Five months after leftist protesters occupied the center of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, President Vicente Fox sent federal security forces this weekend to resolve a deadly conflict that has stained the image of a town famed for its colonial facades and gourmet food.
The move came after three men, including an American journalist, were killed Friday by gun-fire. But for many it comes five months too late, and at too high a price.
Like their counterparts in the US, Mexico's federal police are only ordered to resolve local or state conflicts in extreme circumstances. But this protest, which began in May as a teachers' strike for higher pay and morphed into an unwavering demand for the governor's resignation, has long since turned acute. Protesters have barricaded the center of town and chased local police from the streets. At least six people have been killed. Children have missed 100 days of class, and the tourist sector has lost millions of dollars.
Many say the violence has been left to simmer in large part because of a power vacuum after the July 2 presidential election, the closest in the country's history. Although the crisis is motivated by local factors, intervention has national consequences.
"The [Fox administration] has not stepped in because of how complicated the situation is politically," says Alberto Aziz, an analyst at the Center for Research and Higher Learning in Social Anthropology who has studied civil resistance movements in Mexico. "The federal government has not resolved it for the sake of a political alliance."
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate who lost the race, has declared the presidential elections fraudulent and illegitimate. The ensuing political divisions have left many to believe that the only way to push through legislation is an alliance between the National Action Party (PAN), to which President Fox and incoming president Felipe Calderón belong, and the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party of Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz.
"This is an extreme expression of a power vacuum in Mexico politics," says John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It shows the desperate need of the PAN to maintain PRI support. If not [López Obrador's party] gets more powerful, and the opposition becomes more threatening."
Situation brewing since May
The teachers' strike, which began five months ago, drew protesters from across the state under an umbrella group, called the Oaxaca People's Popular Assembly. They have maintained that they will stop at nothing short of the resignation of Governor Ruiz.
Violence ensued Friday when gunmen attempted to remove a street blockade. Bradley Roland Will of New York, an independent journalist, was shot in the stomach and died later at a hospital. The next day, Fox, who had been resisting pressure to use force in Oaxaca, ordered federal police to intervene. The forces, clad in riot gear and backed by trucks and helicopters took positions on the edges of the city Sunday.
Some in Oaxaca are suspicious that the Fox administration is only taking action now because a foreigner was killed, fueling even more distrust. "That would pain me if it were true," says Fredy Alcantara, the president of the hotel and motel association of Oaxaca. "A Mexican life counts as much as a foreigner's."
Thousands of striking teachers are scheduled to return to classes Monday, while other protesters prepared for resistance.
Some fear that federal force will not resolve the conflict, and that it might just provoke more violence. "What the government should have done was find a way for the governor to step down," says Mr. Aziz.
Still, the government intervention came as a relief to many. Mr. Alcantara says that the tourist sector has lost $440 million in five months, and that the school's 1.3 million children have lost some 100 days of classes.
"In Oaxaca, we have been waiting for this for five months," Alcantara says. "We have lost our liberties, free transit, the education of our children, cultural celebrations, the ability to walk outside at night," he says. "We have been kidnapped by radical groups, and the government should have intervened after the first day."
• Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today. Wire services were used in this report.