Mexico: Teachers Protest in Oaxaca

While much of the country remains focused on the daily football happenings across the Atlantic, a small insurrection of protesting teachers and their sympathizers has taken to the streets of Oaxaca demanding for higher pay and the resignation of state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

Those protests turned violent last Wednesday prompting black and white photoblogger Juan Calavera to take to the streets and document the forced eviction of teachers and their supporters that had been occupying Oaxaca's main plaza.

oaxaca protest

La primera noticia que tuve fue por teléfono, me llamó la directora de la escuela. “La policía está desalojando a los maestros, hay helicópteros disparando y lanzando gases lacrimógenos, ya avisamos a los alumnos que hoy no va a haber clases, no salgas de tu casa, la cosa está muy fea…”

The first news I got was by telephone. The director of the school called me. “The police are evicting the teachers, there are helicopters launching tear-gas, we need to warn the students that there won't be classes today. Don't leave your house, this thing is really ugly …”

He then describes the tension in the air as he approached the plaza where helicopters were flying overhead. The eviction of the protesters began around 5 a.m., according to Calavera, but three hours later, the police were still firing tear-gas.

Las versiones corrían cada vez más insistentemente: dos maestras y un niño habían muerto en la intentona represiva. Otro compañero había perdido un ojo a causa de los golpes policiales (más tarde los maestros lo reportaban muerto). Una mujer embarazada sufrió un aborto. Oficialmente aún no se reconocen las bajas. Algunos maestros en autos y motonetas distribuían coca-cola y agua para menguar los efectos del gas que, incluso horas después de haber sido lanzado, producía efectos sobre ojos y vías respiratorias. Otros llegaban con comida. Otros más intentaban reorganizarse. “Busquen a su sección… Vamos al zócalo, ya lo recuperamos”

The rumors were each time more insistent: two teachers and a child had died in the repressive attempt. Another colleague lost an eye caused by police beatings (later the teachers reported him dead). A pregnant women suffered a miscarriage. Officially, the deceased have not been acknowledged. Some teachers in cars distributed coca-cola and water to decrease the effects [of the tear-gas] around the eyes and respiratory pathways. Others arrived with food. Still others tried to reorganize. “Find your section … let's go to the plaza, we're going to retake it.”

Mark in Mexico, the weblog of an American ex-pat running an English language school in Oaxaca, took a break from its usual sardonic, conservative commentary on American politics to focus on the protests.

About 3 1/2 weeks ago, some 5000 or so teachers from throughout the state arrived and set up camp in the zócalo in Oaxaca. The zócalo is the main square in the center of the city and is a tourist magnet, or at least it was. All of the public school teachers from throughout the state, some 70,000 of them, walked off the job leaving some 1 million kids with no school and only 6 weeks left in the school year. As the days went by, more and more teachers arrived, especially on the weekends, to augment the original 5000 or so. They pitched tents in the zócalo, set up a half dozen porta-potties, cooking installations and just generally settled into about 50 square blocks in and around the center of the city. This effectively shut down the tourist trade in Oaxaca. And believe me, tourism is all this place has got.

Last week, they blocked the entrance to the airport and shut it down for a day. This forced President Vicente Fox to threaten to send in federal troops to keep the airport open. He said later that the reason he didn't send in troops immediately to remove the teachers was that there were no troops in the area. Very strange, since there is a military installation (fort) here and one can see soldiers moving in and out of the city almost every day. Hmmm.

Augmenting his descriptions of the violent protests with powerful photographs, readers are left with a portrait of a battle between tear-gas-wielding police officers and rock-hurling protesters. In the end, it was the striking teachers who “counterattacked with some 10-15,000 bodies against the force of 3000 policemen” and retook the city square. But just what are they so fervently demanding? According to Mark, who has since written three updates with new developments:

The teachers are demanding a 100% pay raise. They are demanding that governor Ruiz step down. They are demanding money be spent in the countryside for schools where children cannot afford a pair of shoes, let alone books, utensils and uniforms. They are demanding that the schools in the countryside, many of which are tin-roofed shacks, be updated with at least the bare minimum of accomodations, like windows, blackboards, desks and chairs for the poor indian kids. And they are right. Destroying the center of Oaxaca and its tourist trade is, however, pretty stupid. From where, exactly, do they expect the money to come? On the other hand, the authorities were probably right to try to retake the city. But the government should have realized that a failure such as has occurred would be worse than no attempt at all. The teachers, however, have watched as the government of Governor Ruiz has spent, in the past year alone, some $200,000,000 USD to remodel the zócalo and many other historical sites (unfinished) in and around the city, the Guelaguetza amphitheater (unfinished) where the world famous festval is due to start, uh, next month, the main drag into the city from the north (unfinished), and a myriad of other public works projects, most unfinished and almost exclusively here in the capitol city. The teachers see little or nothing being spent in the outlying areas of the state where money is so desperately needed

