Officers called in for S. Mexico riots

12 killed in 5-month siege in tourist city

October 29, 2006|By New York Times News Service

OAXACA, Mexico -- Hundreds of federal riot police officers and soldiers took up positions outside this besieged tourist city in southern Mexico yesterday, poised to end an increasingly violent protest that has shut the downtown for five months and left a dozen people dead.

Tension hung heavily in the air as night fell. Protesters appeared to be digging in at the barricades that they had constructed around town from sand bags, old tires, barbed wire and burned-out vehicles.

The federal government issued a statement ordering the protesters to "immediately hand over streets, plazas, public buildings and private property" so that officials could "guarantee public order and adherence to the law, as well as preserve respect for the population's individual guarantees."

But the protesters' response was blunt.

"We're going to resist the attack," declared Florentino Lopez, spokesman for the Oaxaca People's Popular Assembly, or APPO, a loose coalition of interests that has laid siege to the city's central square, taken over radio stations and defaced much of the town with protest messages.

President Vicente Fox, in his final month in office, ordered the federal troops in yesterday after three people, including a New York photographer, were killed in Oaxaca the evening before. The photographer, Bradley Roland Will, 36, who was shot twice in the abdomen, was a well-known activist in New York.

The crisis in Oaxaca began in May when schoolteachers went on strike, an annual exercise that had usually led to a pay raise. But when Ulises Ruiz, the governor of Oaxaca state, ordered the protests broken up, leftists came to the teachers' aid.

"The roots of a revolution are gestating in Oaxaca," says Zenen Bravo Castellanos, a schoolteacher who is head of the Revolutionary Popular Front, one group leading the protests. "The people of Oaxaca are tired of so many corrupt governments."

After five months of standoff, with occasional bursts of violence, Fox's patience apparently ended with the latest deaths. It was not clear, however, whether the federal troops intended to take over Oaxaca by force or to merely put pressure on the protesters to continue the months-long negotiations to end the impasse.

The teachers have reached a deal to return to classes, although some glitches remain. The other protesters, however, have vowed to continue to control the town until Ruiz resigns.

The Oaxaca attorney general, Lizbeth Cana, labeled the protesters urban guerrillas and said it was understandable that local people were lashing out at them violently. "The people are fed up with permanent violence, threats and kidnappings," she said, according to the Associated Press. But the mayor of a nearby town said the five men being detained for possible involvement in Will's killing were not disgruntled ordinary local citizens but police officers and local officials.

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