Police Ordered to Oaxaca After 3 Killings in Strike

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 29, 2006

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 28 -- President Vicente Fox on Saturday ordered federal police to seize control of strike-ravaged Oaxaca de Juarez, a popular tourist destination where a U.S. journalist was among three people killed Friday.

Despite pressure from Oaxaca's tourist industry, Fox had been reluctant to intervene in a five-month conflict that has pitted the governor of the state of Oaxaca against a coalition of citizen groups and striking teachers demanding his ouster. But the shooting death of Brad Will, 36, a volunteer correspondent for the Web site Indymedia.org, and two Mexican protesters prompted the president to respond with force for the first time.

Several Mexican newspapers published front-page photographs of the mortally wounded Will lying in the street with blood trailing from a gunshot wound in his stomach. Photographs also showed rifle-wielding men in civilian clothes roaming the streets. Indymedia, citing a witness account, said Will was pulled to safety after being shot but died before reaching the hospital.

Strikers blamed the killings on plainclothes paramilitary members affiliated with Gov. Ulises Ruiz's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The governor's office accused members of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO, an umbrella group that includes union members and indigenous groups that have joined the teachers' protest.

Fox did not say how many federal police he planned to send to Oaxaca. Officers began arriving there by plane Saturday. In a statement, he said the mobilization was a response to events that threaten "the order and peace of citizens in the region."

Strike leaders reinforced barricades and vowed not to budge.

"These forces coming here are only going to make things worse," Florentino López Martínez, an APPO organizer, said in a telephone interview from downtown Oaxaca. "This is not a solution to the problem."

Mexican presidents are often reluctant to use force because federal officers have been accused in the past of inciting violence, most notably during student protests before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Nonetheless, Fox ordered federal police to take over the city of Nuevo Laredo last year to quell an outburst of drug violence.

In Oaxaca de Juarez, the teachers' protest is an annual rite that began 26 years ago. The protests are usually peaceful and generally last a week or two, but this year the teachers became infuriated when Ruiz sent hundreds of police to forcefully remove demonstrators from the city's idyllic squares. APPO soon took on a greater role in the demonstrations, pushing an agenda of economic, social and political reform in Mexico's second-poorest state.

The demonstrations have left the region a shambles and scared away the tourists who are the foundation of the city's economy. Death estimates during the strike range from nine to 14, and APPO leaders say that more than a dozen of their members have disappeared. Countless downtown businesses have closed, buses have been set on fire, demonstrators have barricaded themselves in government buildings and protest blockades have cut off main thoroughfares. At times in the past five months, residents have been warned not to leave their homes. Shots have been fired at a university radio station, and more than a million students have been unable to attend classes.

"The city is practically kidnapped by all this," Luz Divina Sarate, a Ruiz spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. "The people are tired of this."

Friday's shootings at several flash points in and around Oaxaca de Juarez took place despite signs of progress in negotiations with the striking teachers. Last week, teachers tentatively ratified an agreement that would allow them to return to classes at some unspecified date and receive 30 percent raises spread over six years.

But their unmet central demand -- the resignation of Ruiz -- threatened to undermine the fragile pact. Even as Friday's deaths reignited passions Saturday, federal negotiators continued to meet with teachers union leaders in Mexico City.

The spike in violence also seemed to suggest that there will be a long wait before Oaxaca's stunning colonial streets are once again crawling with camera-toting tourists. After the shootings, the U.S. ambassador in Mexico, Tony Garza, warned Americans to stay away.

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