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Protest Fatigue in Mexico City, A Daily Mess of Demonstrations

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

MEXICO CITY -- On any given day, there are six or seven or eight demonstrations taking place in the Mexican capital. The city government keeps a running list of them on its Web site.

Teachers who want more money. State-employed oil workers who want to stop privatization. Campesinos who say the government stole their land.

There are naked protesters. Protesters in Aztec costumes. Protesters dressed like vampires.

And they are almost always in the way.

Blocking roads during a demonstration is considered by some Mexicans to be a kind of inalienable right. But a few politicians have begun to say -- gently, lest they become targets of protests themselves -- that enough is enough.

"Sometimes you end up sitting half your day waiting for the roads to clear -- it's irrational, it's unjust!" Mariana Gómez del Campo, a member of Mexico City's legislative assembly, said in an interview. "I don't think there's another city like this in the world."

Gómez, who once missed a college exam because of gridlock caused by a protest, has been trying for months to pass legislation that will establish "rules of the game" for protests, which numbered 2,000 last year alone and drew more than 9 million people.

Restricting protests could go a long way toward keeping the roads clear. Traffic has worsened here as the city has swelled from merely huge to one of the three or four biggest in the world, a sprawling, horizonless metropolis of more than 20 million. Everyone, it seems, is trying to get somewhere at the same time.

Roads are perpetually clogged, and don't even ask what happens when it rains. Streets turn into lakes, alleys turn into rivers. Construction is everywhere.

But protests are the great traffic menaces, and there are all kinds.

There are "bloqueos," or blockades, for instance, a lightning-strike sort of demonstration that often pops up in residential neighborhoods, trapping residents who want to get out and impeding those who want to get in. There are "plantons," or sit-ins, which tend to be more permanent, complete with forests of folding chairs, supply tents, mattresses and latrines. The greatest planton of all was staged after the disputed 2006 presidential election, when supporters of failed candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador camped for weeks on Avenida Reforma, one of the city's main thoroughfares. Congressman Ricardo Cantú Garza called the huge tent city "a necessary evil."

But it is the daily, run-of-the-mill protests that seem to most infuriate commuters. Gómez calculates that the protests cost 1,056 man-hours and the equivalent of $8 million a day. She'd like to lessen that impact by corralling demonstrators and setting aside areas of the city where they can have their say without creating automobile logjams.

"Good luck," said Francisco Ramírez, a vendor who sells fresh fruit juices near Mexico's Interior Ministry. "People here like to protest -- a lot."

Ramírez, like many dwellers of the capital, has become an expert on protests. His stand is inside a fenced perimeter that has grown to several blocks around the ministry building, one of many protest hot spots. Inside the perimeter, there are businesses and houses -- a kind of protest-free "green zone." But even though protesters are kept on the outside, it doesn't mean matters haven't been complicated for residents and workers inside.

Demonstrators have simply shifted to blocking the streets around the perimeter. In some ways, things have gotten harder. Ramírez parks farther and farther away. Sometimes he's so far away that he doesn't even bother to break down his stand because he can't imagine hauling it for blocks. Instead, before leaving for the night, he chains the industrial blender that is his livelihood to a post and hopes for the best.

Nelly Rodríguez, who works in the Interior Ministry, has found herself trapped inside the safety zone by the hordes. Sometimes she sneaks out a secret exit and wobbles for blocks on high heels to reach her car.

One recent afternoon, she was plotting her exit strategy.

"I don't know what they're protesting about today," she said wearily. "But I know they're coming. They're always coming."

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