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Flower dispute may impact Mexico's presidential election

SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico—It started as a dispute between eight flower vendors and local police over where they could sell their goods. By the next day, it had escalated into a massive raid by 3,000 state and federal police officers that left one dead and 200 arrested.

Now, more than a week later, the events of May 4 in this farming town 15 miles northeast of Mexico City are sending waves across this country's political system, highlighting the tension Mexicans feel just weeks before they select a new president on July 2.

Police say the raid was necessary to quell what had become a dangerous situation when supporters of the flower vendors seized as many as nine local officers and severely beat and slashed two with machetes.

But Mexico's Human Rights Commission has charged that the police used excessive force, smashing windows and furniture and hauling people from their beds. The commission is investigating reports that police molested and raped female detainees and abused children, the elderly and the disabled.

On Thursday, students brought the controversy to Mexico City, blocking at least a dozen major streets and freeways and choking traffic in and out of Mexico City to protest the continued detention of those arrested here. A Mexican judge dropped charges against 17 and ruled that 144 should be released on bail to face minor charges later.

But 28 others will remain in custody to face kidnapping charges.

Everyone from presidential candidates to masked Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos, whose political influence had been on the wane, have weighed in on the subject. Marcos has called the events here "a government act of terrorism."

Felipe Calderon, presidential candidate in President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, has used the uprising to hint that his main rival, Andres Manuel Lopes Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), would be a president who would tolerate the actions of machete-wielding farmers.

Some analysts say that explains the police reaction.

"The timing has to be seen in the timing of presidential electoral campaign," said Elliott Young, director of Latin American studies at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. "The government is using the fear of a guerrilla movement like the Zapatistas to benefit the governing party. They're using it to say Mexico is on the brink of chaos and needs the strong hand of the state."

Townspeople admit they are still shaken and in fear of the authorities. Many interviewed by Knight Ridder refused to give their names. Broken glass still litters the streets and children seem shell-shocked.

"The total story of Mexico is here," said an elderly woman in the town square who refused to give her name out of fear of the authorities. "They've broken our town. This was a peaceful place with many great traditions. ... This is how they're doing away with Mexico."

For many, this town of 10,000 was already a flashpoint even before this month's police raid. In 2002, a peasant revolt led by a rebel group known as the Community Front in Defense of the Land stopped a plan pushed by Fox to build an international airport on their farmland. The Community Front also organized the defense of the flower vendors.

After the farmers' 2002 victory, Community Front leader Ignacio del Valle took over the town and ousted the municipal government, much in the manner of the 1994 Zapatista uprising Subcomandante Marcos led in Chiapas.

In 2003, the municipal government returned. But some locals accuse del Valle of continuing to rule the town with tyranny and blackmail, promising peace in exchange for salaries for him and his supporters.

Residents are divided over rebel leader del Valle and whether his Community Front has helped or hurt their village. Some aren't sorry he's among those jailed this month and charged with kidnapping.

"He was asking for it," said restaurant owner Eloisa Mendez Silva.

Others say del Valle has the support of as much as 80 percent of the town.

"He's a very good person. He was doing what the politicians wouldn't do," said Jose Gomez, 42, a business owner. "He worked for the schools, the farmers, for just causes."

Gomez sees the police raid as direct retaliation for their rejection of the airport.

"They came to collect the bill," Gomez said. "When we rejected the airport, this town was erased from the map. We've received no resources" from the government.

A spokesman for Eduardo Media Mora, Fox's minister of public security, wouldn't answer the charge directly. He referred all questions to a transcript of Media Mora's news conference after the raid, in which the subject wasn't addressed.

Large banners declaring "Basta!" (Enough!) hang in the town square. Graffiti welcomes Marcos' Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Marcos, who had been traveling across the country in an all but ignored effort to drum up new support for his cause, has promised to stay in Mexico City until all the Atenco prisoners are released.

The Fox administration has promised to investigate incidents of excessive force in the raid, and to prosecute officers found to have violated the law.

But the legacy of Atenco is anyone's guess.

"Police abuse is not well looked on by Mexicans," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and who is in Mexico City for a conference on the future of democracy here. "It remains to be seen who this impacts in terms of public opinion. ... It's certainly the kind of incident that two months before an election could have an impact on what happens."


(Corcoran reports for The San Jose Mercury News.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-POLITICS

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