Mexican federal police were holding Flavio Sosa, the self-styled rebel and leader of Oaxaca's protest movement, in a maximum-security prison Tuesday after detaining him hours before he was to meet with negotiators for another federal agency.
The arrest, which came late Monday as Sosa was leaving a Mexico City news conference, marked a get-tough approach to radical opposition by the days-old government of President Felipe Calderon and his new interior secretary, Francisco Ramirez Acuna, who is seen as a hard-liner.
It remained unclear Tuesday why one branch of the government arrested Sosa while another, the Interior Ministry, was planning to meet with him.
Calderon inherited the Oaxaca imbroglio when he took office last week. The protest against the governor of Oaxaca state has devastated the region's tourist industry since it exploded onto the streets of Oaxaca city, the state's quaint capital, in May.
Before taking office, Calderon promised to restore order in Oaxaca but also said he would negotiate with the protesters.
Sosa, a burly 42-year-old known for his fiery rhetoric and his long hair and beard, faces charges that include kidnapping, arson, vandalism and assault. He joins more than 100 other Oaxacan activists held in federal detention since Nov. 24. Most are facing sedition charges.
Sosa was arrested with three other members of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO, on a warrant issued by a Oaxacan judge. The activists said they had come to Mexico City to negotiate with Interior Ministry officials, who confirmed that the group had a Tuesday appointment.
"We see this as a political kidnapping," said Zenen Bravo, another APPO leader. Bravo said federal agents were waiting outside the building where Sosa and other Oaxacan activist leaders held their afternoon news conference. Sosa was detained after he hailed a taxi.
Interior Ministry officials said Tuesday that the meeting with Sosa had been canceled, but officials did meet with other APPO leaders.
Rights activists denounced the arrest as a chilling crackdown on dissent.
But in Oaxaca's historic center, some business owners praised the action and said they were relieved that relative calm had returned to their city after months of barricades and street battles.
Leftist groups had occupied government buildings and seized the city's central square. Armed supporters of Gov. Ulises Ruiz threatened government opponents and allegedly carried out killings.
"I think it's a good thing they put that guy Sosa in jail," said Candelaria Gonzalez, owner of a restaurant. "He did a lot of damage to the state and thought he was invincible.... The fair thing now would be for the governor to resign also."
The old city center was buzzing Tuesday as owners of businesses and homes painted bright colors over the graffiti that had covered their walls for months. In the central plaza, workers planted rows of fresh poinsettias.
The activists occupied large areas of Oaxaca until Oct. 29, when federal police officers retook the city center. The movement began as a teachers strike for better wages and benefits, but it eventually sought the removal of Ruiz.
The activists accuse Ruiz of corruption and of attempting to violently suppress their movement.
In an interview with a Mexico City radio station just before his arrest, Sosa said many of his relatives had already been detained and that he expected to be arrested as well.
"It's terrible to see the persecution in the Valley of Oaxaca against everyone whose last name is Sosa, and in particular against me," Sosa said. He charged that local officials had placed a $100,000 bounty on his head.
Sen. Santiago Creel of the ruling National Action Party told reporters Tuesday that the crisis in Oaxaca would be resolved only when Ruiz resigned. He praised authorities for the arrest of Sosa.
As many as 11 people have died in political violence in Oaxaca since May, including independent New York journalist Bradley Roland Will, who was shot Oct. 27 while covering the protests.
The group Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that two men suspected in connection with Will's killing, including a municipal official linked to Ruiz, were released from custody.
"Everything suggests that the Oaxaca state judicial authorities are now trying to cover up for Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz's aides," the group said in a statement. "This is an insult to the victim and a spur to impunity."
In Mexico City, Oaxacan-born painter Francisco Toledo joined writers Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsivais and other intellectuals in forming a committee demanding the release of the Oaxacan detainees.
Adrian Ramirez of the Mexican League in Defense of Human Rights called Monday's arrests "a clear sign of what we will see in the government of Felipe Calderon and his interior secretary.... They are going to try to silence all movements through repressive means."
Officials with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which leads the opposition in both houses of Congress, charged that Calderon was quickly returning Mexico to "a climate of persecution similar to the '70s and '80s."
Many in Oaxaca said the community remained divided over the fate of the governor and the movement against him.
"We're afraid and we don't see this as over," said Elisabeth Gutierrez, a bookstore owner. "The police will have to leave one day, and we're worried about the groups returning."
Tobar reported from Mexico City and Enriquez from Oaxaca. Cecilia Sanchez and Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.