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Mexican forces converge on Oaxaca city

Fox sends soldiers and police to try to end a standoff between striking teachers and the governor's backers.

October 29, 2006|Sam Enriquez and Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writers

OAXACA, MEXICO — Federal riot police and soldiers toting shields and automatic weapons massed around this beleaguered colonial city Saturday in a bid to end a five-month standoff between striking teachers and supporters of state Gov. Ulises Ruiz, amid escalating violence that included the Friday shooting deaths of a U.S. journalist and two Mexican men.

But by Saturday evening, there were signs that both the protesters and federal officials might be stepping back from a confrontation that has caused at least nine deaths and paralyzed Oaxaca city, the state capital, since the strike began in May.

Hundreds of army troops and officers of the Federal Preventive Police began arriving here Saturday morning by plane and bus. They were dispatched by President Vicente Fox, who for months had resisted calls by Ruiz and Oaxacan businessmen for the federal government to intervene directly to end the occupation of Oaxaca by the striking teachers and an umbrella protest group, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, known by its Spanish-language initials APPO.

Some APPO members had pledged to fight to the death to maintain the occupation. In recent days the group has barricaded city streets with tree trunks, sandbags and overturned buses and vans.

But APPO leader Flavio Sosa, reached late Saturday night, indicated that his group would continue to maintain its barricades but would not fight back if the federal forces attempted to dismantle them.

"We're going to maintain our barricades in the city. If the PFP wants to clear them, let them clear them," he said, referring to the federal police. "We won't resist, but tomorrow we'll march to show our disapproval for the presence" of the federal police and troops.

Sosa said the group was willing to attend negotiations.

"We'll go together with the striking teachers. We'll continue with our movement demanding Ulises Ruiz step down, and we'll state our disapproval of the PFP's presence," he said.

About the same time Saturday night, Arturo Chavez Chavez, deputy secretary of state, said at a Mexico City news conference that the federal forces had been sent only to prevent more violence and were not "contemplating any type of action" on Saturday or today.

He also said that the Oaxaca union representing the 70,000 striking teachers had agreed that they would return to their classrooms Monday.

As darkness fell, many streets were virtually deserted as businesses shuttered their storefronts and fearful residents hunkered down inside their homes.

The smell of burning wood and rubber hung in the air, and a local radio station operated by the protesters urged people to resist any takeover attempt by police and the army. About 200 to 300 protesters gathered in the Zocalo, or central square, listening to impassioned speeches exhorting them to stick together in opposing the federal forces.

'They can shoot me'

But on the city's periphery, the resistance appeared to be minimal. Only about 50 protesters were massed along the main highway that connects the central city to the airport, in contrast to the thousands who had taken part in previous actions. Some carried tree branches for self-defense. Twenty-four Coke bottles filled with gasoline stood at the ready.

"They can shoot me, they can kill me," one elderly male protester said.

At nightfall, it was still unclear how many police officers had taken up positions in and around the capital.

Protesters estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 police had arrived, but federal officials refused to confirm those numbers.

Carlos Abascal, Mexico's interior minister, said Saturday night that the federal police had been sent to maintain civic order, not to take sides or "to curtail the freedom of expression or the liberty of demonstrating of all Oaxacans."

Late Saturday afternoon, the federal government issued an ultimatum demanding that APPO leaders "immediately hand over streets, plazas, public buildings and private property" so that federal authorities could "guarantee public order and adherence to the law."

Fox's decision to send federal police came one week after the state's teachers tentatively agreed to return to work in exchange for a 30% raise over six years. On average, Oaxacan elementary school teachers earn about $600 a month.

U.S. journalist killed

The decision also was made just hours after the death of Bradley Roland Will, 36, a New York City political activist and photojournalist with Independent Media Center, or Indymedia, an Internet-based alternative news agency, who had been in the region for four weeks documenting the conflict with photographs and video.

Will was shot in the abdomen Friday afternoon while attempting to conduct interviews at a street barricade and died en route to the hospital, according to witnesses and Indymedia's website.

Some witnesses said that Will was shot by a plainclothes undercover policeman.

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