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[M] EXICO CITY -- As Mexico continues its sharp criticism of the United States for the recent beating of illegal immigrants by police officers in California, the Mexican government itself is being condemned for a brutal attack against peasants by its police.
The episode took place Wednesday when local policemen opened fire on peasants heading to an anniversary commemoration of the death of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. They planned to take part in an environmental protest there.
The confrontation, which killed one person and wounded dozens, took place in the state of Morelos, where Zapata was killed by government forces 77 years ago.
"If the government is going to demand justice for Mexicans in another country, it has to begin by protecting the rights of its own people at home," said Adela Bocanegra de Medina, 69, who was in the group of people who were attacked.
A group of up to 500 people was headed to the annual Zapata commemoration in Tlaltizapan, the site of Zapata's headquarters. They intended to protest against a golf course planned for environmentally sensitive land in Tepotzlan, which is about 60 miles south of Mexico City.
They planned to make their case in front of President Ernesto Zedillo, who was to appear at a Zapata anniversary event. But some 60 police officers blocked the highway at the town of San Rafael, setting off the violent face-off.
The government contends that the peasants were armed and acted in a threatening way and that the police were far outnumbered, but the peasants say that the police ambushed and attacked them.
The attack by state police officers in Morelos puts Zedillo's government in a politically and morally difficult position because it comes at a time when Mexican officials have made the recent episode in Riverside, Calif., into a symbol of racism and brutality by the United States against Mexicans.
On April 1 a California television crew videotaped two Riverside County sheriff's deputies, after a police chase, clubbing two illegal Mexican immigrants who had been riding in a pickup truck. The police suspected the truck was being used to transport other illegal aliens.
The Mexican government expressed indignation at what it called "the flagrant violation of the human rights" of Mexican citizens and demanded that the United States re-examine its policies in areas near the border.
That position will be harder to sustain after the incident in Morelos. "It is an ambiguous and contradictory policy," said Jesus Martin del Campo, a leader of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party.
At first the governor of Morelos denied that the shooting had taken place, contending that the police officers had been unarmed. But after participants and witnesses contradicted that version, and the protesters produced a videotape that showed the police carrying weapons, the governor conceded that in fact the police were armed and had fired on the peasants.
As a result, four police officers have been suspended and 28 others assigned to limited duty while an official investigation gets under way. A similar episode occurred in the state of Guerrero last June, when state police officers tried to block truckloads of peasants from attending an anti-government rally. Shots were fired, and 17 subsistence farmers were killed.
Such incidents of state repression have weakened Zedillo's statements that he is turning Mexico into a country of laws. On Thursday, the president sent a "respectful call" to local authorities to punish those responsible for the violence, said his spokesman, Carlos Almada.
"The presidency condemns whatever action obstructs citizens' rights to exercise their individual guarantees -- in particular, the freedom of expression," Almada said.
But one official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, expressed Zedillo's quandary. He said the government is now in the position of having to "decry and oppose any kind of abuse by law enforcement agents anywhere against Mexicans," and that is the case, he said, "in Morelos as well as outside Mexico."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
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