Oaxaca folk festival opens to protests, few visitors

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

OAXACA, MEXICO — Angry protests, tight security and empty hotel rooms marked the celebration Monday of Guelaguetza, a folk festival that is traditionally the biggest tourist draw of the year in this city dependent on the money visitors spend here.

A year ago, protests forced the cancellation of Guelaguetza. This month, a new round of violent demonstrations over the rule of Oaxaca state Gov. Ulises Ruiz led to hundreds of cancellations and delivered a “death blow” to the tourist industry, local business groups said.

On Monday, Ruiz joined 15,000 people for the official celebration in a hillside amphitheater on the outskirts of the city. Access to the area was blocked by hundreds of state riot police. Simultaneously, an estimated 30,000 people marched in the center of this state capital.


The clashes that many feared did not materialize, although two soldiers were briefly detained by activists from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (known by the initials APPO in Spanish). The soldiers were released unharmed.

Guelaguetza, a word derived from the Zapotec language, is a celebration of Oaxacan culture that brings together dancers and other folk artists from across the state. Hotels here usually fill for the event. But on Monday, occupancy ran at a paltry 38%, according to the Mexican Assn. of Hotels and Motels of Oaxaca.

“The authorities have to do something to fix this,” said Jesus Torres, manager of the Fortin Plaza Hotel, where the few occupied rooms emptied out last week when an earlier protest against Ruiz turned violent. “Tourism is down to a trickle. People are afraid to come, and I don’t blame them.”

Many here thought the protests that shook Oaxaca for much of 2006 would wind down after police arrested Flavio Sosa and other APPO leaders in December. But the antagonism against Ruiz runs deep. Thousands of teachers joined the march led by APPO on Monday.

APPO spokesman Florentino Lopez said Ruiz had transformed Guelaguetza into a “propagandistic farce” staged with “2,000 people he rounded up and thousands of police disguised as spectators.”

A few people in the march chanted, “To the hill!” urging others to follow them to the amphitheater to fight police. But march organizers kept their protest peaceful.


APPO leaders said a dozen of their members were detained during the march. Lopez said the APPO would stage more marches this weekend and Monday.

Inside the Guelaguetza auditorium, the pro-governor audience chanted, “Ulises!” and, “Yes, we did it!” as the festival began.

“The auditorium was packed … we had more than 15,000 celebrating the tradition, feeling their hearts beat again after they [the protesters] took it away from us last year,” said Andres Bello Guerra, president of the Oaxaca hotel association. “The city of Oaxaca is very tranquil, there are no problems. You can come here with your family.”

Back in the city center, a representative of the New Alliance of Merchants and Entrepreneurs of Oaxaca said 80% of the group’s members were on the verge of bankruptcy.

“No one is to blame for this, but there are people responsible,” said a shoe store owner who identified herself only by her first name, Gisela. “The government is like a home. If a father doesn’t listen to his sons, then nothing works.”

Times staff writer Tobar reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Bucio from Oaxaca. Carlos Martínez, Cecilia Sánchez and María Antonieta Uribe of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.