Teacher Strike Shuts Down Oaxaca, Mexico

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A months-long teachers strike has brought the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca to a standstill. The teachers are calling for the governor to resign, and he in turn is calling for troops to quell the unrest. The governor and strike representatives prepare to meet with the federal Mexican government this weekend.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In a moment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice works to restart the Middle East peace process, and that is the easy part of her day. First, in Mexico, the old colonial city of Oaxaca has been a mess for months now, thanks to a school strike. Teachers and their political allies have set up barricades throughout the city, and they demand the governor resign. Many Oaxacans want this resolved before Mexican President Vicente Fox leaves office in December. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this report.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Helicopters and a plane from the Mexican military repeatedly buzzed over Oaxaca City this weekend, sent in by the federal government. The Minister of Interior leader gave separate reasons for the flyovers - resupply and reconnaissance. For the strikers on the ground, the message was clear: force will be used if necessary to remove them and end the four-month-old crisis in the state.

(Soundbite of explosion)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There were hundreds of barricades set up in Oaxaca, and the protestors manning them are on a high state of alert. As the helicopters circled, they launched battle rockets to warn other groups holding the edges of the city that something was up.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then, in the central square surrounded by the green stone buildings that make Oaxaca so famous, a loudspeaker broadcasting message from one of the several local radio stations that the teachers have taken over.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It said they want to intimidate our people. They want to obligate us to negotiate in disadvantaged conditions.

The crisis in Oaxaca has been escalating since mid-June, when security forces on the order of the governor tried to forcibly remove peaceful striking teachers from the main square. Now, the movement has evolved into a broad-based coalition of students, farmers, women's groups and other more radical elements, intent on the ouster of Governor Ulises Ruiz. It is called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO. Ruiz belongs to the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years, the PRI. His opponents here accused him of stealing the election that made him governor of corruption, and now of even worse.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting in the makeshift shelter in the square is Victor Caballero, a farmer from the Sierra Azul in Oaxaca.

Mr. VICTOR CABALLERO (Farmer, Sierra Azul, Oaxaca): (Through Translator) We want to resolve this through dialogue. That has always been our proposal. We don't want the blood of the people of Oaxaca to flow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But in his hand, he's holding several bullet casings he picked up after an attack. Ambushes and paramilitary-style drive-by shootings have killed five activists so far. At night, the city turns into a Mad Max movie. Cars without license plates cruise barricades made from wrecked city buses, barbwire and bonfires. The protesters say Ruiz is behind the intimidation - something he has denied. The governor declined to give an interview to NPR. APPO, in turn, are armed with Molotov cocktails, machetes and clubs.

Because there's no police in the city, they're practicing vigilante justice. The federal government has ignored the situation for months, but they are finally getting involved. There are set to be negotiations this week. The teachers say they will accept nothing less than the governor's resignation. Ruiz and his party are asking the federal government to remove the protestors by force if necessary.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish Spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A receptionist answers the phone at the trendy hotel and restaurant Casa Oaxaca. There is no bustle inside the modern white interior. Tourists have all but abandoned the city. Manager Alejandro Ruiz says the strike is crippling businesses like his.

Mr. ALEJANDRO RUIZ (Manager, Casa Oaxaca): Nowadays, there are 4,000 employees without work because, of course, restaurants and motels - they had to fire them because they didn't have cash, they didn't have customers in the restaurants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ruiz says that many of those out of work have headed north, trying to illegally immigrate to the United States - including three of his own employees. The American and British embassies have warned their citizens about coming to Oaxaca, even though there've been no reports of attacks on visitors. While the wrangling continues, the movement in Oaxaca is getting more organized and more ambitious. In the moss-colored University of Oaxaca Law School building, students are holding their first separate APPO meeting today.

Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and the conflict here has long social and political roots, based on years of repression and marginalization. Still, student Juan Velasquez Cruz(ph) says he's hoping to make what is happening in Oaxaca into a national movement.

Mr. JUAN VELASQUEZ CRUZ (Student, Oaxaca University): (Through Translator) The APPO is about the people learning and understanding their own power. We are exercising popular democracy, where decisions are being made by the people in consensus, in collective discussion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Already in almost 30 other towns and villages in Oaxaca, the local government has been booted out and APPO members are in control of the municipal buildings. Thousands of protestors from Oaxaca are marching up to Mexico City. And on the way, they're trying to enlist groups from other states. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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