OAXACA, Mexico – Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, whom many blame for the smoke-filled chaos that has turned this picturesque tourist attraction into a flashpoint of tension, was defiant as ever Friday in the face of calls for his resignation.

Facing reporters for the first time in weeks, Ruiz appeared calm and cordial as he rejected calls by protesters and the Mexican congress that he step down.

“It’s not something I’m contemplating,” Ruiz said told reporters in the governor’s mansion, insisting that the state government is fully functioning a day after violence consumed the city for several hours. “I have a higher commitment to the larger society of Oaxacans.”

The standoff between the governor and protesters who vow to continue their fight until he does resign has put the rest of Mexico on edge.

Since it began in May, what started as a teachers’ strike has led to at least nine deaths – including journalist and Illinois native Bradley Will, 36 – and the occupation of the town square by federal police sent in last week to restore order.

On Thursday, the police fired pepper spray at rock-hurling protesters outside the city university after rumors spread that a government takeover of a protester-run radio station on campus was under way. At least 50 people were injured in those skirmishes, which filled the once peaceful city with black, acrid smoke.

Even so, Ruiz maintained that Oaxaca could come back.

The state government, he said, extends an “open hand” toward a coalition of mostly poverty-fighting groups hoping to unseat him, the Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly, or APPO. Preliminary discussions are under way for renewed negotiations between the two sides, possibly mediated by the Roman Catholic church.

“We can build a new relationship between the government and those organizations,” Ruiz said, sounding conciliatory about “errors” he says he has made in dealing with the group.

He then characterized APPO as a group of “outsiders” who are out of touch with the real Oaxaca.

Already controversial after a tight 2004 election laden with fraud allegations, Ruiz has hardened political divisions in the city by his response to the protests, which have kept other residents locked inside their homes. In turn, that has put the governor into a political corner.

As the conflict heads into its sixth month, Ruiz’s circle of critics has widened, including members of his own Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who have suggested it would be good for everyone if he stepped down.

A new song about the governor could be heard from passing taxis, its chorus repeating a popular chant: “He’s fallen. He’s fallen. Ulises has fallen.”

On Friday, the country’s Supreme Court dismissed a motion by Ruiz’s lawyers to quash a nonbinding resolution recently passed in congress calling for his dismissal.

Ruiz is also facing new criticism over his handling of the death of Will, a documentary filmmaker whose shooting has become legend in the city. Will’s bespectacled image is featured in several Day of the Dead holiday shrines around Oaxaca.

The nonprofit Reporters Without Borders condemned the Oaxacan government Friday for its handling of the killing, saying an ongoing investigation that has so far led to two arrests “in no way absolves the state of Oaxaca of responsibility in Will’s death.”

With a local PRI elected official and his bodyguard both in custody, police are searching for three more men, the group said.

“If they’re guilty, we have to apply the full extent of the law and, if not, they should be released,” Ruiz said. “They are citizens just like everyone else and they’re going to be treated that way.”

Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 37, an architect who lives just outside the city, was skeptical about prospects for any quick resolution in the conflict. APPO is planning a massive march Sunday, which may provoke more clashes.

“I’m worried we’ll have to live like this for four more years,” Rodriguez said, referring to the fact that Ruiz’s term ends in 2010. “I don’t know if we can keep living like this.”

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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AP-NY-11-03-06 2115EST

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