Isthmus at the Crossroads

The grisly murders of 15 Iko’ots activists in July 2020 created a wave of backlash that pitted community leaders against one another and threatens to undermine communal governance structures among one of Mexico’s most unintegrated Indigenous groups.

The mystery surrounding the origins of the Iko’ots people is that no one knows when, why, or how they came to southern Oaxaca, but everyone seems to agree they arrived from somewhere else. There is speculation that they sailed from El Centro—a vague allusion to Central America, Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, or as far south as coastal Ecuador or Peru. Alejandro Castaneira, an anthropologist who has worked with the Iko’ots for decades, explains that oral histories hold that the earliest voyagers “arrived by sea, looking to the earth.” He is deferential when discussing his opinion and his investigations into the origins of the Iko’ots because “anthropologists research and write encyclopedias about things that Indigenous people already know.”

wooden Huave boat docked on the sand
Artisanal Huave fiota sailboat carved from Guanacaste wood sits on the shores of Mar Tiempe near San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca. Photograph courtesy of FAMSI © 2008: Alejandro Castaneira Yee Ben.

Questions around the origins of the Iko’ots persist, in part, because they speak a unique language isolate, which means it represents its own language family; but also due to scant evidence that would indicate the Iko’ots were in fact a seafaring people. They do not use sails or build deep hulled boats. Nor do they fish the deep waters of the Pacific, preferring to harvest their sustenance near the shores of Laguna Superior, the shallow inland sea that comprises their homeland, and cast their lines and nets off the sandspit that protects the lagoon from the ocean. Castaneira offers no definitive answer; he speculates with reason that they could have migrated overland or hitched a ride with others on boats.

Many centuries ago, the Iko’ots were labeled Huaves (“People of the Mud”) by their Zapotec neighbours, who arrived at Laguna Superior sometime after them. There is some debate as to the accuracy of this story as well, but the exonym seems appropriate given that the Iko’ots inhabit four isolated fishing villages on the edge of a muddy lagoon that stretches 80 kilometres from the southern coast of Oaxaca into Chiapas.

Castaneira stresses that what is critical to understand about the Iko’ots is the fierceness with which they defend their lands. The Iko’ots have a long history of guarding their territory against violent internal invasions from the Aztec and Zapotec—even prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, when foreign incursion began to more closely resemble ethnocide. For the past five centuries, colonizers have sought to extract profit from Laguna Superior, but only recently have railroads, wind farms, and oil pipelines encroached directly on their lands. Resistance to these intrusions has remained consistent, despite the relentless onslaught.

map of the Huave's lagoon area painted on cotton
The Lienzo de Huilotepec cotton map depicts the land routes between lagoons on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Photograph: Juan Giner Vilchis for the Project Paso Mareño with the authorization of the Museum of Culture, Oaxaca

Herein lies the fundamental problem facing the Iko’ots and the broader Indigenous populations of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec: how do you resist an invading force that sees no value in your basic existence without employing reciprocal violence?

Oaxaca is the only state in Mexico that recognizes the assembly-based “cargo system” of local governance, in which communally-elected, Indigenous representatives without major party affiliations serve in official capacities. At its inception the cargo system was a structure of proxy governance implemented by Spanish colonizers to maintain order over new territorial acquisitions that they did not yet understand how to subjugate. Over generations, the cargo system was integrated into the more horizontal Indigenous practices of collective decision-making and evolved into a merit-based system in which political capital was attained throughout a lifetime of incremental, concentrated periods of social service. The traditions ensure that elders are forged into respected community leaders, not granted power through birth right.

Although communally-based governance structures have enabled the Iko’ots to mobilize resistance to the dispossession of their territory, disruptive and divisive factions within Indigenous assemblies have enabled an amalgamation of transnational corporations, cartels, paramilitaries, corrupt officials and workers’ unions to obfuscate business deals and negotiate tenuous social relations in the isthmus. Amidst the confusion and differences of opinion, developers stoke internal tensions and manipulate socioeconomic vulnerabilities, employing confidence schemes, intimidation tactics, or sheer force to acquire land and ensure contracts are signed.

In July 2020, the bodies of 15 Indigenous Iko’ots were found beaten, shot in the head, and burned in what bore the markings of an all-too-familiar cartel execution. While the grisly murders remain unsolved and the motive unclear, the circumstances have raised questions regarding the involvement of the organized crime syndicates who guard the wind farms in the region.

It has been reported that a faction of Iko’ots serving in the municipal government attempted to override the authority of the presiding Indigenous assembly, which had voiced opposition to all wind farm development on the strip of high ground that shields the lagoon from the open ocean. Large-scale construction, the assembly determined, would irrevocably decimate local fishing grounds and negatively impact the livelihoods of trading communities.

Oil Refinery near Paso Mareño.

The July massacre seems to foreshadow that mounting tensions with the potential to erupt into violent flash points should President Lopez Obrador’s administration expedite the construction of the Transistmico and local communities be denied meaningful consultation. Thousands of national guard troops have been positioned in hot zones ostensibly to respond to the migrant caravans coming from Central America. Soldiers, however, have also been conspicuously employed to quell community backlash against the project across the state of Oaxaca.

In the months after the discovery of the mass grave, concerns circulated widely among activists and assembly members that the land and future of the Iko’ots is under threat from entities that have demonstrated a complete lack of respect and an unbridled capacity for violence. The only guiding principle of the cabal is mas capital, at any and all ecological and human cost.

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