Clearing Protest Off Capital's Central Plaza

Approach of Indepaendence Day provides a lesson in timing - a letter from Mexico City

SACRED space.

That's how one historian describes Mexico City's vast central plaza. The Zocalo is built on the ruins of the Aztec Empire. Bordered on one side by the nation's oldest cathedral, hemmed in on two other flanks by the National Palace and City Hall, this is the historic, geographic, and political heart of ancient and modern Mexico.

If you have a gripe, sooner or later, you come to the Zocalo to catch the attention of the press and the politicos.

Typically, a few noisy hours of banner waving at midday serves the purpose. On a recent Saturday, for example, four groups of protesters - ranging from disgruntled bus drivers to leftist opposition leaders crying foul over the Michoacan state elections - marched on the plaza. They made a shambles of traffic, had their say, and left.

But for more than a month, the Zocalo has had live-in guests: about 1,500 interlopers sleeping on "mattresses" of cardboard. The plaza, seen from the wood-paneled office of Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis, is a Jackson Pollack-esque sea of makeshift plastic tents.

The state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) is on a much needed efficiency kick and is firing workers by the tens of thousands. Almost three months ago, representatives of 20,000 disgruntled former Pemex employees, known as petroleros, gathered from all corners of the Republic and started a march to "protest central."

"We'll be here until the pay us what they should," growled Jorge Medellin Chavez, sheltering from the sun under a zebra-striped umbrella.

"I gave them 20 years of my life, they told me to shove off with a 15 million peso [$5,000] bribe. That violates the Constitution." And the union leaders have not been much help, he says. "They're completely corrupt. They cut a deal with the government."

The petroleros have been joined by fishermen who say Pemex has polluted their waters and campesinos who say Pemex is drilling holes in their land without permission or compensation.

Normally, the government might simply wait the protesters out. But time was on the squatters side. "El Grito" (The Shout) is only a week away.

Mexicans commemorate the start of the war of independence from Spain on Sept. 16. On that day in 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest, kicked off the uprising by shouting "Viva Mexico!"

It has become a tradition for Mexican presidents to stand on the central balcony of the National Palace overlooking the partying throng in the Zocalo below and bellow Hidalgo's immortal words.

But it is not considered politically palatable to have a large, boisterous portion of that Independence Day crowd giving President Carlos Salinas de Gortari the Mexican equivalent of a Bronx cheer.

"They want us out of here by El Grito. They don't want the people to know what's really going on," said Reina Sid Alvarez, a former Pemex secretary from Veracruz.

In the not-so-distant past, a few squads of riot police might have been sent late at night to clear the "sacred space." But President Salinas, with an unwavering vision of a North American free-trade future, is particularly sensitive to bad foreign press. And Mr. Camacho Solis, a presidential hopeful, doesn't need an "incident," or a less-than harmonious celebration to mess up his resume.

When Pemex agreed Sunday to examine the protesters' claims and release some funds in exchange for their departure from the Zocalo, the buildings surrounding the plaza were already decked in lights and national colors.

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