Interview: When there is respect, no walls are needed
The case of the US wall against Mexico is a clear example of how Israel has exported the idea of the walls beyond Palestine to the rest of the world. The tweet exchange between US president Donal Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and the latter’s infamous comment that “the wall works” only confirms the intimate connection between the US wall and the Israeli model. The same Israeli companies, Elbit Systems and Israeli Aerospace Industries, that build the wall in Palestine, have been contracted by the US government to build the wall on the border with Mexico.
In 2017, the Observatory of Human Rights of the Peoples organized an International Caravan Against the Walls of Infamy in order to denounce, among other things, this connection. Below is an interview carried out by the Stop the Wall Campaign with Soledad Ortiz, a grassroots activist in Mexico struggling for indigenous rights, on the importance of joint action and international solidarity.
StoptheWall: Can you tell us a little more about the Caravan, how the idea was born and what were the indications as a whole?
Soledad Ortiz: In 2017 the Observatory for Human Rights of the People organized the “International Caravan for the Unity of Peoples and Against the Walls of Infamy, Para-militarism and Educational reform”. The goal of the initiative was to unify the struggles against physical walls. We departed from the capital of the state of Oaxaca and toured several states in Mexico including Puebla, Mexico City, Querétaro, Michoacán, Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa and finished in Nogales Sonora. Through this action the urgent need to globalize our struggles against wars, resource extraction, and genocides became clear. This joint struggle is critical for the survival of the people and our planet.
As activists of the Observatory of Human Rights of the Peoples, in 2017, we initiated this Caravan initially in response to aggressions, including death threats, we have experienced in Oaxaca by paramilitary groups such as the “Rural Torch” (Antorchia Campesina). The Caravan soon adopted a broader objective of denouncing the systematic violation of human rights of indigenous peoples across the globe, including but not limited to the expulsion of communities from their native territories in both Mexico and Palestine. For example, in Mexico, indigenous peoples are being forcibly displaced to make room for the implementation of “Death Projects”, such as mining projects, construction of wind farms and/or hydroelectric projects. The transnational companies can continue with their death projects because violent paramilitary groups act with total impunity to stop any protests. Their attacks have the central objective of stripping the communities off their territory. In fact, their actions are very similar to what we know about the operations of Israeli settlers and military in Palestine.
To mark the Global Day of Interaction for a World Without Walls on November 9, 2017, we had a meeting in Hermosillo, Sonora, with delegates from around the world, and specifically Palestine, to show solidarity and unity. The delegates denounced and shared their experiences. Through this relationship building and storytelling, we understood that the aggressions that we are experiencing in Mexico are very similar to the situation in Palestine. Both countries struggle against imperialist policies that translate into a neoliberal project that exploits territories and natural resources. Through the violent policies and ethos of militarism, governments and corporations force the people to surrender their resources, stripping them of their livelihoods and displace them.
It is we, the original and indigenous peoples who have lived through these aggressions and the dispossession of our territory. In Mexico the aggressions that we endure are aimed at depriving ourselves of our natural resources and territories. These policies and practices, rooted in imperialism, which we experience in Mexico are similar to what our comrades experience in Palestine. It is the same model of militarism and the same policy that presupposes that the people of the world can be stripped of their territories and natural resources.
Yet, these policies are not limited to Palestine and Mexico, but experienced by indigenous communities around the world. In Colombia, people are also displaced, repressed and killed. Those responsible are forces who are implementing the neoliberal model. They sow their policies of terror with militarism; because of this, we must demand that our sovereignty be respected to solve our problems in a peaceful and fair manner.
StoptheWall: Is the fight against dispossession the strongest connection between people in Mexico and the Palestinian people?
Soledad: What is happening in Palestine and Mexico is the systematic displacement of people. How is it possible that they displace entire villages?
It is an important contribution to our struggle when comrades arrive from Palestine showing us photos and videos, and speak about the ways in which Israel is repressing and displacing them. Israel is building walls, displacing villages, and negating the freedom of the Palestinian people. The villages are no longer free to operate and thrive in their own territories. Such acts threaten their possibility of surviving as a Palestinian people. It is a way to end the life of the people; it is genocide. Here in Mexico, there is also a wall on the border with the US to prevent people from passing through. However, there is no wall for the natural resources that pass permanently; they continue to plunder what belongs to us.
In Oaxaca, we don’t need walls among the native peoples to respect territories and boundaries. You can agree on the limits to a territory, you can put some stones or a sign to mark it. We will respect each other’s limits because we respect each other. You have to respect my forests, my rivers, and I’m not going to put my animals in your territory. This same spirit of respect is not so for the imperialist countries who do not respect human rights, and who consistently violate both domestic and international law. We, the indigenous people do not need walls for we honour and respect each other, it is those who are powerful who show no respect and dishonor people and land who need to build the walls. As a president of Mexico said, a Zapotec from Oaxaca: “Among nations as among individuals, respect for the rights of others is peace” and is a very important motto. If there is respect, there must be no walls.
