Monday, January 8, 2007

October 27, 2006: Teachers vote to end strike in besieged southern Mexican state

Teachers in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca voted to end a five-month-old strike that has kept 1.3 million children out of classes, potentially taking the sting out of anti-government protests besieging this historic city.

Just over 31,000 union members voted Thursday to end the walkout, union secretary Ezequiel Rosales announced in a meeting at a Oaxaca hotel. More than 20,000 voted to continue the strike.

However, Rosales said union leaders still need to meet with officials from the federal Interior Department to discuss conditions for a return to classes. Among the conditions, he said, was the guarantee of security for returning teachers, who fear reprisals from supporters of the governor of Oaxaca who the teachers have been seeking to oust.

Rosales also said the union wanted the government to release some teachers who have been incarcerated during the protests. He did not say how many teachers are in prison.

President Vicente Fox applauded the decision to end the strike.

"This makes me very happy, because the teachers have shown perseverance and today, through dialogue, we have reached this decision. That is very important," Fox told reporters in the Mexican resort of Cancun.

Striking teachers have been camped out in Oaxaca's colonial center since May when they first walked out to demand higher pay and better working conditions.

After police attacked one of their demonstrations in June, they extended their demands to include a call for the resignation of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz. They were joined by leftists, students and Indian groups who accuse Ruiz of rigging the 2004 election to win office and sending groups of thugs to attacks his opponents.

Protesters built makeshift barricades, burned buses, chased the police out of town and took over radio stations. Police and armed gangs led sporadic attacks on the protesters and five people have been killed.

Authorities have said hope that the situation will improve when teachers return to work.

However, the protesters that joined the teachers have formed a group called the Oaxaca People's Assembly, which has promised to continue the effort to oust the governor.

On Friday, the assembly plans to blockade highways, beef up barricades and boycott commercial centers.

Earlier Thursday, masked protesters with machetes forced passengers off a city bus and set it ablaze.

Also Thursday, protesters retreated from one of the radio stations they seized in August. Protest leader Florentino Lopez said the government had disrupted the transmission and they were no longer able to broadcast their messages.

The lack of police patrols has led to a rise of vigilante justice, with armed groups of protesters and other residents roaming the streets and beating suspected criminals.

Ruiz has repeatedly asked federal authorities to send in troops, but President Vicente Fox has insisted in trying to solve the dispute through negotiations.

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