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Mexican Troops Called To Quell Peasant Revolt Over Polluting Oil Wells


THIS is what it takes these days to pump a barrel of crude from one of Mexico's richest oil fields: 500 Army troops and helmeted federal agents, a dozen or so circling helicopters, and one big shove.

In this town and others nearby in the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco, peasants have launched a campaign of civil resistance to block petroleum production at dozens of government-owned installations. They charge that the national oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex, has so polluted surrounding lands and waters that their native economy of farming and fishing is near collapse.

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The protesters, who organizers say number about 5,000, have harassed the government since Jan. 29. They're demanding compensation from the oil company and a commitment not to drill new wells until industrial waste and oil spills can be controlled. In addition, they seek political reform to guarantee clean local elections.

But the government and Pemex deny wrongdoing and insist that oil production, one of the debt-ridden country's main source of revenue, must continue.

''The state of law is not subject to negotiation or capricious application,'' the federal Interior Ministry said in a statement late Wednesday. ''Given provocation by acts of crime, the government of the republic is obligated to see that the law is upheld.''

On Wednesday at noon, authorities cleared a blockaded road here with a violent charge into a crowd of hundreds of unarmed peasants who were singing the national anthem.

One barefoot woman screamed at a helmeted officer after her foot was injured in the charge. ''I'm not afraid of you!'' said Guadalupe Perez Lazaro. ''We don't have guns, but we'll fight you with our hands!''

The organizer of the movement, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also was defiant despite getting whacked on the ear.

''We realize that the government is determined to go over the heads of indigenous people and peasants to get the oil,'' says Mr. Lopez Obrador, a former candidate for governor here for the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party. ''But we are going to continue to demonstrate peacefully.''

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While the protests have affected only 50 to 60 wells - a tiny fraction of the 4,600 Pemex operates nationwide - company officials say losses have mounted to several millions of dollars. Pemex general director Adrian Lajous told reporters this week that the company also has been forced to delay plans to drill new wells in the region this year.

In an effort to retake the political initiative, Pemex this week published full-page advertisements in Mexican newspapers detailing how much money it returned to Tabasco in 1995. According to the ads, Pemex gave the state 278 million pesos, or roughly $37 million, for projects ranging from emergency aid in the wake of Hurricanes Opal and Roxanne to road paving and potable-water equipment.

Peasants interviewed Wednesday said the money is not nearly enough.''Pemex doesn't acknowledge how it damages our homes, our lakes, our streams,'' says fisherman Ernesto Hernandez, a protester in Nacajuca.''

The protesters also are fighting what they call an illegitimate state regime. The current governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, is under investigation by federal prosecutors for allegedly spending far more during his 1994 campaign than the law allows. Governor Madrazo, the peasants charge, has diverted Pemex money from people who need it.

''More than anything, what we want is for Pemex to give help directly to the communities, not to the state government,'' says Freddy Leon Rivera, who was leading a sit-in of 15 people blocking wells in the remote town of Cunduacan. He said he would continue the blockade ''as long as necessary.''

Talks in Mexico City to ease the standoff have made little progress during the nearly two weeks of protests. Some analysts worry deadly violence may result.

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