Police arrested the symbolic leader of a six-month protest movement that took over the southern city of Oaxaca and left at least nine dead, hours after he said at a news conference in Mexico City that he'd gone to the capital to negotiate a peaceful solution.
Flavio Sosa, whose heavyset, bearded presence became an emblem of the leftist Oaxaca People's Assembly, was arrested late Monday on charges related to the barricades, vandalism and irregular detentions carried out by some protesters.
"Sosa ... is known for his use of violence, damaging private property and public byways, and also burning vehicles and buildings in Oaxaca City," federal prosecutors said.
Sosa was charged with kidnapping, robbery, causing damages and injuries and taken to a maximum security prison just west of Mexico City that holds some of the nation's most dangerous prisoners.
Leaders of the Oaxaca People's Assembly, or APPO, have vowed to keep pressing for Gov. Ulises Ruiz's resignation and called for a "mega-march" Saturday to demand the release of Sosa and other protesters even as life there visibly returns to normal after burned-out vehicles and improvised barricades were removed from the streets.
Some residents warn that simmering discontent about poverty, injustice and oppression could erupt into violence again at any time.
Tomas Basaldu, Oaxacan state leader of Mexico's leftist Democratic Revolution Party, said he was meeting with the protesters.
"We will take action in the next few days," he said. "We won't lower our guard in backing the protesters."
The conflict began in late May as a strike by teachers seeking higher pay, but quickly exploded into a broader movement including Indian groups, students, farmers and myriad left-leaning activists claiming Ruiz rigged his electoral victory and has repressed opponents.
The conflict kept residents away from the city's historic center and forced nearly all the shops and restaurants to close their doors. Former President Vicente Fox in late October sent in federal troops, who cleared protesters from the streets.
Located about 325 miles southeast of Mexico City and featuring colonial architecture and Indian crafts, Oaxaca is one of the country's premier tourist destinations. But tourism plummeted amid the violence, which prompted the U.S. and several other foreign governments to warn their citizens against traveling to the city.
Before his arrest Monday, Sosa said he had come to Mexico City to try to re-establish negotiations with the government and to escape the "fierce persecution of the police and Ulises Ruiz' hit men," in Oaxaca.
Police called Sosa "the main leader" of the protest movement. Last month, he said everyone in the protest movement was equal "But my big beard and big stomach have made me become the favorite leader of the press and the police."
Sosa's brother, Horacio, was also arrested on unspecified charges.
Leaders who accompanied Sosa at the news conference said 220 protesters have been detained during the conflict, although police cite a figure of about 170. Protesters also claimed some detainees had been beaten, and that another 70 supporters of the movement are missing.
Among those killed in the protests was freelance video journalist from New York who was filming a clash between protesters and a group of armed men.
The violence seemed to come to a head last week when protesters set colonial-era buildings on fire, prompting police to begin arresting demonstrators. Many detainees have been transferred to a federal prison hundreds of miles away in Nayarit state, and many APPO leaders went into hiding after authorities issued warrants for their arrest.