Violence has forced thousands of indigenous Triqui people to flee their homes in the highlands of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
The Triqui people are from the mountainous area known as the Sierra Mixteca, but since the 1980s thousands have abandoned their communities in San Juan Copala amid a bitter and complex conflict between warring factions.
“Our men have been beaten and murdered, our women raped and our houses burned to the ground. We had to flee or face death,” Braulio Hernandez, a former resident of San Juan Copala, told the MailOnline.
State control and the struggle for autonomy
Until the late 1940s, the Triqui enjoyed a degree of autonomy. This changed, however, as Mexico’s then ruling-party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), sought to assert its control over area.
In response to increased violence, militarization, and meddling into traditional governance at the hands of state officials and local political leaders (caciques), the Triqui communities established the Movement for Triqui Unification and Liberation (Movimiento de Unificación y Liberación Triqui, MULT) in 1981.
Although founded as a grassroots organisation, MULT soon armed itself in order to protect against violence initiated by local political leaders. The organization soon split into different factions. In 1994, an off-shoot of MULT, the PRI-supported organisation ‘Triqui Region Welfare’ (Unidad de Bienestar de la Región Triqui, UBISORT) was founded.
UBISORT, which is comprised of Triqui members who are traditional rivals of the inhabitants of San Juan Copala, is considered a paramilitary group by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
A bitter conflict and bloody violence has erupted as UBISORT and MULT began warring over control of the area.
By 2007, another faction – Movimiento de Unificación y Lucha Triqui-Independiente (MULT-I)-had sprung up after MULT was accused of being co-opted by the state. That same year, San Juan Copala declared itself an autonomous municipality, desperate to reassert its traditional indigenous governance.
Conflict between the groups has increasing intensified, with some of the worst violence occurring in 2010. A local indigenous leader and member of MULTI, along with his wife, were murdered by an armed gang, while the founder of MULT was shot on the streets of Oaxaca.
Mexican Alberta Carino and Finnish national Jyri Jaakkola were also assassinated, shot by members of UBISORT as they made their way to deliver supplies to San Juan Copala, which had been blocked by the paramilitary group.
Only some 5,000 Triqui remain in their traditional communities, most have left to escape the ensuing violence.
Last month, displaced Triqui women set up camp in the government palace in Oaxaca City. Demanding the government keeps its promise to either enable them to return home or find them a resettlement; they went on a hunger strike.
They claim the state government is against autonomy, and is responsible for their displacement because it supports paramilitary groups such as UBISORT. In 2009, some 700 Triqui were forced to leave their homes and one woman, Lorena Merino Martinez, told SubVersiones, that both her husband and 7-year-old son were murdered by the group.
“The government doesn’t like autonomy, there are political parties that are in with the government. For that same reason the government sent resources to the political parties in order to put an end to the autonomy, in order to be able to take possession of the community because the government finds it more convenient to have political parties and that is why they put an end to the autonomy.”
Many Triqui seeking sanctuary head north. Some go to Baja California in northern Mexico where the community of New Copala – Copala Nueva – was established in the late 1980s. Life in New Copala is also fraught with violence, however, and grinding poverty.
A Reuters report reveals that gangs and drug cartels are running riot in New Copala. The Triqui are struggling to retain their cultural identity in an environment where young people are being coerced into gangs or are turning to drugs.