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Dec 3, 21

“Autonomy is Everything”: Interview with Indigenous Political Prisoner José Antonio Arreola of Nahuatzen

La versión original de esta entrevista en español puede encontrarse aquí.

The following is an interview with Indigenous political prisoner José Antonio Arreola Jiménez, one of three political prisoners from the P’urhépecha community of Nahuatzen, Michoacán, currently serving seven-year sentences based on trumped-up charges. The interview was conducted in late November by IGD contributor Scott Campbell.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?

Yes, my name is José Antonio Arreola Jiménez. I’m from the Indigenous community of Nahuatzen, Michoacán. Nahuatzen is an Indigenous community nestled in the heart of the Meseta Purépecha. I have my wife and five children.

Can you share with us some details about Nahuatzen, its struggle, and your role in that struggle?

The struggle in Nahuatzen began in 2015, when the last municipal president was imposed on us by the state government, by [then-governor] Silvano Aureoles Conejo. Then, this Miguel Prado Morales, which is his name, arrived with more than twenty or thirty armed individuals from outside the community, claiming to be his private police, his bodyguard. We, as community members, thought this was bad, because within the town there is no need to bring weapons, we’re not people who fight, we’re not armed people. We’re working people, peaceful people. So that was, more than anything else, the main issue.

Then, one day we asked for a meeting with the municipal president, which was granted, and we told him that we wanted his police to leave the community of Nahuatzen. It turns out that he said yes, but later on he didn’t want to. The next day, he summoned us in front of his police, and we were attacked by them, his entire family, the entire town government. So, there was a revolt, there was a conflict, there were people who had their heads cracked open and people who were beaten. But at that moment, the community decided to hold a meeting, a general assembly, and to remove recognition of the town government. So, in a public meeting in the main plaza, we held this assembly.

I am a representative of us. The community of Nahuatzen is made up of four neighborhoods: the first, second, third, and fourth. I, their servant, represent the first neighborhood. The day the assembly was held, the proposal [for a council] was put forward by the compañeros and decided upon. Let me tell you that I was an alternate, I wasn’t the main councilmember, I was an alternate. The main councilmember was there at the time, and there were only four of us, a councilmember for each neighborhood and the alternates. Then we realized that the person put forward as the representative of my neighborhood had links to organized crime. So, it was decided to hold a meeting and remove him, and I became the neighborhood representative. So, I am the representative of the first neighborhood, and I am in charge of the security of the community. Every councilmember has a task, so my role, what I have, or what I had, was that of the security of the town of Nahuatzen.

José Antonio Arreola

What sentence are you facing and what is the status of your case?

The sentence we were given is seven years for sabotage. Let me explain that sabotage doesn’t exist, it’s a sentence given to people like me, who fight as part of a common social movement, for the human rights of Indigenous communities in particular. Because if we had been defending a city or another town, it’s possible we wouldn’t have been charged with sabotage. But as an Indigenous community, one that in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in our favor, that we were an Indigenous community and it gave us self-determination, autonomy, and self-government, among other things, representation in the state and federal governments. So, it was practically a struggle that, with the ruling of the nation’s Supreme Court, we won. We won everything we were fighting for. It was a very difficult situation. The state government with its new governor is still fighting us, including with state and municipal police and politicians there in the community, because there are those who are still with the politicians.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2017, recognizing us as an Indigenous and autonomous community. We are autonomous. It is simply that the state government has been imposing a government on us. There is an Indigenous Citizen’s Council of Nahuatzen (CCIN), the town government shouldn’t exist in Nahuatzen. That is the political dispute we have. So, the town government should not exist in our community of Nahuatzen. Rather, it has been imposed by the state government.

I would like to tell you that sabotage really doesn’t exist. They gave us seven years with the possibility of early release in three and a half. The state government, together with the town government and political parties in our community invented a crime, saying we stole a dump truck, two cars, and food supplies. They couldn’t prove anything. The dump truck is what we used to collect garbage, and the two cars were used by the communal patrol, which is the security that we have in our community. It’s not municipal or state police, it’s called the ronda comunal [communal patrol] because it’s made up purely of community members from Nahuatzen. So, they invented a crime, which has not been proven.

So, in coordination with the judges, including a minister from Morelia, the state capital, they said that we were guilty, and they’ve had us locked up since November 14, 2018, and that’s the situation of what we are accused of.

How can those on the outside support the fight for your freedom?

People, like you, like organizations, like the community of my town, you can help us in pressuring the Supreme Court to make its ruling, as our case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. A judge there with the last name of Pardo has it. Legally, he’s out of time, he should have ruled on it this month, but I don’t know why he hasn’t made a ruling yet. So, that is the help we can receive from you on the outside, that you send letters to the judge to pressure him, and more than anything to help us hold a protest outside the Supreme Court.

[See the action alert from the Anarchist Black Cross Federation for info on contacting the Supreme Court and donating to support the struggle in Nahuatzen.]

