Mexico teachers on the barricades: Protests result in death and injury

All of southern Mexico is on fire with protest demonstrations after the government sent in heavily armed troops, gendarmes and police to suppress demonstrations against a neo-liberal educational “reform” being pushed by right-wing President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  At writing there are unconfirmed reports that between 9 and 12 demonstrators have been killed with many more wounded and others arrested.

The clash on June 19 happened when army troops and federal and state police and gendarmes tried to remove a barricade in the town of Nochixtlán, state of Oaxaca, which had been set up by teachers and their allies on the road that connects Oaxaca City, the state capital, with Mexico City.  The government’s operatives opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition.

At first, this was denied by government representatives, but when video and eyewitness evidence surfaced that clearly showed the opposite. There were also clashes with possible fatalities in the towns of Juchitán, Tierra Blanca and Oaxaca City.  Among the fatalities were teachers, students and community residents, but no police or soldiers.  One journalist was reportedly killed in Juchitán under circumstances that have not yet been clarified.

The teachers’ union that was subjected to repression is Section 22 of the National Coordinator of Educational Workers  (CNTE).  The CNTE is the most militant subdivision of Mexico’s main national teachers union, the National Union of Educational Workers (SNTE).  The CNTE has strong support among teachers and educational workers in the Southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacan and Chiapas. 

The educational philosophy espoused by the CNTE leadership and many parents, students and community residents in the area which it serves is that teachers should not just be technicians or bureaucrats of the classroom, nor haughty bearers of a superior outside civilization, but rather members and even leaders of the communities in which they work.  In many areas where the CNTE is strong, there is a high concentration of indigenous Mexicans whose first language is often not Spanish, but rather Mixteco, Zapoteco, Trique and other ancient tongues.

Teachers in these areas have developed methods of instruction that use the indigenous languages, and they are expected to be acquainted with local cultural traditions and social conditions.  Many of these teachers were, themselves, born and raised in the communities they serve, and in many cases got their teacher training through Mexico’s system of Rural Normal Schools, which Mr. Peña Nieto’s government is trying to abolish as part of the educational “reform”. 

The Normal schools have been seen as a threat to Mexico’s political and economic elites for a long time; in many cases the teachers they have trained have turned out to be courageous leaders of their impoverished communities.  

It is clear that the practice of the CNTE’s members as teachers is innovative, creative and sensitive to the needs of the students and their families and communities.  Since the CNTE protests against the government’s educational reforms began in 2013, pro-government media have tried to smear the teachers as narrow minded people who selfishly protect their own interests and resist accountability.  The CNTE has stated all along that it is not against accountability and evaluation, but strongly suspects that “accountability,” including a top-down evaluation system imposed from Mexico City, will exclude the voices, not only of the teachers themselves, but also the communities and populations which they serve.

In Oaxaca in particular, the CNTE had worked out its own alternative evaluation system and managed to pressure the state governor, Gabino Cue Monteagudo, from the opposition Citizens’ Movement party, to agree to it.  But Cue Monteagudo’s police also participated in the repression on Sunday and the teachers now say he has betrayed them and should resign.

The educational reform the government is trying to implement was approved as part of the neoliberal “Pact for Mexico” in 2013.   It was approved as a constitutional amendment, making it harder to reverse; its purpose was openly stated as taking the educational system out of the hands of unionized teachers and placing it under central government control.

CNTE teachers have been urging a boycott of the evaluation system. In response the government has fired thousands of teachers, in some cases because of their participation in strikes or for refusing to participate in the evaluation. 

Also, teachers point out that the new plan for evaluation is being imposed without dedicating new funds to upgrading schools and teacher training.

The suspicion goes further.  In addition to the neo-liberal labor and education reforms that have angered and alarmed the teachers, the general direction of Mr. Peña Nieto’s policy has been to use the “Pact for Mexico” to dismantle many protections of the public interest in order to cater to foreign and Mexican multinational corporations. His plan to open up Mexico’s national oil company, PEMEX, to foreign corporate investment has also set alarm bells. Thus the fear that these corporate interests have been pushing for these “reforms” in their own interests, which is to create a useful but docile work force while preventing labor, environmental and regulatory protections from interfering with their profit  making.