Neoliberalism does not generate any humanistic value; there is no relation or understanding of respect. The idea of fraternity has been forgotten, communication between people is neglected, culture is erased and human dignity is infringed upon.
StoptheWall: In Palestine, the dispossession of the Palestinian people began in 1947, when the United Nations decided to cede half of the territory of Palestine to create the state of Israel. More than 500 communities and villages were ethnically cleansed or destroyed by Israeli military forces and paramilitary groups. Today, Israel controls 87% of Mandate Palestine while the majority of the Palestinian people are refugees. The Israeli army, alongside groups of settlers, continue to strip Palestinian families and communities of their homes and lands. Can you explain the reality and methods of dispossession in Mexico?
Soledad: I can give as an example what is happening in the Mixtec town of El Ojite Cuauhtémoc, Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. In this region, there is a coalmine. The mining company wants to exploit the coal by expropriating the territory and natural resources. Meanwhile, the indigenous communities are an obstacle to their mining project. It is important that the people who have always lived El Ojite Cuauhtémoc are respected, their land honoured, and their communal life upheld, yet the company wants to violate this. The mining company seeks to remove the indigenous communities who stand in the way of their capital gains.
Because of this, the situation in El Ojite Cuauhtémoc is very difficult. The community, and we as human rights defenders who accompany the community, have been physically assaulted and we have received death threats. I personally was threatened with death on 16 February 2017. Some people in the community were severely assaulted and called me to accompany them to the hospital. l called the prosecutor’s office to come, as well, in order to make complaints. When I arrived, I was surrounded by 20-25 paramilitary members and they told me things like “You will not live to tell it or to defend lousy natives.”
Then, on 3 April 2017, the same paramilitary group of Antorchia Campesina threatened our colleague Daniela González López, who is the international coordinator of the Observatory. At the same time, our companions of the Community of San Miguel Tetepelcingo in the coastal region were also threatened.
Another event occurred on 22 September 2018; paramilitaries took more than two hectares of land from El Ojite Cuauhtémoc. To date they are occupying their lands. The owners of these lands have the deeds to prove their ownership. This land was once a space for social services, healthcare, and a space for children. The owners complained but nothing happened. On the contrary, the municipal authorities were only bolstered by these attacks. On 26 May 2019, Gregorio Melchor Mejía and three comrades, Emperatriz, Edith and Marcelina were assaulted by paramilitaries. They fractured the skulls of one of them and another was beaten with a wooden stick. They have now memory problems due to the blows they have suffered. They reported the incident to the authorities but nothing has come of it.
The paramilitaries not only use threats and physical violence, but also displace and disappear activists and community leaders. Bernardina Santiago Lopez was exiled from her community for defending the rights of women, children and her people. Her house is under guard by the paramilitary so that she cannot return home. Even though she is alive, they have changed the anagraphic registry and she is now officially registered as dead and her records and history of where she lived erased in order to make her disappear.
It is the Observatory’s mission to denounce these cases and this reality. It is very important that we speak up and denounce so that they do not completely annihilate us. For this, we join as people. It is very important to organize the people in order to defend ourselves. We must also unite internationally, we have to globalize our struggles and our hopes.
StoptheWall: What is the role of the state and its institutions within this framework?
Soledad: In Oaxaca the state prosecutor protects this paramilitary group because it is a way of sowing fear so that no one speaks out against indigenous people’s continued displacement and the depopulation of their territory. This has a similar effect as to how Israel builds the wall as a way to force the displacement of the Palestinian people. We don’t have physical walls in Oaxaca but the policies they are applying with paramilitary groups are having the same effects.
These paramilitary groups have begun to exert their violence during the neoliberal governments of both parties, the PRI and the PAN, and in recent years with Peña Nieto as president of Mexico they have been sowing fear and terror in communities. This is done so that the people feel no option but to accept these projects that are imposed on them with force. They never consult the native peoples, as would be mandatory under international law and the 1989 Convention on Indigenous Peoples of the International Labor Organization. The only thing we have experienced is terror, aggression, and the use of force to make us capitulate in front of their projects without having an informed consultation process in a manner such that the communities are to decide their fate. Nothing has been done about all this.
During the governments of the PRI and Peña Nieto nobody paid attention to us. Even if we denounced the actions of the government, nobody listened to us. This is why it was very important to join the International Caravan in order unite our struggles and foster global solidarity, as for example with the struggle of the Palestinian people and other peoples of the world.
StoptheWall: Your history of struggles in Oaxaca against this system is truly inspiring and we may learn from it. Can you talk a little about this?
