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Violent troops suppress indigenous town in Mexico

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TLALNEPANTLA, Mexico - Hours after U.S. President George W. Bush attended a summit meeting in Monterrey several hundred miles north, Mexican riot police stormed this indigenous village in the state of Morelos in the early morning of Jan. 14, leaving one dead in the town square and scores missing, according to on-the-scene reports.The raid suppressed an autonomous town council inaugurated by the indigenous Nahuatl campesinos in protest of an election last July that they charged was rigged by a local political boss.

Hundreds of residents fled to the surrounding hills, and a pregnant woman in flight gave birth to a baby which later died for lack of medical care, said a witness to the scene. Later in the week, police and agents of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), now in local control, turned back delegations of aid workers and outside observers. According to several eye-witnesses, "priistas" broke the windows of one bus carrying observers and threw in tear gas grenades.

According to local press reports, some 1,500 Tlalnepantla residents are now refugees in neighboring cities and Mexico City. The autonomous council has reconvened in exile in Mexico City.

The violence has apparently embarrassed the state government of Morelos, controlled by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), and the federal administration of President Vicente Fox, nominally a Panista. Federal spokesmen have disavowed involvement in the raid. The Morelos state legislature has appointed a commission of inquiry, including representatives of its five political parties.

The incident started shortly after this agricultural township of about 3,000 Nahuatl people inaugurated an autonomous municipal council Jan. 11, rejecting the results of a state-sponsored election last year. According to reports, the council was modeled on the autonomous local governments of the Zapatista indigenous movement in Chiapas, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, but has no connection to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

Gregory Berger, an eyewitness from the United States, told ICT "unlike the EZLN, there was no armed component of the autonomous council."

Although some government officials claimed immediately after the raid that a training camp for armed guerillas was located nearby, federal spokesmen later firmly denied the report. In a Jan. 20 statement, Santiago Creel, the federal secretary of Governance said, "I want to say this with total clarity: we have no proof, no information and no evidence for that situation." He called it a local problem and said the federal government had ordered the state governor to open a dialogue with the townspeople.

Berger, a documentary filmmaker who now has footage of most of the events, said the raid started at 1 a.m. Jan. 14. "Riot police stormed the town, killing at least two and sending hundreds of campesinos running for cover. I saw helicopters hunting campesinos in the hillsides. It is a disaster."

Berger said the attack followed warnings from the state government against establishment of the autonomous council. "After repeated threats from the government to dismantle the autonomous government in Tlalnepantla, Gov. Sergio Estrada Cajigal ordered nearly 1,500 riot police at 1 a.m., armed with assault rifles to evict the autonomous government from Tlalnepantla.

"Snipers and police gunmen filled the air with bullets, beat women and men over 80 years of age, and left two dead, many wounded and scores of people disappeared and as of yet unaccounted for. Illegal searches were conducted in dozens of houses in the town."

Berger identified one victim as Gregorio Sanchez, 39, a father of three, who was shot in the town. He said others might have been shot as they fled to the surrounding brush because he witnessed helicopters firing at the mountainside.

By all reports, establishment of the council and its suppression followed an electoral dispute last July. "Like thousands of indigenous communities in Mexico, and according to ancient custom," said Berger, Tlalnepantla "has always elected its leaders in an open town council consisting of the entire adult population. In last July's elections, this way of selecting authorities was rejected by the Mexican electoral commission. The candidate who officially won at the polls was not selected by the full town assembly.

"The winning candidate, with less than 10 percent of the electorate's vote, is an unpopular political boss who has been accused of corruption in other political offices he has held. A majority of the population of Tlalnepantla subsequently called for an annulment of the electoral results and legal recognition of its ancient form of selecting leaders, but the Morelos state government ignored their plea.

"After months of discussion within the town, and in full accordance with the legal guarantees of the Mexican constitution, the people of Tlalnepantla declared themselves "autonomous" in the same way that EZLN [Zapatistia Army of National Liberation] affiliated indigenous communities in Chiapas have done. Tlalnepantla's declaration of autonomy came just as communities across Mexico and the world were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the uprising in Chiapas."

The town is 17 miles away from the historic center of Cuernavaca, where many foreign students attend language classes. It is said to be an important producer of the edible nopal cactus, an important staple of the Mexican diet, and also grows peaches and sugar cane.

There is some speculation that in manipulating the election, local political bosses were seeking a monopoly of nopal production.

Berger observed, however, "You might say that it is part of an ongoing struggle for local indigenous municipalities to apply their own local customs in place of a one-size-fits-all democracy. Most political leaders in Mexico want to crush such efforts."