May, 2014: 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, albeit with sensible precautions that I'll talk about below.
Security fears in Oaxaca derive principally from two sources: political unrest and crime. Let me begin with the political situation. Back in 2006 tourists were frightened away when violent confrontations between police and protestors captured headlines around the world. Several months later socio-political conditions 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 an opportunity to view the other reality of Oaxaca, the one less glorious than the city's numerous and deservedly famous attractions. Besides, 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 Mexican 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 President Calderón initiated the narco-war in 2006, it is estimated that over 60,000 Mexicans have been killed 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, Michoacán, and Guerrero. 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 non-tourist areas, especially in and around the city of Tuxtepec on the Veracruz border, 220 kilometers from Oaxaca City.
Another form of violence that makes headlines is kidnapping. Recent statistics indicate that Mexico is second in the world after Colombia in kidnappings, and Oaxaca does get its share. Nationwide the most prevalent form of kidnapping is again drug related and aimed at eliminating competitors or informants; thus kidnapped victims are nearly always murdered rather than ransomed. In Oaxaca, however, most kidnappings are of the profit-motivated kind: i.e., to extort a ransom from the hostage's family. Regardless of motive, be assured that none of these kidnappers are interested in tourists. Tourists aren't involved in drug trafficking (unless they're stupid and/or suicidal), nor do they 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, what about commonplace, urban crime? Fortunately, robbery accompanied by violence is rare in Oaxaca, but that does not mean it can't happen. The occasional foreigner has been robbed late at night in the city center and a few visitors have been mugged at knife-point on the Cerro del Fortín, the hill above the city. Take the usual precautions: don't venture alone into isolated places; run or walk at times when more locals are out and about; and leave valuables behind when possible. As for petty crimes such as pickpocketing and purse-snatching, they too are relatively rare here. Again, 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. Cell phone theft, especially, has become more common in Oaxaca as elsewhere. So be on guard, especially on crowded streets and in congested places like public markets.