Violent clashes between police and members of a radical teachers’ union left eight dead and more than 100 injured in Mexico on Sunday. The incident is the latest and most deadly in a series of protests against education reforms introduced by the federal government three years ago.
The teachers were members of the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), protesting in the southern state of Oaxaca, where two high-profile union leaders were arrested last week for money laundering and other charges. Since the arrests, the protesters have been blocking roads across southern Mexico.
Miguel Zurita, a CNTE representative in Oaxaca, said that when police arrived to break up Sunday’s protest, they were unwilling to enter into a dialogue.
“What we lived through yesterday was something brutal, something that has no name,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “They arrived armed, and they arrived shooting.”
But authorities said the police were just trying to clear the blocked roads until unknown gunmen began firing at both sides in order to create chaos and conflict.
The government and the dissident teachers have engaged in both violent and nonviolent disputes since 2013, when the government implemented nationwide education reforms in an effort to establish merit-tested jobs and improve the quality of public education.
The reforms introduced periodic performance evaluations for public school teachers, which has been particularly contentious among CNTE members. The union teachers have also protested the policy to bring an end to Mexico’s national system of teacher training schools, which allows anyone with a college degree in any subject to be hired to teach.
In recent weeks, the CNTE has organized protests in Mexico City and Oaxaca, and members have gone on strike in several southern states since mid-May. But the situation escalated after police arrested and detained Ruben Nuñez, secretary general of the CNTE’s Section 22 in Oaxaca – one of the most combative factions of the union – on suspicion of corruption last weekend. Francisco Manuel Villalobos Ricardez, who serves as head of the CNTE in Oaxaca, was also detained on similar charges, and the Attorney General’s office has said more arrest orders are pending.
Following the arrests, the union called for a revolt against Mexico’s government. Dissident teachers say they are trying to avoid privatization of education and that firing thousands and closing one of Mexico’s most progressive institutions are serious violations of human and labor rights.
“The leaders of Section 22 are hostages of the federal government,” said Luis Hernández Navarro, a former teacher and now opinion editor for the Mexico City daily La Jornada. “Their detention is simultaneously a warning of what can happen to other teachers who continue to reject the [federal government’s]‘education reform,’ and a payback to force the movement to demobilize.”
The government views the dissident teachers as openly rebellious against a reform that takes away the national teachers union’s power to control hiring, promotions and layoffs.
In response to the teachers’ protests, AP reported, federal prosecutors have accused union leaders of setting up an illegal financial network to fund their protests and line their own pockets. The scheme allegedly operated when the union effectively controlled the payroll of Oaxaca’s teachers between 2013-15.
According to the Wall Street Journal, authorities are investigating $7 million in funds that may have been misused.
All controversy aside, Mexico’s education system is in dire need of improvement. Although widely criticized for his failure to crack down on impunity or contain drug gang violence, as well as the outrageous human rights violations under his administration, even President Enrique Pena Nieto has described the education reforms as “the most important for Mexico’s future.”
Today, Mexico scores the lowest in education among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and recent tests by Mexico’s Education Ministry revealed that half of high school graduates in Mexico could only manage basic mathematics, and more than half had reading-comprehension problems.