As Mexican authorities investigate whether police used excessive force or opened fire first, witnesses were clear that the police were in the wrong against striking teachers and their allies during Sunday's clashes that left 12 dead and more than 100 people injured in the small, Oaxaca state town of Nochixtlan.
Brutal Crackdown Confronts Teachers' Strike in Oaxaca
The deadly confrontation followed a series of protests in impoverished southern states where the radical CNTE teachers union rejects neoliberal education reforms that have caused massive layoffs, especially in southern rural states.
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.
Hundreds of residents, including Oscar Luna 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. Other witnesses claim that police fired first and Mexican authorities say the allegations are under investigation.
The autopsy showed that a bullet pierced Oscar's liver. Six other victims also had bullet wounds, while another fatality died from mishandling an explosive. The latest death toll, according to teleSUR correspondent Aissa Garcia, is as high as 12.
"The people don't have weapons,” said Blanca Estela Aguilar, his mother. “The people never expected this. It was a betrayal by our authorities," she said.
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 guarded 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."
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 allege police arrived unarmed to remove the barricade but that armed officers were sent after they were "ambushed" by "radicals" with guns.
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.
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!"
On Monday, Mexican Interior Minister Osorio Chong finally agreed to meet with representatives of the CNTE teachers union. The CNTE had requested formal dialogue with the government for months, but were met with steadfast resistance from officials who demanded teachers return to classes before talks commenced.
Two local ministers—the secretary of labor and minister of Indigenous affairs—have also presented their resignation to Oaxaca Governor Gabino Cue, citing the violent repression and need for dialogue.
Secretary of Labor Daniel Gutierrez decried the "authoritarian actions that repress and kill Oaxacan people who defend their rights and the government’s negligence to any possibility of dialogue.”