Gunmen ambushed a humanitarian caravan in a remote, restive area of southern Mexico, killing a Finnish man and a Mexican activist, and dozens from their group remained missing, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The ambush took place Tuesday just outside the village of San Juan Copala, which is the scene of a long-running dispute between a group demanding greater local autonomy and militants with links to Oaxaca state's ruling party.
An eyewitness said the roughly 40 people traveling in the caravan abandoned their vehicles and scattered when masked gunmen opened fire from a hillside.
Most still missing
Most who fled were still missing, including two journalists from the Mexican magazine Contralinea. It was not clear how many foreigners were with the group.
"They started to spray us with bullets," said Gabriela Jimenez Ramirez of Oaxaca city, who was traveling in the caravan inside an SUV with a dozen people, including the two dead. "Trying to back up, they blew out the tires of the vehicle. We threw ourselves on the floor. The vehicle was shaking because there were bursts of gunfire."
Jimenez is a prominent representative in the radical movement known as the People's Assembly of Oaxaca, or APPO, which seized control of Oaxaca city for almost five months in 2006 to push for the ouster of Gov. Ulises Ruiz.
The caravan also included members of a militant local section of the National Teachers Workers Union and other leftist civic and aid groups.
San Jaun Copala has reportedly been surrounded by armed opponents of the local movement for greater autonomy from state and federal authorities.
The roots of the territorial conflict at San Juan Copala date back decades, and permanent police facilities have been withdrawn to avoid inflaming hostilities. State police did not arrive at the scene until the day after the attack.
Although Jimenez was released by masked gunmen, she said she saw others led away at gunpoint.
‘We aren’t responsible’
She said her captors claimed affiliation with Unity for the Social Well-being of the Triqui Region and the allied Movement of Unification for the Triqui People, groups with ties to state authorities allegedly pressuring the local autonomy movement.
"They were youths who were more than 20-year-olds, wearing masks," she said. "They showed us their guns. ... They told us they were the ones in charge in the area."
The leader of the Movement of Unification for the Triqui People issued a firm denial.
"We aren't responsible," Heriberto Pazos Ortiz said. "I hope the organizations that are talking about these violent events do it with honesty and don't make wild accusations."
A member of the caravan named Monica Citlali was lightly wounded by a bullet. She refused to talk to state authorities or the press about what happened.
Contralinea reporter Erika Ramirez and photographer David Cilia were accompanying the caravan to report on conditions in San Juan Copala and were still unaccounted for Wednesday. Directors of the magazine were traveling to Oaxaca from Mexico City.
"We are really very distressed as we wait for more information," said Nancy Flores, a magazine representative.
The Finnish ambassador to Mexico, Ulla Vaisto, confirmed the death of Jyri Antero Jaakkola, a 33-year-old affiliated with the nongovernmental group Uusi Tuuli, and urged that those responsible be brought to justice.
Uusi Tuuli promotes "international solidarity, fair international economic arrangements, peace and mutual understanding between people and nations," according to its website.
Associated Press Writer Morgan Lee in Mexico City contributed to this report.