Police terror in Oaxaca against the teachers

June 23, 2016

Ongoing protests in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca against state repression and the government's warped priorities were the target of a crackdown by federal police, leading to nine deaths and some 100 people injured. Writing from Oaxaca, Afsaneh Moradian and Rene Gonzalez Pizarro, a member of the teachers' union and former delegate to its General Assembly, report on the state violence and the background to the struggle.

OAXACA, MEXICO, is once again making international headlines as frightening video spreads of police violence against public school teachers, parents and community members protesting the government's education deform schemes and heavy-handed repression against dissent.

On Sunday, June 19, federal police cracked down on a blockade concentrated just outside of the town of Nochixtlan on the only highway that enters Oaxaca directly from Mexico City. After a three-day standoff, the police broke through a barricade of cars, tires, stones and tree trunks, with hundreds of protesters standing with it.

The police assault included tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Three people were killed instantly and as many as 100 were injured. Police denied the injured access to the local hospital--as a result, five more people are dead from the initial confrontation.

Seven people disappeared, and 23 were arrested and placed in federal prison facilities, possibly to be transported to prisons in other states, as is the government's common practice. Community members reacted to the shootings by holding two federal police officers hostage for three days.

Federal police unleashed a deadly assault on protesters in Oaxaca
Federal police unleashed a deadly assault on protesters in Oaxaca

In response to the brutality, communities further along the highway in Oaxaca immediately began mobilizing to stop police from entering Oaxaca City and reaching the teachers' protest encampment in the city center, or zócalo.

Viewing the killings as an act of war, people burned tires and cars, and physically confronted the police over a 3.5-mile stretch of the highway in a total of 10 skirmishes by that Sunday evening. One more protester was killed in these clashes.

This savage repression is being reported by the media as limited to Oaxacan teachers and the police, but the movement has grown far beyond the teachers' union. The resistance throughout Sunday was largely a community effort, with teachers being joined by parents and other community members from neighboring towns as well. Of the nine confirmed deaths, only one was a teacher, and a majority of those arrested were community members.

The repression on Sunday was followed by a march of tens of thousands to the zócalo in Oaxaca City. Professors and students at the largest public university walked out to join the demonstration. Smaller marches have also been held in various neighborhoods of the city to mourn the deaths of protesters and denounce the government.

On Wednesday, the blockade resumed in Nochixtlan. Meanwhile, there were marches for health care workers, joined by teachers and NGOs around Mexico, including Oaxaca and Mexico City.

THERE IS wide support for teachers and opposition to the federal government's education "reform" law they have been protesting, which not only clears the way for public school privatization but is clearly directed at breaking the power of the teachers' union.

But the anger runs much deeper, including other recent proposals and enacted laws to privatize Mexico's oil production facilities and the country's public health care system. There is also deep suspicion of the federal police--and therefore opposition to the government summoning them in the first place.

The latest phase of the Oaxaca teachers' struggle began in mid-May with an all-out three-day strike. The majority of teachers were forced by law to return to work, but those at schools with community support were able to stay out longer and participate in nonviolent direct actions.

The protests intensified after the top two elected leaders of the teachers' union in Oaxaca--Section 22 of the Mexican National Education Workers Union (SNTE)--were arrested.

One action was to set up a checkpoint outside of Oaxaca City and deny passage to tractor-trailer trucks bringing products to large stores, many of which are transnational retailers such as Home Depot, Office Depot and Walmart. After a week of trucks being stopped, the federal police were called in to clear the way.

Meanwhile, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southeastern Oaxaca, several more blockades were set up--the largest blocked an oil refinery and stopped all gasoline from being distributed throughout the state for one day. Federal police moved against the Isthmus blockades on June 17 and 18, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Several people were injured, and many more were inspired to join the blockades in support of teachers.

There is deep bitterness in Oaxaca against the mobilization of the federal police. The police have never once been mobilized against a single narco-trafficker, nor called in to search for the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa, and nothing has been done regarding the 25,000 people who were disappeared in 2015 alone. Instead, police are sent to gas and kill teachers and community members to clear the way for commerce.

TEACHERS IN many states have been protesting the education reform law since it was passed under newly inaugurated President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013. Since 2015, more than 2,000 teachers have been fired for refusing to take the new standardized teacher evaluation, the results of which can initiate a process to fire tenured teachers.

The protests have included teachers who are not members of the National Coordinating Council of Education Workers (CNTE), the dissident formation within the national teachers' union. That shows how widespread the discontent is: that teachers are involved who previously went along with the national union SNTE, with its pro-government positions, in states such as Jalisco, Monterrey and Estado de Mexico.

It's abundantly clear to teachers and many parents that the reform will do nothing to improve education, but is meant to attack tenure and implement more standardized testing for students and teachers.

In a country where many schools in the south of the country don't have proper facilities such as floors or running water, and where children are distracted by hunger, this law does nothing to improve the conditions of learning. For years now, public education has ceased to be free--the financial responsibility for supplying materials and maintaining schools, including paying the electricity bill in some cases, falls on parents.

Oaxaca was one of four states where teachers went on strike on May 15--educators in Chiapas, Michoacán and Guerrero also closed their schools. The education reform law has a provision that any teacher who misses more than three consecutive days of work is automatically fired.

After four days of the strike, Secretary of Education Aurelio Nuño Mayer announced that more than 4,000 teachers across the four states had lost their jobs. Blockades were immediately set up in the state of Chiapas to confront police in an effort to stop the termination notices from being distributed. Police attacked the blockades with tear gas, leaving several teachers injured. Chiapas has seen an outpouring of support for the teachers, with every gas station hanging a banner that reads "Dialogue Now."

In Mexico City, Nuño has refused to speak with representatives of the CNTE. Teachers from all over Mexico have been camped out in Mexico City as part of a rotating protest encampment that began in 2013 when the law was being considered.

After the crackdown in Oaxaca this past Sunday, there is greater support now for the encampment and urgent demands for a meeting with the government to discuss the education law. University students, academics, intellectuals and artists marched in support of teachers and publicly backed them.

There are also plans to unite the teachers' struggle with that of health care workers, who are currently protesting a proposed law aimed at privatization in the public health care system. Close to 1 million doctors and nurses marched through Mexico City's zócalo on June 17.

Education Secretary Nuño, Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong and President Peña Nieto are responsible for the deaths and police repression in Oaxaca and beyond. They are the ones refusing to meet with the teachers' union to discuss how the education law will be implemented--though Chong reportedly bowed to international pressure and agreed to meet leaders from Section 22 in Oaxaca.

However, Nuño has refused to agree to even a dialogue, much less negotiation. His response to the repression in Oaxaca came 50 hours later on June 21, when he said, "Education reform is a process that will continue and will not be delayed."

President Peña Nieto offered his condolences to the grieving families, but his words ring hollow since he is implicated in the order given to the federal police to shoot to kill.

International solidarity is urgent, not only to pressure the government into talks with the teachers' union, but to hold these government leaders responsible for the nine deaths, the many injuries, the arrests and repression.

The resistance will continue. As one teacher in Oaxaca said in an interview: "As long as we have the support of communities and parents, we must continue protesting against education reform and the other structural reforms they want to implement with the cost of the blood of many Mexicans."

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