The June 19 government crackdown on striking Mexican teachers culminated in deadly violence in the southern state of Oaxaca, transforming a showdown between the Pena Nieto administration and the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) into a larger political crisis that once again cast Mexico in the international human rights spotlight.
Even as the controversy over the still-unresolved forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students in 2014 simmers on the world stage, the Oaxaca episode garnered fresh denunciations from non-governmental organizations and activists in Europe, South and Central America, Australia, and the United States. Jan Jarab, Mexico representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the latest violence.
Weeks of intensifying protests against federal government’s 2013 education reform, which many public school teachers and their supporters oppose as an infringement on labor rights and a step toward privatization, took a violent turn Sunday, June 19, when federal and state police attempted to dislodge CNTE members and supporters from the town of Nochixtlan, Oaxaca.
The protesters regrouped and confronted police, who were then accused of opening fire on the assembled crowd. Eventually, after 15 hours of clashes, teachers and their allies forced the federal and state police forces from Nochixtlan and back to the state capital of Oaxaca City.
Differing accounts of casualties prevailed in the immediate days after the confrontation. As of Tuesday, June 21, the CNTE listed between eight and ten civilians killed (mostly supporters of the teachers), with scores injured and perhaps 22 disappeared. Government sources placed the death toll at eight or ten and the number of detained at 23. More than 100 people were injured, including 56 police and 53 civilians, according to official sources cited in the Mexican press.
On June 21, one of the slain individuals, 19-year-old Jesus Cadena Sanchez, was buried in Nochixtlan amid cries of justice from relatives and friends. Images of Sunday’s clash and its aftermath in Nochixtlan published by the Mexican media recall war scenes. Members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office were reported in the Oaxaca town June 20 gathering testimonies about the preceding day.
On Monday, June 20, tens of thousands of demonstrators participated in a “march of indignation” in Oaxaca City, shouting “assassins!” and setting up barricades in the city center. June 19 was the bloodiest repression to visit Oaxaca since the 2006 uprising by the CNTE and the APPO, a statewide grouping of social movements and indigenous communities.
As different versions of the June 19 events continue to be sorted out, many Mexicans are speaking out on Nochixtlan. A letter signed by prominent Oaxaca painter Francisco Toleldo and about 100 other artists and academics urged President Pena Nieto and Oaxaca Governor Gabino Cue to halt police actions against the educators’ movement and immediately convene a negotiating roundtable.
In a similar vein, three bishops from Chiapas and one from Oaxaca appealed on the Pena Nieto administration and the CNTE to engage in dialogue, offering their services as intermediaries. Earlier CNTE proposals for dialogue were countered by Mexico City’s response that talks were fine but the 2013 reform law was non-negotiable.
In a series of tweets, President Pena Nieto expressed regret for “the loss of life,” voiced solidarity with victims’ relatives and pledged an investigation by the Office of the Federal Attorney General. Roberta Jacobson, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said Washington was “monitoring” the CNTE-government conflict. Under the anti-drug Merida Initiative, the United States trains and supplies a wide array of Mexican government security forces.
Governor Gabino Cue, who was originally elected on a reform platform in 2010 but later had a falling out with teachers and other social activists, justified the crackdown as a measure to restore the rule of law and eliminate the highway barricades erected by the CNTE he said were violating the right to freedom of transit by Oaxaca’s citizens.
Federal Police Commissioner Enrique Galindo, whose officers were seen firing guns on videos posted on the Internet, claimed the police responded with deadly force only after they were ambushed with Molotov cocktails, “rockets” and gunfire directed indiscriminately at both security forces and civilians. Police officers suffered flesh burns and even lost fingers, Galindo said.
Quoted in the Mexican press, unidentified teachers said “infiltrators” were present in Nochixtlan who could have been responsible for starting the shooting.
On June 19, other confrontations unfolded elsewhere in Oaxaca, including the burning of a Federal Police post in the town of Huajuapan de Leon only hours after the events in Nochixtlan. On the same day, Oaxaca journalist Elidio Ramos Zarate and another man were shot dead in the city of Juchitan.
A very bloody day claimed its first political casualty when Oaxaca Indigenous Affairs Secretary Adelfo Regino Montes announced June 20 his “voluntary and irrevocable” resignation from the state post. Regino said he could not form part of a government that “uses public force and repression as a solution, instead of wagering on dialogue.” In addition to Cue’s immediate departure from office (the governor’s term ends later this year), the CNTE demanded the resignations and/or impeachments of President Pena Nieto, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong and Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno. What’s more, the activist teacher organization appealed for the intervention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Although many teachers have remained steadfast in their opposition to the 2013 reform, protests and strikes against the law re-escalated during the past five weeks, spurred on by the announced firing of thousands of educators for not complying with the new teacher evaluation testing or for allegedly missing too many days of work.
