Mexico's deadly fight over land

Monday, 16 people were jailed following the latest violence in a decades-old logging and farming dispute.

Zapotec Indian women slumped over open caskets, whispering prayers and final goodbyes to slain fathers, sons, and brothers. Children wailed salty tears streaked with dust. At the edge of the cemetery, an elderly gravedigger leaned his head on his shovel and wept.

They were burying 26 men and boys gunned down last Friday night by assassins armed with high-caliber automatic weapons. The massacre, villagers say, has scarred remote Santiago Xochiltepec as badly as a generations-old battle for land has disfigured and denuded the surrounding mountains, once covered with pines.

"This is a conflict over land," says community leader Brigido Gutierrez, adding that it has gone on "for years."

Although the Sierra Sur conflict presents an extreme case – more than 100 have died in shootouts, kidnappings, and arson attacks in the two villages in seven decades – land disputes like this one are behind the majority of Mexico's rural struggles.

Recent massacres, like the 1995 killing of 17 dissident farmers in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, or the 1997 bloodbath in Acteal, Chiapas, had land disputes, often with ethnic subtexts, at their core.

A nationwide study last year found that Mexico's forests are disappearing at twice the rate previously estimated, mainly because peasant farmers across the country are clear-cutting vast tracts of land, both to sell the logs and then to farm the land afterward.

"Land is at the heart of rural conflicts across this country," says Victoria Hernandez, a teacher in Santiago Xochiltepec. "It is something our government must address."

But villagers here are skeptical that justice will be done, saying they had filed legal complaints after past incidents, and recently requested state protection after receiving threats of an imminent attack.

The Sierra Sur massacre shows what little reach and influence Mexico's often inefficient and corrupt justice system has in the highlands. It's a nationwide issue President Vicente Fox pledged to address when he toppled 71-years of single-party rule in 2000 on a pledge to turn Mexico's bureaucracy into a model of clean, fair, and efficient government.

Oaxaca State Governor Jose Murat has said he will get to the bottom of Friday's "lamentable events." Hundreds of police and forensic experts were dispatched to the area to investigate, and dozens of army troops have fanned out around Santiago Xochiltepec.

Residents of this impoverished pueblo, tucked high in the Sierra Sur range in southwestern Oaxaca State, blame villagers in neighboring Santo Domingo Teojomulco for the May 31 attack. Both villages lay claim to a 25,000-acre belt of wood and farmland that forms an uneasy buffer between them.

State Attorney General Sergio Santivares, who visited Santiago Xochiltepec Sunday, said 16 men have been detained in connection with the massacre, all of them residents of the disputed territory. Police captured 22 AK-47 and R-15 assault rifles, he added, the same kinds of guns survivors said were used in the attack.

Four men from Santiago Xochiltepec survived the attack, though two were badly wounded, by hiding under the shredded bodies of their dead friends.

The 30 men had been returning from a week's work in a nearby sawmill when the gunmen rained bullets onto the truck from a ridge along a wooded mountain road.

It was the latest in a string of clashes between the two villages that dates back to 1935, when the closure of a gold mine in Santo Domingo Teojomulco prompted villagers there to populate, log, and farm the disputed land.

Those in the Teojomulco village of Las Huertas accused Xochiltepec men of a March 1 ambush that killed one person.

Residents there are mestizos – persons of mixed indigenous and European blood – Mexico's largest ethnic group. Clashes between mestizos and indigenous communities abound in southern Oaxaca, and some clashes even predate the arrival of the Spanish some 500 years ago.

The 1,000 or so Zapotec Indians in Santiago Xochiltepec say their people have inhabited these parts of the Sierra Sur for centuries.

In March of this year a state court agreed, declaring more than 20,000 acres in the disputed zone to be Zapotec communal property, and granting permission for logging, a major source of income in the area.

Villagers in Santo Domingo Teojomulco rejected the ruling, and though journalists tried Sunday to get their version of what happened, security forces advised against visiting the village, saying it had become too dangerous. None would elaborate.

Santiago Xochiltepec residents accuse their neighbors of engaging in drug trafficking and illegal logging, though they offer no evidence. Investigators in the area said they were looking into the charges, and admitted it was unusual that poor farmers could pack such a ferocious supply of assault weapons.

There are fears that villagers in Santiago Xochiltepec will mount a counter attack on Santo Domingo Teojomulco if the government does not detain, try, and punish those responsible.

"The government has never listened to our problems and we have never gotten justice," says a villager who would give his name only as Jose.

Asked how villagers would respond if they didn't feel the case were properly handled, he simply shrugged. Moments later, another flatbed truck rolled up to the cemetery, making its third delivery of flower-draped coffins from the massacre.

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