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From: Lynn5/6/2006 10:03:08 PM
   of 81
Violence unsettles Mexican election campaign
By Catherine Bremer
Sat May 6, 1:55 PM ET

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Street riots, decapitations of police officers by drug gangs and the worst union conflict in years have raised tension in Mexico's presidential race with the government under fire for its handling of the violence.

Thousands of police swarmed a town near Mexico City this week to free fellow officers taken hostage in riots that left a 14-year-old boy dead and led to scores of arrests.

The violence, triggered by a dispute with police over unlicensed flower sellers, came two weeks after two steel workers were killed during running battles with police sent in to break a long strike.

The same day, the heads of two policemen decapitated by presumed drug gang hitmen were found outside government offices in Acapulco, a symbol of the spiraling drug violence that has spread from the U.S. border to Pacific coast resorts.

The events are unrelated and localized, and foreign analysts see little risk of wider instability. But they have raised the temperature of the election campaign, with one candidate warning of worse to come.

"Things are going to be violent," said Roberto Madrazo, who is running in third place as candidate of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before it was ousted in the last election in 2000.

"We are going to have a very heated climate for the election."

He charged the government with being heavy-handed in trying to break the steel plant strike and said at a campaign rally that Mexican President Vicente Fox "shook at the knees" when fighting erupted this week in San Salvador Atenco, near the capital.

The state governor then accused leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's party of fanning the riot. Lopez Obrador, who is in a tight race with ruling conservative party candidate Felipe Calderon, denied the allegation, saying he was a pacifist.


San Salvador Atenco is a combative farming town that has been under a form of self-rule since machete-wielding peasants scuttled plans to build a new airport early in Fox's term.

Both Madrazo and Calderon responded to the latest violence by insisting they would never be scared off by machetes.

Protesters took several police hostage, dozens of people were arrested and many others hauled away bleeding.

Fox's office has played down the riot, saying it involved a small group of people and was not a sign of shaky governance.

But Subcomandante Marcos, who led a brief Zapatista uprising of Maya Indians in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994 and has links with the protesters in San Salvador Atenco, put his rebel army on alert and warned the government to release all of those jailed "if it doesn't want problems."

"We are not looking at a policing problem, but a serious social and political conflict," said Joaquin Lopez Doriga, a well-known TV news presenter, in a newspaper column on Friday.

"The problem is far from being resolved ... and there are only 59 days until July 2," he wrote.

The ongoing strike by thousands of miners and metal workers has also caused concern. Workers walked off the job to defend a union boss the government accuses of graft and insist they will not negotiate an end to the strike without him.

The government says the strikes are illegal but it was widely criticized after the violent clashes, which erupted when it sent troops and police to try and seize the Sicartsa steel plant in western Mexico.

Still, most Mexicans may be more worried about their pocketbooks than the violent episodes. Polls show conservative Calderon overtaking long-time front-runner Lopez Obrador in the past two weeks, and the race is now too close to call.

"It's very clear from the polls that people are voting more based on economic concerns than anything else," said Pamela Starr, Latin America analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington.
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