Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, a tale of jealously, hate and revenge... all tragically lived out on December 14, 2014

“They came to kill us!” Those are the words of Elisa Zepeda trying to explain what happened in her village of Eloxochitlán on Sunday, December 14, 2014. 

It’s a story as old as David and Saul. A tale of jealousy, hate and revenge, all lived out in a village high above Oaxaca City in the Sierra Mazateca, known by locals as San Antonio Eloxochitlán.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The town center of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón
December 14, 2014 will stand as their 9/11, the day everything changed. It is the day that a new normal would be ushered in with a hail of gunfire, beatings, attacks with machetes, shovels, rocks and even pieces of rebar. At the end of the day 7 people were incarcerated for their role in a series of attacks that left 2 dead, many wounded, destroyed cars, businesses, homes and lives shattered across the town.

The story goes back years to a young farmer named Acasio Zepeda and his wife Gregoria who lived in San Antonio Eloxochitlán, or as locals simply called it, San Antonio. Located almost directly between Puebla and Oaxaca, San Antonio is a small village without much to recommend it.

Hours from any real population center, literally above the clouds, San Antonio is not that much different from hundreds of other small primarily indigenous towns that dot the Mexican landscape. In place of a formal state, or federal government, local law is based on a centuries old tradition known simply as Usos y Costumbres. Through this system, most legal matters are handled by town elders, their own elected officials and the people are largely self governing. This was the world, for better or worse, of Acasio Zepeda, father of six boys and one girl. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Dave Miller's Mexico, Elisa Zepeda
Elisa Zepeda, roasting locally farmed coffee at her home before it was destroyed
Acasio was a farmer, growing mostly coffee, and at times corn, beans and chayote in what essentially is a cloud forest. Farming in the best of conditions is hard work. It is also not a job that generally is not going to make you rich. In the mountainous indigenous areas of Mexico, under local customs, a farmer is usually only able to plant and care for just enough land to feed and care for his family. It requires hard work and long hours. It is often lonely, and many a farmer from San Antonio would end his day of work with a little too much aguardiente, the local “firewater” distilled from fermented sugar cane.

Knowing how hard the work was, Acasio was determined to give his children another option. As each one of them came of age, he gave them a choice. They could stay and work the land, as he and his ancestors had for years, or they could leave San Antonio, choose a career, and study. But there was a caveat. If they left to study, there was no coming home. They were to stay in school and figure out how to make it through.

That is the path almost all of his children took, including his oldest daughter Eusebia and Manuel, the fourth of his children. Both of them chose to become teachers, not so much because of a calling, but because it was the least expensive career to enter and the family never had much money.

After graduation, both Manuel and his sister Eusebia returned to San Antonio to find love, and begin their careers as teachers in the town of their youth. Manuel soon fell in love and married Malena Laguna Ceballos of Tenancingo, while Eusebia met and married a man by the name of Jaime Betanzos Fuentes from Eloxochitlán.

Over the years, life in this tiny mountaintop village carried on without much fanfare. Manuel and Eusebia taught in the local schools for many years. However in addition to teaching, like his father, and many of the other men in San Antonio, Manuel became a man enamored with aguardiente. Cheap and powerful, often running to 120 proof, it might have proved to be his undoing. 

Then a man named Gaspar Camaal Chablé entered his life. 

Fresh out of the George Lacy Baptist Seminary in Oaxaca City, Gaspar, or Pastor Chablé as he is known to many, became a spiritual mentor to Manuel. It dad not take long for Manuel to give up drinking and become a regular member of the small church Gaspar was starting.

It was a friendship that lasts to this day, stretching across almost 20 years.

Over the years, having cast aside his tendency to over imbibe, Manuel became a strong force in the church. His story of how God had saved him from himself and gave him the strength to improve his life became a powerful witness in a town that had known him mostly as a teacher who drank too much.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Manuel Zepeda's trout farm in Eloxochitlán
Having taken his last drink, Manuel soon discovered an entrepreneurial spirit deep inside himself. He and Malena sold the home where they had raised their children Manuelito and Elisa, and bought a plot of land on the banks of the Petlapa River. As he built a new house for his family, he also started a small trout farm.

