Teachers in Oaxaca Face Repression and Violence

As protests against working conditions continue, the Mexican government responds with brutality

By David Bacon

Illustrator: David Bacon

Jaime Medina, a reporter for Noticias, the voice of the Oaxaca rebellion.
Photo: David Bacon

This spring, poverty and migration provided the economic and social roots for an uprising that began with Oaxaca’s teachers and mushroomed into a virtual insurrection demanding the resignation of the state’s governor. According to Jaime Medina, a reporter for Noticias, the newspaper that has become the voice of the Oaxacan rebellion, “Some-thing had to give. It sometimes seems like Oaxaca and southern Mexico aren’t even part of Mexico, the way we’re ignored by the federal government until a crisis erupts.”

Poverty supplied the fuel (see sidebar), but the conditions of teachers were the spark that ignited the blaze. “The federal government is always raving about its educational system,” Medina explains, “but here in rural parts of Oaxaca, a typical school consists of four poles and palm leaves for a roof. Students sit on rocks, logs, or anything else they can find. The country’s educational department does nothing to improve these conditions. A typical teacher earns about 2200 pesos every two weeks [about $220]. From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils and other school supplies for the children. The life of a teacher is very difficult, so the demands they are making are fair. Unfortunately we have a deaf and blind government. If the federal and state governments cared more about people we wouldn’t be in this situation. But we are fed up with the promises made every election, because we get nothing afterwards.”

A year ago, teachers demanded changes. When the state administration turned them down flat, they struck to force improvements. “The government’s denial infuriated them,” Medina explains. “They almost didn’t complete the 2005–06 school year, but teachers have such a love for their students and profession, they decided to return to class and finish out the term. Last year they stopped the strike for that period. But when government tried to force them to do the same this spring, the teachers refused.”

In early May, teachers struck again for higher salaries and an end to growing human rights violations. Thousands of them occupied the main square in the state capital. More than 120,000 Oaxaca residents joined them in the largest rally in the state’s history up to that time. But on June 11, Gov. Ulises Ruiz promised business owners he would use a heavy hand to put down the protest. At 4 a.m. on June 14, helicopters began hovering over the tents of the sleeping teachers. As parents woke their children, billowing clouds of tear gas filled the cobblestone streets. Hundreds of police charged in. Within minutes, scores were beaten, and one pregnant woman miscarried. But Ruiz underestimated the teachers. They retook the square at the end of the day, and the following morning 300,000 people marched through Oaxaca demanding Ruiz’s resignation.

In the following weeks, teachers and other groups calling for Ruiz’s removal formed the Oaxaca Popular Peoples’ Assembly (APPO). Doctors and nurses joined, shutting down clinics. In a desperate reaction, violence against protesters increased. One state university professor was killed in the street, and then Jose Jimenez Colmanares, the husband of a striking teacher, was gunned down during a protest march. Pistoleros shot protesters guarding the transmitter for the Channel 9 radio station, after it had been occupied by demonstrators and used to broadcast news of the uprising. Gunmen also fired on two reporters from Noticias.

Medina describes an insurrection in late October in which APPO supporters battled for control of the city’s streets:

They were being assaulted and shot at by police in plain clothes. Finally a U.S. reporter [Indymedia photographer and writer Bradley Roland Will] was killed, covering the story in Santa Lucia del Camino, a neighboring town, when demonstrators were fired on. The protesters defended themselves with what they could, rocks and sticks. After that, federal police were called in. Thirty five hundred officers arrived to take over the plaza, with tear gas, water, and pepper spray. They attacked the residents who were protecting the teachers standing their ground in the plaza. The protesters held off tanks with rocks and sticks, the only arms they had against the guns. During this confrontation, a nurse was killed when he was hit with a tear gas shell. Federal officers came in to dislodge those occupying Channel 9, and a 16-year-old protester was killed. As of [late November], since the attack on the plaza on June 14, 16 people have been killed — the majority of them teachers. Not one government official.

Profiles in Resistance

Oaxaca has many dangerous teachers like Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, a teacher in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in Oaxaca’s rural Mixteca region. On one recent afternoon, Gutierrez stood at the back of a classroom in rural Santiago Juxtlahuaca, dapper in a pressed white shirt and chinos. Two boys and two girls, wearing new tennis shoes undoubtedly sent by family members working in the north, stood at the blackboard, giving a report and carefully gauging his reaction. As they recounted the history of Mexico’s expropriation of oil in 1936, a smile curved beneath Gutierrez’s pencil mustache. The expropriation was a high point in Mexican revolutionary nationalism. “Education is a very noble field, which I love,” Gutierrez enthuses. “But today it means confronting the government. You have to be ready to fight for the people and their children, and not just in the classroom.”

Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez (center) in his classroom in Oaxaca.
Photo: David Bacon

Gutierrez himself was elected to Oaxaca’s state legislature four years ago, in a partnership between the Indige-nous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), which he then headed in Oaxaca, and the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Fol-lowing the end of his term, he was arrested and jailed by Ruiz’s predecessor, Gov. Jose Murat. “Before my arrest I thought we had a decent justice system,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I thought it worked. Then I saw that the people in jail weren’t the rich or well educated, but the poor and those who work hard for a living.” In prison, Gutierrez met members of a local union who had been there for months, along with other political prisoners. “There are more than 2,000 complaints of political oppression in the state that have not been investigated,” Gutierrez charges. His own case added one more.n

For more information on the struggle in Oaxaca:

“Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America.” An extensive collection of articles on the struggle in Oaxaca. The good content makes it worth putting up with site’s design.

International Relations Center based in New Mexico that seeks a more responsible U.S. foreign policy. Go to their “Americas Program” page for several informative articles about Oaxaca.

A useful collection of resources (in English and Spanish), particularly the links page, all dedicated to the New York journalist who was killed by Mexican government forces while filming the uprising in Oaxaca on October 27.