The San Quintin agricultural region of Baja California erupted in violence Saturday as protesters pelted police with rocks and took over a government building. Police retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets in running skirmishes that left dozens of people injured, according to farmworker leaders and Mexican authorities.
The rioting came a day after the cancellation of a meeting between Mexican federal government officials and farmworker leaders in this region about 200 miles south of San Diego.
Farmworkers have been seeking higher wages, at least $13 per day, and government benefits, and patience on both sides seems to be wearing thin as negotiations, now in their eighth week, remain at an impasse.
The rioting flared Saturday morning when strikers gathered outside a farm near the town of Vicente Guerrero. They were there to persuade arriving workers to stay on strike, according to farmworker leader Justino Herrera.
Police responded in force after some of the strikers began setting fires in the area, according to Mexican state authorities cited in news reports.
Protesters reportedly set fire to two police cars and a police station. About 45 people were injured during the clashes with Baja California state and municipal police, and six were taken to a hospital, Herrera said.
Videos of farmworkers showing the bruises and cuts purportedly from police beatings quickly circulated on the Internet, fueling complaints of use of excessive force by Baja California state police officers.
"We're just trying to uphold our rights as workers, and the police are coming here, provoking us, instilling fear, so we give up our fight," Herrera said. Baja state officials were not available to comment.
The laborers for a few hours blocked the main highway linking the region to export markets in the U.S. Similar tactics at the start of the strike on March 17 prompted an aggressive response by Mexican authorities.
The strike crippled exports for a time, but most agribusinesses in recent weeks have returned to full production. Many workers returned to the strawberry and tomato fields after being offered higher wages, though not as high as leaders demanded.
The Times reported extensively on abusive labor practices at export farms in a series published in December, "Product of Mexico," which prompted the Mexican government and large growers to establish an alliance aimed at improving conditions for workers.