Protesters vowing to fight to the death hauled massive tree trunks and used semitrailers to block highways leading into Oaxaca Saturday as federal police with riot shields and rifles poured out of planes, preparing to crush five months of violent unrest.
With neat piles of rocks behind them ready for confrontation should police try to storm town, the demonstrators left just one lane of the main highway into the city open and were only allowing taxis and other local traffic through.
Nearby, a sign trumpeted tourist attractions and proclaimed "Welcome to Oaxaca!" It was a stark reminder of how far this picturesque city has slid toward chaos in violent protests to oust the state governor.
Shop owners shuttered their businesses after President Vicente Fox ordered federal police to intervene. Fox, who leaves office Dec. 1, had refused repeated requests to use force in Oaxaca. But gunbattles Friday that killed a U.S. journalist and at least two Mexicans apparently exhausted his patience.
Fox's Interior Department issued an ominous statement late Saturday demanding protest leaders "immediately hand over streets, plazas, public buildings and private property" so that federal authorities can "guarantee public order and adherence to the law, as well as preserve respect for the population's individual guarantees."
It was unclear how many officers of the Federal Preventative Police were converging on this long popular tourist destination, though police in gray uniforms and carrying shields poured off of transport planes at Oaxaca's airport, which was closed to commercial traffic.
Teacher's union leader Daniel Rosas said protesters believed 4,000 federal police had arrived.
Mexican Deputy Interior Secretary Arturo Chavez said late Saturday that the police operation would not begin Saturday night or early Sunday. Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal later said the government was still willing to resolve the conflict through dialogue.
In unrest that began with a teacher strike for higher pay, leftists have blocked streets for months demanding the ouster of Oaxaca state Gov. Ulises Ruiz. They claim the state government has sent gunmen and thugs to provoke them.
After Fox announced he was ordering in federal police, protesters fortified their positions by piling up sandbags and parking large trucks and buses across roads leading into the center of Oaxaca.
Some demonstrators blocked the main highway in from Mexico City, waving Mexican flags and chanting "Get out Ulises!"
"I think there's going to be violence," said Eutelma Cruz, a 54-year-old housewife and protester. "I hope (federal forces) intervene and find a peaceful solution."
Men also were seen removing broadcast equipment from one of the local radio stations seized by protesters months ago. A second station held by leftists remained on the air, urging Oaxaca's residents to prevent federal police from entering the city.
"We're not afraid. We were born to die," said Iris Hernandez, 29, who was guarding a roadblock.
Few people ventured from their homes. Across the heart of the city, nearly all shops and restaurants closed early. Street vendors packed up their wares and disappeared.
"We're afraid there is going to be more shooting," said Juan Lopez said as he pulled metal shutters down over the glass storefront of a sporting goods shop a half block from Oaxaca's leafy central plaza surrounded by arcaded colonial-era buildings.
Friday's deadly violence began when gunmen tried to remove a street blockade in a rough neighborhood. Journalist Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, was hit in the abdomen and died later at a Red Cross hospital.
Oaxaca resident Esteban Zurrita was shot dead and the bullet-ridden body of another man, Emilio Alonso Fabian, was discovered about two miles away. A photographer for the Mexican newspaper Milenio was slightly injured.
Will worked for Indymedia.org, an independent Web-based media organization and sold video on a freelance basis, said friends and Indymedia colleague Hinrich Schuleze. He had been documenting the upheaval in Internet dispatches that showed strong sympathy for the protesters.
"What can you say about this movement, this revolutionary moment," he wrote in a dispatch dated Oct. 16. "You know it is building, growing, shaping, you can feel it, trying desperately for a direct democracy."
Oaxaca Attorney General Lizbeth Cana, who has likened the protesters to urban guerrillas, said the shooting was sparked by angry townspeople defending themselves against the demonstrators.
"The people are fed up with permanent violence, threats and kidnappings," she said.
But U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said in a statement that the shooters may have been Oaxaca police, and the Mexico City newspaper El Universal published photos Saturday identifying some of the men firing at protesters as local officials.
Mayor Manuel Martinez Feria of the nearby town of Santa Lucia del Camino said five men who appeared in the photos brandishing pistols had been turned over to state officials for possible involvement in Will's killing. He identified them as two members of Santa Lucia's city council, two of that town's police officers and a former justice of the peace from another town.
Local police officers often out of uniform and armed gangs have staged sporadic attacks on protesters, and at least five other people have been killed.
Several other shootings and clashes were reported in Oaxaca on Friday, and Red Cross officials said Saturday they treated 18 additional victims of violence, though none suffered gunshot wounds.
Teachers went on strike in May demanding higher pay and better working conditions. But after police attacked one of their demonstrations in June, they extended their demands to include a call for Ruiz's resignation and were joined by leftists, students and Indian groups.
The struggle escalated into a fight for control of Oaxaca's streets as demonstrators occupied the central plaza, built barricades, seized radio and television stations, drove off local police and burned buses.
The protesters contend the 2004 governor's election was rigged by Ruiz, a member of the former longtime governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, which lost its hold on Mexico's presidency when Fox was elected six years ago.
Ruiz repeatedly has asked federal authorities to send troops to restore order, but Fox's government had insisted on trying to solve the dispute through negotiations.
Friday's clashes came a day after teachers agreed to end their strike, which has kept 1.3 million children out of classes across the southern state. The deal had been expected to take the sting out of the protests. But Rosas, the teacher's union leader, said late Saturday that Fox's decision to send federal forces could negate the agreement.
Oaxaca, famed for its colonial architecture and as a center of Indian handicrafts and cuisine, is one of the most famous inland tourist attractions in Mexico. Mountains overlooking the city hold the imposing ruins of the Zapotec city of Monte Alban.