Leftists pour into Mexican university to prepare for massive protest

Sunday, November 5, 2006

By IOAN GRILLO

The Associated Press

OAXACA, Mexico -- Rickety buses and cars carrying leftists from across Mexico rolled into Oaxaca's university Saturday to join protesters preparing for a massive march to confront police.

Demonstrators plan to march today from the university to police encampments in the center of the city as part of their five-month protest to oust the state's governor.

At least nine people have died since August in the unrest, which has rattled outgoing President Vicente Fox's administration. The planned march has sparked fears of more violence in the colonial city that was once one of the country's main tourist attractions.

Protest leader Flavio Sosa, who is wanted by state police on conspiracy and riot charges, said the marchers will not look for a fight today, but he fears police may provoke one.

"Our enemies carry out murders, persecution and arbitrary arrests," Sosa said. "We have the right to defend ourselves."

Mexico's largest leftist group, the Democratic Revolution Party, has said it would join the protesters who want to form human chains around federal police detachments that enter the city.

The public university of 30,000 students has been transformed into a stronghold for protesters since Fox sent in thousands of federal police last weekend to drive protesters from the city center which they had seized. The demonstrators poured onto the campus after the police pushed them out of the main plaza, where they had camped out for months.

Masked men armed with bats and gasoline bombs patrolled the university's gates Saturday, while the student radio station blared pleas to fight police. The lawns were filled with barbed wire and booby traps.

Federal police, who tried but failed Thursday to clear barricades on a street just outside the university, are not allowed to enter the campus under a law designed to protect academic freedom.

Protesters rushed out to attack the officers Thursday and police fought back with nightsticks, water cannons and tear gas. More than 30 were injured in the six-hour battle.

Protesters said they fear the police could return at any moment, and are making preparations for the next battle.

"We are on maximum alert," said Guillermo Contreras, a teacher and protest supporter. "We will fight their weapons with our spirit and dignity."

The protests began in May with a strike by teachers looking for better pay and conditions in one of Mexico's poorest states. When police violently broke up one of their demonstrations in June, protesters expanded their demand to include the ouster of Gov. Ulises Ruiz and were joined by leftists, Indian groups and students.

The protesters accuse Ruiz of rigging the 2004 election to win office and sending groups of armed thugs to kill and intimidate his opponents.

Thousands of federal police clad in gray body armor now patrol Oaxaca's historic city center to keep the peace. Crowds of people flocked to welcome them when they first arrived, but some residents say they are intimidated by their presence less than a week later.

"It's like we are living in a city under military occupation," storeowner Bernard Cruz said.

Others say they feel safer inside the campus than on the street.

"I feel scared even in my home, because people know my family are part of the protests," said school cleaner Cecilia Gomez. "Here we have the strength of numbers."

The conflict has shattered tourism in the city, which is popular for its colonial architecture and ancient ruins. The embassies of the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and Germany have warned their citizens to avoid traveling to the region.

Among the nine people killed during the Oaxaca conflict was activist-journalist Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, who was shot in the stomach while filming a gunbattle on Oct. 27.

Two officials of a municipality on the outskirts of Oaxaca city are in custody in connection with Will's killing.

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