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Mexico Buries 26 After Massacre

June 3, 2002

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SANTIAGO XOCHILTEPEC, Mexico (AP) _ The little cemetery under the piney mountains was filled to overflowing. Even some of the graves were cut extra-wide in the muddy red earth so that brother could be buried beside brother.

With weeping, wailing and anger, Santiago Xochiltepec buried 26 men on Sunday, most of them young, all victims of a Friday evening massacre that grew out of a land dispute residents say is nearly seven decades old.

The Oaxaca state attorney general’s office announced that federal troops and state police had arrested 16 people from the neighboring district of Santo Domingo Teojomulco, most from the village there known as Las Huertas, population 390.

Abdias Hernandez, 66, said there had been clashes since 1935 on the edges of this settlement of 640 people that repeated federal and state interventions had failed to solve.

``If we had guns, we’d go and do the same thing to them, but we don’t, which is why we stand here with our arms crossed,″ Hernandez said, though he admitted to knowing the local price for an AK-47.

``If the government does nothing, the dispute will continue. There will be more massacres,″ he added.

Xochiltepec, about 215 miles southeast of Mexico City, is one of hundreds of tiny settlements with apparently ageless rival claims to land. The federal agrarian reform department has reported some 600 ongoing community disputes over land in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most heavily Indian state.

In 1998, a battle between Teojomulco and another village killed at least 14. A 1986 clash involving nearby Amoltepec and Zaniza killed 28. One of the men convicted of homicide in that case is now Amoltepec’s mayor, three years after leaving prison.

Most conflicts in the impoverished region are related in some way to land. Competing Indian cultures have battled over farm and forest land since before the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. Officials say the latest violence is no exception.

``This attack was an act of vengeance by one community toward another″ because of a federal ruling that Xochiltepec owned hundreds of acres also claimed by Teojomulco, the state attorney general’s office said.

Xochiltepec is a Zapotec Indian settlement. Las Huertas is a Mestizo village.

The victims worked at a sawmill in nearby San Pedro el Alto, staying there from Monday to Friday and returning each weekend with their pay.

Survivors said the men had hitched a ride on a dump truck for the arduous, several-hour ride back home. At a spot known as Agua Fria _ Cold Water _ downed tree trunks and rocks forced driver Alberto Antonio Perez to stop and gunmen emerged from the trees.

Perez says they ordered him and his son to leave _ the two were from San Pedro rather than Xochiltepec _ and then opened fire with automatic weapons. Twenty-six men died and four survived, sheltered by the bodies of the dead.

On Sunday, Xochiltepec held three funerals: one for Evangelicals, one for Jehovah’s Witnesses and one for Catholics. The mourners were occasionally disrupted by the roar of state helicopters.

The state attorney general’s office said more than 200 police and federal troops took part in the arrests. Police here said residents of Las Huertas unsuccessfully tried to stop the arrests, and the state pulled back its forces afterward to avoid provoking a conflict.

There had been sputtering conflicts earlier: People in Xochiltepec say that men from Teojomulco fired hundreds of shots at the village school here in January.

People in Las Huertas accused Xochiltepec men of a March 1 ambush in which one person was killed.

``The government has left this to grow and grow, and then this happened. It was brutal″ said Onofre Ramirez, a 24-year-old teacher. ``This is not an isolated situation. It is generalized throughout the region.″

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