Mexico's Fox Gambles on a Crackdown

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mexico's months-long political crisis took a precarious turn Saturday when President Vicente Fox sent special federal forces into the impoverished and violence-torn southern state of Oaxaca, after an American journalist and a local teacher were killed there on Friday.

As Federal paramilitary police were flown into Oaxaca City, the state's capital, Mexicans worried over whether Fox's action would restore calm or simply fuel the social polarization exacerbated by last summer's hotly contested presidential election. "We've been held hostage here by radical groups," Freddy Alcantar, a Oaxaca hotelier told TIME by phone Saturday morning. "Finally the President is imposing the rule of law." But a protester who called himself only Florentino, representing the leftist Popular Assemby of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), told TIME that until Governor Ulises Ruiz resigns, he and other militants — who are believed by many to have the backing of a small-scale Oaxaca guerrilla force from the 1990s that reappeared in the summer — would "reinforce our barricades and call in help from the mountains, valleys and coasts."

The American, Brad Will, 36, a journalist with the New York-based Indymedia, was shot in the abdomen in a rough neighborhood of Oaxaca City. Will had been filming an armed clash between protesters and pro-government men tearing down street barricades. In a statement, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza said, "Mr. Will's senseless death, of course, underscores the critical need for a return to lawfulness and order in Oaxaca." But he also warned both sides in the Oaxaca violence that "an attack on one journalist is an attack on all who believe that freedom of the press lies at the heart of any civilized society."

Fox, who leaves office on December 1, had hoped to avoid intervening in Oaxaca, in line with his preference for restraining the central government's traditionally heavy-handed control of Mexico's states. He was also mindful of the fact that ever since the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City — when federal troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators — sending in the troops touches a raw nerve in Mexico.

Ruiz — of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ousted by Fox six years ago, although both allied with Fox's party against the challenge of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) — gave no indication Saturday whether he would stay put in office now that Fox has exerted control in the state. Ruiz's troubles began when Oaxaca's poorly paid teachers went on strike last June, accusing Ruiz of authoritarian rule and neglect of the poor and indigenous citizens. Their walkout became more strident and violent as more radical forces — including the APPO — joined in to call attention to Mexico's sharp and growing social divide between haves and have-nots. (Mexico has a dozen billionaires, but about half of its population lives in poverty.) By summer's end, after almost 10 people had been killed, Oaxaca's celebrated colonial downtown was a graffiti-smeared grid of smoldering barricades.

The Oaxaca conflict was also fueled by the crisis over the July presidential election, in which conservative Felipe Calderon of Fox's National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than 1% of the vote. Lopez Obrador cried fraud, and tens of thousands of his backers occupied Mexico City's main plaza and thoroughfare for months in protest. But in recent weeks the Mexico City demonstrations had died down, and last week even the Oaxaca teachers seemed ready to go back to work.

But groups such as the APPO stuck to their insistence that Ruiz resign and call new elections, which could see a PRD candidate elected. Their continued defiance, according to witnesses, brought pro-Ruiz thugs into the streets on Friday and resulted in the shootouts that killed Will and a Oaxaca teacher and injured four other people.

Civic leaders like Alcantar hope that the Federal forces can tamp down the violence and restore peaceful dialogue. "We have to get our institutions working together again for real economic development and real jobs," Alcantar conceded, reflecting on the root causes of the conflict. As Calderon gets set to take office December 1, that's the challenge not only for Oaxaca, but for all of Mexico.