2 Dead in Attack on Rights Caravan in South Mexico

By: Ixtli X. Martinez - AP Writer
By: Ixtli X. Martinez - AP Writer

OAXACA, Mexico (AP) - Gunmen ambushed a caravan of rights observers and leftist political activists in a remote, restive area of southern Mexico, killing a Finnish man and a Mexican woman, and dozens from the group remained missing, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The ambush took place Tuesday just outside the village of San
Juan Copala, which is the scene of a long-running dispute between a
group demanding greater local autonomy and militants with links to
Oaxaca state's ruling party.

An eyewitness said the roughly 40 people traveling in the
caravan abandoned their vehicles and scattered when masked gunmen
opened fire from a hillside.

Most who fled were still missing, including two journalists from
the Mexican magazine Contralinea. It was not clear how many
foreigners were with the caravan. The rights group Pro Juarez said
there were observers from Finland, Italy, Belgium and Germany among
the group, but Mexican authorities could not immediately confirm
that.

"They started to spray us with bullets," said Gabriela Jimenez
Ramirez of Oaxaca city, who was traveling in the caravan inside an
SUV with a dozen people, including the two dead. "Trying to back
up, they blew out the tires of the vehicle. We threw ourselves on
the floor. The vehicle was shaking because there were bursts of
gunfire."

Jimenez is a prominent representative in the radical movement
known as the People's Assembly of Oaxaca, or APPO, which seized
control of Oaxaca city for almost five months in 2006 to push for
the ouster of Gov. Ulises Ruiz.

The caravan also included members of a militant local section of
the National Teachers Workers Union and other leftist civic and aid
groups sympathetic to APPO.

The United Nations' Human Rights Commissioner's Office in Mexico
expressed concern about the attack and urged authorities to find
the missing people. Calling for an investigation, the office said
it was particularly concerned by the fact there were human rights
workers and journalists in the caravan.

San Juan Copala has reportedly been surrounded by armed
opponents of the local movement for greater autonomy from state and
federal authorities, and the group was headed there on an
unofficial mission to monitor the situation.

The roots of the territorial conflict at San Juan Copala date
back decades, and permanent police facilities have been withdrawn
to avoid inflaming hostilities. State police did not arrive at the
scene until the day after the attack.

Although Jimenez was released by masked gunmen, she said she saw
others led away at gunpoint.

She said her captors claimed affiliation with Unity for the
Social Well-being of the Triqui Region and the allied Movement of
Unification for the Triqui People, groups with ties to state
authorities allegedly pressuring the local autonomy movement.

"They were youths who were more than 20-year-olds, wearing
masks," she said. "They showed us their guns. ... They told us
they were the ones in charge in the area."

The leader of the Movement of Unification for the Triqui People
issued a firm denial.

"We aren't responsible," Heriberto Pazos Ortiz said. "I hope
the organizations that are talking about these violent events do it
with honesty and don't make wild accusations."

A member of the caravan named Monica Citlalli Santiago was
lightly wounded by a bullet. She refused to talk to state
authorities or the press about what happened.

Contralinea reporter Erika Ramirez and photographer David Cilia
were accompanying the caravan to report on conditions in San Juan
Copala and were still unaccounted for Wednesday. Directors of the
magazine were traveling to Oaxaca from Mexico City.

"We are really very distressed as we wait for more
information," said Nancy Flores, a magazine representative.

The Finnish ambassador to Mexico, Ulla Vaisto, confirmed the
death of Jyri Antero Jaakkola, a 33-year-old affiliated with the
non-governmental group Uusi Tuuli, and urged that those responsible
be brought to justice.

Uusi Tuuli promotes "international solidarity, fair
international economic arrangements, peace and mutual understanding
between people and nations," according to its website.

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Associated Press Writer Morgan Lee in Mexico City contributed to
this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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