While in Europe to raise awareness of his case against the Mexican state for the use of torture during arbitrary detention, Oaxaca activist Damián Gallardo Martínez highlights the criminalisation of social mobilisation in the country.

Between June 2017 and July 2018, 949 cases of state human rights violations were recorded in Mexico, according to Comité Cerezo, a Mexican human rights organisation. These violations include extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, threats, harassment and physical attacks against people who denounced the structural reforms undertaken by the then-government of Enrique Peña Nieto.

This form of state terrorism is not a novelty. In recent decades, the state has developed new forms of criminalisation, where repressing social movements under different types of charges has become common practice. Recently, a process of criminalisation began accusing activists of links with organised crime.

Professor and Ayuuk activist Damián Gallardo Martínez is part of the Popular Assembly of the Towns of Oaxaca (APPO) and works to defend the right of indigenous communities and education in the Mixe and Zapoteca regions of Oaxaca, a state with a high concentration of indigenous communities. After having suffered arbitrary detention for five years, under the charge of racketeering and kidnapping of minors, Gallardo Martínez travelled to Europe to advance a complaint against the Mexican government. The activist emphasises that other human rights defenders have also been victims of the same pattern of criminalisation.

Thanks to Gallardo Martínez, the Working Group On Arbitrary Detention, established in 1991 by the Commission on Human Rights of the UN (OHCHR), issued another five rulings on Mexico, all of which declared arbitrary arrests of activists. These cases include that of human rights defender Nestora Salgado, who was accused of 35 kidnappings; freelance journalist Pedro Canche; ecologist Librado Baños; chess teacher and philosopher Enrique Guerrero Aviña; and Pablo Lopez, a land defender in Oaxaca. Like Gallardo Martínez, all were falsely accused of organised crime and other illicit activities.

At a conference on the defence of Indigenous Human Rights at the Latin American House in Brussels, I spoke to Gallardo Martínez about the current context of criminalisation and arbitrary detention of activists in Mexico, with a focus on his own experience.

You are suing the Mexican state for the human rights violations you have suffered, along with the need to set a standard against criminalisation of social protest and the use of torture in arbitrary detentions. How is the case going?

It is in the reception stage. In the OHCHR’s Committee Against Torture,  you present the case, they receive it, they analyse it, and they notify you if it is accepted or rejected. The Committee Against Torture is a body of ten independent experts established by the United Nations that monitor the implementation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by its state parties.

My allegations would have to be debated by the Mexican State. That is, they would have to provide evidence, then there is a trial and, in the end, the court has to issue a resolution. A few days ago in Mexico, it was announced that I had submitted this complaint.

You have been the victim of arbitrary detention on charges of racketeering and kidnapping of minors, in this case, the nephews of the President of the Business Coordinating Council [an autonomous body which regulates businesses in Mexico]. On what grounds were you accused and what is the objective behind the charges?

The objective is clear: to delegitimise any social movement from having a just cause. It is isolating a defender from their social ties, affecting the solidarity network around their demand for freedom.

Who can declare in favour of the freedom of a kidnapper or a common criminal? So, what they do is eliminate the political profile to fit only this delinquent one. In recent years, struggle and social protest have been criminalised under this scheme in Mexico.

How do you think the criminalisation of social protest makes it possible for the government to continue implementing neoliberal policies?

The criminalisation process occurs within this new economic and political scheme that is implemented in Mexico. In January 2013, President Peña Nieto started his mandate and in May a smear campaign was launched against social movements, along with the prosecution of criminal cases.

Obviously, it aimed to weaken resistance towards an economic model that was being implemented. Our concrete case is linked to the resistance against an educational reform that basically outlined two aspects: an erosion of workers’ interests around their labour rights, and an attack against public education that is secular, free and guaranteed up to the professional level. This opened the door for the privatisation of education.

You were part of the mobilisations against Peña Nieto’s educational reform, which was passed without any public discussion. What kind of educational reform do you think would be better for Oaxaca, which has a very large indigenous population?

The educational reform proposed by Peña Nieto has been repealed in several aspects and the new government made another proposal that takes up the demands of teaching professionals in terms of guaranteeing certain job security and that privatisation of education is slowed to a certain extent.

However, indigenous peoples still have a very strong demand to exercise the right to their own education, as established by Agreement 179 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the second constitutional article, which talks about the rights of indigenous peoples to create their own educational systems.

I think that if we really want democratic and fair relationships to be generated on the basis of justice, we have to create an educational model that allows students to be profiled within a democratic formation. Such a model would have a gender perspective and would teach them to work in solidarity and by resolving situations collectively.

Why do you think it is important to have an autonomous university for indigenous people? On what basis could this project be implemented?

There is concern for indigenous people to have other possibilities to participate, to be able to contribute to a universal culture of which we are part, but which has denied us the importance of our knowledge and has imposed a model that seeks to annihilate us under different premises. What we claim is to recognise ourselves as equals before others, precisely on the basis of being different.

So, we try to take that premise to the educational field, and especially that of a university. Ten per cent of the Mexican population is indigenous. We are 120 million inhabitants nationwide and more or less 12 million are indigenous who do not have access to higher education because the current framework is designed to fit the specific interests of an economic model.

Our vision of development is different, we advocate for development that is compatible with nature, with a human collective and that really allows for developing the capabilities of people. This university project is built with this idea, which we consider to be a legitimate and just demand.

We are not going to wait for state approval to form a university. The fundamental thing is the content of learning and the teaching process that generates this interaction between student and teacher. It is the metaphor of throwing a seed to the ground and causing the seed to sprout.

You are the Ayuuk leader of Oaxaca. How does the neoliberal model affect and harm your community?

The neoliberal model impacts all spaces because it is a totalising project. What it does is sweep away all forms of organisation that are not in accordance with the development of capital. In the case of indigenous communities, it is exactly the same, it is overwhelming.

What the model has done with our lives is an emptying; it has turned us into a bunch of consumers, we do not produce our own food, we do not wear our traditional clothes. It is this form of emptying that we resist. The emptying is not only in tangible terms but it is also one of knowledge. It does not help that you know which plant heals you; the important thing is that you buy Paracetamol.

My town has even had litigation with a French fashion company over plagiarisms of my community’s typical clothing designs. Well, that is dispossession. That is what neoliberalism has left: a model that has emptied us of the essential things, supplanted by artificial needs and garbage.

But we are also very clear, we understand that we live in a world of modernity that we are not denying ourselves either. But we think that modernity can be practiced and exercised in another way.

Before being deprived of liberty, you were disappeared for 30 hours. Since the problem of enforced disappearance is a very complex issue in Mexico, what determines the life or death of a victim of enforced disappearance?

First, you need to have very solid support and for your solidarity network to act fast. For example, in my case, I was arrested at 2:30 in the morning and my family was already mobilising with NGOs advocating for the defence of human rights, along with the teacher networks that we have.

We filed a request for protection of a judge to ask for my appearance alive. This is one of the causes, so those who perpetrate a violation have to stop things. The police and military denied my arrest.

As for the demand for appearing alive, it would be a concession to the state to ask for dead bodies to be presented because the state’s level of responsibility to its citizens is firstly to guarantee life. A state that does not guarantee the life of its citizens is a state that violates its own laws. That is why the demand for the presentation with life is political: it is so the state does not shirk its responsibility to Mexicans.