Soledad: As peoples of Oaxaca we have always had an important community life and have lived many experiences of struggle in the past. The most recent was in 2006. This important experience was known throughout the world and was compared to the Paris Commune because we managed to bring together all sectors of society. It was a struggle where there were teachers, native women, students, health unions, telephone operators and electricians, peasants, women and grassroots communities.
What were the elements that allowed us to bring together all these sectors? The thinking of the native peoples of Oaxaca – and this applies to all of Mexico – have always been collective, a form of community life based on assemblies where we work together to solve the problems that we face, be it health, water, or regarding our natural resources. We meet, talk and agree and if there are ideas on which we agree, we execute them and improve upon them. This is how we build our struggle and this has allowed us to survive as native peoples. In this sense, it is not difficult to organize.
As in many other places in Latin America where there have been struggles for popular power, the events of 2006 have built our capacity to exert popular power. They have given us a unique identity. We are a unit despite our differences. For example, in Oaxaca alone we are 16 native peoples but we have an ideology that unifies us. We have common practices such as ‘tequio’, a form of working without remuneration, but rather in a collective manner. ‘We also have ‘gueza’ which is a consensual process of solving our problems. These elements allow us to come together and walk together, always respecting our differences. Together we find common ground on how to resist jointly.
The Observatory was born from these experiences in 2016 and the lessons learned in several encounters with peoples throughout Latin America. In the founding assembly of the Observatory, comrades participated from 13 countries; most from Latin America but also from the United States, the Spanish state. Later Palestine was also integrated. What we have understood is that our struggles can no longer be isolated, but rather they need to be joint struggles. The unity of the peoples is very important in order to resist the neoliberal policies of militarization that negate the peace of the peoples and cause constant displacements.
StoptheWall: In April this year, the Observatory has organized the Popular Tribunal against paramilitarism in Oaxaca and we have built together the Popular Tribunal on the role of Israel in the militarization of Mexico. What importance do you give to these tribunals?
Soledad: The Popular Tribunals are very important because they draw attention to the lack of justice, the total impunity paramilitaries receive, and the coexistence of the government officials with paramilitary groups. They are spaces of popular power where people have the opportunity to denounce assaults and aggressions, and can make proposals for a just change.
In addition, during the period of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in 2006, we also held Popular Tribunals. This was very important because it allowed us to make the issue visible on a global scale.
With the Popular Tribunal of 8 April 2019 against paramilitarism in Oaxaca, we managed to bring our matter from Oaxaca, where they no longer listened, to Mexico City. When we got there, officials told us “go back to Oaxaca and let’s talk”. This showed how pervasive their secrecy and desire for suppression is. Simply, they do not want the truth to be known.
In the Popular Tribunal on the role of Israel in the militarization in Mexico, representatives came from Palestine to speak the truth about the situation we are both living. We consider the People’s Tribunals very important to spread the news, but above all to bring our forces together and globalize our struggles.
The Popular Tribunals are instances and spaces where the people arrive, denounce and in a collective and unitary way look for means to respond to the aggressions. Prior to the Popular Tribunals, individuals could only files complaints, but now there is a way to hold authorities accountable. Popular Tribunals are a way to raise indigenous peoples’ voices, achieve media visibility and present mechanisms on how to build justice from the villages.
StoptheWall: Looking to the future, can you give us your vision of how we can build a fairer world, a World without Walls?
Soledad: Today in Mexico with the government of the Fourth Transformation of Andrés Manuel López Obrador we hope that the impunity of the paramilitaries and the political parties that support them will end and that there will be justice. We propose to build spaces in Mexico today, such as the Tribunals where the judges are from the people, where we can exercise our capacity and our experience regarding how justice is delivered from the villages and in the framework of respect for human rights. To achieve this dream we have to unify all peoples, especially native peoples. That is why it is urgent to come together.
As a Mixtec, I consider it essential to reconstruct our historical memory, to recover our identity and our past, and to become a rights holder and agent within the legal system in order to rebuild our community life in an integral and collective way as indigenous peoples. Thus we can together fight for the respect of natural resources and the defense of our territories to build a good living with popular power.
When I talk about integrity, proposals must be made in all areas. Above all we need an educational reform. As Paulo Freire says, “An education that transforms our reality generates a new culture that recovers and promotes solidarity, fraternity, peace, democracy and justice.” We have to consider a new economy based on solidarity and mutual help to guarantee our survival since the powerful are destroying our way of life by stripping us of our territories. Without our territories, we would be nothing. That is why the struggle for life must be constant and permanent in regards to human rights and the rights of peoples.
We have to stop the walls, stop the attacks, stop the murders, forced displacements, and intensify the support for the struggle of the people so that the aggressors who deprive us of our territory cease to destroy our lives and immediately return the territories that they have stolen, specifically that of Palestine and the indigenous Mixtec community of El Ojite Cuauhtémoc, Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico.