What had been a days-long peaceful protest of a gasoline price hike took a violent turn on Sunday in Nogales, Sonora after state police dislodged protesters from the railroad tracks south of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry.
At least two policemen suffered facial lacerations during an afternoon confrontation in which demonstrators hurled rocks at officers, and law enforcement responded with rubber bullets.
That showdown followed the removal of the protesters in the morning, when six people were taken into custody and a 23-year-old woman went missing, according to the demonstrators.
A crowd began gathering after noon at the vehicle lanes south of the port to demand the release of the detainees, three of whom were allegedly beaten by police. At the same time, demonstrators a quarter-mile south of the port blocked the path of a Union Pacific train headed north toward the United States.
Nogales, Sonora Mayor Cuauhtemoc "Temo" Galindo arrived at the scene at around 2 p.m. as the crowd swelled from the dozens who had been blocking the train tracks since Wednesday to well over 1,000. He told the protesters that his government has been working to confront the gas price hike, and pleaded with them not to express their anger by disrupting commerce at the port and hindering the city's economic activity.
"I need to ask you that we all move in the same direction," he said amid jeers.
Galindo also told the protesters that state officials had promised him that the detained demonstrators would be released Monday.
Unappeased, the crowd shouted "Today! Today!"
"We want to believe in the word of the mayor, that they're going to liberate the political prisoners – and they are political prisoners," said a man who identified himself only as "Juan Pueblo," and who served as a spokesman for the protesters during the appearance by Galindo.
"If the mayor keeps his word, we're going to stop … but we're not going to abandon the movement," he told the NI. "We're going to stop so that the train can pass, but we're going to (continue protesting)."
Asked why the protesters had decided to focus their efforts at the port of entry, the spokesman said it was meant to attract the attention of the international media. In addition, he said, they hoped that powerful figures and governments would take notice.
"We know that the blockade here will affect the pockets of big businessmen like Carlos Slim (Mexico's richest man), the government of the United States, the government of Canada … they have the power to pressure (Mexican President) Enrique Peña Nieto," he said.
After Galindo departed, a segment of the crowd began moving toward the DeConcini port, with a group of youths toppling concrete barriers that separate the SENTRI expedited-access vehicle lane with the others.
When a team of police in riot gear appeared and began advancing toward the group from the north, some demonstrators began to hurl rocks. The protesters then crossed back to the railroad tracks, where they were met by more police who chased them away with gunfire. A state policeman who paused to take cover next to this reporter said the officers were firing rubber bullets.
A tense standoff ensued back at the Plaza de las Banderas, a few hundred feet south of the port. Meanwhile, when engine noise picked up from the stalled train, protesters climbed into the lead engine and began bashing at its machinery.
Through it all, some members of the crowd tried to urge the rock-throwers to refrain from violence. One man stepped forward and used a p.a. system on a police vehicle to urge calm while waving a white flag.
But things turned contentious again at around 4:30 p.m., when a barrage of gunfire could be heard coming from the Plaza de las Banderas. This time, police also fired tear gas canisters at the protesters, according to local media reports.
Nogales Police Department officers blocked access to the southbound lanes at the DeConcini port immediately after the protesters moved into the vehicle lanes in Mexico after noon. As tensions heated up, U.S. Customs and Border Protection shut down the Morley Avenue pedestrian border crossing as well as all vehicle lanes and the southbound pedestrian crossing at the DeConcini facility.
"Earlier in the afternoon, gun shots were heard in Mexico," CBP said in a statement released at about 8:30 p.m., adding that the agency had stepped up the law enforcement presence at the DeConcini port "as a preventative measure."
"No CBP officers or employees were injured during this protest," the statement said.
Northbound traffic into the United States resumed at the port at approximately 6 p.m., but southbound vehicle and pedestrian lanes remained closed, and CBP recommended that travelers headed for Mexico use the Mariposa Port of Entry on the west side of town instead.
In a security message posted to its social media accounts Sunday evening, the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora warned citizens of the protests near the DeConcini port and noted "reports of police using rubber bullets to control the protesters."
"You should avoid areas of demonstrations, and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations," the consulate said.
The demonstrators are upset about the Mexican government’s move to raise gas prices on Jan. 1. The move, known derisively as the “gasolinazo,” has sparked protests and blockades of highways and ports throughout the country.
Alma Garcia, a Nogales, Sonora resident and mother of four children, said she's been protesting the gas price hike since Jan. 2.
"As a homemaker, it affects me a lot, it affects me tremendously," she said. "When the price of gasoline goes up, the price of everything goes up, and that's going to affect all of us homemakers. And the people who work who don't have a car, how much more are they going to pay for the bus?"
If working people are going to suffer economically, Garcia said, the people with power and money who make the decisions should suffer as well.
The gasoline price increase was supposed to vary between 13 and 20 percent nationwide, but a "stimulus" meant for northern border areas has yet to be applied, forcing consumers to pay closer to double at the pump. The national daily Reforma reported Sunday that government officials and gas station operators from border areas had reached an agreement with federal authorities so that the lower prices could finally be applied.
In Nogales, Sonora, the stimulus is meant to mitigate the maximum price of regular unleaded gas from the new standard of 16.23 pesos per liter (approximately $2.90 per gallon) to 13.07 pesos per liter ($2.35 per gallon). Prior to Jan. 1, it had been selling for a little more than 11 pesos per liter ($1.96 per gallon) at the pump.