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A Toxic Mix of Violent Activism and Police Repression Wreaks Havoc in Mexico's Oaxaca

Grupos sindicales y fuerzas policiales federales se enfrentan en Oaxaca por causa de la reforma educativa. Captura de pantalla del video compartido por Libre Red en Youtube.

Union groups and federal police face off as a result of the education reform. Screen capture of video shared by Libre Red on YouTube.

Violence in Mexico is worsening, this time due to vehement protests against a reform to the constitution regarding education. The setting is the southwestern state of Oaxaca, particularly in the Nochixtlán region. The situation is tense and complex. Citizen media has spoken out against the vicious response by authorities, which has resulted in a number of victims. However, for many, the protesters are also perpetrating abuses that disrupt order and limit the possibilities of a dialogue.

The reform in question was published in February 2013 and involves, among many other things, mandatory teacher evaluations. In addition, the reform takes away privileges from the unions that have controlled education (and the budget for it) in the country. The reform is in the process of being implemented, and the protests have broken out intermittently since it was discussed by lawmakers.

The groups in conflict

The violence occurred in Nochixtlán on June 19, 2016. Clashes erupted between the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) and the federal police, leaving around 10 dead. By the time this article was edited in the original Spanish, no official records of the deaths or injuries had been made public; each side as well as news outlets have published their own numbers. Some international news organizations, like The Guardian, have confirmed that there are images of police agents firing weapons against protesters.

Normally, the government calls on the federal police to clear roads and highways that are blocked by protesters, although they also execute attacks in the internal armed conflict or “war” against organized crimeOnly a few months ago, the federal police played a role in what numerous media and opinion leaders called a massacre in Tanhuato, a region in the west.

The CNTE is an extremist group of some teachers from areas suffering the most precarious conditions in the country, like Guerrero, Michoacán and Oaxaca. On other occasions, we have reported how this group's protests have disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens. In addition to roadblocks and protests, CNTE's main form of expression is strikes, which imply the closure of schools.

In the past several days, CNTE has been joined by like-minded groups that have been blamed for some shocking acts, including the public shaming of teachers who didn't participate in a strike in the beginning of May by forcibly cutting their hair. An act, by the way, that no human rights organization in the country condemned, as journalist Carlos Marin pointed out.

The consequences

The CNTE's roadblocks and protests, which eventually morphed into confrontations with police, have also caused economic losses to the tune of many millions in only a few days. On June 22, 2016, an employer's union called Coparmex asked the government to declare Oaxaca an economic disaster zone, as La Crónica newspaper reported:

La solicitud fue dada a conocer en conferencia de prensa por el presidente de la Coparmex en Oaxaca, Benjamín Hernández Gutiérrez, quien advirtió que la entidad vive una situación similar a la de un estado de excepción, debido a las afectaciones económicas derivadas de los bloqueos carreteros por parte de los disidentes.

A través de un escrito, los empresarios exigieron a los actores sociales y políticos que no viven en Oaxaca a no emitir opiniones al respecto de la problemática que se vive en la entidad, porque confunden a la opinión pública y generan mayor polarización.’

The petition was made known during a press conference by the president of Coparmex in Oaxaca, Benjamín Hernández Gutiérrez, who warned that the organization was living under circumstances similar to a state of emergency, due to the economic damages caused by the protester's roadblocks.

Through a written communication, business owners called on social and political leaders who don't live in Oaxaca to refrain from publishing opinions about the issue affecting the organization because it confuses the public opinion and generates more polarization.

Mexicans are using Twitter to share news about the shortage of food and basic goods caused by the conflict:

Oaxaca suffers from shortage of basic goods due to roadblocks, [as reported by news site] Quadratín Querétaro

The CNTE calls on us to give them food and goods while the shortage in Oaxaca is starting to be felt and will continue, it's sickening

Twitter user Z liborio asked why the shortage wasn't being covered widely in the media:

The national media isn't talking about the problems on the coast of Oaxaca and digital news sources say there isn't a shortage of gasoline….WHY?

The non-economic repercussions are also serious. Journalist Elpidio Ramos died after being attacked by CNTE teachers when he covered the moment that they were being cleared out. Newspaper El Debate reported what happened:

Elpidio Ramos Zárate fue agredido a balazos por los docentes.

Elpidio Ramos Zárate was shot by the teachers.

The CNTE and its sympathizers have illegally kidnapped journalists, turning them into hostages to negotiate their release with the press. Independent news organization Sin Embargo pointed out that the journalists in question were freed on June 21.

Freedom of expression defender Article 19 commented on these kidnappings, but argued authorities had failed since they should be protecting journalists:

In addition, ARTICLE 19 reminds the authorities that they are obligated to protect the integrity of journalists. #Oaxaca

In this context, ARTICLE 19 reiterates that exercise of free speech in the news is vital so that citizens remain informed. #Oaxaca

Analyst Alfonso Zárate addressed the inherent risk in the CNTE's mounting offensive:

Uno de los riesgos mayores que aporta el conflicto, es la propagación de más frentes en Guerrero, Chiapas, Michoacán y más allá, donde hay grupúsculos ansiosos de entrar en combate, y que la violencia rebase a la Policía Federal y obligue a la presencia de las Fuerzas Armadas. Los grupos guerrilleros, casi en extinción, podrían encontrar una coyuntura propicia para actuar. Otro riesgo es el de la contaminación: que se enganchen sectores del profesorado institucional que hoy en día se mantiene en las aulas frente a un grupo.

One of the greatest risks that the conflict gives us is the propagation of more fronts in Guerrero, Chiapas, Michoacán and beyond, where there are small groups who are anxious to enter into battle and that the violence could overwhelm the federal police, requiring the presence of the armed forces. Guerrilla groups, which are almost extinct, could find a window of opportunity to act. Another risk is one of contamination: the sectors of institutional teachers who today are in the classroom will get looped in.

There are also those who have voiced concern about the use of force against the CNTE; this is the case of Víctor Sánchez, who looked at the implications of the federal police's behavior from a human rights perspective:

The misuse of force in the state of #Oaxaca is proof of the poor state of rights that we have in Mexico and the violation of human rights

Activist Netzaí Sandoval spoke about repression against members of the CNTE and shared images of protests headed up by The National Regeneration Movement, a minority opposition political party:

Hundreds of thousands condemn brutal repression by @EPN [Enrique Peña Nieto], [Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio] Chong and federal police in #Nochixtlán #Oaxaca #I'mFedUpWithEPN

If it is confirmed that police shot and killed protesters, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto will face yet another case in which, during its leadership, state agents have participated in the killing or imprisonment of members of the civil population, just like what happened in Tlatlaya (also considered to be a massacre by various sources) and Ayotzinapa (in which 43 students were the victims of forced disappearance). For President Peña and his regime, this would be even more bad news to pile on the hit they took at the polls recently when they lost various governor posts that were up for election.

The violence in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, adds to the dismal panorama of the internal armed conflict afflicting Mexico. A short-term resolution seems impossible.

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