Over the years that trout farm has grown to include nine tanks that when fully utilized, are stocked with almost 500 trout. Trout that his wife prepares in her kitchen and are served to people on the patio restaurant of their house. Trout that go a long way to help feed the townspeople.

Meanwhile, as Manuel and Malena were were expanding their trout farm, Eusebia and her husband Jaime were busy building their own life. 

Both families, extremely ambitious, aspired to win the votes, and the love of the people of Eloxochitlán. Manuel eventually won election in 2009 and Jaime in 2013 was elected to the position of assessor. A sort of assistant to the President of the community. But by then, their relationship had been poisoned by a previous election.

Jamie, running for office against his own brother Raul Betanzos Fuentes came up short on the vote count. He went to Manuel, his brother-in-law, and asked him to stand with him against Raul. He believed that between the two of them, they could prevail in a move to contest the election.

Manuel however felt differently. Looking at the vote totals, and the facts, he simply believed that Raul won, fair and square, and that it would be better for Jaime to wait his turn. Feeling betrayed, Jaime was angry and the seeds of anger and jealousy were sown deep.

Over the ensuing years, Jaime was never satisfied with the political leadership of the city, convinced he could always do better. When his brother-in-law Manuel won election in 2009, the stage was set for a full scale confrontation.

Over the next few years, until Jaime finally won election, the two sides of this familial and political divide traded numerous accusations. As is often the case in Oaxacan village politics, both sides have been accused of treason, brutality, murder and corruption. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The marketplace of Eloxochitlán, where people gathered to vote. 
On Sunday, December 14 the people of Eloxochitlán assembled in the town square to vote for the new mayor, a largely ceremonial position charged with settling property and land disputes. It is a job that requires lots of work, many complaints and little or no pay. 

It was a slightly sunny day, a rare surprise in a place normally dominated by clouds and rain. But the weather was not to be the only rarity on that day. As the people gathered for the noon meeting, a small group, led by Jaime Betanzos, had a much more ambitious agenda.

He and his small group of leaders wanted to settle a few old scores against his brother-in-law and former President of Eloxochitlán, Manuel Zepeda.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Dave Miller, Manuel Zepeda
Dave Miller, Manuel Zepeda and Abisia Camaal, son of Gaspar, in Manuel's house as electricians work to repair damage.
As the assembly began, word started filtering out to those still arriving that there was a group of hooded men armed with shotguns, machetes, shovels and rebar sticks. Soon there were explosions and shotgun blasts emanating from the city center.

It did not take long for people to scatter, fearing for their lives. The panic was evident on their faces as they ran. All the while, explosions could be heard rolling across the green hills of the city. Soon large clouds of black smoke could be seen rising from the area where the town meeting was to be.

Regardless of the cause, this is what is now known.

Elisa Zepeda, the daughter of Manuel and Malena, was the one the armed group was seeking. Long active in the human rights struggle for the people of Eloxochitlán, she had become a thorn in the side of those currently in power, led primarily by her uncle, Jaime Betanzos, the husband of her father’s sister, Eusebia.

When it became apparent Elisa was the target, she took refuge behind the house of her friends Gilberto and Noemi, shielded by her uncle Vicente. Hiding in a small closet, they both feared for their lives because the armed mob had, in addition to guns and machetes, molotov cocktails, loaded with gasoline.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
This is the closet where Vicente and Elisa hid.
As the group approached, Vicente and Elisa, knowing there were the typical tanks of propane stored in every Mexican home stored nearby, made the decision to abandon their hiding place and make a run for her dad’s house.

Elisa did not make it.

As they ran, she was grabbed by the mob, now numbering in excess of 50 people, and was savagely beaten. The final words of the group, widely reported across Mexico, were “This is where your dreams end asshole. Don’t stick your nose in the town’s business again.” And with these words, they left her to die.