Additionally, the recent arrests of Oaxaca Section 22 CNTE leaders Ruben Nunez and Francisco Villalobos for alleged money laundering stirred an already boiling political pot. Further inflaming the stand-off, CNTE activist Eugenio Rodriguez Cornejo was arrested June 20 in Michoacan, two days after the detention of Juan Jose Ortega Madrigal, another historic leader of the teacher union in Michoacan. Both men are accused of damages and illegal privation of liberty. By June 21, thousands of CNTE demonstrators and supporters were marching or blockading roads in the state capital of Morelia and elsewhere in Michoacan.
In Guerrero, State Prosecutor Xavier Olea confirmed that outstanding arrest warrants exist for local CNTE leaders but added the legal orders had not been acted upon because of the political explosiveness of the moment. While CNTE-led protests have been staged across the nation, the movement has acquired an especially intense, mass character in the southwestern and southern states of Guerrero, Michoacan, Chiapas and Oaxaca, where many parents, social activists and indigenous communities have lent their support.
Disparate forces ranging from the Mayan Zapatista National Liberation Army and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena political party likewise back the teachers’ cause. In a joint communique on Nochixtlan, the Zapatistas and CNI urged widespread solidarity with the teachers, writing that a storm, “besides chaos and tempest, also makes fertile the land where a new world is always born.”
Two-time presidential candidate Lopez Obrador and Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno tossed verbal barbs even prior to the Nochixtlan bloodshed, with the former contending that the government was fabricating legal charges against jailed CNTE leaders Nunez and Villalobos and the latter declaring that Lopez Obrador was lying about the purpose of the Pena Nieto administration’s education reform policies, which Nuno insisted were aimed at strengthening and not privatizing public education.
Also on the eve of the Nochixtlan carnage, the California-based Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) issued a statement in support of the teachers.
The message read in part: “As indigenous migrants, we contribute through the sending of remittances, the financing for the operation of schools in our communities. In all our towns, parents pay for the electricity, the water and the maintenance of the schools….the teachers are the ones who historically have been closet to our communities and participate actively in the defense of our rights as indigenous peoples. Many of the leaders of our organization, the FIOB, are also teachers…”
The CNTE and its allies quickly responded to the Oaxaca violence by taking to the streets. Teachers and rural education students blocked two streets in the Morelos state capital of Cuernavaca, comparing Nochixtlan to the October 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City.
In neighboring Guerrero, teachers and supporters protested in Iguala, Zihuatanejo Acapulco, Petatlan, Atoyac, Tlapa, Ciudad Altamirano, the Costa Chica, and the state capital of Chilpancingo. In Chiapas, demonstrators blocked access to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez both on June 20 and 21. Father Marcelo Perez, parish priest of Simovejel, called on police not to kill.
As Frontera NorteSur was going to press, the popular movement maintained road blockades in many points of Oaxaca state. Residents of Huixtan, Chiapas, meanwhile, seized two Federal Police officers, demanding a halt to repression and threatening to lynch the officials if further aggression against the movement ensues. Other pro-CNTE demonstrations were reported in Sonora, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Mexico, and Mexico City. More protests are likely in store for the days ahead, including a June 26 mobilization uniting the teachers and the parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students.
Finally, in a move that could defuse the crisis surrounding Nochixtlan, CNTE leaders are expected to meet with Pena Nieto administration officials, including Interior Secretary Osorio Chong, on Wednesday, June 22, in Mexico City.
Whether the talks will lead to a genuine resolution of the long-running conflict is another matter entirely. Education Secretary Aurelio Nunez told the press that the June 22 dialogue was of a political nature arising from the urgency of the spiraling conflict, but would not address the education reform per se since the law was now part of the Mexican Constitution.
Sources: Aristeguinoticias.com, June 20 and 21, 2016. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), June 20, 2016. Article by Margena de la O. El Sur, June 20 and 21, 2016. Articles by Brenda Escobar, Jacob Antonio Morales, Alina Navarrete Fernandez, Israel Flores, Francisco Magana, Karina Contreras, editorial staff, Proceso, and the Reforma news agency.
La Jornada, June 19, 20 and 21, 2016. Articles by Jose A. Perez Alfonso, Alfredo Mendez, Rene Ramon, Rubicela Morelos Cruz, Ernesto Martinez Elorriaga, Elio Enriquez and editorial staff. El Universal, June 21, 2016. Articles by Natalia Gomez, Carlos Arrieta and Dennis A. Garcia.
Proceso/Apro, June 20 and 21,2016. Articles by Mathieu Tourliere, Isain Mandujano, Pedro Matias, Rodrigo Vera, Ezequiel Flores Contreras, and editorial staff. Nortedigital.mx, June 21, 2016. El Diario de Juarez, June 16 and 20, 2016. Articles by El Universal and the Reforma news agency. Desinformemonos.org, June 21, 2016.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico