In shadows of Mexico's drug war, deadly ambush highlights tensions over ancestral lands

OAXACA, Mexico (AP) — Before the barrage of gunfire, a makeshift roadblock of boulders was the only sign that a small caravan of cars had crossed the line into a decades-old feud that long ago drove off police and federal poll workers.

What followed was a stunning reminder that pockets of Mexico remain submerged in volatile local conflicts over land, resources and power, with some factions keeping state and federal authorities at bay.

Gunmen opened fire with assault rifles late last month on a group of European and Mexican rights activists, journalists and teachers union representatives who were attempting to reach a Triqui Indian village besieged by rival political factions.

Two of the activists — from Finland and Mexico — were shot and killed almost instantly inside one of the cars, and several more were wounded as the panic-stricken group scrambled out of shattered car windows and fled into the surrounding hills.

"At first when they started shooting, we thought they were warning shots in the air," said Ruben Valencia, an activist who has experienced violent street protests. He escaped from the front seat of the same car where the two activists died on April 27.

"When the hail of bullets started hitting the car, coming through the windshield, the truth is I thought I was a goner."

Two journalists from the Mexico City-based magazine Contralinea had come to the Indian community of San Juan Copala to investigate the killing of two Triqui reporters. The Contralinea journalists, one wounded, spent almost three days hidden in the bush while state police negotiated with local militants to ensure safe access for rescuers.

The roots of the violence can be traced back at least 40 years to a struggle for patronage money from state political bosses in the remote Triqui Baja area of the Sierra Mixteca, where an estimated 10,000 ethnic Triquis live. But the bloody land feuds between centuries-old neighbors long ago took on a momentum of their own.

Rival bands now defend their territory at all costs, according to Maria Dolores Paris, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana who has visited San Juan Copala and tracked heavy Triqui migration from Oaxaca state over the past decade that has been spurred by violence and economic upheaval.

"The strongest and most violent problem is territorial control by political organizations," Paris said. "Here the state government doesn't enter, the police don't enter and no one else enters without asking permission."

The caravan ambush took place outside San Juan Copala, where some members of warring political factions have formed an autonomous local government, hoping to break with decades of internecine fighting.

But two of the town's main factions eventually turned on the autonomous government, regarding it as a rival power. They have cut off all supplies and access to a village center where schools are reportedly closed out of security concerns, few dare to wander outdoors by day and hunger is taking hold.

People familiar with the town say the mid-April assassination of a key supporter of the autonomous government escalated the conflict prior to the ambush on the activists.

"San Juan Copala is completely cut off, without contact. The shootouts are daily. Buildings are strewn with bullet marks," said Jorge Albino Ortiz, a student from the embattled area who joined the local autonomy movement after he and friends were mistakenly ambushed by militants.

He last visited San Juan Copala a month ago, sneaking in and out before dawn. "It's a dead town."

The federal Attorney General's Office has opened an investigation into the caravan shootings.

Mexico's government has made significant efforts to resolve land conflicts since the 1994 Zapatista uprising for Indian rights that led to self-governing towns in neighboring Chiapas state. In some cases, the government has resettled entire communities.

Killings in conflict-ridden Indian areas have declined significantly over the past two decades even while Mexico's overall homicide rate has spiked because of a drug war that has claimed 23,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006.

But the conflict in the Triqui Baja has only grown more desperate.

Paris said the ill-fated caravan, intent on bringing humanitarian attention to the town, drove across territory that has been closely guarded by a militant group aligned with the state's ruling party.

"When you cross the line, you are risking your life," she said. "In every house there are guns. And they're not guns like a rifle for hunting. They are high-powered weapons in many cases."

Known by the Spanish acronym Ubisort, the militant group denied responsibility for the attack. The group's leader has told local newspapers that supporters of the autonomous government had staged an "auto-ambush."

Oaxaca's state government is widely blamed for stoking the conflict by governing by proxy through militant factions.

Far from expressing concern over the threat to safe passage on a public highway, state authorities have questioned whether the foreigners were adequately informed about the risks and nature of the outing on one of Oaxaca's lawless roads.

Participants say five Europeans took part in the convoy of 27 people. Cars were draped with banners declaring that press and international observers were on board.

Fleeing the ambush, Valencia wandered through the countryside until four gunmen surrounded him and took his camera, cell phone, money and ID and warned that they now knew where to find him.

Stumbling back upon the highway hours later, he was lucky to hitch a ride.

"The truck driver said that had he known we were from the caravan, he wouldn't have picked us up," he said.