That’s when the mob turned to destruction.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
This was part of the living room of Gilberto's home.
Gilberto’s home and restaurant where she sought refuge was quickly engulfed in flames, as was a local grocery store owned by Elisa’s uncle Vicente’s son-in-law, Gamaliel and his wife Dolli. As the home and businesses burned, they turned their attention to the families’ trucks, showering them with gallon sized molotov cocktails. Proceeding across the street, they completely gutted the local cyber cafe, owned and operated by Vicente and his wife Eudoxia and burned it too. This was the cloud of black smoke everyone was seeing. While all the windows of Vicente and Eudoxia’s house were broken by rocks thrown by the mob, mercifully, they chose not to destroy their house.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The former storefront for Gamaliel and Dolli's grocery store.
By now, the once tranquil city resembled a war zone set upon by an armed mob. As the group moved out from the city center, people ran, screamed and sought cover where ever they could, fearing for their lives.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Inside the former store of Gamaliel and Dolli.
Many of those running, relatives and associates of Manuel Zepada, father of Elisa, sought refuge in his home, a two story structure about 500 meters from the town center. They locked themselves in the kitchen, and as religious people, began to pray.

That’s when the bullets began to fly through the doors and the rocks began to fly though the windows. Miraculously, Elisa, not dead after all, had made her way back to her childhood home and what she hoped would be the safety of her parents arms. It was not to be.

The doors of the house were no match for a group determined to kill and humiliate as many members of Manuel’s family as possible. As the attackers entered, some looked for cover and others fled out a back door, only to be caught between two sides of the same mob.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda, Gaspar Chable
Gaspar Chablé with Gregoria, both victims of the violence in Eloxochitlán
Elisa was beaten again, even as her mother Malena sought to protect her. Covering her with her own body, Malena took several blows in this new beating. Even today, it is not known if she will ever see again from her right eye. Pastor Gaspar Chablé was also beaten at the house, receiving numerous cuts on his head from the machetes and rebar. Manuel’s 86 year old mother, Gregoria, pleading with the attackers to stop, was also beaten, receiving cuts to her scalp. Gaspar remembers the group talking about killing them all as he collapsed behind an old cistern that now is permanently marked by his blood.

But it was two men who paid the ultimate price. When the mob set upon Manuel’s house and the house of his daughter Elisa, they came across Manuelito, the town mechanic. Manuelito was known as a standup guy. Regularly fixing cars and charging very little, he saw his work as a way to give back to the community. His taller, or garage, was on his father’s land, next door to his sister’s home.

He was taken, tortured and beaten in an attack that rivals anything the Ku Klux Klan ever did in America. All to send a message. One other man, Gustavo Andrade, the sole member of the local police force to stand up to the mob, also died, giving his life to protect Elisa. 

Manuel leaves a wife and two children. Gustavo, a wife and four kids.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Gamaliel and Gaspar inside Vicente's burned out cyber café.
With bodies strewn everywhere across the city, and with numerous houses and businesses burning, the mob couldn’t resist the cars and trucks of Manuel, his family, Pastor Chablé and others. More molotov cocktails were tossed on every nearby vehicle they could find.

At the end of the day, Gilberto and Noemi lost their home, truck, and business. Elisa and her husband David lost their home and Elisa’s car. Gamaliel and Dolli lost their business and their truck. Vicente and Euodoxia lost their cyber cafe. Manuel and Malena had their house looted, their money stolen, much of their furniture destroyed and their restaurant ransacked.

Manuelito and Gustavo lost their lives and their families now have no way to support their suddenly smaller families. Pastor Chablé lost his truck, one of 19 vehicles burned that fateful day and was sent to the hospital with numerous gashes on his scalp requiring stitches.

Elisa and Malena, by far suffering the worst of the injuries, were beaten to within an inch of their lives. Both of them spent days in the hospital, in and out of comas. Both of them face months of both physical and emotional rehabilitation. Many of the scars may never heal.

