The crisis peaked Saturday when federal police battled with masked youths hurling Molotovs, fireworks, and rocks. The violence followed a peaceful march by thousands seeking the removal of federal forces occupying the city. More than 150 people were arrested and dozens injured during the clashes, including a journalist who got nailed in the head with a tear gas canister, and at least 10 people were hit by live ammunition, according to a local human rights group. Government offices, hotels, and cars were set ablaze.
It was the worst violence in Oaxaca in the six months since members of the protest coalition APPO (Oaxaca People’s Popular Assembly) began demanding the removal of the state’s governor Ulises Ruiz, whom they claim was fraudulently elected.
Indymedia reports that both federal police and bands of armed gunmen fired on the demonstrators, and at one point APPO sympathizers returned fire.
Now APPO is claiming six demonstrators were killed and their bodies taken by police. State officials insist no one died. But independent journalist John Gibler reports that bands of armed men entered hospitals in the city and allegedly removed wounded protesters at gunpoint.
Meanwhile, leaders of APPO have gone into hiding as both federal and state authorities pledged to hold them criminally accountable for what’s been estimated as $27 million worth of damage to this historic city—including the State Superior Court (Tribunal Superior de Justicia), whose offices were gutted by flames, a prominent theater, and a 19th century building listed as a world heritage site.
Arrest warrants have been issued for 200 activists, and contingents of elite riot police in ski masks are reportedly raiding people’s homes. “People are being grabbed off the street and put into trucks and disappeared,” one American in Oaxaca, who asked not to be named, told the Voice. “All the internationals are leaving town.”
The fear and confusion over the missing and as yet unverified dead protesters does not bode well for those hoping to get to the bottom of Brad Will’s murder.
The violence erupted Saturday after thousands of APPO demonstrators attempted to peacefully surround the battalions of federal police occupying the city’s central square. (Pictures here.)
But clearly some in the crowd were ready for a showdown.
Free Speech Radio News had this particularly descriptive account:
The protesters donned wooden shields, construction helmets, and vinegar-laden maxi-pads to resist tear gas, used homemade bazookas, Molotov cocktails, rocks, and slingshots to fend off the ensuing barrage of concussion grenades, tear gas, and marbles from behind police lines.
Yes, that’s right, maxi-pads, and the police in Mexico apparently use marbles and slingshots, too.
Things got much uglier as the police unleashed water cannon, pepper spray, and heavy doses of tear gas, rounding up and reportedly beating many marchers. Driven back from the square, bands of masked youth rampaged through the streets, hurling rocks and firebombing banks, hotels, restaurants, shops, and government buildings, and torching numerous cars and buses.
Hundreds of buildings were damaged.
APPO leaders conceded they lost control of the protest and have since blamed the fires on “provocateurs” and “hitmen in the service of Ruiz” seeking to discredit the protest movement.
Governor Ruiz, in turn, blamed the destruction on the leadership of APPO and “radicals from Mexico City” as well as other “outside” agitators. Ruiz has refused to step down from office despite pressure from Mexico’s Congress. (He’s said only God can make him go). He called on outgoing president president Vicente Fox to rout the “delinquents” who are “terrorizing” his city.
Human rights groups, however, have accused the governor of backing paramilitary-style assaults on APPO demonstrators by plain-clothes gunmen tied to Ruiz’s party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Prior to last weekend, at least a dozen people had been killed, including Will, whose shooting helped trigger the federal occupation.
On Sunday, two more APPO activists were seized by gunmen in plain clothes during a press conference called to denounce the disappearance of a student.
Now rights groups are calling for U.N. and Red Cross officials to intervene to prevent further human rights abuses.
Federal police have pledged to put an end to the uprising by December 1, when the new Mexican president Felipe Calderon takes office. “Our tolerance has been exhausted,” the commander declared. Already, some 140 of those arrested have been shipped out of state to a federal prison in the northern state of Nayarit.
But others say they don’t foresee things getting back to normal in Oaxaca any time soon. “There are deep, deep wounds, and generalized terror that is going to be hard to recover from,” says Emilie Smith, an Anglican priest who works with the indigenous rights group CIPO in Oaxaca. “The sense in the city is one of sullen, terrifying occupation.”