Two Forces Maintain Siege of Oaxaca

Oaxaca's Zocalo
Federal Police officers regroup at the Oaxaca's Zocalo, Monday, Oct. 30, 2006, in Mexico, after the Popular Assembly (APPO) members left the downtown on Sunday. (Guillermo Arias - AP)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

OAXACA, Mexico, Oct. 30 -- The men who weave wool into boldly patterned rugs don't bother coming here anymore. The little shops that sold sweet, grainy chocolate are boarded up.

Oaxaca, Mexico's colonial-era jewel, was almost unrecognizable Monday, a barely functioning city befouled by smoldering trash and the charred hulks of burned-out buses. Five months after teachers launched a strike for better pay, and two days after the arrival of federal police, Oaxaca is a place under siege by equally determined opposing forces.

Police outfitted with gas masks control the city square. Masked protesters armed with rocks control the rest. No one seems to know what will happen next.

The police say they are determined to restore order. But the demonstrators have voted not to budge until the Oaxaca state governor, Ulises Ruiz, steps down. Some business owners are hopeful that local lawmakers will be able to persuade Ruiz to resign and end the crisis. Both houses of Mexico's Congress passed a resolution Monday urging Ruiz to resign. But for now, the standoff is testing the resolve of a populist movement of poor Mexicans and bringing chaos to a city long known as a haven for tourists.

Oaxaca got to this point in flashes of gunfire Friday that killed two protesters and an independent American journalist and activist, Brad Will, who came here to support the teachers' strike. The shootings prompted Mexican President Vicente Fox to send in 4,500 federal police officers, who were met by a hail of rocks as they smashed through barricades and drove demonstrators out of the city square on Sunday.

Fox declared Monday that "today in Oaxaca social order and peace has been restored." But the president's declaration seemed out of sync with events on the ground.

Streets teemed with sweaty young men, some carrying medieval-looking clubs with nails jutting out of ax handles. Others collected rocks, for later use as weapons, in shopping carts. The few visitors to come here were dumped at taxi stands on the outskirts of the city's historic center because airport van drivers were afraid of getting hijacked.

Demonstrators control the university radio station, broadcasting a stream of political invective, protest songs and slogans. "The People United Will Never Be Defeated," their anthem, plays constantly.

Thousands of demonstrators spent hours under a wilting sun Monday taunting police, who stood 10 deep alongside armored vehicles to block the many streets leading into the city square.

"It smells like dogs," one protester screamed, drawing laughter from hundreds clumped on Cinco de Mayo, a street named in honor of Mexico's revolutionary spirit. The police just glared back, protected by helmets and thick plastic shields. At their feet were wooden crosses, smudged red by protesters who pricked their arms and squeezed out the blood.

While the standoff began as a teachers' strike, it has morphed into a political movement here in the second-poorest of Mexican states. Even as some teachers seem to be wavering in their resolve -- a few returned to work in outlying villages in the state Monday -- an umbrella group with an ambitious mission of social and economic reform has taken over. The group, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO, is also demanding the resignation of Ruiz, who infuriated teachers by using force to disband their annual protest five months ago.

On Monday, APPO activists waved their fists at the helicopters that constantly swept overhead, yelling, "Murderers!" They said two comrades were killed Sunday and more than a dozen had died since the protest began.

Farther up Cinco de Mayo, a young man wearing a bandanna spray-painted "Hoteliers are complicit with Ruiz" on the salmon-colored walls of the Camino Real, an exquisite convent-turned-hotel.

"These hotel people, all they want is repression. They're in league with the governor," said the man, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions in his small village.

Daniel Velasquez, the lone vendor in the once-bustling Plaza Antonio Labistida, watched it all and frowned.

"Oaxaca is hurting," he said. "Oaxaca is ugly."

On the wall to Velasquez's left, a sign invited people to a tour marking the Day of the Dead, an important Mexican holiday, on Wednesday. It was accompanied by a sign-up sheet. But there wasn't a single signature.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company