Mexico City withstood a teacher invasion last week as striking instructors swarmed into the city’s historical center and were only driven off after police officers specializing in anti-riot tactics were called to the scene. Water hoses and canisters of tear gas were employed to bring to an end an almost week-long occupation of Zocalo plaza, where teachers were protesting changes to their profession being pushed by Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto.
Pena Nieto ascended to power in part on a promise to break the stranglehold Mexican teachers unions have on the profession. Just as he didn’t wait long after to put some of those promises into effect, neither did unions wait long to express their criticism of the new policies. According to Mike Stevenson and Adriana Gomez Licon of the Associated Press, in the last two months the union organized 15 demonstrations through the city to protest new education legislation, including a law mandating standardized testing of instructors that went into effect last week.
Authorities did not immediately report any injuries. Federal police chief Manuel Mondragon said more than 20 demonstrators were arrested.
The teachers’ demonstrations have slowed passage of Pena Nieto’s education reform and the pace of his wider agenda of structural reforms, which seeks to reengineer some of Mexico’s worst-run institutions, including the weak tax-collection system and underperforming state oil company.
Pena Nieto will almost certainly gain significant political capital if the Friday afternoon operation, led by federal instead of city police, definitively ends the demonstrations that have snarled traffic for weeks in Mexico City.
The timing of the police action is also significant. Pena Nieto was under public pressure to clear the protesters from the Zocalo because it traditionally serves as the site of annual independence celebrations that were scheduled to take place last weekend. Although the police can claim success this time around, according to at least some participants, the union is already preparing for Round 2. When interviewed by AP, one masked teacher identified only as Juan Carlos said that organizers are already planning to reoccupy the Zocalo next week.
Pena Nieto’s new standardized system of test-based hiring and promotion would give the government the tools to break teachers unions’ near-total control of school staffing. That control includes the corrupt sale and inheritance of teaching jobs, and it has been widely blamed for much of the poor performance of Mexican schools, which have higher relative costs and worse results than any other in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
With the education reforms now law, the teachers say they are trying to maintain pressure to protect their rights and privileges as the government puts the changes into effect and reduces union control over teacher hiring and assignment.