February, 2011: The question often asked - IS OAXACA SAFE? - can be answered with an unequivocal YES. Security is not a problem for travelers and it is safe to walk the central city's streets by day or night.
Security fears in Oaxaca derive principally from two sources: political unrest and crime. Let me begin with the political situation. The violent confrontations between police and protestors that marked 2006-a conflict that captured headlines around the world and frightened away tourists-have ended. The socio-political situation has returned to normal. However, normalcy for Oaxaca means that the bleak economic and political conditions that provided the root causes of the 2006 conflict have not been alleviated. Thus, as has been the case for years now, unrest simmers below the surface, and the protest demonstrations that periodically punctuate Oaxaca's landscape persist and will continue. But these demonstrations almost never result in violence-at least not violence aimed at tourists. If a protest does erupt while you are here, you might be briefly inconvenienced by (or perhaps fascinated by) a street march or a demonstration in the zócalo, but you will not be harmed. Putting a positive light on the matter, you can consider these expressions of discontent to be a glimpse into another reality hovering below the surface of the city's numerous and deservedly famous attractions. As the locals say, it's all part of the encanto de Oaxaca.
Crime is another tourist concern. As you are perhaps aware, the current Federal Government's war on drug trafficking has generated a massive counterattack against law enforcement along with a struggle among the drug cartels themselves over power and territory. Since 2006 over 30,000 Mexicans have been murdered across the country, often with almost unimaginable brutality. The vast bulk of those assassinations occurred and continue to occur in the northern border states and in states with a very heavy organized-crime presence, such as Sinaloa and Michoacán. That does not mean that Oaxaca has been entirely immune from narco-violence. But Oaxaca has seen nothing on the scale found in other parts of the country, and most of the narco-murders in the state have occurred in coastal areas and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Another form of violence that makes headlines is kidnapping. Recent statistics indicate that Mexico is second in the world only to Colombia for kidnappings, and some of those have taken place in Oaxaca. Kidnappings generally come in two varieties. Most Oaxacan kidnappings are of the profit-motivated kind: i.e., to extort a ransom from the hostage's family. The other and more prevalent genre of kidnapping is again drug related and is aimed at eliminating competitors or informants and thus the victim is nearly always murdered rather than ransomed. Be assured that none of these kidnappers are interested in tourists. Tourists aren't involved in drug trafficking (unless they're suicidal), nor do they usually have wealthy local families from whom ransom can be extorted. Exacting ransom from foreigners is just too complicated to be worth the effort, especially when there are plenty of easier local targets.
And finally, you may ask, what about commonplace, urban street crime? Fortunately, robbery accompanied by violence, such as mugging, is almost unheard of in Oaxaca. Even petty crime, such as pickpocketing and purse-snatching, is relatively rare here. However, that doesn't mean these sorts of things never happen; they do, and as the urban center has grown they have been on the increase. So be on guard, especially on crowded streets and in congested places like public markets.