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Oaxaca, Mexico, Faces Police Militarization as Governor Acts to Preempt Education Protests

Unionized teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are protesting national education mandates, in the face of growing police militarization.

(Image: Federal police via Shutterstock)

Thousands of federal and state police troops were dispatched in mid-July to the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico to guard strategic buildings, patrol the skies and ensure that protesters cannot take over local radio stations.

The aim of this heightened police militarization? To prevent protesting teachers from exerting pressure on the administration of Gabino Cué Monteagudo, the current governor of Oaxaca, in their efforts to resist nationally imposed education reforms.

Protesting teachers have argued that the reforms, which were approved in 2013 by the Federal Congress and are being implemented in every state in Mexico, seek to reframe education as a private service, replacing current teachers with new workers who work on contract and have no labor rights.

“This is not an education reform as much as it is a labor reform.”

“This is not an education reform as much as it is a labor reform; what they want is for the state to stop offering free and public education,” said Dolores Villalobos, a teacher and member of the Section 22 teacher’s union, which is part of the National Organization of Education Workers (CNTE).

“Before, the state had an obligation to provide public education,” Villalobos told Truthout. “As part of the reform that is changing. The concept is now just a ‘guarantee’ of education, and this means that there won’t be requirements, and it will be privatized. At the root of it, they want to reduce the number of education workers. With the reform it will become a system of contracts for one or two years, with no benefits.”

Teachers in Oaxaca, Michoacan and Guerrero have resisted the implementation of the reforms, arguing that the principal objective of the changes is the privatization of education.

With the backing of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Oaxaca’s governor took a major step to repress this resistance on July 21 by seizing control of the State Institute of Public Education of Oaxaca, which had previously been in control of the teachers of the Section 22 teacher’s union, which is part of CNTE (the dissident teachers’ union). Subsequently, the government canceled the CNTE’s bank accounts, blocked their radio channel and issued 32 arrest warrants for union leaders in the state of Oaxaca.

The intensification of the militarization process, which began after the state elections in June, has now become acute. Thousands of federal and state police troops were sent to guard strategic sites such as the plant belonging to the state-owned petroleum company Mexican Petroleum (Pemex), the state’s airports and tourist destinations on the Pacific Coast in Puerto Escondido and Huatulco. In Oaxaca City, nine federal police helicopters patrolled the skies, protecting malls, gas stations and radio stations so that they could not be taken over by the teachers’ union as a way to put pressure on the government, like they did during the education protests of 2006.

US Involvement in the Militarization of Oaxaca

Among the close to 10,000 police officers patrolling Oaxaca’s capital city are federal police squads, who were trained with funding from the Merida Initiative, a security cooperation agreement between the United States and Mexico. With broad bipartisan support, the US Congress has designated $1.6 billion to Mexico through the Merida Initiative to date. Through this money, police in Mexico have been equipped with helicopters and high technology equipment. Funds from the Merida Initiative have also provided technical training with the goal of “professionalizing” the police force and implementing legal and penal reforms.

The current militarization in Oaxaca is a harsh reminder of 2006, when the government also attempted to repress teacher protests.

“The United States Embassy is honored to be partnering with the Mexican government for the development and training of its security forces,” said Anthony Wayne, the US ambassador to Mexico, in August 2014, at the official presentation of the new Mexican National Gendarmerie of the national police force. He added that through the Merida Initiative, “various U.S. agencies offer training and share best practices to improve leadership and professionalism within the Mexican justice system.”

Bishop Raúl Vera, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, told Truthout that in reality the Merida Initiative has increased militarized repression of popular protest.

“Since these neoliberal policies began to be implemented and since the Washington Consensus, a process of the elimination of people as a means for social control began,” Vera said. “And of course people began to defend themselves and that was when they started to respond with the military and the police. In that sense, the government does not defend the people; it defends itself … so that transnational investments can continue to advance in education, energy, petroleum resources, mining and other sectors.”

The current militarization in Oaxaca is a harsh reminder of 2006, when the government also attempted to repress teacher protests. One million people responded by taking to the streets to demand the removal of the governor at the time – Ulises Ruiz Ortiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – whom they accused of abuse of power and misuse of public resources. The six months of protests that ensued were met with brutal repression that left 27 people dead, among them a US journalist, Brad Will. Hundreds were detained and tortured.

Forcefully Imposed Education Reform

The current presence of the federal police generates palpable tension; it is a reminder of the possibility of repression similar to 2006.

“The military contingent that is here in Oaxaca is to control insurgents, but what is the insurgency?” Bishop Vera asked. He added that people “are simply asking for justice, asking the Mexican state to stop the education reform that is nothing but the elimination of public education.”

Since the beginning, the teachers of Section 22 have rejected the new nationally mandated education model because it is a homogenous model for the entire country, without taking into consideration the states that have indigenous populations or conditions of extreme poverty. This is the case in Oaxaca, where there are places without basic school materials and sometime not even classrooms.

“The government knows that the greatest resistance to the reforms is here in Oaxaca.”

The greatest obstacle for the government in implementing the reforms fully has been the CNTE. Although the CNTE has as members only a fraction (200,000) of the total number of teachers in Mexico (900,000), of those 200,000, 60 percent are in the state of Oaxaca.

