Coca-Cola caught up in southern Mexico protest, 10 injured

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Protests in the southern state of Guerrero around the disappearance of 43 students have meant regular blockades and attacks and robberies of vehicles delivering everything from milk to snacks in recent months.

But the conflict reached a new level late Wednesday when protesters temporarily detained employees of Coca-Cola Co., igniting anger in a business sector already frustrated by struggles to operate in the social turmoil.

Ten people were injured during what police described Thursday as an attempt to attack Coca-Cola's offices in the state capital of Chilpancingo.

The demonstrators briefly took two company employees hostage and the protesters, including teachers' college students and unionized teachers, threw gasoline bombs that resulted in burns for a state police officer, the state government said in a statement. Three other policemen, two journalists and four protesters also were injured.

A teachers' union group maintaining a sit-in in Chilpancingo and whose members participated in the confrontation at the Coca-Cola offices disputed the state's version.

Josefina Sauceda, a member of the group, told The Associated Press that nobody looted or stole any trucks and said that five demonstrators were wrongly arrested to pressure the group to withdraw from the state capital. She said the protesters then took the two Coke employees to exchange for their peers.

Femsa, the largest Coca-Cola bottler in Mexico, told The Associated Press that its employees had been released and were in good condition.

"We are currently evaluating the viability of our operations, with the primary consideration being the safety of our personnel," the company added in a brief statement.

The incident gave a close look at how social unrest after the disappearance of the 43 students in September has paralyzed Guerrero, with teachers and students taking over highway toll booths and robbing and hijacking delivery trucks for money to support their extended protests. The students disappeared at the hands of local police working with a drug cartel, which killed the young men and burned their bodies, the federal attorney general has said.

The case has caused anger nationwide and abroad, but nowhere more so than Guerrero.

Since the young men disappeared Sept. 26, Coca-Cola has lost 250 trucks to robberies or attacks, said Jaima Nava, president of the Employers' Confederation of Mexico in Guerrero. Protesters have also attacked other big companies, such as Comercial Mexicana department stores, Oxxo convenience stores and trucks for the Lala dairy and Bimbo, one of the largest food conglomerates in the world.

"These acts of blackmail and kidnappings tell us simply that there is a vacuum of power, a total violation of the rule of law," Nava said.

Coca-Cola has faced previous problems in Guerrero, which is known for widespread social unrest as well as drug activity.

In August, the company closed a distribution plant in Arcelia after receiving threats and seeing attackers burn four delivery trucks in an area known for gang battles. Femsa did not specify the nature of the threats, but said they were directed at delivery personnel.

In 2012, the Knights Templar drug cartel in neighboring Michoacan state burned five warehouses and dozens of vehicles owned by the Sabritas snack company, a Mexican subsidiary of PespsiCo. Gang members said they believed Sabritas had let law-enforcement agents use its trucks for surveillance. The company denied that.


Associated Press writer Jose Antonio Rivera in Acapulco contributed to this report.