Mexico army, police arrest 16 in massacre of sawmill workers

Monday, June 3, 2002

SANTIAGO XOCHILTEPEC, Mexico -- Army troops and police arrested 16 people in remote southern Mexico after 26 sawmill workers were massacred in a land dispute, state officials said Sunday.

Three mass burials clogged the little graveyard in this village of 640 people on Sunday as Evangelical church members, Jehovah's Witnesses and then Catholics lowered their dead into graves, some dug extra wide in the red clay so that relatives could be buried side by side.

The army and more than 200 state police helped in the arrests after Friday night's shooting about 215 miles southeast of Mexico City, the Oaxaca state attorney general's office said.

According to survivors, the 26 victims collected their pay Friday after spending a week working at a sawmill in San Pedro el Alto. They hitched a ride on a dump truck for the several-hour journey along a winding dirt road to their hometown of Xochiltepec.

At a spot called Agua Fria, rocks and tree trunks blocked the road. Gunmen emerged, chased away the driver and then opened fire, killing at least 26 men. Only the driver, his son and four other people survived.

The newspaper Reforma quoted driver Alberto Antonio Perez as saying, "After stopping the vehicle, the subjects ordered me to get out of there and after advancing a few meters, they began shooting and then everything was confusion."

Survivor Pablito Lopez Cruz, 18, told Televisa from a hospital in Oaxaca that he was protected by the bodies of his slain friends. After the killings, the attackers stripped the dead of their pay, he said.

"This was not a conflict, it was a massacre," said Sergio Santos, 25, who would have been on the truck that was attacked had he not returned home a day early from the sawmill to register a son's birth.

Abdias Hernandez, 66, said there had been repeated clashes with Teojomulco since 1935.

"If we had guns, we'd go and do the same thing to them, but we don't, which is why we stand here with our arms crossed," Hernandez said. "If the government does nothing, the dispute will continue. There will be more massacres."

People in Xochiltepec say men from neighboring Teojomulco raided their town Jan. 24 and fired hundreds of shots at the village school.

Those in the Teojomulco village of Las Huertas -- population 390 -- accused Xochiltepec men of a March 1 ambush that killed one person.

"The government has left this to grow and grow, and then this happened. It was brutal" said Onofre Ramirez, a 24-year-old teacher. "This is not an isolated situation. It is generalized throughout the region."

Hundreds of people have died in decades of clashes related to land conflicts between Zapotec Indian villages such as Xochiltepec, Mixtec Indian districts such as Amoltepec, and Mestizo areas such as Teojomulco.

The federal agrarian reform department has reported some 600 ongoing community disputes over land in Oaxaca, Mexico's most heavily Indian state.

Repeated federal and state campaigns to solve the disputes have failed. Some disputes date to colonial times and others to conflicts between Indian nations before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

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