Protesters Bring Tourist Town to Virtual Halt in Mexico

Normally vibrant and thronged with tourists, picturesque Oaxaca City has ground to a virtual halt as protesters armed with pipes, machetes and clubs roam the cobblestone streets — burning buses, seizing media outlets and blocking highways and bus stations.

The three-month-old protest — now almost an insurrection against state Gov. Ulises Ruiz — made many in Oaxaca afraid to leave their homes, as striking teachers, trade unionists and leftist sympathizers shut down most forms of transport and warned residents it was unsafe to venture outside, even to take their children to school.

On Tuesday, a group of about 15 men in three cars, one which had a logo of the city police department, drove up to a private radio station that has been occupied by protesters and sprayed gunfire at the building. Protester Lorenzo Pablo, a 52-year-old architect, was hit by several bullets and died soon after in hospital.

CountryWatch: Mexico

Hours later, masked men in a car fired on the vehicle of freelance photographer Luis Hernandez, who had been at the scene of the shooting. Hernandez escaped unharmed.

State prosecutor Lizbeth Cana said detectives would investigate the shootings, but did not comment on who might have been behind them.

Barricades of burning tires, scrap wood and metal roofing sheets went up across Oaxaca, on Monday, as protesters blocked plazas, bus station offices and major roads. With many services in the city center shut down, uncollected garbage began piling up in the streets, and businesses and homes began running short of water, which is often delivered by tanker trucks.

Demonstrators wielding machetes and clubs marched through the city, demanding punishment for a Monday shooting in which unidentified gunmen shot up a government-owned radio station which the strikers had seized Aug. 1.

Strikers said a male teacher apparently was taken to the hospital, but the extent of his injuries was unknown.

The state government denied it had anything to do with the attack, which also damaged equipment. Protesters have used the facility to broadcast their demands for the resignation of Ruiz.

Some 70,000 public school teachers went on strike May 22 to demand salary increases totaling about $125 million but the government said it couldn't afford that and counter-offered with less than a tenth of that amount.

The protesters have since expanded their demands to include the resignation of Ruiz, whom they accuse of rigging the state election in 2004 and of using force to repress dissent. Ruiz belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed the state since 1929.

The teachers refused to halt their three-month-old strike to allow 1.3 million students to return to classes Monday, the start of the new school year. Private schools were shuttered too.

Radio station owners urged the Mexican government to send federal police to restore order.

"We consider (the takeovers) an action aimed at silencing the media in Oaxaca," said Oaxaca Media Association spokesman Jose Manuel Angel Villareal. "There cannot be just one voice, one truth in the media."

Two newspapers and a television station were also blockaded.

"The city of Oaxaca appears to be under a permanent state of siege," the Association of Mexican Newspaper Editors said in a statement. The group called on state and federal authorities to act immediately "to re-establish social peace and the rule of law ... and guarantee freedom of expression."

President Vicente Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said the federal government is monitoring the situation but did not plan to intervene, leaving the issue up to the state.

The government of Oaxaca issued a statement expressing "concern about the attacks on news media and journalists," and saying it had passed relevant information to state prosecutors. Ruiz's government has taken little action against the protesters in recent weeks.

Teachers took to the airwaves in the occupied radio stations to denounce officials, intellectuals, the news media and others they say have refused to support their cause.

"We're fed up with neoliberalism," one said, using a term for free-market economics. "We are fed up with gringo ecotourism."

Some 325 miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca attracts thousands of Mexican and foreign visitors each year with its colonial architecture and Indian crafts. But tourism has suffered as the city's center remains paralyzed.

The protests have erupted in violence on several occasions, and a demonstrator was shot dead earlier this month.