A papier-mâché statue of a woman holding a dead body sits in the middle of the main tourist corridor of Oaxaca City
Entering the state of Oaxaca has become a trying process, ever since the Mexican Federal Police massacred, according to human rights reports, at least eight supporters of Mexico’s protesting teachers in Nochixtlán on June 19, 2016. More than 170 people were injured during the incident in the community of Nochixtlán, Oaxaca.
At first, police responding to the protests fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Then they began using live ammunition. Authorities claim police opened fire after being shot at by radical groups that had infiltrated the protest, but others dispute this. Following this incident and the investigation of a different confrontation that resulted in the death of forty-two civilians, the chief of the federal police force, Enrique Galindo, was removed from his position. But no one has been charged in these killings and the investigation is ongoing.
After the killings, teachers and their supporters erected statewide roadblocks. Overnight, Oaxaca became the epicenter of the latest conflict between President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education “reforms” and the people who are determined to resist them. Cars and trucks burned across the state, protesters destroyed toll booths, and military helicopters hovered overhead in a scene reminiscent of a war zone.
Mexico is undergoing a historic revolt against the privatization of public services, including education. At stake are two competing ideas of what education should be. On one side are the unionized teachers, who have maintained protests and blockades against the education changes passed in February 2013; on the other side are corporate leaders and their political allies, who seek to dismantle the teachers’ unions, and open up education to private investment.
This conflict now involves the founders of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a U.S.-based charter school network. The teachers of Mexico, who have been involved in a long, often violent struggle to defend public education, are up against the same school-privatization forces as teachers’ unions and public school advocates in the United States.
A week after the massacre in Oaxaca, I traveled to Oaxaca City from San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. In the past, this journey was a thirteen-hour direct bus ride, but now the conflict made things more difficult. After taking five buses, enduring twenty hours of travel, and navigating numerous roadblocks, I arrived at the latest battleground against privatization in Mexico. Along the way, we passed the burnt skeletons of trucks and cars, a reminder of the outrage that followed the massacre.
At one roadblock, I met Jesús Santiago Montes, a fifty-eight-year-old primary school teacher with thirty-eight years of experience working in Mexico’s poor southern state of Oaxaca. We sat and spoke by the side of the highway about teachers’ frustration and the reasons for the protests. Santiago Montes and many others were using their summer vacation to maintain that roadblock in protest at Mexico’s education changes. All the teachers were members of Section 22 of the National Coordinator of Education Workers, a branch of the Mexican teachers’ union, the National Union of Education Workers.
Santiago Montes took part in the 2006 uprising against then-Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Since 2013, he has participated in the massive mobilizations of Mexican teachers opposing the education policies of Peña Nieto.
Teachers say these policies do little to address the real problems they face. Schoolteachers across Mexico serve as important organizers for many rural communities, a good deal of which lack basic resources. Among the problems teachers see on a regular basis are malnutrition and a lack of running water and electricity.
Mexico’s education “reforms,” which require teachers to take tests in order to remain in their jobs, among other burdens, look to Santiago Montes like a direct attack on unions, as well as a way of undermining rural teachers-as-community-organizers who are a thorn in the side of the national government.
“This is not an educational reform as it is stated, this is a labor reform because it restricts and annuls the labor rights of education workers,” Santiago Montes told me as we sat on a cement wall along the highway.
The changes emphasize standardized testing for students, as well as a biannual test for teachers. Proponents claim that this testing will lead to improved education and help root out unqualified teachers. Veteran teachers, including Santiago Montes, see it as a threat to their job security and pay. Their employment, compensation, and bonuses will now be tied to student scores on standardized tests.
But for Santiago Montes, and many other teachers, the protests are not just about the destruction of their union, but rather what teachers fear will be the destruction of public education as they know it.
“The reform also targets Article 3 of the constitution that protects the rights of citizens to a public and free education,“ Santiago Montes noted. And the teachers’ concerns about privatization are well founded. As U.S. charter school companies have looked to expand their projects south, Mexico’s business leaders have taken an interest in the U.S.-inspired charter school model.
Mexican magnate Eduardo Tricio, whose interests include the airline Aeromexico and the milk product company Grupo Lala, got into the education sector in 2010 when he brought KIPP-inspired charter schools to his country. The first school served thirty students.
KIPP is the largest charter chain in the United States, with schools in twenty states and Washington, D.C. While the nonprofit spends about a half million dollars per year on advertising to tout high graduation rates and excellent academic outcomes for its mostly low-income students, the Center for Media and Democracy has reported on how KIPP hides basic information about high dropout rates and startling executive salaries and perks. And public school advocate Diane Ravitch has criticized the company for being secretive and draining resources from public schools.
But KIPP has friends in high places. Tricio persuaded the charter school company’s founders Mike Feinberg and Aaron Brenner to come to Mexico and help him open a KIPP-inspired school. The three men also launched a new organization, 1 World Network of Schools, which aims to train principals, open more KIPP-inspired schools, and promote education changes.
