Mexico: Protests in Oaxaca

Samuel Loewenberg, for the Pulitzer Center
Oaxaca, Mexico

I have only been in Oaxaca a few days when the protests start. In this, Mexico's second poorest state, political upheaval and fights over social justice go hand in hand with languid tourism, a vibrant art scene, and some of Mexico's best cooking. The central plaza, known as the Zocalo, is usually a giant tourist attraction and town meeting place, filled with overpriced restaurants, hawkers selling curios, old women pushing textiles, and children selling cigarettes and candy. But for three days earlier this month, the plaza was filled with thousands of demonstrators from the surrounding countryside, many of whom spent several nights there.

Demonstrations in Oaxaca attracted a wide variety of unhappy constituencies. Photos by Sam Loewenberg

The demonstrators, mostly rural laborers from the Oaxacan countryside, are demanding that the government devote resources for social welfare and development in their communities. Most of the protestors are from indigenous communities, with the men in cowboy hats and the women in traditional colorful dress and hair in braids. They complained that the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who is leaving office later this year, is spending the state's money on sweetheart projects for his political cronies, instead of putting in badly needly infrastructure and social services for the poor. As evidence, many point to the road work that has sprung up all around Oaxaca's capital, where, for no apparent reason, workers are replacing the old cobble stones with cement. The rumor is that this political payback, and that the contractors are rushing to finish the expensive roadworks before a new government puts a stop to them.

A young farm laborer, Ricardo Flores, who lives in the Mixteca region, told me he has been protesting in the plaza for two days. "The government is not good," he said. They should be building schools, helping women and children, he said, but instead they are just taking care of themselves and their relatives and friends.

Angry citizens demanding social justice demonstrated for three days in Oaxaca's central square

An energetic indigenous woman, Christina Joaquin Diaz, says she has been in the plaza for three days. "We are poor. I am here for my children, for my family. I don't have any money, and my husband has no work." The government must build infrastructure and social welfare programs to help the poor, she said. Woman
Says protester Christina Joaquin Diaz: "We are poor. I am here for my children, for my family. I don't have any money, and my husband has no work."

Oaxaca is famous for its protests, and the peasant activists were joined by a mishmash of causes. Hundreds of workers said they had been scammed by shady savings banks and demanded reparations. Villagers from the Central Valley demand that the government provide their municipality with electricity. To make their point, many spent the days blocking off main roads or the entrances to the Ministry of Social Development and other government buildings. The teachers unions blocked off part of Highway 190 to protest firings they said had been done without justification. Communists group hung banners featuring pictures of Lenin, Marx and Stalin while others celebrated homegrown heroes Pancho Villa and Benito Juarez.

Protesters at the Zocalo in Oaxaca calling for government reforms and help for the poor

The last time Oaxaca's protests made the news was in 2006, when an American journalist, Brad Will, was shot to death during a police crackdown on demonstrators ordered by governor Ortiz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled Mexico for decades. Ortiz was recently cited by the Mexican Supreme Court for human rights violations in his actions during the protest. Last month, a Mexican court ordered the release of a local grassroots activist who had held in the killings. Government critics say the bullets appear to have come from the armed government shooters, and the government tried to cover up by prosecuting the wrong man.