Blockades and Marches in Oaxaca, Mexico: It’s Safe, But Words of Warning for Residents and Tourists

agThe 2016 edition of teacher union marches, blockades and protests in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, began May 15th. It’s a tradition which commences on the same date each year. And similarly like clockwork, the questions on social media posed by prospective tourists to the region persist, about safety, and more generally concerning the advisability regarding travel to Oaxaca.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve only read of two non-Mexican visitors to the city of Oaxaca and the state’s central valleys who have been harmed as a consequence of becoming involved in protests, marches and / or blockades initiated by either teachers, or members of other unions or interest groups. Visiting Oaxaca is essentially always safe (relative to being a tourist in any city of comparable size in a developing nation), even after the commencement of the teachers’ strike and occupation of the city’s central square or zócalo, and associated blockades and marches. What’s more crucial, however, is understanding that the constitution of Mexico precludes foreigners from participating in the political process, and enables government to expel any non-Mexican almost at will.

The following is the essence of Article 33 of the Constitution:

While foreigners are entitled to the guarantees granted Mexicans, the federal executive has the exclusive power to compel any foreigner it deems inexpedient to leave the country without requiring any previous legal action. Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of Mexico.

While it appears that this provision is rarely enforced, the point is that it can be. If you rub the wrong person or community the wrong way, the authorities can be notified and you can be removed from the country, on a dime. A few years ago an American resident of Teotitlán del Valle (popularly known as the rug village), was suddenly gone, having been expelled from Mexico. I do not recall the precise circumstances, and never did learn the official reason that he was told he must leave. All I knew was that he had some kind of occasional employment in the state’s central valleys; I would periodically see him working at a mezcal retail outlet on Sundays at the Tlacolula de Matamoros marketplace.

Walking alongside any politically motivated march, or even hanging around a blockade for the purpose of chatting with a member of a union or community group can have adverse consequences. Granted, using Article 33 to kick someone out of Mexico is rare, but it can happen.

One never knows when a peaceful protest will descend to violent conflict.

Many still recall the 2006 death of an American videographer who elected to embed himself with protesters. At some point in time in his misadventure he surely realized that on the other side were armed police/soldiers. Though presumably not intentionally, during the conflict he was shot dead by a government employee or employees. He elected to put himself in the middle of a political mess. Don’t do it.

The other incident, also within the context of the 2006 civil unrest, was a tourist being inadvertently pepper sprayed as a consequence of having elected to walk alongside marchers so that he could video the procession of protesters and/or film any ensuring conflict. In at least one media report he brushed it off as having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to my knowledge he did not take any steps to follow up by lodging a complaint.

Protesters, marchers and blockaders in this part of Mexico can become aggressive and even violent at the slightest provocation. In January, 2015, I was attempting to leave the city for the day, in my vehicle, when I saw a blockade forming. There was enough space for my car to proceed between two vehicles which had been strategically placed along the roadway for the purpose of precluding other vehicles from getting by. Either the organizers had not finished setting up the blockade, or they had done a poor job, since it would have been very easy for me to get by. I attempted to do so, whereupon protester immediately stood in front of my car. I told him I just wanted to leave the city. Two others began kicking my driver side door, and then another (or one of the two) suddenly punched the left side of my face through my open window. My glasses flew off. By the end of the day I was sore, with a black eye. But I subsequently realized that it was my own fault. I have since joined the ranks of the meek, my wiser Oaxacan friends.

For most of us with age comes wisdom. For most of us with age we begin to lean a little to the right, even those of us who grew up in the 1960s counter-culture era. Leave it to Mexicans to change the socio-political and economic order. While we have good intentions, we must keep in mind the following:

• Non-Mexicans visit or live in the country at the grace and with the permission of government;
• Being in Mexico is a privilege, not a right;
• As much as we might want to right what we perceive as wrongs, or show our support, any steps aimed at so doing can have dire, long-lasting consequences.

As much as I like to believe that I know what’s going on to the same extent as my native Oaxacan friends, compadres and colleagues, I likely don’t, despite the fact that I’ve been living in southern Mexico for well over a decade. And even if I do, a good, safe and prudent rule of thumb is to quietly walk, or drive, the other way. I value my ability to continue to live peacefully in Oaxaca.