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Mexico plunges into human rights crisis after violence erupts in Oaxaca State

Mexico is struggling with a profound human rights crisis. Unionised teachers in the state of Oaxaca have radicalised in response to a reform of the education sector.

Mexico is struggling with a profound human rights crisis. Unionised teachers have radicalised in response to a reform of the education sector whose main pillar is the adoption of a mechanism that will evaluate teaching capacities through standardised testing instead of investing in teacher training or school facilities. Federal and state police contained a teachers’ protest on the 19th of June in the municipality of Nochixtlán, in the southern state of Oaxaca. They responded to roadblocks and the march with gunfire, leaving eight marchers dead, as well as 53 civilians and 55 police agents wounded. Two people remain missing.

Supporters of CNTE teachers' union, and against an education reform launched by the government along Reforma Avenue in Mexico City on June 26, 2016.  /AFP/Hector GUERRERO/Getty Images
Supporters of CNTE teachers’ union, and against an education reform launched by the government along Reforma Avenue in Mexico City on June 26 © Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

The teacher union protests

The National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the teacher’s union, popular in poorer southern states, has organised marches in most major cities opposing the reform and the police’s use of force. The conflict has mobilised the streets of marginalised states like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacán, but what’s even more concerning, warns José Gil Olmos from left-wing newspaper El Proceso, is a widespread discontent visible in prosperous central and northern states.

The government, however, is reluctant to retrace its steps. “The Government is not willing to negotiate the law. Not this particular law … any other law as well is not subject to negotiation,” were President Peña Nieto’s firm words in the aftermath of the Nochixtlán incident. In July, the government initiated negotiations with SENTE, a mainstream teacher’s union with close ties to the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Nevertheless, the CNTE refuses to enter into negotiations until all 75 of its members who have been imprisoned are released.

A teacher keeps watch at the entrance of the village of Nochixtlan, Oaxaca State, Mexico on June 21, 2016. Thousands of teachers protested in southern Mexico on Monday to denounce the deaths of eight people after violent weekend clashes that police blamed on unidentified gunmen. /AFP/ Hector Guerrero/Getty Images
A teacher keeps watch at the entrance of the village of Nochixtlan, Oaxaca State, Mexico © Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Educational reform

There are two immediate causes of the ongoing conflict. The education reform, presented by the president in 2013 and the recent arrest of CNTE leaders accused of corruption and money laundering. Supporters of the CNTE argue that the leaders were arrested to undermine the union’s credibility. They also disagree with the reform, as they believe teacher assessment should be a bottom-up initiative, and not take place through a standardised test that doesn’t address the specific needs of rural areas and multicultural context of Mexican society, which is home to 12 million indigenous people who speak 62 different languages between them.

On the other hand, some believe teachers are resisting because the reform will eliminate hereditary posts. “Some union leaders don’t want to lose their privilege to keep selling or inheriting posts, or controlling teachers’ lives in order to have political or economic benefits,” said Public Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer.

Regardless of controversies around its content, most teachers agree on one thing: the president shouldn’t have adopted the reform unilaterally. There was no prior public debate around the reform, in the view of Juan Luis Hernández Avendaño, director of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Ibero Puebla University, in the Mexican city of Puebla.

A masked teacher on strike raises masks of US President Barrack Obama (L) and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (R) in front of riot policemen during a demonstration in Mexico City on July 5, 2016. /AFP /YURI CORTEZ/Getty Images
A masked teacher on strike raises masks of US President Barrack Obama (L) and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto (R) in front of riot policemen during a demonstration in Mexico City on July 5, 2016 © Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights violations

A deeper problem, low human rights standards in Mexico, has even wider social repercussions. Various human rights institutions have expressed their concerns over the excessive use of force by police (the Nochixtlán case isn’t an isolated one). “Protective measures remain insufficient and ineffective; impunity and the lack of accountability for violations of the right to life remain a serious challenge, as does the absence of reparations for the victims,” concludes Christof Heyns in the UN Special Report. The methods undertaken by the marchers have received criticisms too. For example, the National Commission for Human Rights put the CNTE under scrutiny after its affiliates in Comitán, in the state of Chiapas, humiliated nine education workers for not participating in a strike by shaving their hair off.

The events in Oaxaca have shown once again that Mexico’s human rights crisis won’t be resolved without substantial commitment from all parts. The government needs to effectively protect human rights, the same way as the CNTE needs to adhere to non-violent forms of protest. Only then will there be a space for the dialogue.

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