Monday, January 8, 2007

October 25, 2006: Protests erode the rule of law in Mexico's Oaxaca state

With virtually no police in the streets, residents of this colonial town in rebellion are stepping in to fill the void often with brutal consequences.

People accused of being thieves are tied to light posts and beaten, one home was torched and a man was stabbed to death with an ice pick as five months of protests erode the rule of law in what was once a major Mexican tourist destination.

The beating of Manuel Dominguez was the latest example of how far Oaxaca has spun out of control as mobs of striking teachers, farmers and other protesters demand that Gov. Ulises Ruiz step down. They accuse Ruiz of rigging the 2004 election to win office and of repressing dissent with violence.

Late Tuesday, about 50 people stripped off Dominguez's T-shirt, lashed him to a pole and beat him nearly unconscious. They accused Dominguez, who works as a security guard at a local jail, of trying to rob a house. The crowd left him tied up overnight, finally turning him over to the few police left in town early Wednesday.

For police commander Aristeo Lopez, it was just another public beating. Lopez acknowledged he didn't know how the guard was doing nearly 12 hours after the attack.

"We haven't had time to check what happened to him," he said.

Because there are no police patrols, masked and armed protesters roam the streets, seizing anyone they suspect of criminal activity.

Often, they grab young men accused of trying to commit various crimes, tie them up for hours and beat them.

The conflict began in June, when police attacked striking teachers in the city's colonial center. Protesters rebelled, forcing police and other state authorities out of downtown, taking over television and radio outlets and scaring away tourists drawn to the region by its colonial architecture, Indian culture and handicrafts such as brightly colored wool rugs and black pottery.

The state government has repeatedly asked federal authorities to send in troops, but President Vicente Fox has instead tried to broker peace negotiations that have made little progress.

The conflict comes at the end of Fox's six-year term, which has been marked by protests that spun out of control while the president has watched, reluctant to crack down for fear of provoking more violence.

On Wednesday, teachers said they would release the results of a vote to end a strike that has kept about 1.3 million students out of school for months.

Some teachers have defied the union and opened schools, but masked protesters often block children and their parents from returning to classes.

At the Francisco Zarco school, some parents armed with sticks and metal pipes have kept guard outside to keep protesters away.

Early this week at the same school, as a machete-wielding masked man kept children from entering, 8-year-old Luis Carlos Matus asked his mother: "Mama, don't the protesters like children?"

Many worry they could inadvertently become victims.

"We are afraid that the protesters will get confused and kill us," said Ana Maria Cruz, interviewed outside the school.

On Oct. 5, a teacher opposed to the strike, Jaime Rene Calvo Aragon, was killed by two assailants who stabbed him in the neck with an ice pick. His attackers are still at large.

Four others have been killed by police or armed groups in other violence.

In August, protesters set fire to a house after the owners began arguing with a demonstrator who was urinating outside the home. The demonstrator rallied a mob by accusing the occupants of the home of trying to attack him, and the crowd responded by torching the house. The occupants escaped unharmed, but the house was destroyed.

Protesters have attacked about 20 police officers, beating them and accusing them of crimes before handing them over to authorities. Lino Celaya, Oaxaca state security secretary, said none of them was found to have broken the law.

The conflict seems to be far from over. Protesters have pledged to block highways, beef up blockades and boycott commercial centers this Friday. If Ruiz doesn't step down, they say they will try to keep President-elect Felipe Calderon from taking office on Dec. 1.

Ruiz has refused to leave office.

"I'm not going to cancel my visits. I take care not to hurt other people but there are a lot of people who want to see me," he told The Associated Press. "I have killed nobody. My hands are clean."

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