Change comes hard in Mexican village
By Ginger Thompson - New York Times
San Jose Estancia Grande, MEXICO -- There is no doubt about who executed 39-year-old Guadalupe Avila Salinas, a mother of four, a beloved community worker and a candidate for mayor who was gunned down in broad daylight just days before local elections on Oct. 3 in this village of corn farmers in the southern state of Oaxaca.
The mayor whom she hoped to succeed chased her into a public health clinic and fired three bullets into her back. Then, in front of at least a dozen horrified bystanders, he reached over Avila's body and fired another bullet into her head. The local police did nothing to keep him from fleeing.
Three days later, she won the election.
The victory illustrates a critical turning point in Mexico's slow move toward democracy. In one sense, the killing recalled the days when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, used everything from stuffing ballot boxes to assassinations to win elections. The man who killed her was a member of that party, which has governed this town for the last seven decades.
Yet in this case, the people did not bow to the violence. They carried on Avila's campaign, elected her posthumously as mayor, then asked her husband to serve her term and to keep her dream alive.
PRI leaders said the killing was a lamentable aberration but had nothing to do with politics. Her grieving husband, Israel Reyes Montes, is not so sure.
"My wife spent the last 12 years working for change in Mexico," said Reyes, 35, afraid even to stand next to his wife's grave for a photograph because he was worried about who might be watching. "She even had me believing in her dream. Look where it left her."
Four years after this country celebrated its first open presidential elections, it is not always easy to tell whether Mexico is moving forward or back to its authoritarian past.
Clearly, real progress has been made, including a more independent press, prosecutions of government officials accused of crimes against humanity and new freedom-of-information laws. But fraud and violence continue to mar political contests at the state and local levels -- which remain in the grip of the PRI. Impunity systematically prevails over justice.
Some of the worst examples have happened in Oaxaca, a state of breathtaking beauty and catastrophic ethnic and land disputes. About the size of Maine, it has 17 Indian groups and is divided into 570 municipalities -- more than any other Mexican state.
In 152 municipalities, people elect their mayors by secret ballot. In all the rest, elected officials are chosen by traditional Indian assemblies, where a committee of representatives votes, usually by a show of hands. The contests are rife with corruption and conflict.
In a political rally in August in the town of Huautla, PRI militants beat a retired teacher to death in front of news photographers. The teacher, Serafin Garcia Contreras, was campaigning against the party five days before elections for governor. His killers remain free.
Then, on the day of the elections, a 45-year-old voter in the village of Palo del Agua was shot eight times after casting a ballot for the opposition. Relatives said the PRI had offered Raymundo Martinez, a poor vegetable farmer, about $25 for his vote. But he turned it down.
His killers have not been arrested.
"Today there seems an increasing appearance of retrograde political expressions, the kind associated with visions of Mexico's past the kind we hoped had been left behind. [They] suddenly have appeared with enormous force, with brutal intolerance," said Diodoro Carrasco, a former governor of the state of Oaxaca and a member of the PRI who has been threatened with expulsion from the party. "I believe this is something that should not only worry us but must also be denounced."
Avila, who was a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, is described by her supporters as a tireless watchdog determined to lift a town of 800 people whose only businesses are a couple of restaurants and a telephone and fax service in somebody's garage.
"Most people would look at this village and see nothing, but Lupita looked at it and she saw big things," said Socorro Morga Salinas, 27, a resident of the village. "She saw big things in us, and she made us see them too."
Residents here said Avila scooted around on a yellow bicycle, organizing activities and assistance for old people and elementary school students. When residents began to complain that the local doctor was charging too much for his services, she went out to look for one who would charge less.
When parents complained that their children were not learning to read and write, Avila led a sit-in at the elementary school and stayed for two weeks, until the authorities agreed to send new teachers.
"She did more for people than any mayor," said her cousin, Emelia Salinas Salinas, 61. Referring to the local authorities, Salinas added, "But what was good for us was bad for them, so they killed her." Leaders of the PRI reject such accusations. They said Avila and the fugitive mayor, Candido Palacios Noyola, had been fighting for years over the rights to a well on the boundary between their properties. In a moment of rage, they contend, the mayor snapped.
"This was a lamentable act," said Alberto Ramos, who as deputy mayor for the past 30 years seems almost as much a fixture in local government as the PRI. "The man responsible should be arrested and sent to jail. The PRI does not pardon criminals."
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