Ariadsol, a new LiveJournal user and self-described Backstreet Boys fan from Oaxaca, agreed that the improvised protesters’ camp did little for the city's aesthetics:

Today in Oaxaca things were difficult specially for the city, there was some problems with the teachers of the public schools and the goverment, the teachers had been in strike for 24 days and all the students were missing classes, the goverment gave them all they could have, because some stuffs they were asking were impossible because there is no money to do that, so the goverment got tired of them and the fact that they were blocking the whole city and causing traffic and other problems because they (the teahcers) closed several streets and stoped the cars, and closed stores and everything they could like the airport, and they were living in the center of the city, they put up like a camp,and the center of the city which is one of the atracctives of the city (for tourists) was looking horrible since almost the 24days of their strike and besides they said they weren't going anywhere until the elections on july 2nd so it was also a political problem,they were also removing posts from all the presindecial candidates escept one and saying they will not aloud people to vote on the elections,

As often happens, the situation turned ALT1040 into a public town hall. On Thursday Eduardo Arcos posted an email from “marcosmh.”

Hola que tal, escribo en un momento de emergencia, vivo en la ciudad de Oaxaca. Como se habran enterado por las noticias, el desalojo de maestros plantados en las calles del centro de la ciudad el dia de hoy miércoles 14 de junio de 2006, se ha llevado a cabo de una manera totalmente violenta por parte de la fuerza publica, aunque algunos miembros a pesar de negarse a llevar a cabo esta orden, fueron obligados a llevarla a cabo , las noticias solo muestran una parte, tv azteca y televisa, así como los noticieros locales de tv (canal 9) han sido comprados por el maldito gobernador Ulises Ruiz, un gobernador déspota, sin ningún tipo de consideración, mando a sacar mediante fuerza publica a maestros, hombres, mujeres y niños, desgraciadamente ya han habido muertos por estos enfrentamientos, el gobierno oculta estos hechos, la única forma de comunicación era la radio pero esta fue callada a partir del medio dia, una sola estacion de radio ha quedado en pie, pero esta ha cedido a las 6:30 pm, el gobierno ha callado a los medios de una forma agresiva.

No tengo a quien mas escribir, confio en ustedes como medio de comunicacion en internet para que este mensaje lo hagan llegar a todo el mundo, que sepan la situacion tal cual esta pasando y no solo la version de los medios.

Hello there, I'm writing in a moment of emergency from the city of Oaxaca where I live. Like the news channels have reported, the removal of teachers occupying the streets in the center of the city today (Wednesday, June 14) has been carried out in a totally violent manner by the police force, although some officers, despite refusing the order, were then obligated to carry it through. The media only shows one part. TV Azteca and Televisa, just like the local news station (Channel 9) have been bought out by the wicked Governor Ulises Ruiz, a despotic governor who, without any consideration, ordered the removal of the teachers, men, women, and children using public force. Disgracefully, there have already been two deaths in the confrontation. The government conceals these facts. The only form of communication was the radio, but it was silenced beginning at noon. Only one radio station had remained broadcasting, but it too stopped at 6:30 p.m. The government has aggressively silenced the media.

I don't have anyone else to write to, but I trust you guys, as a media outlet on the the internet, to help get this message out to the whole world so that they understand the situation as it is really happening and not just the media's version.

But not all of the commenters are so quick to agree. Hector Cruz of the local news agency (ES) writes:

Yo tambien soy de Oaxaca, y estoy en total desacuerdo con lo que el compañero marcosmh comenta, radio universidad es una radio cuya caracteristica principal es de apoyo a las luchas magisteriales, eso durante los 23 años que llevan los maestros haciendo sus paros, si 23 años!!!, la ciudadania de Oaxaca ya esta arta de esto, no es que se apoye la violencia generada por el gobierno, si no que la manera en que los maestros alteran la vida de Oaxaca no es la adecuada.

