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Santa María Tonameca municipal police officers accompany residents of the coastal towns of La Ventanilla, Mazunte and San Agustinillo. These popular beach towns typically see many tourists this time of year. “If a case of [the coronavirus] occurs here, it will be uncontrollable, which is why we have to watch over the security of our towns,” says Juan Carlos Silva, representative of San Agustinillo. “That’s why this barrier is guarded 24 hours a day.” Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico
Coronavirus

On Mexico’s Coast, Communities Unite to Keep Out Coronavirus

Mexico

In Oaxaca state, residents are hosting town assemblies to take coronavirus prevention into their own hands. They’ve voted to extend measures beyond the country’s restrictions. Now, some communities have erected barriers and are standing guard at community access points.

SANTA MARÍA TONAMECA, MEXICO — It’s 6 a.m., just before sunrise, but the residents of San Isidro del Palmar, a community on the southern tip of Oaxaca, are already busy. Men dig holes for concrete posts that will hold up chain barriers that limit access to their town. Then they join with women from their community to guard against an invisible enemy.

This scene has played out repeatedly along Oaxaca state’s coastal region, where towns and neighborhoods have taken the fight against the coronavirus pandemic into their own hands.

Going beyond the Mexican government’s measures, these communities have erected barriers to keep out visitors or anyone unfamiliar. Their urgency and unity reveal how vulnerable Mexico’s smaller towns and cities have felt during the pandemic.

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From left, Alejandro Figueroa, Jorge Lavariega, Hipólito Gómez, Jesús Ramírez and Damián Reyes, residents of the five communities that share access points through San Isidro del Palmar, volunteer to work the afternoon shift to guard the main entrance to the town center. Residents of towns in the coastal region of Oaxaca are attempting to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus by keeping out visitors.

Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico

Their actions grow out of a bottom-up culture that gives all adults a say in key community decisions.

“We decided to set up these barriers so that visitors or outsiders wouldn’t be coming in,” says José Manzano, the San Isidro del Palmar community representative. “Every measure we’ve applied has been by community agreement.”

Mexico announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at the end of February. As of June 27, the country had 208,392 confirmed cases and 25,779 deaths. The barriers and community guards remain in place after the magnitude 7.4 earthquake that rocked this region on June 23.

In early April, the city of Santa María Huatulco, about 52 kilometers (32 miles) northeast of San Isidro del Palmar, confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the coastal region. Known for beaches with brilliant blue-green water, the coast also lures tourists with bioluminescent bays, razor-edged cliffs, dolphin and whale sightings, and some of the world’s best surfing.

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Residents of San Juan Palotada, a town in the coastal region of Oaxaca state, installed a barrier on the federal highway with the support of authorities from the municipality of San Pedro Pochutla, 19 kilometers (12 miles) west.

Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico

These communities swung into action. As they have for decades, leaders gathered their people for town assemblies. They typically convene over more prosaic issues, such as whether to approve the construction of a building or the repair of a water pipe. This time they met to decide how to fight a potentially deadly foe.

In other parts of the state, municipal authorities had imposed barriers, breeding confusion, resentment and resistance. These coastal towns wanted to choose for themselves.

Families sent representatives, and anyone older than 18 could take part, as residents sought consensus and voted. They chose the barriers.

Many towns use chains at main entrances and lay down concrete posts at secondary access points. Rules for communities vary, depending on the choices of their town assemblies. And those rules evolve. Some towns, for example, initially closed their entry points for days, only to realize that was too restrictive. Others opted for selective entry.

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Representatives of the towns and neighborhoods of La Laguna del Palmar, La Reforma, Barrio El Rodeo, Barrio Nuevo and San Isidro del Palmar work together to install chain barriers at the three main entrances to their communities. They also use concrete posts to block secondary access points. The communities agreed to these measures in town assemblies.

Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico

“We made the decision to close off the entrance completely, but not even two hours had passed before we realized that it wasn’t going to work,” says José Luis Coronado, community representative of La Laguna del Palmar. “Because there are people in other communities who have land here and they have to go tend to their livestock every day.”

In San Isidro del Palmar, five neighboring communities, including La Laguna del Palmar, share access points and unite to monitor them. Their assemblies met separately, but each town sent an emissary to the other communities’ meetings.

They chose to let in residents and local products, such as gas, purified water, tortillas, vegetables and other groceries. They banned suppliers of nonessential items, such as snacks, soft drinks and alcohol. They also set a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Each town’s representative has a list of residents, and each day they use a loudspeaker to announce who will cover the next day’s morning and afternoon shifts. Heads of families and those older than 18 must serve. Those older than 60 are exempt.

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After allowing a truck carrying groceries to enter, Alejandro Figueroa reconnects the chain barrier that limits access to the town of San Isidro del Palmar.

Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico

“The truth is that everyone is helping,” Damián Reyes, a resident of La Laguna del Palmar, says as he stands guard. “Even those who can’t come for shifts come to show that they care. They bring water, food, something.”

Those on duty raise and lower the chain that restricts vehicle access. Upon allowing a vehicle in, they spray it down with a mixture of water and chlorine.

In the beginning, the restrictions angered some visitors who wanted access to the beach and river. But those conflicts have ebbed.

Still, not everyone likes the measures. Critics worry that some residents come in and out, although they technically should stay at home.

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Communities use different materials to restrict vehicle access. Residents of San Isidro del Palmar place chains at the main entrance but use concrete posts and gravel at secondary access points.

Sarai González Jiménez, GPJ Mexico

“Honestly, I’m not in agreement,” says Gloria Reyes, owner of a small grocery store in San Isidro del Palmar. “Why put up a barrier if cars are still coming in [and out]? There are people who have cars and go out for business, not for necessity.”

Local leaders say the barriers are working. None of the five communities working together at San Isidro del Palmar has seen a case of COVID-19.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last, and I can see that people are a little tired. I hope the reward will be that the illness doesn’t make it here,” Coronado says as he prepares to light lamps that signal the start of the curfew.

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