Once again, Oaxaca begins to right itself

Special to The Times

A few scenes from a crippled tourist town: Plywood covers the windows of a torched government building. Laborers paint over scrawls of graffiti. A maid folds sheets in a hotel with no guests. And with no travelers to hear their songs, a mariachi band idly paces the main plaza.

Since May, political protests, arsons and shootings transformed Oaxaca from a charming colonial town into a city under siege, severely damaging its tourist-based economy. Thousands of gray-suited federal police swarmed the downtown. Hotel maids lost their jobs, and chefs left to seek work in Mexico City or the United States.

But recently, a fragile calm has returned to Oaxaca after massive demonstrations to oust the state governor. The federal police pulled out in mid-December, and the streets are quiet. And now, a trickle of tourists is returning, warily, to check out Oaxaca and to see whether it's still possible to enjoy the city's graceful architecture, mescal liquor and famous mole sauces.

"Right now, we have a very divided, collapsed city that's bleeding," said Manuel de Esesarte Pesqueira, municipal president. "Oaxaca is a beautiful, tranquil city. We have to recover that confidence, to lift ourselves up."

The U.S. State Department is still warning travelers about "mounting violence and disorder" here, but in early December, all was peaceful downtown and around Oaxaca's shady central square, the Zocalo.

Sunlight sifted through looming laurel trees, dappling balloon vendors, shouting children and the hundreds of federal police camped out in tents pitched on the flagstones. Despite the sight of riot gear and automatic rifles, the few tourists recently said the city felt tranquil, not tense.

"People have been nothing but nice to us," said Ken Rupert, 47, of Columbus, Ohio, as he and a friend sipped black coffees on the Zocalo. "We've walked all over this city at night and haven't had any problems. I don't know if I'd walk down my street in Columbus at night."

Rupert and his friend Dan Laney, 61, said they had already booked their flights and hotel reservations for a two-week trip to Oaxaca when the demonstrations and sit-ins began spiraling out of control this autumn. Locals writing to online message boards warned the men to stay away, and the two debated calling off the trip.

"People said to me, 'Are you going to take a flak jacket?' " Laney said. "We just ... decided to go for it."

So they came. They walked the cobblestone streets, bought rugs, visited indigenous villages, traversed the massive public market. But they were the only guests in their hotel, the only customers at coffee shops. Sometimes small restaurants were so unprepared for business that when the two men arrived to dine, the owners had to run out and buy food, the men said.

About 1.4 million foreign and Mexican tourists visit Oaxaca every year, most of them from November to March. The $260 million they pump annually into the city makes up about 80% of its economy, according to government numbers.

But all of that ended when a teachers' strike in May mushroomed into a broader movement to force Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz from office. Indigenous groups, labor unions and leftist activists formed the Oaxaca Popular People's Party and occupied the Zocalo.

Protesters barricaded roads, set fire to buses and government buildings and sprayed the city with graffiti. They clashed with local police and Ruiz supporters, each side blaming the other for the bloody outcomes.

In all, more than 200 protesters have been arrested and a dozen killed, among them Bradley Will, an independent journalist from New York City shot to death Oct. 27 while filming a demonstration. Two suspects in his death were released for lack of evidence.

The frenzy began to cool after former Mexican President Vicente Fox sent thousands of federal police officers to restore order. Striking teachers reached a deal and returned to work, protesters ceded control of a radio station they had taken over, and federal police tore down barricades that protesters had erected around Oaxaca. Flavio Sosa, a leader of the protest movement, known as APPO, was arrested in late November in Mexico City.

Tourists were not targets of the anger or violence but were sometimes caught up in it.

A group of Australian tourists waiting for their bus had to flee to a nearby hotel when a riot reached the bus station, said Steve Mortimer, who manages Latin American tours for the Australian company Peregrine Adventures. The company called off future tours to Oaxaca for the moment.

More than a dozen foreign travelers interviewed in early December said neither police nor protesters had bothered them.

"The whole atmosphere is really relaxed so far," said Mirko Schoder, 29, a German tourist. "I was a little surprised."

On Dec. 10, thousands of people thronged along Calle Independencia to call for Ruiz's ouster and the release of 200 protesters imprisoned throughout Mexico. Police officers donned riot gear, but the rally was peaceful.

Local businesspeople said they were praying the calm held. The restaurants and hotels that remained open have tried to stay alive on a thin stream of business travelers or by offering discounts of as much as 25%. One downtown cafe offers 10 pesos (about $1 U.S.) off the price of lunch for any of the federal police officers.

But the ploys are not working, many said.

"We're thinking about closing down," said Armando Bautista, a receptionist at the Posada Catarina hotel. "What are we going to do if there's no tourism, no business, if the whole world is closed?"

A few blocks away, Conchita Arroyo opened her oven and pulled out a tray of spaghetti squash cooked with maple syrup and butter. In a normal December, the family's bed-and-breakfast would be full, and Arroyo's daughter would be teaching tourists about Oaxaqueno cooking. But now, every room of the flower-filled house was vacant.

"Estamos muertos," Arroyo said. "We're dead."

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