Deep Divisions Remain in Oaxaca

The government of Oaxaca is using a famous annual folk festival to show all is well in the Mexican state. Last year, civil unrest paralyzed the capital. But now, a resurgence of protests by the leftist coalition is demanding the governor's ouster, and serious tension is building.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, police battled leftists trying to oust the governor last year. And troubles continue. This morning a homemade bomb went off in the capital. No one was hurt.

In recent weeks the state government has pointed to an annual folk festival as a sign that things are getting back to normal. But you can read that event in different ways.

Michael O'Boyle reports from Oaxaca.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHAEL O'BOYLE: Dancers dressed in vibrant indigenous costumes parade down the cobblestone streets as fireworks explode overhead. The Guelaguetza is Oaxaca City's most important festival. But this year it has become a symbol of the political tensions here in one of Mexico's poorest and most undeveloped regions.

(Soundbite of protest)

O'BOYLE: Only blocks away, in the city's central plaza, they are singing a different tune. Demonstrators chant free the political prisoners. A week before, a confrontation between protesters and police left dozens wounded. More than 30 people were arrested and some demonstrators say they were severely beaten by police. It was the worst political violence the city had seen since last fall. That's when a protest movement led largely by the teachers union rose up and paralyzed the capital.

Maria Sanchez is a 42-year-old junior high school teacher.

Ms. MARIA SANCHEZ (Teacher) (Through translator): There's no fiesta here. There is much pain, much blood, and anger. The governor acts as if he were a king. He controls the state congress and they do whatever he wants. No one is hearing our voices. Even the federal government ignores us.

O'BOYLE: A violent crackdown by the governor last year on striking teachers spurred other groups to join the protests. The movement, called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO, occupied radio stations and raised barricades throughout the city. The governor fled the state. But federal police were sent in to break up the barricades and arrest protesters in the fall. APPO leaders were apprehended in December and the movement went largely underground.

(Soundbite of music)

O'BOYLE: The unrest has kept tourists away. It's lunchtime in the central plaza and the cafes, which should be filled with delegates or revelers, are practically empty. Tourism is the state's second biggest source of income, behind the dollars sent home from migrants to the U.S. Due to the conflict, hotels have been closing.

Bumar Orido(ph) is the president of the state's Congress. At a trendy restaurant in the city center, he says last year's upheaval was the worst political crisis Oaxaca has seen in decades. But he is confident that things are getting better.

Mr. BUMAR ORIDO(ph) (President of State's Congress) (Through translator): Now we live in a different situation. There is a process of negotiation with the teachers and they are almost satisfied. What is left are radical groups that want to re-instigate the conflict from last year.

O'BOYLE: Despite Mexico's democratic advances, Oaxaca remains mired in the authoritarian past. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for over 70 years, before it was kicked out of the presidential palace in 2000. But in Oaxaca, the PRI still runs the show eight decades on. Critics say there is no business class independent of PRI favors, little critical media, and a corrupt judicial system.

Human rights lawyer Jessica Sanchez(ph) says rights abuses by the government against suspected APPO activists continue.

Ms. JESSICA SANCHEZ(ph) (Human Rights Lawyer) (Through translator): It is clear, the conflict in Oaxaca is not over. On the contrary, in a short time Oaxaca could erupt again.

O'BOYLE: Last year, armed groups allegedly linked to the government, killed more than a dozen people, including the American, Brad Will, a leftist activist and filmmaker. No one has been prosecuted for the murders.

Diego Osorno is a journalist who has written a book on the Oaxacan conflict.

Mr. DIEGO OSORNO (Journalist, Author) (Through translator): After the repression of last year, guerilla groups had an unprecedented recruiting drive. Many of the people in the barricades and protests who were accused and persecuted by the government have taken up arms.

O'BOYLE: As far as the federal government is concerned, Oaxaca remains a local problem. President Felipe Calderon is focused on passing his tax reform bill with the needed support of the PRI. For now, Oaxaca is off the map.

For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle.

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