I'm also from Oaxaca and totally disagree with Marcosmh's comments. University Radio is a station whose main characteristic is supporting the teachers’ strikes. For 23 years the teachers have been doing their strikes … 23 years!!! The citizens of Oaxaca are tired of all of this. It's not that they support the violence generated by the government, but rather, that the way that the teachers alter life in Oaxaca is not acceptable.

Nor does Carlos find much reason to sympathize with the striking teachers:

Mira, yo entiendo que haya gente que no esté de acuerdo con lo que pasó en Oaxaca y lo que ha pasado en otros lugares de la Republica Mexicana; pero muy pocas veces oímos a alguien que critique a los maestros, o a cualquier otro grupo que se pasa la ley por debajo del arco del triunfo afectando a comercios, traunseuntes, conductores, y a la sociedad en general.

Debemos recordar que estas personas son las que comienzan el problema al no sentarse a la mesa de negociaciones y se van directamente a atacar diferentes sedes del gobierno como Cámara de Senadores, Diputados y hacen desmanes por los cuales nadie les responsabiliza. Hay estan las pintas y los graffitis de los sindicatos de la UNAM y de otros nefastos alborotadores. La gente ya está harta de que le fastidien el dia con sus manifestaciones. Hay que hacer valer el estado de derecho a como de lugar.

Look, I understand that there are people who don't agree with [the use of public force] in Oaxaca and with what has happened in other parts of the Mexican Republic; but very few times do we here someone criticizing the teachers or any other group that circumvents the law, affecting businesses, passerby, drivers, and society in general.

We must remember that these people are the ones that start the problem by not sitting at the negotiation table and instead go directly to attacking the senators and deputies and commit abuses that no one holds them responsible for. There is the graffiti by the unions of the National Autonomous University of México and other unruly troubles. The people are already tired that they disrupt the day with their protests. The state of the law and of the city needs to be valued.

Commenter “Silent_hill,” however, says it is the politicians who are to blame:

Efectivamente, debe renunciar, el dice que en estado no hay dinero, pero yo me pregunto ¿Cómo es que hay dinero para las campañas?, mucha gente dice que los maestros ganan mucho y que son unos webones, webones los diputados, senadores y servidores públicos que van a calentar asientos en las cámaras y que ganan 80,000 al mes. Cuando hay maestros que sólo ganan 2,000 a la quincena, y hay que resaltar que no solo piden para ellos, sino también para los niños como son desayunos escolares, uniformes, mejores condiciones para las escuelas, no crean que las escuelas están como ahí en los estados del norte, no, aquí, la mayoría de las escuelas están en condiciones deprimentes.

Sobre el desalojo, a Ulises no le importó que hubiera niños (los hijos pequeños de las maestras), que las patearon, que les dijerón cosas horribles, no saben el daño sicológico que el “Flamante” Ulises le hizo a eso pequeños.
Ojalá y reflexionen, que esta forma de gobierno autoritaria no la podemos permitir, nosotros tenemos derecho a la libertad de expresión, a defender nuestros derechos.

Effectively, [the governor] must renounce. He says that the state has no money, but I wonder how it is that there's money for the campaigns. A lot of people say that the teachers earn a lot and that they are lazy, but it's the lazy deputies, senators, and public servants who warm up the seats of the government halls and make US $7500 a month. Yet there are teachers who only earn US $375 a month and it should be emphasized that they are not only asking for higher wages, but also for their students kids by making demands like school breakfasts, uniforms, better conditions for the schools. Don't think that the schools are like they are there in the northern states. No, here, the majority of the schools are in depressing condition.

With regard to the forced evictions, [Governor Ortiz] doesn't care if there were children (the small children of the teachers) that [the police officers] kicked, that they told the children horrible things. You don't know the psychological damage that the “Brilliant” Ulises has done to these small kids. Hopefully you will all reflect that this form of authoritarian government is something we cannot permit. We have the right to the freedom of speech and to defend our rights.

For more background information on the strike, Nancy Davies, writing from Oaxaca, has a good explanation of the various players involved at The Narco News Bulletin. Liza Sabater begins her post “Oaxaca is Burning” by asking, “Is this the first true grassroots insurgency of the 21st century?” Her post includes eight videos of the protests.


  • Rosemary

    We are in support of the teachers in Oaxaca and would like to know how to support them. We were scheduled to visit Oaxaca July 20th but now are considering what it the best way to show our support for the teachers. Any ideas from people who are in contact with the teachers?

