Police surround besieged Mexican city after shooting deaths

Click to follow
The Independent US

Leftist protesters who have blocked highways and taken over Oaxaca City refused to surrender their barricades of tree trunks and hijacked tractor-trailers yesterday, even as federal police in riot gear approached the city.

The five-month-old takeover of the city staggered toward a climax, with federal officials implying law and order should be restored on Monday - when thousands of striking teachers are scheduled to return to classes - even as the some strikers and their leftist supporters outlined a plan for street-by-street resistance.

Officials said police had begun to enter the city and remove barricades, and reporter saw about a half-dozen federal police trucks equipped with water cannon and bulldozer blades taking up positions on a highway about 100 yards from the entrance to Oaxaca City on Sunday morning.

Dozens of officers with riot shields and batons established a line in front of the trucks, as protesters angrily shouted "Army out!"

"They're going to kill us. It's not fair," said Juana Garcia, a 48-year-old housewife. "We can't do anything, we have no weapons."

But a few blocks away protesters prepared their defense, putting up a makeshift barricade and tossing mounds of fist-size stones into pickup trucks, apparently to distribute to supporters.

"We are calling on all our colleagues, and all the people, to stay firmly on the barricades," protest leader Roberto Garcia said late on Saturday. "But we are also categorically stating that we don't want to clash with the federal forces."

Garcia also said the resignation or removal of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz was "nonnegotiable." Ruiz, whom the protesters accuse of corruption, has refused to resign, despite clashes that have left at least eight dead.

The atmosphere remained tense yesterday, with the protesters' radio station issuing calls to reinforce the barricades, and repeating unconfirmed reports of federal police advancing on the city.

Earlier, the Interior Department issued an ominous statement demanding protesters "immediately hand over streets, plazas, public buildings and private property" they have seized since late May, when the teachers went on strike for pay increases.

Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal said on Saturday that "the use of public force is a legitimate recourse." But while department officials said no police operation would occur Sunday, they offered no such guarantee for Monday, and said police action could occur if there was another violent incident like Friday's killing of a U.S. activist-journalist and two local residents.

The protesters estimated that around 4,000 federal police, many clad in riot gear, had taken up positions around the edges of the city and were waiting for a pretext to enter from several points. The police were seen arriving at the airport in Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, but there was no official confirmation of their number.

Protest sympathizers gathered on Saturday in the nearly deserted, graffiti-smeared main plaza - the arch-ringed square normally abuzz with tourists and vendors - to mourn Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, who was killed during a shootout between protesters and men they claim were local officials in Santa Lucia del Camino, on Oaxaca's outskirts.

Will, whose body was laid out in a white shirt and a glass-topped coffin at a funeral parlor near the square, was remembered as a video and documentary-maker devoted to the protesters' cause. Will was a volunteer for Indymedia.org, an independent Web-based media organization and sold video on a freelance basis.

"He was very much engaged in the fight of the teachers and the poor people in this country," said Hinrich Schultze, of Hamburg, Germany, who wrote for a similar internet site.

In a statement, Will's family said it was "grieving over the tragic and senseless loss of Brad's life."

"Brad's friends and family admired his brave support for the downtrodden and willingness to act tirelessly upon his convictions. We believe he died doing what he loved," it said.

Oaxaca resident Esteban Zurrita was also shot dead Friday and the bullet-ridden body of another man, Emilio Alonso Fabian, was discovered about two miles away.

U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said in a statement that those who shot Will may have been Oaxaca police, and the Mexico City newspaper El Universal published photos Saturday identifying some of the men firing at protesters as local officials.

Mayor Manuel Martinez Feria of Santa Lucia del Camino said five men who appeared in news photos brandishing pistols had been turned over to state officials for investigation into possible involvement in Will's killing. He identified them as two members of Santa Lucia's city council, two of that town's police officers and a former justice of the peace from another town.

Local police officers - often out of uniform - have staged sporadic attacks on protesters, who themselves have been blamed in at least one death; at least five other people have been killed in previous attacks.