The road to rebellion: What went wrong in Oaxaca?

It used to be a popular tourist destination, renowned for its architecture, crafts and cuisine. But today, this southern Mexican city is counting the cost of a revolt that has closed hundreds of businesses and kept its children out of school. David Usborne reports
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A sign on the main road into town carries the simple message, "Welcome to Oaxaca". A centre of indigenous crafts and cuisine, of gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture, of art institutes, literary salons and tranquil contemplation, it has long stood as one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Mexico.

A visitor approaching yesterday, however, would have had good reason to pause. The city, nestled beneath gentle and verdant mountains, was partly obscured by rising plumes of black smoke. A smell of petrol filled the air and the highway was littered with tree trunks, rocks and smears of blood - the debris of hand-to-hand violence.

Oaxaca has been sliding since early May into near anarchy amid a fast-gathering and angry popular rebellion that has forced the closure of hundreds of businesses, including almost all its hotel and restaurants, and kept its children out of school. Laws gave way to lawlessness, as leftist gangs roamed its streets, took control of its radio stations and set up a rag-tag encampment of tents and banners in the 16th-century central square, fringed by forlorn, abandoned cafés.

It has been a crisis, moreover, that for months even the federal authorities in Mexico City, about 300 miles to the north-west, appeared unwilling, or unable, to confront. President Vicente Fox, a lame duck who leaves office in one month, contended that Oaxaca's journey into chaos was a local problem requiring local solutions. Meanwhile, it became a town where men accused of robbery were tied to trees with placards around their necks detailing their alleged crimes and mothers fought pitched battles with demonstrators with clubs and steel pipes as they tried in vain to get their children back into school.

To an extent, Mr Fox may have been right. The target of the protesters, a loose coalition of unionists, anarchists, students and Indian groups, has not been the national government but rather the governor of the state of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz, whom they accuse of political thuggery, intimidation, vote-rigging and corruption. Their single demand, which remains unanswered, has been his resignation.

Yet the grievances boiling in the cauldron of Oaxaca exist across all of Mexico, a country seemingly unable to close the yawning gap between its wealthy and grindingly poor and where full democracy, born only six years ago, remains fragile. A razor-thin victory for Felipe Calderon of Mr Fox's conservative party in national elections in July triggered protests by followers of his leftist rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, which similarly paralysed central Mexico City until a few weeks ago.

Now, however, the patience of Mr Fox is over. After a shoot-out at one of the demonstrators' barricades on Friday left an American photo-journalist and two other people dead, he ordered the army and federal police at last to retake Oaxaca and restore some kind of order.

The operation began early on Sunday when thousands of police in riot gear and armed with automatic rifles, took up positions all around the city. At 3pm, they began their slow advance, backed by heavily armed soldiers, water cannons and helicopters in the sky above. Street by street, they advanced towards the town centre, pushing aside screaming protesters and breaking up the barricades. Among the first of the barricades to go - a tangle of lorry tyres, boulders and tree limbs - was the one straddling the main highway next to the "Welcome to Oaxaca" sign.

Several violent clashes were reported from around the city, and the authorities acknowledged that one protester was killed while activist groups claimed there had also been a second fatality. Police arriving in the city in buses had to hold shields to their faces as stones hurled by demonstrators smashed windows. Other buses were set ablaze and cars in several streets were overturned. The protesters agreed late on Sunday to abandon their stronghold on the main plaza, known as the Zocalo, and the bloodbath that some had feared was inevitable in Oaxaca appeared yesterday to have been avoided, however.

To what extent the movement has been subdued and Oaxaca can return to normality remains wholly uncertain, however, with leaders of the demonstrations claiming yesterday that they were regrouping and preparing to retake their positions. Fearing another assault, police were reinforcing their own road blocks around the Zocalo and moving in armoured cars and water cannons. They were also beginning the task of clear up the tides of rubbish - banners, tents, ad hoc lavatories and cooking stations - that the protesters had left behind. Cleaning up the graffiti that is smeared on almost every historical façade and taking down the plywood from hundreds of shop and restaurant windows will take very much longer. As will luring back the tourists that once formed the backbone of the local economy.

