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In Mexico, a recent crackdown has seen at least 200 people arrested in the state of Oaxaca. Those arrested include leaders of the movement called APO, or the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, which has been campaigning for the ouster of the governor. Human rights groups are concerned over the detention saying they're being used to stifle political expression. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Oaxaca City.
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A religious procession in honor of a local saint makes its way through the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca. It's picturesque scenes like this one that have made this southern city one of the top tourist destinations in the country.
Up until the end of October, when the federal police moved in, Oaxaca had been crisscrossed, though, with thousands of barricades. At night mass protestors kept warm by burning tires as they fended off paramilitary groups that would shoot at them in unmarked cars. Through comparison, it seems now almost normal.
Twenty-three-year-old Nadil Quiros(ph) is taking part in today's procession, but he says appearances are deceiving.
Mr. NADIL QUIROS: (Through translator) You cannot block the sun with your finger, as we say here. We are living practically in a state of siege. There are so many violations of human rights taking place now. The police are raiding people's homes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The conflict in Oaxaca began with a peaceful teacher's strike in May. After the governor, Ulises Ruiz, ordered the protestors forcibly removed, they became radicalized and evolved into a broad-based movement calling for his ouster and a more equitable system in this, one of the poorest states in Mexico.
Then in late October, at least 4,000 federal police entered Oaxaca City to restore order. One of the most recognizable faces of the APO, Lavios Sosa(ph), was arrested last week in Mexico City the day before he was to resume negotiations with the governor to resolve the conflict.
It was a high-profile detention meant to send a very public message from the new administration. But more quietly and methodically in Oaxaca, others have been arrested and their stories are chilling.
Ms. CELIA REYES: (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Famed Oaxacan painter Francisco Dolero(ph) has been taking the testimonials of people who've had family members arrested. Holding up signs with pictures of their loved ones, they tell their stories outside of his workshop. This is Celia Reyes(ph) speaking about her son.
Ms. REYES: (Through translator) They took my son to the main square, kicking him the whole time. They transferred them in helicopters, and he said he was threatened that they were going to be thrown out the door. She says her son had gone out for a birthday drink with friends on the day of his arrest. When he didn't come home, she began to worry. It took a week for her to discover that he was in an out-of-state prison. After camping out there for four days, she finally got to see her son for about 15 minutes.
A hundred and forty other people were also arrested on November 25th after confrontations between the APO and the federal police that left one protestor dead and buildings burned.
Mr. ELLIOT MARTINEZ(ph): (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-two-year-old Elliot Martinez was actually glad when the federal police entered in Oaxaca. That changed a week before the mass arrests. He says he was walking on the street with his two younger sisters about to go shopping. Two policemen - he's not clear whether local or federal - snatched him and threw him against the wall, grabbing him by his long hair.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (Through translator) I said to the, sirs, I am just passing by. And they said, shut up or you'll die right here. That's when they hit me for the first time with their baton on the head. They dragged me off and when I come to, I see there are 15 to 20 officers around me. They kicked me in the face and began beating me, one after the other.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says they told him they were going to douse him in gasoline and burn him alive. He was then dragged off to a detention facility with others who had been arrested.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (Through translator) They lay us down in a line, they began to interrogate us. One officer stood on our backs while the others asked the questions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martinez was held for five days and then let go without charge. He now limps after he says they tried to break his kneecap, and his right eye is still red with burst blood vessels. Oaxacan human rights activist Anna-Maria Hernandez(ph) says that while people not involved in any political group are being apprehended, more worrying for her is that the participation in APO is seemingly being criminalized.
Ms. ANNA-MARIA HERNANDEZ (Human Rights Activist): (Through translator) The message is that anyone can be detained in any moment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hernandez says the tactics employed her are reminiscent of the days of the Dirty War.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: (Through translator) It seems that the abuse is not the result of one thug who went crazy but rather a deliberate counterinsurgency tactic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Acts of vandalism and violence during protests have been committed by members of the APO. But rights groups here say state-linked paramilitary forces killed most of the 17 people who have lost their lives so far in the conflict, and none of them have been brought to justice.
Last week two Oaxacan town officials accused of gunning down American activist/journalist Brad Will were freed after a state judge said there was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial. The federal police denied that abuse has taken place on their watch, and on Friday they raided the state police headquarters, arresting five people after stolen cars and unregistered weapons were found there. They say this is just the beginning.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every evening now in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, free concerts are held under the twinkling Christmas lights. White paint covers the APO graffiti, and federal police who are camped out in the square can be seen flirting with local girls.
The conflict here, though, has not been resolved, merely stifled. While the slogans have been covered up, the writing is still on the wall.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Oaxaca.
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