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Wellhead Protests Heat Up In Tabasco State

February 9, 1996

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico (AP) _ Thousands of peasants blocked roads leading to dozens of oil wells and other facilities in the southern Gulf coast state of Tabasco today to protest the pollution of croplands and fisheries.

More than 60 peasants and opposition leaders were arrested Thursday at a blockade near Cardenas for their protests against the state oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex.

The protests, which began a week ago, cumulated Wednesday in clashes with soldiers and federal police that left 10 protesters injured at one site. Since then, the two sides have been in a standoff.

Oil is Mexico’s most important export. Officials said production has not been seriously affected, but the protesters are preventing crews from maintaining key equipment.

Pemex officials say they have paid millions of dollars over the years to drill in the region and compensate for unavoidable environmental damage. The dispute, however, has taken on complicated political overtones.

The leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which is spearheading the protests, was badly beaten in recent elections, and the turnout in Tabasco is considered an important show of strength.

Party leaders have pressed the government to negotiate with them to resolve the dispute, but the Interior Ministry has rejected that approach.

``It is irresponsible for the national leadership of a political party to lend its support to illegal acts,″ it said late Thursday in a statement.

At a sweaty crossroads near Ciudad Pemex, Julio Cesar Alvarez, a Democratic Revolution legislator, stacked tree branches across the road to slow traffic with 50 peasant supporters.

They complained about a nearby petrochemical plant leaking pollutants into a foul-smelling lagoon nearby.

``Acid rain caused by the plant corrodes the barbed-wire fences and harms the crops and the fruit trees,″ Alvarez said. ``There was a study done, but Pemex wants to hide the results.″

Oil company officials say the criticism is unfair.

``Petroleos Mexicanos has great plans for investment and expansion in Tabasco,″ state administrator Humberto Lira Mora told journalists. ``There is no country in the world where there isn’t environmental damage caused by petroleum extraction.″

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