Authorities rescue Mexican journalists stranded after ambush on international convoy

By Morgan Lee, AP
Friday, April 30, 2010

Authorities rescue 2 stranded Mexican journalists

OAXACA, Mexico — Mexican authorities rescued two journalists Friday who had been stranded for nearly three days among feuding militants after a caravan of rights activists was caught in a deadly ambush.

Photographer David Cilia, who was shot in the attack, and reporter Erika Ramirez were escorted by police out of a remote Triqui Indian community, the scene of a violent dispute between rival political factions.

Cilia described how the two reporters and two other caravan members took refuge in the brush, and spent days listening to constant gunfire, not knowing whether the gunmen would hunt them down.

“There in the brush, because they kept firing, we had to go deeper into the woods,” Cilia said in an interview posted on the website of his magazine, Contralinea. “We heard the gunshots getting closer.”

After fleeing the initial assault, they knew fellow members of the convoy were still in the bullet-ridden vehicles, but gunfire prevented them from going to their aid. They did not know that a Finnish rights observer and a Mexican activist shot in the initial attack Tuesday were probably already dead.

“One of the fellows tried to go back to help, he said ‘I have to help those people back there,’ but at the slightest movement, when he moved the bushes, they started shooting in his direction,” Cilia said.

“We thought the authorities would act immediately,” Cilia said. But with no warm clothing or food, and with a leg wound that soaked Cilia’s pants with blood and attracted insects, they spent the next two nights waiting for help. “During the whole time we were there, the gunshots did not stop.”

Finally, the journalists were located early Friday and taken to the nearby town of Juxtlahuaca, where they were in stable condition and were being treated for injuries and dehydration.

“Our friends are safe,” said Contralinea spokesman Zosimo Camacho. “David has three bullet wounds, but they aren’t life threatening.”

Contralinea Director Miguel Badillo and Cilia’s father boarded a police helicopter Thursday to participate in the rescue that extended into the night near the remote town of San Juan Copala in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The two activists killed in the Tuesday attack were Finnish human rights worker Jyri Jaakkola and Mexican political activist Beatriz Carino Trujillo.

Jaakkola was a member of a small, Finnish civil rights group, Uusi Tuuli (New Wind), based in the southwestern city of Turku.

In Helsinki on Friday, Finnish Foreign Ministry officials said that Jaakkola’s visit to Mexico was partly connected to a development project involving the Uusi Tuuli group, which had also received ministry funding, to help improve Indians’ food production and self-sufficiency. The Finnish government said Friday that it has demanded that Mexico conduct a thorough investigation of Jaakkola’s death and that those responsible be brought to justice.

The caravan also included members of a Mexican radical leftist movement that seized control of the Oaxacan capital for five months in 2006 in a failed attempt to dislodge the governor of Oaxaca.

State authorities have questioned whether the foreigners were adequately informed about the risks and nature of the outing, and there were fears a long-standing conflict between the street activists and the government could be reignited.

“Whoever organized this caravan will have to answer for it, whoever invited these people … without taking precautions, because I think these people did not know what the situation and problems in the area were,” Oaxaca state Interior Secretary Evencio Martinez said. “They (the caravan members) will have to answer, too, for having accepted the invitation.”

Participants say five Europeans took part in the convoy of 27 people. Cars were draped with banners declaring that press and international observers were on board. Aside from Jaakkola and one other Finn, the nationalities of the other Europeans were unclear.

Survivors of the attack hid in the bush and gradually made their way on foot beyond the disputed area. Some were detained and robbed by gunmen as they found their way back to the highway and hitched rides toward the state capital.

State police could only enter the area for short periods of time, concerned that rescuers might be attacked, too. But a police helicopter was called in when the two activists emerged from the area with word that Cilia and Ramirez were alive and increasingly desperate for help.

The Mexico City-based journalists, in their early 30s, accompanied the caravan, hoping to get a rare glimpse of life in San Juan Copala.

The community, which is controlled by a faction seeking greater autonomy from the state government and its ruling party, reportedly has been cut off from the outside world and has suffered from shortages of food and electricity.

Associated Press writers Ixtli Martinez in Oaxaca, Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Finland, contributed to this report.

will not be displayed