"We are going to leave this area while we regroup," Daniel Reyes, one of the last of the protesters to leave the main square, said on Sunday night. He claimed they were retreating to "protect the safety" of the demonstrators. "This is not a defeat, but rather a strengthening." Hundreds of the protesters were gathered on a university campus on the edge of town while its leaders pondered their next move.

For visitors, Oaxaca used to present a face of beauty and intellectual sophistication. Yet, the valleys around the city are home to some of the most impoverished people in Mexico. Almost any trip to the city would have included witnessing political protests of some kind or another in at least one corner of the Zocalo, designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

If political tensions occasionally escalated in Oaxaca, the state government usually managed to answer the disenchanted with modest offers of increased wages or better conditions. But when teachers declared a state-wide strike in May, locking 1.3 million children out of the classrooms, Governor Ruiz decided to hold firm. Later in the summer he took what appears to have been a fateful decision to send in police to break up the teachers' protests, using poorly trained officers. It was the spark that ignited the far more serious resistance to Mr Ruiz and his government. To the aid of the teachers came the assorted coalition of local activists who adopted the umbrella name of Appo, or the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. Together they sealed off the Zocalo, forced hotels to close, and briefly took control of the city's main television station.

It is a leftist rebellion against a governor whose party is itself leftist, at least in its roots. But the anger is about many other things. Protesters accuse Mr Ruiz of rigging his election in 2004. It is an allegation that hits a nerve across Mexico, whose recent history is littered with claims of elections fixed and manipulated. They accuse him of using thugs to crush and even kill his political opponents. It has been a protest against what many perceive as illegitimate government. It has also been an expression of frustration with the rift between rich and poor.

Mexico City is itself only just recovering from the weeks of protest unleashed by supporters of Mr Lopez Obrador, who attempted to have the victory of Mr Calderon overturned, alleging vote-fixing by the ruling conservatives. Fears still linger that his party will attempt to disrupt the inauguration of Mr Calderon as Mexico's new President on 1 December and thereafter use any tactics available in Congress and elsewhere to disrupt his government. In watching events spiral so gravely out of control in Oaxaca, Mr Fox had to consider the risk that the protest there would spread to the capital and other parts of the country. Moreover, would that risk be worsened by continuing to stand back or by sending in armed police?

Sunday saw some signs that Mr Fox's fears were coming to pass. In the afternoon hundreds of demonstrators sympathetic to the Appo gathered outside a Mexico City hotel where they believed Governor Ruiz was staying and began shouting for his resignation and chanting "Murderer! Murderer!"

But the events at the end of last week left Mr Fox with little choice. On Thursday, ironically, the teachers' union at last struck a deal with the state government to return to work yesterday, reopening schools that had been closed since the spring. But then came the shoot-out on Friday at one of the Appo barricades. A group of men armed with pistols, some of whom have now been identified as city officials, tried to take it down. A scuffle quickly degenerated into gunfire. The dead American was identified as 36-year-old Bradley Smith Will, a political activist who championed Appo and was in Oaxaca as a photographer for Indymedia, an alternative left-leaning news organisation in New York that posts its reports on the internet. At the weekend, Mr Will's body was displayed in a glass-topped coffin close to the main square.

The promised reopening of Oaxaca's schools did not come to pass yesterday. And the city remained deeply divided. Many residents came out of their homes, their streets still dotted with charred and overturned vehicles, to thank the police for what they consider the liberation of their city after months under siege. "I don't want them to leave. Let them stay," said Edith Mendoza, a 40-year-old housewife. "We were held hostage for five months." But some among the protesters vowed more resistance, including marching on the Zocalo, declaring that the battle will only be over when Mr Ruiz is ousted.

"Today in Oaxaca social order and peace has been restored," President Fox said yesterday. True, the covered market was open again, long tables piled high with orange marigolds, a staple of Oaxaca's Day of the Dead celebrations that begin tomorrow, and some business owners were taking down the plywood over their windows. But Mr Fox must know that his was a bold statement. Governor Ruiz is still in office and the protesters, while no longer in the Zocalo, were menacingly roaming many of the city's streets. The worst of the violence may yet be to come. Even if it doesn't, the wounds suffered by Oaxaca this summer will need many months to heal.