Can you share with us a little of what life is like on the inside?

Yes, to tell you how it is, life here is very difficult. When one is against the system, against the government, one faces many deprivations, much more than one should face. It’s not easy to access medicine, food, clothing. From the moment we arrived, the guards beat us, there was abuse from the government, but the moment the guards realized that it was really the state government that was inventing the crime, they also understood and got to know us a little better. They saw that we were not problematic people, more than anything else.

I’d like to tell you that in order to have access to medication, you have to buy it. And the strange thing is that the doctors here all have their own pharmacy, so they sell it to you themselves. There have been big accidents here, where compañeros have died due to lack of medicine or lack of a doctor. I think it’s very sad to live in this situation here. And, like us, there are many compañeros who should not be here, but the state government and the system are managed in this way. They don’t catch who they should, but rather those they should not, and they give it to them.

Life here in prison is very difficult. I think that many times it is very easy for people to say that one should get many years in prison or that one should rot in prison because of something that one has done. But they don’t realize [what it’s like], and I think that with five, six, seven years, I think that’s enough to pay. Because it’s too much, the situation is very different. Sometimes they don’t let you share blankets, you have one or two and you’re cold, or the cells are totally leaky, there is no electricity, there are many things you don’t have access to.

What does autonomy mean for you and for Nahuatzen?

What does autonomy mean? Well, it is the separation of our community, to take the yoke off, to remove the foot of control of the state government. Autonomy means to be free, it means to be able to decide with the people how to use your resources, because the town government that has been in place for more than one hundred years in Nahuatzen has always stolen until their pockets were full. Let me tell you that at the worst, there are people who are literally sleeping on the ground, people who truly need a roof, or a floor where they can put a bed to sleep in, a kitchen where they can cook well, and that doesn’t exist. You need jobs, you need an economy, you need a lot of education, many doctors.

It’s through autonomy; gaining autonomy is everything for Nahuatzen. And for me, a servant, it’s a years-long struggle, of six, seven years of struggle that we are not going to stop until we’ve finished this project. This is not something that will be finished in one, two, three years, no. We are just starting our project. Unfortunately, they’ve taken us prisoner, they haven’t let us do the work, but we are convinced that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor, and we will return to being authorities in our community and to continue to manage our resources, which means a lot. It means everything. It means helping those in need. That is autonomy, that is what it means for the majority of our community, and for me, a servant.

Let me tell you that we are very proud to be the spearhead [of autonomy] in the Meseta Purépecha. We are the second, with Cherán being the first, which is a sister community of ours, and we border them. For us to be autonomous is to be the spearhead in Nahuatzen, where right now, if you notice, there are no longer two autonomous Indigenous communities, there are already several. There is Santa Fe de la Laguna, Pichataro, Comachuén, Sevina, Turícuaro, Arantepacua, and practically in the municipality of Nahuatzen there are already five or six, outside of it there are five or six more. This means that this is a very good movement. I believe that, at the time, Pichataro experienced it, and several other communities have experienced it. Thanks to not lowering our guard, thanks to confronting the government, the system, I think there are many sister communities that are also rising up, and I believe that they have the right to be autonomous.

What connections do you see between your case and the struggle in Nahuatzen with other Indigenous political prisoners, struggles for autonomy, and the state’s policy of repression?

The connection is always the same. To give, to give everything, with all your heart, with all the desire in the world, so that your children, and the children of your children, have a better future, have a better structure, better work, better education, better schools. And that their parents have a job, a salary, an economy, that our community has a stable economy. Let me tell you that right now, of the one-hundred percent of community members in Nahuatzen, twenty percent have money, and eighty percent don’t have it. Our idea, my ideology, is that within two or three years, if allowed to work as we should, eighty percent will have money and twenty percent will be lacking it.

I believe that as long as you don’t let your guard down, as long as you have breath in your body and your heart is beating, you should not stop fighting, because it is an honor to be a fighter for your people, for your community.

Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?

Look, just that this question of autonomy has a lot to it. But yes, I’d like to add that we became the safest community in the state of Michoacán, because we took care of ourselves, we protected ourselves. Let me tell you that we, in the four months that we had the opportunity to work and with the resources that were given to us at the time, we completed more public works than political parties did in seventy years in the community. We put the sewage system underground, we brought electricity to nine areas, the most abandoned ones, we put in four streets, we created more than 300 jobs. So, I think that this is a very strong social and communal movement. A source of pride for all of us should be that we are Indigenous people and we showed that [it’s not true] that being Indigenous we didn’t know how to govern, that we couldn’t govern. I think that the government was wrong to confront us instead of helping us, to not give us the opportunity given to us by the Supreme Court when they decided to grant us autonomy. They, at the federal level, trusted in us, and we are not letting them down.

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Scott Campbell is the author of the "Insumisión," which was a featured column on It's Going Down and currently writes news and analysis on social movements and struggles, with an eye towards Mexico.

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