Gazebo in zocalo ringed by lights

The city of Oaxaca’s zócalo, or central plaza. M. Thierry, via Flickr

Mira! Erika wagged a slim forefinger toward vendors, gawkers, and ice cream-smeared toddlers moving through the city of Oaxaca’s central plaza as she turned to face me. “You think you’re seeing people but they’re not people, they’re ghosts!”

Erika had taught high school for nearly thirty years and was a member of the state teachers’ union. She had recently participated in a strike for better salaries and working conditions—a strike that the government had crushed just months earlier. “Ghosts,” she repeated with a sigh. “Oaxaca exists in the past. Maybe all of Mexico does.”

It was early 2007. I had come to Oaxaca the year before as a freelance journalist to investigate the violent standoff between the striking teachers and the government. The state of Oaxaca’s governor, Ulisés Ruiz, had ordered state and municipal police to break up an encampment of striking teachers in the center of the city. The police had done so forcefully, with tear gas and clubs. The teachers had fought back, commandeering city buses to use like tanks against the startled police.

Local activists formed an organization—the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca—to support the striking teachers. The protesters eventually drove Ruiz (who had once boasted that “only God can remove a governor!”) out of the city, forcing him to govern by making brief helicopter visits from outside the state. Ruiz pleaded for help, and the federal government obliged, sending over aircraft, tanketas, and over 4,000 soldiers and militarized federal police. They ripped out the barricades the Popular Assembly had erected and a month later broke up a protest demonstration by rounding up not only assembly members, but also uninvolved citizens. Less than six months earlier, federal forces had done the same thing in the community of Atenco outside Mexico City, retaliating against local residents who had blocked the construction of an international airport.

Afterward, to counter “subversive elements,” state officials organized and paid groups of young porros—thugs—to monitor university events. In 2008, Oaxaca’s university students sequestered six city buses to protest a hike in bus fares. A gang of porros wielding pistols and automatic weapons attacked the students, who briefly fought back with rocks and sticks, then fled. Hundreds of students sought shelter in classrooms and behind cars as shots rang out across the campus

Erika felt that the crackdown cowed many protesters. “It’s as though people here, when they’re born, slither into ghost bodies and stay in them forever,” she told me. “That’s why our rulers, most of them, are foreigners. Spanish. Arab. Gringo. They do what they want and the ghosts don’t interfere. They can’t because they’re trapped in their ghost world. To them that world is reality.”

“And you?” I ask.

“Chinga tu madre …” she cursed, her thin cheeks tightening around a smile. “I think some people crack through. Realize who they really are. Those kids, teenagers, criminals—the ones who are killing each other for the drug cartels—I think they know. They’ve been thrust out into the real world—angry, bloody, brutal. So they rape, kill. That’s what Mexico’s really about. Not these ghosts floating around, pretending the real doesn’t exist. Not only are they ghosts, they’re frightened ghosts. And you know what they’re afraid of?”

“Coming alive?”

Eso. Reality getting so close they have to confront it.” She swore again, then laughed. “You see what consorting with teenagers does to one’s vocabulary!”

• • •

Though the Popular Assembly came apart and vanished, teacher protests against the federal government have continued, especially after the passage of a constitutional amendment limiting state control of education. The protests have involved not only Oaxaca but neighboring states in central and southern Mexico. Last year, militarized police violently removed demonstrators who had blocked highways in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca. Ten people were killed and over a hundred wounded.

Autocracy has deep historical roots in Mexico. In earlier times, its leaders—from presidents to family patriarchs—exerted near-absolute control. Dissent was not only prohibited but also punished, often brutally. Even with the “democratic” post-revolution constitution of 1917 and Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas’ political reforms in the 1930s, power remained largely in the hands of the executive authority. The legislature and judiciary were secondary.

Like the Spanish kings and Aztec and Mayan rulers, in Mexico today the single strongman—president, governor—presides over his domain. He (and it is still almost always “he”) can be deposed only by a higher executive authority; no provisions for citizen recall of elected figures exist. Loyalty to this “master figure” remains the dominant virtue. He may allow protest, but will crush it if it becomes threatening.

I once asked a local attorney about this intolerance of dissent. Many among the scores of people arrested in a recent protest, I pointed out, were innocent of any wrongdoing and did not even belong to the Assembly, I pointed out. He sighed and quoted what a federal secret-service official had told him:

“All the better. It makes the rest of the people more afraid.”

• • •

By the fall of 2007 the police presence in Oaxaca’s streets had faded. The governor was giving lavish parties again and made an excursion up north to see the Super Bowl. And marimbas, indígena vendors, kids with huge sausage-shaped balloons, and camera-happy tourists had returned to the plaza. “Ghosts,” Erika would have called them—ordinary people trying to lead normal lives despite oppressive inflation, layoffs, crime, and the threat of government-paid militias.

