did. Red Cross workers stood in the back. I took pictures as the State Police carried Emilio through the entrance into the barracks, and the three Federales were loaded into an ambulance.
I called an end to my acting career. When the officer left to talk on the phone, I hot-footed out of the area, fake-talking on my phone to someone fake-important. To stay meant that sometime someone would check my credentials. Then I’d have had a bloody head like Emilio even if I were a gringo—they’d have smelled a rat and figured it was me.
Emilio was safe inside with his fellow strikers. Mission accomplished, I thought, just like our Texas president did on his aircraft carrier a couple of wars back.
The clerk was long gone from the parking lot. I waved goodbye to my friend’s ex-taxi. It was blocked in and had lived long enough. I hadn’t. I hopped a ride in the bakery truck that was finally clear after the general was driven away.
“Tell the Americans how my bakery saved you.” The driver laughed as we bounced over holes in the dirt road leading out the back of the parking lot. He looked at the lines of cops. “Payasos”—clowns.
You can say things like that when you’re with friends or with an old, clueless expat.