“Mexico, with support and investment from the [United States], will be able to make serious inroads in its ability to reform its education,” the foundation declared in awarding the grant. “The future of education reform in Mexico will be guided by this initial work.”
The Progressive reached out to KIPP for a statement on the collaboration with Tricio in Mexico, but the charter school operator declined to respond.
Photos by Jeff Abbott
(Left) The remains of a bus that was burned following the massacre in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca, is draped in a banner accusing the Mexican government of assassinating the people. (Right) A teacher from the Section 22 union rests in a hammock while reading a book in the encampment in the center of Oaxaca City.
Back at the roadblock, Santiago Montes challenged the claim that teachers have no ideas to counter the corporate education “innovators.” Teachers in the forgotten rural communities of Oaxaca have plenty to say about how they could better serve kids, he said. Rank-and-file teachers have written a proposal called the Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca.
“It is a proposal that is 100 percent humanist,” Santiago Montes said. “It is important to us that the student thinks, reflects, and analyzes, and where the student is not educated to be a slave or submissive. We want the students to resolve their own problems.”
The teachers’ plan seeks to include the rural indigenous communities and to open space for teaching Oaxaca’s various indigenous languages. Its emphasis on indigenous communities is a result of community meetings that were an intentional part of the design process.
“The plan is something that has risen from the teachers themselves, and the knowledge and understanding from the communities,” George Salinas, the representative of a delegation of Oaxaca’s Section 22 of the teachers’ union, told me at the roadblock. “This is an alternative education project that reflects the needs of the communities.”
According to Salinas, teachers have already been enacting part of the plan in various communities in Oaxaca, with positive results.
In the months since my visit, teachers have continued their protests in spite of the continued threat of violence. The union maintains its demand for educational changes that benefit Mexican communities, not transnational companies. The teachers I met in Oaxaca were ready for a long fight against charter schools and other companies that threatened their public education. As they see it, education is the foundation of empowered youth and young engaged citizens who will demand a better Mexico.
“We want a reform, but one that is in accordance with the Mexican reality,” Santiago Montes told me. He said exams should be for improving education, “not canceling out labor rights.”
Photos by Jeff Abbott
(Left) Coffins sit below the flag of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca outside the municipal building of Oaxaca City in protest of the massacre on June 19, 2016. (Right) Graffiti on the walls around the municipal building of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, expressed solidarity with the teachers in Oaxaca.
In Oaxaca City, the bustling capital of the state of Oaxaca where Section 22 is headquartered, the tension is palpable, but life continues. Businesses are open, and foreign tourists stroll through the city center. It’s partly an illusion. At the end of 2015, city officials and the Oaxacan business community took steps to erase all signs of social conflict in the popular tourist destination. Political graffiti and murals were painted over, and attempts were made to limit the presence of Section 22 in a large encampment in the central square.
The day I arrived in Oaxaca, just after the massacre, artists had constructed a papier-mâché statue in one of the major walkways of a woman holding a lifeless body. Tourists stopped and took photos. Two days later, nothing remained of the art piece. Along the walls now are new murals depicting a little girl holding a machete, and an image of a fallen teacher.
At the southern end of the walkway is the Zócalo, or central square. Among the benches, trees, and taco stands, teachers have constructed a small city of weathered tents and plastic tarps. Since May 2016, the teachers have occupied the Zócalo to protest the changes. Even weeks after the initial violence, it is a hive of activity, complete with a makeshift food distribution system, medical services, and much lively chatter.
There is a historic memory in these streets, where, in 2006, thousands marched in protest of then-Governor Ruiz Ortiz. The protests began with a strike by Section 22, and escalated into a social uprising after the governor sent police into the city center to evict the teachers from the central park. Federal police were sent in to put down the uprising.
“These demands are old,” Gilberto Hernandez, a lawyer with the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, which supports Oaxaca’s teachers, told me.“The [teachers’] union and the communities have struggled for years for these issues. In 2006, the government responded by providing millions and millions of pesos for these poor zones [of Oaxaca]. But sadly, due to corruption, these funds never arrived to these communities. Ten years later, the same problems exist. Today it isn’t just a problem of the union or the community, but rather a social and political problem.”
And the threat of violent repression lingers.
Rumors are flying around the park. One night, a hotel owner warned me not to go near the central park as the police and military were supposedly going to enter and force the eviction of the teachers’ encampment. Journalists on the scene added to the tension by visibly protecting themselves with bulletproof vests and gas masks. But the crackdown never materialized. Through all the uncertainty, the teachers and their supporters across the state stood ready to guarantee that the police would not enter to evict the teachers.
“These [changes] are meant more for cutting costs than for the improvement of education,” Javita Hernandez, a supporter of the teachers, told me in the encampment in Oaxaca’s Zócalo. As we spoke, teachers gathered within their delegations for their daily meeting.
The struggle continues.
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social movements in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, the North American Congress on Latin America, and Upside Down World. Follow him on