“The government knows that the greatest resistance to the reforms is here in Oaxaca,” said Villalobos, the teacher from Section 22. “If this reform goes into effect here, in this state, there will be no more resistance and it will be implemented in all the rest of the states.”

Meanwhile, on July 22, in Toluca, in the state of Mexico, at least 10 governors from different states and the head of government of the Federal District gathered to plan their next meeting, this October, with governors from the United States and Canada. At the October meeting, they will discuss steps they may take in the case of possible mobilizations of the CNTE as a response to the restructuring of the State Institute of Public Education of Oaxaca.

Along with the military strategy, the government has devised a media strategy. Starting July 21, all the commercial media outlets have synchronized their message, from the newspapers to the television channels. They have been incessantly emitting messages in favor of the governor’s decision and about the benefits of the educational reform.

There is an entire team behind the government’s Twitter account that maintains a constant barrage of messages that drown out the opposing messages with tweets such as, “In #Oaxaca a new period of efficiency, modernity and dignity in the state education system has begun” or “The #EducationReform in #Oaxaca moves ahead and will not stop.”

The federal government has also tweeted its messages of support: “The @GobRep [Federal Government] supports the government of #Oaxaca and governor @GabinoCue.”

Government allies from across the political spectrum have also applauded the education reforms in Oaxaca via social media.

The Origin of the Current Education Reforms

The education reforms currently in question were approved in 2013, after a wave of protests and a strong police-military presence. In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had made reform suggestions to President Peña Nieto in the “Agreement for the Cooperation of OECD-Mexico for the Improvement of Education in Mexican Schools.” In the document, the OECD positioned itself as the “vanguard of the efforts undertaken to help governments understand and respond to the changes and concerns of the modern world, such as corporate governance, the information economy and the challenges that are generated by an aging population.”

One of the OECD’s suggestions was to open up spaces for the private sector in the education arena. “The education reform is much too important to the future of Mexico to leave the work to educators alone,” the OECD document said. “The Advising Council of the OECD considers it urgently necessary to create an ‘orienting coalition,’ which would include political and university leaders, leaders of the private sector and from civil society.”

“In this country, the presence of police and the military do not represent a greater guarantee of security.”

The body made 15 basic recommendations, proposing an “action strategy that seeks to give more support to schools, directors, and teachers to improve outcomes for teachers and for students, in search of ‘efficient schools.'” One of the components of this agreement has to do with the development of policies and best practices for evaluating the quality of schools and the teachers, and to connect those results to incentives for improvement. “These solutions came from the OECD’s advising council regarding evaluation and incentive policies for teachers in Mexico, made up of international experts,” according to the document.

“We are not against evaluations,” Villalobos told Truthout. “The problem is how they are done and the consequences that these evaluations bring along with them. On the contrary, we have built an alternative model that we have presented to Congress, and it has not been respected.”

An example of an alternative model of education in Latin America is the model used in Brazil, which like Mexico has an educational policy guided by international bodies.

“The systems of evaluation as they are implemented don’t serve anyone,” Alayde Digiovanni, a researcher from the University of São Paolo, told Truthout. “In some places we already have this model that incentivizes competitiveness, a system of awards for those who provide the best evaluation performances. The result is competition and inequality among schools. The system commonly does not take into account the socioeconomic contexts where schools are located.”

According to Digiovanni, the agreements with international bodies are not limited to Brazil and Mexico. They are policies determined by international bodies, like the OECD and the International Monetary Fund, for implementation in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. “Such recommendations follow a model oriented toward neoliberal policies,” Digiovanni said.

Civil Organizations Sound the Alarm

A network of over 100 human rights organizations recently published a statement expressing their concern for the use of the federal police and armed forces against Oaxacan teachers and the citizenry in general.

“In this country, the presence of police and the military do not represent a greater guarantee of security,” their communiqué states. “On the contrary, it is synonymous with the repression and criminalization of social protest, like the grave violations of human rights that were experienced in 2006. Many of these violations were investigated by the District Attorney’s Office for Crimes of Social Significance.”

The communiqué demands the immediate removal of the federal police forces and the Gendarmerie of Oaxaca and holds the state and federal government “responsible for any events that ensue as a result of this process of militarization that Oaxaca is in the midst of.”

The Oaxacan Truth Commission, which registered and denounced violations of human rights during the 2006 militarization, also made a declaration regarding the issue. According to the commission, “The presence of the Gendarmerie, far from safeguarding human rights, is creating a climate of intimidation across different sectors of the population. For many sectors, the memory of 2006-2007 in Oaxaca is still fresh. The Federal Preventative Police Force committed grave offenses and violations of human rights, facts which this Commission is still currently investigating.”

Amid the context of militarization and the federal government’s restructuring of the State Institute of Public Education of Oaxaca, Section 22 published the central demand of the members of the CNTE: the repeal of the education reforms, along with the rejection of the evaluation system and the rescinding of the order for the disappearance of the State Institute of Public Education of Oaxaca. They stated that if no favorable response is received they will continue organizing a national strike. Meanwhile, on July 27, the first large teachers’ protest took place in the city of Oaxaca. The rest of the union members of the CNTE in other states have already begun to protest in solidarity with their Oaxaca colleagues and against the education reforms.

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