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DISPATCH FROM MEXICO CITY

Obstruction as a means to justice

Small or massive, street blockades are a time-honored form of protest in Mexico's congested capital.

April 14, 2008|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Fed up with constant traffic jams in their woodsy neighborhood, residents of this city's Las Aguilas area decided to fight fire with fire.

During morning rush hour, 50 residents met at a key intersection and blocked traffic. When that didn't seem to get officials' attention, the group returned for a second blockade.

"After enough talking, you realize you're not getting anywhere," said Manuel Ontiveros, an engineer who led the stoppages, in June and October.

The neighborhood's congestion problems linger. But Ontiveros said the street blockades prompted the government to take concrete steps to preserve the rustic nature of the upscale neighborhood: "They have listened."

Score one for the bloqueo, a time-honored form of protest that is a daily, if maddening, feature of life in Mexico's teeming capital.

The street protests, from a bunch of neighbors on a street corner to huge mobilizations that shut down major avenues, make motorists seethe and shop owners close early. Citing protest fatigue, some legislators in the Mexico City assembly are pushing a new bill that would bar bloqueos and other protests during rush hour and require organizers to warn authorities at least 72 hours before taking to the streets.

But protesters say taking to the street -- or taking over the street -- can be the surest way to get a Mexican bureaucrat to feel your pain.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, has threatened a paralyzing campaign of bloqueos targeting highways, airports and oil installations to protest an energy-reform proposal that he charges is an attempt by President Felipe Calderon to privatize the state-owned oil company, Pemex. Calderon has denied that's his intent.

Two years ago, Lopez Obrador's followers staged a massive 48-day sit-in that shut down Mexico City's most famous artery, the Paseo de la Reforma, in a failed effort to force a recount in his losing bid for president against Calderon. Protests are so frequent here that they can seem just more background noise in a huge and clamorous city. Bloqueos are a regular feature of radio traffic reports, as thick rivers of cars are forced from main avenues onto tiny side streets.

Like much of the politics in Mexico, the actions often have a choreographed quality, with protest leaders pulling back in triumph after gaining assurances that the government will answer their grievances.

Mexico City was home to 2,932 protests and marches last year, an average of eight per day. About one in six of those was a street blockade.

The constant protests "have paralyzed the city in many ways, in terms of roads, in terms of productivity, in terms of man-hours, in terms of generating unemployment," said lawmaker Kenia Lopez, a member of the National Action Party. The party rules Mexico but is a minority in the federal district, as Mexico City is also known.

Business leaders say the city can no longer afford to give free rein to protests, especially the bloqueos. The local branch of Mexico's main business federation estimated that such actions cost the city $1.5 billion in lost economic activity during the first half of 2007.

"Part of the problem with the demonstration, the bloqueo, is that it works," said Gerardo Trejo, president of the business federation's Mexico City branch.

The extraordinary number of protests stems from Mexico City's status as the hub of a centralized political system and from the fact that many Mexicans see little hope of getting their needs addressed at home by a ponderous and often distant bureaucracy.

"There is a lack of order and confidence in the process, so people choose more direct means," said Victor Alarcon, a sociology professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

On a recent day, a few hundred agricultural workers bused from 20 Mexican states were occupying the sidewalk in front of the federal Social Development Ministry offices on Paseo de la Reforma. The group, demanding more government aid and transparency in its distribution, closed a busy parallel street along a glitzy commercial section lined with banks, hotels and offices.

"To send a letter to congressmen or to send a letter to the president or his ministers -- we know that it will never be answered, that it will simply end up in the wastebasket," said organizer Alvaro Lopez Rios.

He insisted the farmers weren't trying to disrupt life in the capital but added, "Sometimes you have to, because it's a way to get the attention of the authorities."

But after four days, no one from the government had emerged to talk to the straw-hatted farmers, who clustered in the shade of the ministry building, munching corn tortillas and chunks of cheese. Puzzled tourists stepped past the makeshift encampment, perhaps unaware that it too could be counted a signature Mexico City sight.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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