Wednesday, November 15, 2006

August 22, 2006: Protesters in southern Mexico seize 12 radio stations, block highways, bus terminals

The picturesque colonial city of Oaxaca sank further into chaos on Monday as protesters armed with machetes, pipes and clubs seized 12 private radio stations, cut off highways, and blockaded bus terminals and newspaper offices.

The smell of uncollected garbage and tires burning at barricades hung over the city, a popular tourist destination, and some businesses ran short of water after demonstrators refused to allow water trucks into central Oaxaca.

About 3,000 leftists and striking teachers wielding machetes and clubs marched through the city, demanding punishment for an early morning assault in which unidentified gunmen shot up a state-owned radio station that has been occupied since Aug. 1.

Protesters said a male teacher was wounded and taken to a hospital, but the extent of his injuries was not immediately known

The state government denied it had anything to do with the attack, which also damaged equipment. Protesters have used the facility to broadcast their demands for the resignation of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz.

Some 70,000 public school teachers went on strike May 22 to demand salary increases totaling about US$125 million (euro97 million), but the government said it couldn't afford that and counter-offered with less than a tenth of that amount.

The protesters have since expanded their demands to include the resignation of Ruiz, whom they accuse of rigging the state election in 2004 and of using force to repress dissent. Ruiz belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed the state since 1929.

The teachers refused to halt their three-month-old strike to allow 1.3 million students to return to classes Monday, the start of the new school year.

Private schools remained closed too, after one of the stations broadcast a warning to parents over a seized FM frequency: "You are running a risk by taking your children to school, to all the private schools."

"For the safety of your children, it would be better not to take them to school," the female voice continued.

The morning attack apparently prompted protesters to seize the other stations, all privately owned. The protesters still controlled all 12 stations late Monday, airing live speeches carrying leftist themes.

Radio station owners urged the Mexican government to send federal police to restore order.

"We consider (the takeovers) an action aimed at silencing the media in Oaxaca," said Oaxaca Media Association spokesman Jose Manuel Angel Villareal. "There cannot be just one voice, one truth in the media."

President Vicente Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said the federal government is monitoring the situation but did not plan to intervene, leaving the issue up to the state.

The government of Oaxaca issued a statement expressing "concern about the attacks on news media and journalists," and saying it had handed relevant information to state prosecutors. Ruiz's government has taken little action in recent weeks as protesters seized buses, blocked businesses and shut down roads and highways.

Also Monday, the demonstrators a mix of striking teachers trade unionists and leftists cut off all the main avenues in Oaxaca's center, burned several vehicles and blockaded the offices of two newspapers, two bus companies and a television station.

Teachers took to the airwaves to denounce officials, intellectuals, the news media and others they say have refused to support their cause.

"We're fed up with neoliberalism," one said, using a term for free-market economics. "We are fed up with gringo ecotourism."

The state capital of Oaxaca City, 520 kilometers (325 miles) southeast of Mexico City, attracts thousands of Mexican and foreign tourists each year with its colonial architecture and local Indian crafts. But tourism has suffered as the city's center remains paralyzed.

The protests have erupted in violence on several occasions, and one demonstrator was shot dead earlier this month.

Media outlets also have been attacked by alleged pro-government sympathizers. Earlier this month, gunmen opened fire inside the offices of a newspaper critical of the state government, wounding at least two people.

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