President Peña Nieto as an individual is also deeply mistrusted.  Even when he was governor of Mexico State before his election as president, he was accused of repressive, abusive policies, especially in the case of  San Salvador Atenco , where police suppression of protesters had led to the death of two citizens and the rape of a number of women by officers.

Peña Nieto’s election campaign in 2011 featured credible accusations of electoral fraud , including vote buying.  Many believe that leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would have gotten more votes than Peña Nieto had it not been for this kind of manipulation.   

In 2014, independent journalist Carmen Arestegui revealed that while Peña Nieto was governor of Mexico state, his wife acquired a mansion worth $7 million, possibly a “gift” from a contractor doing business with his government. Subsequent to these revelations, Ms. Arestegui  lost her job at the MSV radio network, creating the impression that someone had applied pressure for her to be fired.

More accusations of repression:   On June 30, 2014, 22 supposed criminals were killed by troops at Tlatlaya, also in Mexico state.  The army claimed that the deaths were the results of a firefight, but human rights organizations claim that at least 12 of the dead had been captured alive and then simply massacred by the troops.

And then on Sept. 26 of that same year, there occurred the incident which angered millions of Mexicans and sparked protests all over the world.   A group of teachers and college students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa had traveled to the small city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero, next door to Oaxaca, to raise money for a trip to Mexico City where they were to attend a commemoration of the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968.

To get back to their college, they commandeered some buses (a common practice with Mexican student protesters), which were then intercepted by corrupt police.  In the police gunfire which ensued, two students  and some bystanders were killed, and 43 students were taken away and have not been seen since.

Families of the students, confronting the Peña Nieto about a possible federal role in the attack, have been met with one lie and obfuscation after another.   This has led millions of Mexicans to believe that Peña Nieto’s government was in some way or another complicit in this violent incident, and that federal troops and police, and not just local police in cahoots with drug gangs, bear part of the responsibility. The parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students have been traveling all over Mexico and beyond with their demand that their sons be returned alive. 

Like Oaxaca, Guerrero is a hotbed of protest against Peña Nieto’s educational reform plan, and the dead and disappeared students from Ayotzinapa are exactly the kind of people who form the backbone of the CNTE protests.  Had the 43 not been “disappeared” they might well have been out protesting with the other teachers, students and parents on Sunday.

Very compromising information about people close to Peña Nieto also emerged from the Panama Papers leaks earlier this year, which tends to suggest that the scandal about the house was related to the movement of huge sums of money to a shell company created by Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm in the center of the Panama Papers scandal.

However, Peña Nieto does not back down.  His government’s “reforms” dovetail neatly with the U.S. promoted Transpacific Partnership, in which Mexico is participating, in that they open up all aspects of the Mexican economy to free penetration by foreign transnational corporations and remove obstacles to maximum profit making by Mexican and international corporations-including ones based in the United States.

The CNTE and especially Section 22 have been protesting the educational reform since 2013, but things came to a head this year with the government’s push to aggressively implement the teacher evaluation plan.  In the run-up to Sunday’s bloody clash, police dispersed a long running “planton” (approximately, “sit-in”) of unionized teachers in Mexico City, and then arrested a number of CNTE leaders on what appear to be trumped up charges of corruption or misuse of funds (the bank accounts of Section 22 and the personal bank accounts of its leaders having been frozen by the government of Oaxaca, so union leaders say they had to resort to improvised fundraising).

The CNTE and its supporters are demanding the resignation of federal secretary of education Aurelio  Nuño, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Oaxaca governor Cue and others (many people have been demanding the resignation of President Peña Nieto also).  They have also been demanding the release of all prisoners and the investigation and punishment of person’s responsible for Sunday’s violence.   There have been demonstrations against the Mexican government’s violence in scores of towns and cities throughout Mexico and beyond, including New York City.

At writing, the government had agreed to meet with CNTE leaders, but continued to say that the implementation of the educational reform is not negotiable.

Photo: A striking teacher from Michoacán demonstrates in Mexico City in front of a line of police.  |  David Bacon


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.