I met a former university student, Oscar Sánchez, after university classes resumed later that year. Educators and university officials, he said, “set you up” and “give you this great ideal.” “Then, ching! You find out it’s crap!” he said, bitterly. He pulled his lower lip between his teeth as he peered around the restaurant in which he and I were sitting. “I would’ve been better off not going to the university. I should have emigrated. Or joined a drug cartel,” he added, sarcastically.

While he was a student, Oscar said, the police detained him twice. The first time was after he and two friends had left a Popular Assembly rally. “They weren’t in uniform,” he pointed out—which probably meant they were part of an escuadrón de muerte, or death squad, formed by police units. “They threw us in the back of a pickup and took us somewhere—an abandoned building. They kicked us, said they were going to rape us, demanded to know things—students’ names, professors who belonged to the Popular Assembly, who was paying us to organize them.”

I asked him how he knew they were police if they weren’t in uniform. He guffawed. “Haircuts. Shoes. White pickup without license plates. I’m young but I’m not stupid. I can see, I can hear.”

His second detainment occurred when he tried to photograph the police beating someone at a protest. Half-a-dozen officers grabbed him, threw him on the pavement, and took his cell phone. He was arrested for attacking the officers and spent a week in jail before the charges were dismissed.

Throughout the last three decades college graduates like Sánchez have struggled to obtain employment. Many of them wind up driving taxis, working as waiters, or “trying to sell products that nobody wants to buy,” a former student activist once told me. Or, he added, they wind up as porros, paid under the table to watch and rough up the opposition.

As for today’s university students, they are learning to shun politics. “A university is not the army,” Sánchez insisted. “Students aren’t there to ‘Yes, sir!’—salute and blindly obey. They should be taught to think, not to become robots.”

In recent years, both federal and state governments have cut funding to the humanities and the arts. There are generous scholarships for students in engineering, computer science, and systems management—as there are in other countries trying to adapt to a STEM-focused economy—but activists see a more sinister purpose behind these policies. Writing, painting, theater, and music generate criticism, an awareness of nature, a knowledge of human potential and aesthetic possibilities—skills that have no place in an autocratic world.

Nowadays, Mexico’s leaders view culture narrowly, as a means to increase sales and generate revenue. It is about “enhancing” Mexico’s archeological sites, jungles, and lagoons with golf courses, Las Vegas-style music spectaculars, and superhighways. Anything else that ghosts need to know can be acquired by watching television.

Becoming a ghost is easy—in fact, it’s difficult to resist. Twenty-first-century Mexico is not unlike the Europe that George Orwell described in 1984: censorship and shortages, Big Brother watching and armies perpetually at war (in Mexico, on the streets of one’s own neighborhood). To survive, you adapt. You accept the diversions offered: weddings, holidays, televised sports events, church processions. You take the kids to watch Disney movies and sandlot baseball games. You join the locals dancing in the streets, peruse the used clothing and pirated CDs being peddled, or sip the tiny cups of mescal handed out in the plaza. You find a prostitute to slip away withThe nota roja in the newspaper lists each day’s assassinations, multiple-fatality car crashes, and rape attempts, but you can watch the daytime game shows and evening telenovelas without hearing mention of drug crimes or government corruption.

Sometimes reality does seep through, in stories you stumble upon on the Internet and elsewhere. Jobseekers who have escaped from gang-ravaged farmlands and cities in the north. Victims of extortion and fraud. Relatives of migrant workers working in America without documents. Parents of teenagers who’ve joined the drug cartels, fallen into addiction, or become fifteen- or sixteen-year-old mothers.

You will want to do something. But how? The lone reformer or complainer is vulnerable. So you go back to being a ghost—publishing on blogs, arguing with friends, banging tabletops and then ordering another pitcher of beer.

Maybe Erika is right: only those in the criminal organizations—and their immediate victims—truly experience the Mexico that exists.

• • •

Festive Oaxaca. Festering Oaxaca. Just before Christmas that year, I was in a noisy restaurant a few blocks from the plaza, nursing a beer. A round-faced boy, perhaps five or six years old, appeared beside me, a tiny straw basket filled with penny chewing gum in his hand. “Por favor, señor,” he pleaded, “buy a Chiclets. I haven’t sold a single one all day.”

He was lying, of course. And of course I bought, and because I don’t like Chiclets I gave them back to him and watched him work the same cute scam at another table.

What we do to survive.

Robert Joe Stout was a member of two Rights Action emergency human rights delegations in 2006 and 2007. He lives in Oaxaca and is the author of Hidden Dangers.

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