Who fired first? Mexico town recalls deadly police clash

Agence France-Presse
A protester from the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) teachers' union holds a torch as he yells during a march following clashes in southern Mexico over the weekend between police and members of CNTE, in Mexico City, Mexico, June 20, 2016
Protesters from the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) teachers' union march in Mexico City on June 20, 2016, following clashes in southern Mexico between police and members of CNTE.
Edgard Garrido

Oscar Luna's coffin lay in the living room, surrounded by flowers, while a folk band sang outside for the Mexican man who was among eight killed during weekend clashes involving police.

Relatives were weeping for Luna, 23, who had gone out to support teachers on Sunday manning a barricade on a road in Asuncion Nochixtlan to protest President Enrique Pena Nieto's education reform.

As the authorities investigate whether police used excessive force or opened fire first, witnesses recounted the clashes that left more than 100 people and police injured in the small town in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The deadly confrontation followed a series of protests in impoverished southern states where the radical CNTE teachers union rejects performance evaluations mandated by the new law.

Some 800 police officers arrived to remove the blockade in Nochixtlan on Sunday. The church bells rang as police threw tear gas, dropping some from helicopters, townspeople told AFP.

Hundreds of residents, including Oscar and his slim 18-year-old brother, Javier, showed up with sticks and stones to confront the officers, who were outnumbered.

"The police felt defeated and began to fire with rifles, guns and enough ammunition," Javier Luna told AFP, with tears in his eyes in the room where his brother's coffin rested on Tuesday, surrounded by people with their heads down in grief. Other witnesses also claim that police fired first and the allegations are under investigation.

The autopsy showed that a bullet pierced Oscar's liver. Six other victims also had bullet wounds, while the eighth fatality died from mishandling an explosive. None were teachers.

Javier couldn't save his brother. There were no ambulances. They took a taxi, which carried another badly injured young man, but they arrived too late and doctors were not helpful.

"They almost let us die alone," Javier said.

Next to the coffin, with a picture of the eldest of her three children, Blanca Estella Aguilar couldn't conceal her anger.

"The people don't have weapons. The people never expected this. It was a betrayal by our authorities," she said.

'Ambush' or 'massacre'? 

Two days after the clashes, the town's entrance was blocked by barricades and the burnt remains of trailer trucks. The charred carcasses of chickens from a truck were strewn about the road.

Dozens of townspeople guard the entrance, masking their faces with scarves while holding sticks and machetes as they restricted access.

On the main bridge, someone painted the words: "Oaxaca army out. Murderers of the people."

Most shops were closed in this town of 15,000 people flanked by mountains. Burnt cars were abandoned in several streets. The police were nowhere to be seen.

The town hall was set on fire on Sunday and the mayor fled.

For the past week, few vehicles have been allowed through the town, whose road is key because it lies between the tourist city of Oaxaca and Mexico City.

The inability of supply and fuel trucks to cross the town, and the financial losses to businesses, drove the authorities to finally intervene on Sunday.

Authorities say police arrived unarmed to remove the barricade but that armed officers were sent after they were "ambushed" by "radicals" with guns.

Prosecutors are investigating who fired first and whether police used excessive forced.

A federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that authorities will also investigate whether tear gas was tossed from a police helicopter, but the source noted that the chopper was hit by bullets.

The United Nations' human rights agency called for an impartial and independent investigation into the clashes.

 'Tell the truth' 

But at least five Nochixtlan residents told AFP that police opened fire first after running out of tear gas.

Javier Luna said townspeople wanted to detain three federal officers who opened fire and triggered the clash when they were surrounded.

Another witness, who requested anonymity over security concerns, said an unknown person fired buckshot from a shotgun at the police.

"We tried to grab rocks to prevent a massacre. But this was a massacre. Many innocent people died," Sergio Lopez, a 45-year-old architect, said as he removed burnt trash in front of his house and pointed to a tear gas canister.

The incident has joined a long list of allegations of police brutality in Mexico, which is still shaken by the 2014 disappearance of 43 students who were abducted by police allied with a drug cartel in Guerrero state.

Nochixtlan's residents vow to maintain their barricade. Those controlling the entrance allowed foreign journalists into town, shouting to them: "Tell the truth about what happened!"