All of the ringleaders of the attack are now sitting in prison in Oaxaca under order of the Attorney General of the State. In addition to former mayor Jaime Betanzos Fuentes, and the current mayor Alfredo Pacheco Bolaños, local police, Fernando Martinez Gavito, Wilfrido Salazar Herrera, Omar Morales Alvarez and Ruben Jimenez Cerqueda are also in custody. A seventh man, Monfil Avendaño, was also involved and is being held. All seven men are awaiting trial for their involvement in the events of December 14, 2014 in Eloxochitlán.

The rest of the attackers, and Jaime’s wife, Eusebia, the older sister of Manuel, remain in hiding across the region known as the Cañada de Oaxaca.

Recently I was in Eloxochitlán. For this story I talked personally to each and every victim. I saw their homes, walked among the destruction of their businesses and listened as each one told me their stories, many as the tears fell from their eyes.

I saw the closet where Vicente tried to shield his niece Elisa from her attackers. I also saw the holes that a shotgun made in that closet, moments before they fled. I saw the remnants of buildings that people will never be able to rebuild, because the fires burned so hot, the concrete encased rebar melted.
Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
The front of Elisa Zepeda's burned out home.
Locals told me the stores, buildings, cars and trucks smoldered for days. They spoke of looking into the eyes of the aggressors and seeing a level of hate they had never experienced. They spoke of men, drunk on power and aguardiente coming at them with machetes, determined to kill. It was chilling to hear their stories and experience the violence from each of their different perspectives.

As I walked and talked with people, I kept trying to get at the spark that caused the uproar. Was it political? Yes. Was it religious? Yes. Was it personal? Yes. But finally, as I continued to peel back the layers of the onion, I started to understand.

This was about respect. 

Jaime Betanzos and his family were old school. They liked things the way they were. Thinking back to that first election he lost, he wanted to “fix” it, for years a Mexican tradition. When his brother-in-law Manuel, the college graduate and local business leader, would not go along, he felt disrespected. He took it personally. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
A few of the 19 damaged and burned out vehicles from that fateful day.
Thousands of years ago, David, the boy who vanquished Goliath in the biblical epic, became the darling of the kingdom. Saul, the current king, saw that the people were giving much more of their love and respect to David, than to him, the current king. In him burned a jealous desire to set things straight. 

In an attempt to recapture the glory and respect among his people he once had, Saul set about to destroy, and ultimately kill David. He unleashed scores of his soldiers in an attempt to find and finally remove the one person he could never vanquish or conquer.  

Jaime, like Saul, quietly steamed for years. Finally, when he was elected, he decided to get the respect he had always felt he was due. If he could not earn it, he would take it, violently, if need be. Working with many of the other local authorities, Jaime used the town budget to recruit the mob that would ultimately wreak havoc across the town. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Flores Magon, Ricardo Flores Magon
The monument to Ricardo Flores Magón, in the heart of Eloxochitlán.
Ironically the town recently changed its name from San Antonio Eloxochitlán to Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón after the activist and one of the most revered intellectual leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Ricardo Flores Magón, who was born in the small village.

It was that spirit of change, the same activist spirit that motivated Flores Magón, that inspired Elisa Zepeda and her family. 

Many of the people with whom I spoke shared that they were eager for their little town to get back to normal. They liked it quiet and without much fanfare, or drama. But all them were forced to accept a new reality. Their town could never go back to what was normal. December 14 will always be the day that changed normal for the victims and the residents of Eloxochitlán.

Where do they go from here? That depends on whether the people want to continue the long march into modernity that stands in front of many indigenous communities in Mexico, or if they will retreat, fearful of the kind of change that Jaime Betanzos and his group could never embrace.

Copyright © 2015, Dave Miller, All Rights, Photo and Written, Reserved


Mike Nalley said...

Thank you, Dave, for this explanation.

Dave Miller said...

You bet Mike!