Southern Mexico violence continues

With the northern border town of Nuevo Laredo occupied by Mexican federal agents following a wave of deadly violence between rival drug mafias, the resort city of Acapulco in southern Guerrero state may be headed in the same direction. Under a deal Guerrero politicians negotiated last week with the federal government, Acapulco will be the first beach resort to receive teams of federal agents and soldiers, under the same “Operation Safe Mexico” program created for Nuevo Laredo, in Tamaulipas state on the Texas border, and Culiacan, Sinaloa. Already, 100 federal police have arrived to boost security, officials said. Guerrero’s new governor, Zeferino Torreblanca, said federal help is needed in light of some two dozen suspected drug-related killings in recent months. But he said he doesn’t want army tanks along Acapulco Bay, visited by 1.5 million tourists every year, including 150,000 US citizens.

“There have never been these types of high-impact executions in such open, public places,” said state Attorney General Eduardo Murueta. But others expressed misgivings, and fears about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. “The army can fight the drug traffickers if the fight is limited to the northern part of the country, as it has been,” said Javier Ibarrola, a military analyst and columnist for the Mexico City newspaper Milenio. “But if you open up fronts in the north, in the south, on the Pacific, on the Gulf, then you spread the army thin and take away their strength.”

He cited recent killings attributed to the Gulf cartel’s feared enforcers, the Zetas, in the central state of Jalisco and the arrest of 10 suspected Zetas and the seizure of dozens of high-powered weapons—designated by the government for military use only—in the adjacent state of Michoacan.

Ibarrola said the violence in Acapulco could be a deliberate attempt to embarrass President Vicente Fox. “This is a reaction to the Safe Mexico program” he said.

Norm Townsend, a senior FBI agent in Laredo, Texas, said the level of violence across Mexico “is the kind of violence we haven’t seen before.” Authorities say 820 people have been killed in drug-related violence this year nationwide. (Dallas Morning News, Aug. 19)

Meanwhile in Oaxaca, which borders Guerrero on the west, the ongoing siege at the controversial Noticias newspaper reached a crisis July 18 when masked men armed with sticks forcibly occupied the offices, where 31 of the paper’s employees had been trapped for a month by a group claiming to be workers on strike. Octavio Velez, spokesman for the besieged Noticias journalists told IPS that they were evicted by “plainclothes police officers who covered their faces, and people with ties to the Oaxaca government,” as part of an operation that he described as “an attack on freedom of expression.” Velez also said employees were physically assaulted, and computers and records were stolen.

Reporters Without Borders, the Inter-American Press Association and Amnesty International repeatedly expressed concern about the siege, and had been calling for an end to the harassment of the press workers for weeks. The paper’s employees said that not a single Noticias worker was among the demonstrators, and that the protest was orchestrated by Oaxaca authorities in an attempt to silence the paper, which has been critical of the local government.

The demonstrators are led by David Aguilar, the head of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), a trade union with ties to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The newspaper’s employees’ union is a member of CROC. Aguilar is also a lawmaker representing the PRI, the party to which Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz belongs.

Noticias staff, which had been receiving articles from journalists working outside on the streets and sending the reports by Internet in order for the newspaper to be printed in another town, continue to work in other offices. “We pledged to continue publishing the daily and we will do so,” said Vélez.

Leonarda Reyes, director of the non-governmental Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics, said the Oaxaca government “has defied everyone, including the president.” Days, before the raid, Fox had promised that he would intervene in the matter, in order to defend freedom of expression “to the very last consequences.”

The case of Noticias, which is the biggest circulation newspaper in the state and has been publishing for 29 years, shows that freedom of speech is not respected everywhere in Mexico, Reyes said.

Local human rights groups say the incident is part of an entrenched pattern of abuses and intimidation by the governments of Oaxaca, which have been controlled by the PRI for over 70 years. A majority of the state’s 3.2 million people live in poverty, rights violations are routine, and the legislative and judicial branches are at the mercy of the state administration, say local activists. While political pluralism is taking root in much of Mexico, Oaxaca remains an authoritarian stronghold, says the All Rights for All Network, which links a number of human rights groups in Mexico.

Aguilar, a personal friend of Governor Ruiz, claims that half of the 102 Noticias workers support the strike that was declared on Jun. 17 to demand a 25 percent wage hike. But Vélez said Aguilar’s assertions were “false” and that “not a single Noticias worker is in favour of the strike.”

Four years ago, then-Oaxaca governor José Murat tried to purchase Noticias, but the paper’s owners declined the offer. Since then, the publication has suffered a number of reprisals, such as the state government’s refusal to purchase space in the newspaper for official advertising (an important source of income), the theft of entire editions, and the occupation of Noticias warehouses by groups of unidentified persons. (IPS, July 19)

In once recent case of ongoing political violence in rural Oaxaca, a leader of the Triqui indigenous group was murdered earlier this month. Hilario Gonzalez Dominguez was gunned down on Aug. 3 in Putla de Guerrero, in western Oaxaca. Police said Gonzalez Dominguez, a schoolteacher and the local director of the Unification Movement of the Triqui Struggle (MULT), was hit by 13 bullets while he was in a cafeteria in the center of the town. The police arrested two members of the Social Welfare Unity of the Triqui Region (UBISORT), a group linked to the PRI. Police said they were seeking a third man.

The Triquis are planning demonstrations to demand justice for Gonzalez Dominguez’s murder, according to Heriberto Pazos Ortiz, a MULT leader and a director of the local Popular Unity Party. Pazos charged that UBISORT members had ambushed MULT members just two weeks earlier, wounding one, and that the state government had done nothing. Pazos himself was shot and seriously injured in May 1999 on a busy street in Oaxaca City; two other MULT activists were killed in the incident.)

The violence came less than a week after Santiago Canton, president of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), sent the Mexican government a letter, dated July 29, asking for protection for Antonio Jacinto Lopez Martinez, the elected mayor of the Triqui municipality of San Martin Itunyoso. The community assembly elected Lopez Martinez in October 2004, following indigenous “uses and customs” recognized by Oaxaca state, but local officials wouldn’t let him take office at the end of the year, threatening to kill him. He received death threats again on July 25. Currently the town has an acting mayor appointed by Gov. Ruiz. (La Jornada, Aug. 1, MULT statement, Aug. 3, APRO, Aug. 3, Mexico IMC, Aug. 5, from Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7)

See our last reports on Nuevo Laredo, Oaxaca and other struggles in southern Mexico.