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Mexican farm-workers activist, 14 others slain

Margarito Montes Parra, who had styled himself as a modern-day Zapata, made many enemies as he helped farm workers in land disputed. His convoy was ambushed in Sonora.

November 01, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — A flamboyant farmworker organizer who called himself a modern-day Emiliano Zapata has been slain in a brazen ambush that also killed 14 members of his family and staff, officials said Saturday.

Prosecutors in the border state of Sonora, where the slayings occurred, said they were investigating a number of possible motives. Sonora, like much of Mexico, has been hit by a wave of killings tied to drug-trafficking gangs.

The union leader, Margarito Montes Parra, was killed in the southern part of Sonora bordering the state of Sinaloa, a major center for the production and transport of marijuana and heroin.

The farmers whom Montes represented often find themselves trapped in the drug war, with traffickers forcing them to work illicit crops. But Montes also had chalked up numerous enemies in tumultuous land disputes over more than two decades.

Montes, his wife and two children were traveling in a small convoy with at least 11 other relatives and staff members to a rural hacienda Friday afternoon when they were ambushed by several assailants armed with large-caliber weapons, investigators said. All 15 were shot to death, they said.

Red Cross workers arrived at the scene to find bullet-riddled bodies on the side of the road. There were reports that three people in the group had survived.

The killings sent a chill through peasant activist groups that often have a testy relationship with the Mexican government. Several organizations joined Saturday to demand a thorough investigation "to the final consequences" and to ask for protection for leaders.

"This was an attack not just against a union leader but against the work we do," said Norma Patino, an official with COCYP, an umbrella group of peasant and popular organizations. "This hurts the work of all of us."

Montes was the head of the General Popular Union of Workers and Farmers, which has tens of thousands of members. He has led peasants and squatters in claims for vast chunks of countryside, disputes that have on occasion turned violent.

A university-educated engineer, Montes got his start in the late 1980s, and quickly rose to prominence, styling himself after Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary land reform hero, and recovering thousands of acres of property for union members.

His enemies, including major landowners, branded him a thuggish thief. And other critics who at one time shared his goals of agrarian reform complain that Montes became the kind of rural chieftain that he had long challenged. At the time of his death, he owned properties that included a thoroughbred horse ranch.

Montes was always aware of the wrath he inspired and the dangers that it brought. Before Friday's killings, he had already lost a son and a brother to violence.

Landowners "certainly have participated in press campaigns against me and conspired in meetings where they said they must eliminate the cancer that I represent," Montes told The Times in 1991, after his brother's death.

"I carry a gun because they carry a gun."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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