MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican government has removed a prominent bronze statue of Christopher Columbus and surrounded another with high metal fencing ahead of an annual protest that marks the explorer's arrival in the Americas in 1492.
The removed statue of the 15th century Italian navigator, along with four Catholic friars, towered over one of the Mexico City's main traffic circles for decades.
Authorities said it was taken away for restoration work on Saturday but added that it was also time for reflection about Columbus's legacy, triggering speculation in Mexican media that the statue may not be returned.
Several statues of the explorer, whose Spanish-funded expeditions opened the door to the European conquest of the Americas, have been removed in U.S. cities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the resulting global re-examination of colonization and slavery.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the capital's Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum both suggested the measures were taken in part to avoid the statues being vandalized or removed by protesters.
"It is best to resolve these differences peacefully, not retaliate against statues or sculptures," said Lopez Obrador.
Mexico does not celebrate Oct. 12 as Columbus Day, and it is not a national holiday. Instead, the day is used to celebrate Mexico's indigenous cultures and mixed race, or mestizo, population, often marked by large protest marches.
Protesters have called for more attention to the genocide and centuries of colonial oppression that followed Columbus' voyages.
Lopez Obrador has insisted that the Spanish monarchy and Catholic Church should formally apologize for the atrocities committed during the 16th century European invasion of Mexico.
Sheinbaum encouraged all to peacefully reflect on the legacy of Columbus, adding that she would not make any unilateral decision on whether the statue would return to its pedestal, according to daily newspaper El Universal.
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)