By ELAINE DE VALLE, AMY DRISCOLL AND MARTIN MERZER, The Miami Herald
Police arrested seven people this afternoon in a long-abandoned mansion in which officers said they found gas masks, crowbars and other suspicious items. Also this afternoon, police entered an independent media center at Bayside Marketplace.
The intensified police activity came on the eve of major protests planned for Thursday and Friday against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas now under discussion in downtown Miami.
As many as 20,000 people are expected to march through Miami Thursday afternoon in a demonstration sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Police are concerned that more radical elements could attempt to infiltrate that march or conduct violent protests beginning as early as 7 a.m. Thursday.
This afternoon, Miami police arrested what they called seven suspected ''anarchist types'' in an abandoned house known as the Prescott Mansion in the historic Bayside neighborhood a few miles north of downtown Miami.
The six men and one woman, all in their 20s, apparently had been staying in the waterfront home for several days. Police believe they were planning violent protests against the FTAA conference.
Authorities said they found inside a guest house on the property gas masks, makeshift slingshots, chains with heavy locks, walkie-talkies, two cans of accelerant -- such as what is used in Molotov cocktails -- crowbars and painted tire irons like those used to smash storefronts during a World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
''Things to cause problems,'' said Lt. Bill Schwartz, a department spokesman.
Painted on the wall: A square drawn at about the average height of a person with the word ''head'' written inside it. A larger box labeled ''center mass'' was drawn beneath that.
''They obviously used this for target practice,'' Schwartz said as he pointed out scuff marks on the wall.
''These people were ready. They had their own little training academy,'' he said. ``Luckily for us, it looks like they're bad shots.''
Schwartz said police received information that people had illegally entered the property at 7101 NE 10th Ave. -- protected as part of the Bayside Historic District -- about two days ago.
''Someone saw them going in and out of the house with boxes,'' he said.
The names of those arrested and the charges filed agains them were not immediately available.
Also today, police entered an independent media center at Bayside Marketplace on the heels of mall managers alleging code violations in the storefront operation, group members said.
The incident took place a day after The Herald printed information about the media center's location.
Eric Rubin, with South Floridians for Fair Trade and Global Justice, said the group first learned of the alleged violations when a mall manager knocked at their door. When the managers walked in, police came in behind, Rubin said.
He tried to follow them, he said, and officers pushed him against a wall and told him to stay there.
''This is an attack on the press,'' he said, adding that he was unable to see whether the officers removed anything from the office.
He dismissed rumors that Hialeah officers who are patrolling the mall during the FTAA meetings were acting on information that the media center was being used for other activities related to protesters.
''That's a bald-faced lie,'' he said.
Late today, the group was still negotiating with mall managers about whether they could stay in the storefront.
Attorney Andrea Costello, a member of the National Lawyers Guild who is helping provide legal assistance to protesters, called the incident ``selective law enforcement.''
''It's highly, highly unusual for 25 police officers to respond for an alleged two code violations,'' she said.
Overall, though, calm prevailed in downtown Miami as delegates from 34 nations resumed their free trade talks.
Some of those who object to the proposed hemispheric free trade zone conducted conferences and seminars, but a noon rally outside the Miami-Dade County School Board headquarters was canceled for unknown reasons.
Sponsored by the United Teachers of Dade and other organizations, the rally had been planned to protest what organizers called a movement to ``dismantle public education by denying our children a future and slowly privatizing and dismantling our school system.''
This morning, about 50 opponents of the FTAA -- some of whom arrived on beat-up bicycles -- crammed into a small office upstairs from the TotalBank office on Biscayne Boulevard to discuss the relation between militarization and free trade policies.
The forum was sponsored by Jobs With Justice and Plan Colombia because that country, organizers said, exemplifies a place where militarization, corporate misdeeds and free trade are linked.
''In Colombia, much of the repression, killings, tortures are targeting trade leaders,'' said Alberto Fernandez, one of the organizers and a member of Jobs With Justice. ``There is a general human rights problem for trade unions.''
The group handed out literature claiming that corporate executives in Carepa, Pasto, Monteria and Banraquilla, Colombia, conspired with paramilitary groups to kill union leaders and force lower wages for workers.
''Militarization and violence undermine a union's ability to have a strong voice,'' Hernandez said. ``It prohibits the working people from having a voice both in the workplace and the economic and political arenas.''
Ibeth Vergara, a trade unionist in Bogota who is on an internship with Jobs with Justice, said that most of those who suffer in Colombia are women, who hold a majority of the most menial factory and textile jobs.
Many at the forum were from other organizations that also oppose the FTAA: The Green Party, Witness For Peace, the Workers Rights Board of the AFL-CIO, the Circulo Bolivariano de Miami and the Venezuelan Coalition Against the FTAA.
Later in the day, the AFL-CIO sponsored an international forum on the impact the trade talks could have on workers in Latin America and the United States. Many opponents of a pact say it would shift jobs from the United States to lower-paid workers in other countries, exploiting the new job holders.
Some worry about other potential consequences of a hemispheric free trade zone.
Rancher Stephen Anderson of Alma, Kan., arrived in Miami just in time to read a newspaper story about 500 cases of hepatitis A, including three deaths, in Pennsylvania, suspected to have been caused by contaminated green onions from Mexico.
''That's what free trade has brought us,'' he said. ``They don't have to meet the same standards that American producers do . . ..
``The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat are the three necessities. Tor the first time in world history, the entire planet's food supply is at risk.''
Anderson came to Miami to participate in marches, but he said the massive police presence makes him afraid that violence might erupt.
Also on the protesters' schedule today was a music fest from 7-10 p.m. at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater and a possible demonstration tonight outside Vizcaya during a reception for FTAA ministers.
Meanwhile, security remained tight throughout Miami's business center despite what appeared to be a relaxed atmosphere and few commuters.
In the Brickell Avenue financial district, a Highway Patrol light-armored vehicle idled in a field near the Brickell Avenue bridge as state troopers in special riot gear milled about.
Nearby, state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson paused to snap photos with the operators of the department's ''gamma-ray'' truck, which scanned cargo vehicles as they crossed Brickell Avenue into downtown.
During the past four days, the gamma-ray truck -- usually deployed to look for contraband food products -- has scanned about 40 trucks, most of them parcel or food deliveries, officials said.
Nothing suspicious had been found.
''So far, everything has been routine. It also serves as a deterrent,'' said John Boatwright, one the truck's three operators.
Attached to the truck was a thick metal frame that looks like an enlarged version of an airport X-ray checkpoint. A burst of radiation scans trucks waiting to cross the bridge. Seconds later, a ghostly image of the cargo appears on a 21-inch computer screen.
''In 10 seconds, they can tell what's in a 10-ton truck,'' said Bronson, who added that the state's two gamma-ray trucks have helped confiscate more than $8 million in drugs and merchandise over the past year.
Each truck cost the state about $1 million. The state will receive two more, funded by federal Homeland Security funds, by the end of the year, officials said.
Police said they arrested a 25-year-old North Miami man after he allegedly threw a suspicious object at the feet of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the corner of Miami Avenue and Northeast 1st Street. The nature of the object remained unclear, but it did not detonate.
The man, identified as Jan Orillac, told police he worked in the area. Officers said they did not believe the incident was related to the FTAA meetings.
Herald staff writers Trenton Daniels, Susannah A. Nesmith, David Ovalle, Charles Rabin, Carolyn Salazar, Fred Tasker and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.