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Mexican Police Make Arrests in Massacre of 26 Farmers - 2002-06-04

In Mexico, police have arrested at least 16 people in connection with the massacre of 26 peasant farmers in the southern state of Oaxaca last Friday. The motive for the murders could have been a land dispute, but authorities say narcotics trafficking may have also played a role.

It was one of the worst massacres to have taken place in Mexico in recent years. Last Friday gunmen stopped a truck on a remote rural road near a place called Agua Fria. They allowed the driver and a few other people to escape, but systematically killed almost all the men riding in the back of the vehicle.

Oaxaca governor Jose Murat says state officials are exploring a possible connection with drug trafficking.

He says marijuana and other substances are grown in the area and that a dispute over drugs is one of the lines of investigation.

The governor says, however, that it is also possible that the killing had something to do with a land dispute between two rival villages in the area. All of the victims were from the village of Santiago Xochiltepec, which has been involved in a dispute with a neighboring village over land for several decades. There have been a number of clashes in the area within the past several months, but nothing on the scale of what happened Friday.

Oaxaca State Prosecutor Sergio Santibanez says police conducting a sweep of the area have turned up a great deal of evidence.

He says they have detained 16 people, seized 23 rifles, a pistol and some ammunition. He says that among the guns found during the raids are five A-K-47 assault rifles. These weapons are illegal in Mexico, but they are often used by drug smugglers and other criminal gangs.

Some 100 soldiers are also in the area of the attack assisting state and local police in their investigation of Friday's massacre.

Disputes over land, family feuds and fights over drug production are common in many rural areas of Mexico, where most aspects of modern life have yet to take hold. In 1986, a clash over a land dispute in rural Oaxaca resulted in 28 deaths. Many land disputes date back to the 16th century, when Mexico was a Spanish colony, and the participants in these disputes are often from rival indigenous groups. The Mexican federal agrarian reform department says there are around 600 such disputes still active in the state of Oaxaca.