NOCHIXTLÁN, Mexico – At least ten people are dead and hundreds are injured after violence and gunshots erupted at a protest over education reform in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, a flashpoint region in the conflict between the government and educators.
Teachers affiliated with the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), a major union with 200,000 members that has staged protests against education reform in Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, had gathered on a highway near the town of Nochixtlán to protest what they deem to be the first steps in the eventual privatization of education and the destruction of public education.
Shouting slogans like “Education reform, yes, labor reform, no” and “no to the government’s justification of the mass dismissals of education workers,” thousands of demonstrators took to Federal Highway 190 just outside of Nochixtlán, a small town some 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of the state capital Oaxaca City.
The reason for the latest protest was the recent arrest of two CNTE leaders, Francisco Villalobos and Rubén Núñez, who are accused of embezzlement by the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, a charge strongly rejected by the union. Top figures from the CNTE have been arrested repeatedly in recent years on similar allegations only to be left imprisoned for months and then released due to lack of evidence. In addition, over 4,200 public educators were laid off just last month in Oaxaca.
The Federal Police were sent in to remove the demonstrators and their makeshift barricades made of nail-filled tables, car tires and piles of garbage, which were erected in order to urge for the opening of dialogue with the national government. Clashes ensued as protesters threw rocks and other objects as security forces launched tear gas and water hoses.
The scenes were nothing out of the ordinary at that point, but the chaos was suddenly elevated to a pitched level as gunshots began ringing out.
“We came armed only with sticks, rocks and a few of us had molotov cocktails, which caused minimal damage to no people but the road and the guardrails, and the government responded in kind by using military-grade firearms fired by troops in bulletproof vests,” a protesting teacher told Mexican daily La Jornada. “No announcements or warnings, they just started firing and continued firing even as demonstrators ran back.”
Indeed, the Mexican Federal Police admitted that they opened fire, but only because somebody fired at them first from a “radical” faction of the demonstrators. Enrique Galindo, the Commissioner General of the Federal Police, said that police were “ambushed” by an unknown group (unaligned with the CNTE) who threw homemade explosives and shot at police forces.
“Given the situation,” he said, the security forces “responded with fire.” His statements came after security officials initially denied the use of weapons.
The CNTE said that the Federal Police is “unabashedly lying” as there is no evidence that anybody from the protesting side even had any weapons, let alone fired any shots.
Gabino Cué, the Governor of the impoverished and indigenous-majority Oaxaca, said that initial investigations showed “no evidence of weapons fired against security forces” but he did not “discount extremist factions.” Cué ordered the intervention of the security forces as he attended a wedding outside of Oaxaca, adding to the indignation.
In the aftermath of the gunfire, ten CNTE protesters were left dead while hundreds more were injured. Cars and buses burned along the road while 64 teachers and CNTE figures were arrested, although 27 have since been released. Nearly two dozen individuals listed by the CNTE on their website were reported to be missing, but the union added that most of those people are likely being detained by police.
Hours after the murders, it was discovered that a journalist, Elidio Ramos Zárate of daily El Sur, was also killed. Two unknown gunmen approached Ramos Zárate in Juchitán, a town in southeast Oaxaca, and shot him dead as he sat on a park bench. Ramos Zárate covered issues regarding police actions and police brutality in Oaxaca, a fact that was highlighted by those that accuse the government of carrying out the massacre.
By mid-week, there were still burned-out cars littered along the stretch of highway where the killings took place while educators were allowed to return to the area, almost as if to rectify the shootings by the government forces, to recollect what happened and keep watch over the area.
Meanwhile, a sign in the picturesque central square of Oaxaca City said in English: “Dear tourist, Oaxaca is temporarily closed. We will re-open as soon as there is justice.” A peaceful march by educators in rejection of the violence was also held in the state capital while tens of thousands of parents rallied in a demonstration of support to the state’s educators who they say have never abandoned their children despite the constant risk of losing their jobs and dealing with delays in back pay.
Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the Interior Minister, was also in the Oaxacan capital in order to finally hold the meeting with CNTE figures that they had been demanding for years. The meeting, according to the Interior Ministry, will “allow for the return of peace through dialogue between the government and the said organization.”
Mexico’s Secretary of Education, Aurelio Nuño, will also be in attendance for the meeting that will “generate the conditions for peace in Oaxaca.” Nuño, trusted by Peña Nieto to keep a firm hand on the continuation of education reform, outlined that the meeting will revolve around the demonstrations and peace and nothing else.
For this reason, the CNTE has said that it is expecting “a long battle” against the national government in relation to the education reform.
The education reform in question was introduced shortly after Peña Nieto took office for his six-year presidential term in December of 2012 as part of his quick-fire reform plan. Despite being met with repeated nationwide protests by teachers and their supporters, the reform bill passed through both houses of Congress due to alliances formed by Peña Nieto.
The sections of education reform that were approved first, known as the Primary Laws, dealt with administrative aspects of Mexico’s education system. The Secondary Laws were much more controversial and took longer to pass as they dealt with the employees of the education system.
Out is a system of large teachers’ unions and the practices of inheritance and tenure of teaching jobs. In their places now is a standardized system of hiring based on competency exams and merit-based promotions. The new laws also require teachers to periodically take the exams to ensure that they will escape potential probation or possible termination.
The education system ranks poorly; Mexico is last among the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The country earmarks a higher percentage of its national budget toward education than anyone else in the OECD (save for New Zealand) but it also ranks first in two more negative categories: highest student-to-teacher-ratio (25 to 1) and the highest number of students who never graduate from high school (53%).
Ironically, the president’s center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is responsible for the current situation in Mexico’s schools. The party held onto power in Mexico through corrupt avenues in every aspect of public institutions, including education, for 71 years (1929-2000).
The PRI formed a relationship with the country’s teachers unions initially in the 1960s by offering them a significant increase in control of the public education system in exchange for the unions’ unwavering support of PRI by way of votes and public demonstrations. As they were unchallenged during the PRI’s long rule, the unions had complete control of the hiring and promotion of teachers, inevitably giving rise to high levels of corruption by way of bribes.
As the CNTE demonstrators said during the protest, they acknowledge the system is not perfect but claim that the unions and now-former education laws were all they had to protect their incomes and livelihoods, particularly those who teach in rural and particularly marginalized areas (like Oaxaca).
The vast majority of public educators across the country earn low wages and they, like their students and their families, depend on many social organizations that are offshoots of unions collect food, clothing and medical services (mostly in areas with high indigenous populations).
Finally, teachers were rejecting the reforms because they feared losing even more power as public educators in the sense that without unions, their voices would not be heard at all by the Mexican national government, a historically and notoriously corrupt institution. The case of Oaxaca, in that ten educators had to die in order to get the government’s attention, validates their concerns.