Safety — Oaxaca
The Centro district, where most travelers to the city spend nearly all their time, is safe during the day and at night, as long as reasonable precautions, the same as you'd make back home, are taken. That said, purse snatching and pickpocketing do occasionally happen, mostly in crowded places like public markets, though they are very rare, while muggings and armed robberies are almost nonexistent. In general though, by just taking just a few common-sense precautions, the risk of being a victim of crime will be greatly reduced.
A place in the city that is not safe, though, is the dirt road running north along the ridge behind the planetarium and observatory at the top of Cerro del Fortín hill, offering spectacular views of the city and the surrounding valleys and mountains. This road has long deserted stretches (making it especially attractive to two-legged predators) where several armed robberies and assaults have occurred recently. This warning is not just hype and should be taken very seriously.
In May 2006, the city of Oaxaca erupted in widespread political protests against a governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (2004-2010), and a political system that was widely viewed as illegitimate and corrupt. The public school teachers' union was holding its annual strike, twenty-four years running, for equal access to schooling for children in outlying villages and for higher wages. The civil but disobedient strike soon turned violent when the police and armed supporters of the governor, physically attacked and fired on the teachers without provocation.
Rather than demoralized the teachers and end the strike, the government's violent reaction to non-violent dissent unleashed decades of pent-up anger at it, the government, tens of thousands of protesters flooding into the streets in a massive show of solidarity with the teachers, the protesters taking over large swaths of the city. The president, Vicinte Fox (2000-2006) escalated the conflict even further, deploying thousands of Federal Police to the city, clamping down hard on the protesters, eventually regaining control of the city.
Although the large-scale protests are over, repressed, their root causes — widespread poverty and lack of real democracy — are not. A recent positive political development was the defeat of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in the 2010 gubernatorial election, breaking its nearly eighty-year stranglehold on political power in the state. A broad coalition of political parties and civil-society groups came together to defeat the PRI candidate. Broad coalitions are often effective at getting rid of something that is universally despised. They're not so effective, however, at governing and implementing specific policies, since broad coalitions usually have deep ideological differences over what those policies should be.
The protests were widely reported (mostly misreported, actually) in the international press, and several countries issued official travel advisories. Not surprisingly, tourists stayed away, and businesses that relied on them were hit hard. Today, the political situation in the city is stable, and tourists have returned. Small, non-violent political protests do break out now and then, usually on the Zócalo, but the police leave the protesters alone and the protests pose no threat whatsoever to tourists.
During the day, the state’s highways are safe to travel by bus or car. Late at night, however, try to avoid remote stretches of any highway, as highway robberies have been known to occur. Be especially careful on Pacific coast Highway 200, Highway 175 from Oaxaca City to Pochutla, and Highway 75 from Oaxaca City to Tuxtepec, where buses and cars have been pulled over and robbed at night. For more on highway robberies in Mexico, read the article "Highway Robbery — México."
With México's well-publicized war on drug trafficking concentrated along the northern border with the US and in the states of Sinaloa and Michoacán, Oaxaca, thus far, has been spared the worst of the violence.
Nevertheless, traveling by sea and air, some of the cocaine smuggled from Colombia to the US does flow through Oaxaca’s long and remote Pacific coast, usually just passing through, but sometimes offloaded to be moved overland, before continuing on its journey north.
And some violence, of course, has followed, mostly confined to the coast and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, always turf related, traffickers competing among themselves, kidnapping and killing each other and going after informants. Tourists are never targeted.
There have been some kidnappings for ransom of wealthy Oaxacans or their family members, never tourists. For more on kidnappings in México, read the article "Kidnappings — México."
For information on safety while traveling in México, read the article "Safety — México."