  • I read the paper daily here in Seattle, always anything related to mexico. i own a warehouse arts studio, a recent purchase in the Chapala area. i am dumbfounded to only see mention of these developments in the local paper 6 weeks after the teachers strike and protest in the oaxacasn Zoacalo… about managed news!



  • […] The usually tranquil Southern Mexican tourist town of Oaxaca – with its large, shaded plaza and gallery-lined alleys – had transformed into a political pressure cooker over the past few months in what began as a seemingly routine teacher’s strike in late May. The lid then blew straight off yesterday as Mexican federal police surrounded the city, battling protesters and students who barricaded themselves in Juarez University and around the city. […]

  • […] David Sasaki on the original teachers’ protest in June 2006 | Liza Sabater shows 8 videos from the June protests | October 10th: APPO says “Stay away from Oaxaca” | October 12th: More updates from Oaxaca-based bloggers | October 19th: More death in Oaxaca | October 27th: APPO locks down the city […]

  • Sarah

    I am from the States, but I worked for 6 months on the coast of Oaxaca. I worked in special education classrooms and witnessed, firsthand, the deplorable living conditions of the students. It is indeed true that families cannot afford shoes, let alone books. Rural homes rarely have running water. Families eat the bare minimum. Food is not available at the schools, nor are blackboards, texts, and other educational materials. The special ed. teachers were undertrained and underpaid with a ubnormally high ratio of students to each teacher. The classrooms were a poor example of even a day care. Learning rarely has a chance to happen.

    The teachers are not supported by the country to be able to carry out their job. It breaks my heart to know that they’re doing so much to represent their student’s needs and are not being heard.

  • DMJ

    Having lived and worked in Mexico for over ten years now, including in many poor communities in Oaxaca, I feel at least minimally qualified to comment on the situation.

    Although I consider myself a liberal (in the good sense, not in the knee-jerk sense) I find the behavior of the APPO and Lopez Obrador and his cronies to be not only narcisstic and anarchistic, but also profoundly destructive to the very causes that they purport to be ‘fighting’ for. First, let’s do away with this silliness that these people have been peacefully protesting in Oaxaca. Do you call forceful occupations and vanadalism of the zocalo, government buildings, private businesses, and public streets and property to be peaceful? This is a perversion of logic. The violence was started by the teachers and APPO and they are wholly to blame for the subsequent consequences. Unfortunately, it is only too predictable of these thugs (what else to call them?) that they take absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for their actions. Do they care whatsoever for the unbelievable damage that they have caused to the primary economy of Oaxaca? I have read, with great incredulity, of some knee-jerkers talking about how the Guelagetza has been ‘coopted’ by commercial interests, and is somehow therefore not worthy of continuing. Excuse me? So all of these people who want to participate and visit and support (yes, gasp, economically) such things are somehow unworthy to do so because a group of unelected anarchists think they shouldn’t.

    Call it what it is…..leftist fascism. That’s how Mao got his start. Too bad these groups don’t have the first idea as to how to actually responsibly govern themselves. God forbid they should ever take power. Then you would see REAL despotism.

  • DMJ

    This is just in from Reuters….

    “Mexican riot police firing tear gas clashed with protesters launching fireworks and throwing gasoline bombs in the colonial city…..The latest violence flared when hundreds of activists tried to surround federal police occupying the city’s central square.”

    So….occupying the University and disrupting (read: end of) classes isn’t enough for the protestors. Now they are trying to, violently, re-take the center of town. One might further note that these so-called ‘peaceful’ protestors arranged this current stage of provocative violence by yet again taking over a radio station (read: violent and illegal) to announce their ‘peaceful’ plans.

    And, for those of you who are not informed, let’s remember that these delightful people had taken over the Zocalo, complete with blockades and checkpoints, which is the economic artery of the entire business community. Properly, the federal government had decided that months of this was too much and the PEOPLE of Oaxaca City are completely and rightfully completely sickened of this. The reason most of them don’t openly complain is because these same ‘peaceful’ mobs will burn and vandalize THEIR personal property.

  • DMJ

    More of same….see this…

    Amazing, huh? So much for the non-violence.

    As I said, they are thugs who belong in jail with long prison terms.

    Would anyone care to defend these ‘peaceful’ protestors now?

    The next question is: where is APPO getting its money? Hugo Chavez? Fidel’s brother?

  • […] turned unnecessarily violent. The police evicted the teachers out of their area of protest using tear gas and physical tactics. The police did not let up for over three hours. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission […]

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