Members of a dissident teachers’ group went on indefinite strike in Mexico, vandalizing government offices, torching electoral documents and leaving at least a million children without classes, in an effort to halt an education overhaul and disrupt coming federal midterm elections.
The action Monday by the National Coordinator of Educational Workers—a branch of the national teachers union that is strong in the country’s poorest states—and the possibility of further disruptions ahead of Sunday’s vote pose a growing challenge to the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
In 2013, the government passed an overhaul of Mexico’s troubled public school system that, among other things, calls for mandatory evaluations of the country’s teachers, due to begin later this year. In 2012 education tests drawn up by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico got the lowest marks in math and reading among its 34 member countries.
On Friday, under pressure from the CNTE, as it is popularly known, Mexico´s government said it would suspend “until further notice” plans to carry out the evaluations. The delay was broadly seen as a humiliating setback for the president, who has tried to cast himself as a reformer trying to modernize Mexico’s economy.
“The suspension of teachers’ evaluation is the hardest blow the reformist credibility of President Peña Nieto has suffered so far,” Héctor Aguilar Camín, a prominent writer, said Monday in a column in the Milenio newspaper.
Mexico’s Interior Ministry didn’t reply to a request to comment.
Many observers suggested the government took the step to ensure a peaceful midterm vote, and would try to return to evaluations after the election. The group, a powerful wing of the country’s official teachers union, appeared to be taking no chances, saying it would press ahead with its demands that the entire overhaul be junked.
Though the CNTE called a nationwide strike, it wasn’t known how many participated in Monday’s actions. In Mexico City, thousands of teachers took to the streets, disrupting traffic and public transport. In Oaxaca state, teachers broke into electoral offices, destroying furniture and burning ballots, state officials said.
In coming days, teachers say they will hold more strikes and will block the Mexico City airport and highways across southern Mexico.
“What the federal government announced Friday is not enough. We want the definitive suspension of evaluations and the repeal of the education reform. And we won’t stop until we get these things,” said Ramos Reyes, the head of the dissident group in southern Guerrero state.
The CNTE, which claims 250,000 members but which independent estimates put at about 100,000, said the mobilizations form part of an effort to boycott Sunday´s elections in which Mexicans will renew the 500-member lower house of Congress and elect nine state governors, state-level legislators and almost 900 mayors.
Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, said it was too soon to say how extensive or disruptive the threatened boycott may be to the voting. So far, only 17 of the 148,920 polling stations are at risk of not being installed, he said.
The southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán are the most at risk from the boycott, authorities say.
“Not all of Mexico is Guerrero, and not all of Guerrero is Tlapa or Chilpancingo,” he told reporters at a meeting Monday, referring to several towns where the teachers have threatened to scuttle the vote.
In Tlapa, a poor town high in the mountains of Guerrero and a CNTE stronghold, teacher Bonifacio Iturbide says his main task on Sunday will be to make sure elections aren’t held.
“We will do whatever it takes. We’ll seize the ballot boxes if necessary,” said the 37-year-old elementary school teacher.
The education overhaul creates mandatory teacher testing by an independent government agency. If teachers miss the exams or fail after a third try, they can be fired. It also banned common practices like inheriting a teaching position or buying and selling the posts.
Teachers say the education bill seeks to privatize education and violates their labor rights. “We are building a social movement to defeat Peña Nieto’s reforms. That’s our goal,” said Mr. Reyes, the head of the CNTE in Guerrero.
Many in Mexico worry the overhaul will never be a reality in the impoverished southern states where the CNTE is strongest.
“Mexico can’t afford to not implement the education reform in all of its territory if we want to be able to compete in a global economy,” said Claudio X. González, the head of education advocacy group Mexicanos Primero. “And unfortunately, the government is being weak.”
In Tlapa, hundreds of CNTE teachers have gathered in recent days to discuss possible actions to boycott the elections on Sunday: shutting polling stations with padlocks early on Sunday, or seizing the trucks that will distribute ballots and electoral material.
Other activist groups are planning to join and demand a thorough investigation into the abduction and suspected killing of 43 college students near the Guerrero state capital of Iguala in September. The federal government believes the students were abducted by local police officers and killed by a local drug gang.
Tension has built up across Tlapa since April. Candidates and electoral officials say they have received anonymous threats. On a recent evening, several hooded men armed with sticks blocked a rally held by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Several weeks ago, two electoral officials were detained in Tlapa´s main square, according to CNTE members. One of the officials managed to escape, but the other one was jailed at a self-styled CNTE-created “court” for several hours and later freed.
“He had to be re-educated,” said Mr. Iturbide, the CNTE teacher.
(1º de junio de 2015).