MEXICO CITY — Gunmen assaulted a truck on a mountain road in southern Mexico, killing 26 Zapotec Indian forestry workers in a region plagued by bloody disputes over land, officials said Saturday.
The Friday evening massacre was believed to be the worst recorded in 15 years in the violence-prone state of Oaxaca. Law enforcement officials said the killers, who escaped, were apparently motivated by a feud over 27,000 acres of timberland and cornfields.
Investigators said the victims, all young men, had crowded into the truck's open-topped cargo section after a day of logging pine and were riding toward their homes in the community of Santiago Xochiltepec. The Oaxaca state attorney general's office said an armed gang forced the truck to a halt about 7 p.m., ordered the driver to leave the area and opened fire on the passengers from a ridge above a road.
"They died in an ambush," Oaxaca Police Commander Jonas Gutierrez Coro said.
Two of the 28 riders in the back of the truck were wounded and taken to a hospital in Oaxaca city, the state capital.
Oaxaca's attorney general, Sergio Santibanez, led a team of 184 police officers and investigators to the ambush site, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. The state's governor, Jose Murat, ordered "the most exhaustive investigation into these lamentable events" and the arrest of the killers.
Alberto Antonio Perez, who was driving the truck, is assisting in the probe, police said.
The feud that apparently prompted the killing pitted Santiago Xochiltepec and its 1,000 Zapotec Indians against a nearby Spanish-speaking village, Santo Domingo de Teojomulco, that is four times its size.
Froylan Juarez, a logger from Santiago Xochiltepec, said a Oaxaca court ruled in favor of the indigenous community in the dispute March 6. Two weeks later, he said, the village came under fire by gunmen from the rival settlement.
"They are trying to threaten us so that we give up defending our land, and now they have carried out this horrible massacre," Juarez said by telephone.
Violent disputes over land, which in part gave rise to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, are still common in large areas of the countryside.
They have persisted despite a massive redistribution of large estates to peasant farmers in the middle decades of the 20th century--a program that has been abandoned.
Competition for land is especially intense in Oaxaca's densely populated mountain valleys. Human rights groups have faulted the government for taking sides in some disputes or at least failing to police the feuding communities.