REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Two students are dead after a confrontation between police and rural teaching students in the southern state of Guerrero, in an incident that is reminding many here of the history of brutal crackdowns against leftist protesters in Mexico.
Authorities promised an investigation, but student groups and several leftist-identified sections of the national teachers union called the deaths acts of "repression" and "murder" and said they would hold protest demonstrations this week.
The clash occurred Monday on a stretch of the federal highway that connects Mexico City and the resort of Acapulco, just south of Guerrero's capital city, Chilpancingo.
According to accounts, between 300 and 500 unarmed students and activists affiliated with a teachers college blocked the Autopista del Sol as part of their ongoing demands related to improvements and funding for the Raul Isidro Burgos normal college in Ayotzinapa, a town about 90 miles east of Chilpancingo.
When police arrived at the blockade with the intent to clear the highway, the normalistas, as they are known, threw projectiles. Tear gas was fired, and a gasoline station caught fire, news reports said.
In the chaos that followed, shots were fired into the protesters. Two students died. They were identified as Gabriel Echeverria and Jorge Herrera.
Photos published in Mexican newspapers showed the bodies of two young men, one wearing a backpack, lying on the highway.
Federal, state and ministerial police were present, as well as armed men in plainclothes and, later, the army, the reports said. It remained unclear Tuesday who fired at the students and who ordered the use of force.
The "normal school" system -- in which rural campesinos are trained to be teachers -- is one of the few remaining socialist-styled legacies of the period after the Mexican Revolution. The system's students and teachers often clash with authorities. The powerful chief of the national teachers union, Elba Esther Gordillo, described the system in comments made earlier this year as a "hotbed for political scheming" (link in Spanish).
In Chilpancingo, at least 20 demonstrators were detained, at least two were seriously injured, and one reporter was arrested, beaten and later released, several reports said. There were also several police injuries.
Many demonstrators dispersed into the hillsides near the highway after the gunfire and remain unaccounted for, union leaders and students said at a news conference in Mexico City on Tuesday.
A witness identified as a student from Ayotzinapa, wearing glasses and a U.S. university sweatshirt, described the incident in detail, saying the federal police fired first toward the demonstrators. The man, said to be 22, was not identified by name for fear of reprisal.
"We never had arms," said the student witness, speaking at a local teachers union branch. "When the aggression started, we used what we had in our reach -- stones and sticks."
The incident led to promises of justice from Mexico's federal Interior Ministry and Gov. Angel Aguirre of Guerrero. On Tuesday, Aguirre said in a radio interview that he had fired his top prosecutor and the head of public security in the state and asked federal authorities to take over the investigation (link in Spanish).
Amnesty International released a statement condemning the violence, and Mexico's national human rights commission also promised to investigate.
"Some [protesters] managed to make it up to the hills, and some came down, but 20 others, we don't know where they are," the student witness said Tuesday. "We don't know if they're still up on the mountain or if they were picked up by authorities."
The student also said one female activist from the community was missing.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: A 22-year-old man identified as a teaching student from Ayotzinapa describes the confrontation with police in Guerrero state, Mexico, Dec. 13, 2011. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times