Why Are Mexican Teachers Being Jailed for Protesting Education Reform? They’re peacefully resisting US-style neoliberal measures intended to crush the unions—a backbone of Mexico’s social-justice movements.
On Sunday night, June 12, as Ruben Nuñez, head of Oaxaca’s teachers union, was leaving a meeting in Mexico City, his car was overtaken and stopped by several large king-cab pickup trucks. Heavily armed men in civilian clothes exited and pulled him, another teacher, and a taxi driver from their cab, and then drove them at high speed to the airport. Nuñez was immediately flown over a thousand miles north to Hermosillo, Sonora, and dumped into a high-security federal lockup.
Just hours earlier, unidentified armed agents did the same thing in Oaxaca itself, taking prisoner Francisco Villalobos, the union’s second-highest officer, and flying him to the Hermosillo prison as well. Villalobos was charged with having stolen textbooks a year ago. Nuñez’s charges are still unknown.
Both joined Aciel Sibaja, who’s been sitting in the same penitentiary since April 14. Sibaja’s crime? Accepting dues given voluntarily by teachers across Oaxaca. Sección 22, the state teachers union, has had to collect dues in cash since last July, when state authorities froze not only the union’s bank accounts but even the personal ones of its officers. Sibaja was responsible for keeping track of the money teachers paid voluntarily, which the government called “funds from illicit sources.”
The three are not the only leaders of Oaxaca’s union in jail. Four others have been imprisoned since last October. “The leaders of Sección 22 are hostages of the federal government,” says 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 arrests are just one effort the Mexican government has made in recent months to stop protests. On May 19, Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer announced that he was firing 3,000 teachers from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán for not having worked for three days.
All three states are strongholds of the independent teachers movement within the National Union of Education Workers–the National Coordination of Education Workers (the CNTE, or “Coordinadora”). CNTE teachers have been striking schools since earlier this spring to stop implementation of the government’s education reform program. While strikes in Mexico are hotly contested, there is no precedent for firing teachers in such massive numbers just for striking.
The night of the firings, federal police attacked and removed the encampment that teachers had organized outside Mexico City’s education secretariat. On June 11, the police in Oaxaca City moved to dismantle a similar encampment in front of the state’s education office. When 500 heavily armed police advanced shooting tear gas, confrontations spilled into the surrounding streets, reminiscent of the way a similar strike in 2006 was attacked, and then mushroomed into an insurrection that lasted for months.
One controversial provision of the federal government’s education reform requires teachers to take tests to evaluate their qualifications. Those not making good marks are subject to firing. This year, when the government tried to begin testing, teachers struck in protest.