Resistance to Mexican President Peña Nieto’s neoliberal “reforms” to health, education and energy policies has spread across much of the country after violent clashes left some eight people dead in Oaxaca, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Eight people were killed in Nochixtlán, a town near Oaxaca City in Mexico, after turning out to support a blockade by teachers protesting neoliberal cuts to education and other social programs, reported independent journalist Andalusia Knoll Soloff from the scene of the clashes with police.
“The residents came out when they heard about the repression on Sunday [June 19],” Soloff told me over a noisy phone line. “They had come out to support the teachers, and many, mostly young men, came out to help the people who were injured. One family had a 19-year-old son who went in the ambulance to help the wounded and when they arrived at the blockade, he was killed by the police.”
Dennis Bernstein: When he arrived at the blockade, he was killed by the police. Set the scene. This was an action by the teachers, and the community came out to support the action. The government says there was some unnamed gunmen or gunfire coming from somewhere, so the Mexican security forces had no choice but to open fire. What have you learned?
Andalusia Knoll Soloff: This needs to be seen in the context of Mexico’s teachers movement, which has been mobilizing for the past three years across Mexico against what they see as neoliberal economic reforms which are attacks on labor rights and put schools and teachers in marginalized communities at a disadvantage. They have been protesting against these educational reforms since they were introduced three years ago when the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, entered into power.
Recently, the reform went into effect, so teachers have been mobilizing more, mostly in the states of Chiapas, Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, the teachers union has a history of radical uprisings and movements. Ten years ago, it was here that the movement of the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca ) began as a teacher’s encampment in the city of Oaxaca, and then became a larger popular movement that called for the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, to resign, as well as many other demands. Last week was the 10-year anniversary of this popular movement of 2006.
Two of the leaders of the CNTE Section 22, the teachers union in Oaxaca, were arrested. In response to these arrests and educational reform in general, the teachers blockaded one of the major highways that connects Mexico City to Oaxaca City. This blockage was in a town called Nochixtlán and it was held by the teachers for about a week.
Then the police came on Sunday because they wanted to open up the highway. Hundreds and hundreds of federal and riot police arrived. There’s conflicting testimony about when they actually opened fire, but it was early in the day. That’s when many residents and parents of students of Nochixtlán came out to support the blockage to protest the police action. The government and police have been saying this unknown group of people came and opened fire.
There is absolutely no proof of that. There is tons of photographic and video proof that the police were firing on the protesters from early on during the day. There is not one single photographic or any other proof that an exterior group arrived and opened fire. I think the government is trying to save face and say whatever they can to make it seem like the police didn’t come and massacre people in a town where people were armed only with rocks, maybe some firecrackers, and maybe some Molotov cocktails. There is no documentation that they were armed beyond that. The police were armed with assault weapons, pistols and a wide range of firearms.
DB: You are saying that those who were wounded and killed were local residents. Were any of the teachers killed?
AL: No. They were all local residents who came out in support of the teachers and the blockage.
DB: Why would the residents be such strong supporters that they would come out on behalf of the teachers?
AL: Many of the residents told me this is a culmination. This isn’t just about educational reform. In 2006, the teachers were protesting to end the reforms in order to protect their jobs and their field of work. Then it became a popular movement where people realized schools didn’t have the services they need. The students don’t get a good education. There aren’t enough jobs. There is intense poverty in many places in Oaxaca.
What I understood from the people I interviewed is that it became a general discontent with the government and the reforms, and discontent with what is happening in general in Mexico with violation of human rights, lack of education and access to jobs, even basic services. Today people were saying that in their neighborhoods there was no water. In Oaxaca City today there were protests of medical workers, doctors and nurses who were saying that certain reforms have cut their salaries and their ability to provide care.
There is general discontent. That was part of the reason why the residents came out to support the teachers. About 90 percent of the residents have children who are students in the schools at which the teachers work. Many have come out because they heard there were injured people, not necessarily in solidarity with the teachers, but to help people in need.
DB: Did you interview any of the injured, or family members of those who were hurt or killed?
AL: Yes. I interviewed family members of two who were killed. I interviewed Patricia Sanchez, the mother of Jesús Cadena, who was 19 years old, just about to enter the university to become an engineer. He had not been part of the blockade at all, but that day he said, “Mom, they really need our help.” He went to the church that was calling for people to come and help. At the church, he got into an ambulance to help the injured.
They said he was killed when the ambulance got to the blockade and the police were firing on people. His mother went to the blockade to look for him, and that’s when she was told he was killed. Police were firing from all directions. I arrived a day after the large number of people were killed. Everywhere I went, different teachers and residents showed us bullet casings, tear gas canisters and where they were firing.
We went to a cemetery, and the caretaker there told us that the federal police held a gun to his head, took his cell phone away, and told him they’d kill him if he did anything. Then they started opening fire on the protesters within the cemetery. He showed us where there was a round of bullet casings on the ground there.
DB: What else did the mom say? She must have been in mourning.
AL: She’s of course destroyed. She was crying a lot, not believing her son was taken from her. She said that he was always wanting to help people so much that he had said when he died, he wanted his organs donated because he was so healthy. She said, “Why did my son have to die like this? Now I can’t even donate his organs to anyone. What will happen now?”
She said the president sent out a tweet saying my regrets are with the families, etc. She said, “Then what are your regrets? Maybe you should have come here in the first place to talk to the teachers instead of sending in thousands of police to come and kill us. What are you going to do? You can’t send my son back. I can’t get my son back. What happens next? How will there be justice? I don’t care if they fire the person who ordered the attack. There will be no justice.”
In the last three years, there has been a lot of impunity in Mexico. There is the case of the 43 students who disappeared, and in Tlatlaya, military soldiers opened fire on a group of men and then claimed the men opened on the soldiers. In both of these cases there is almost total impunity.
Because of this impunity, families of those who have been victims of state violence believe nothing will happen. They have all the reason in the world to think that, because Mexico doesn’t have a good track record. It has all the great laws in the world on the books but in actual implementation there is nothing to show that Mexico actually tries to bring those responsible for these human rights violations, massacres, assassinations, etc. to justice.
DB: Can you give us the mom’s name and son again?
AL: Jesús Cadena was murdered and Patricia Sanchez is his mother.
DB: Tell us about the other family of the person who was murdered.
AL: Many people fear the repression here and fear speaking out about the repression. Most people didn’t want to be filmed on camera, or only filmed from behind, or don’t want to give their names. The father of this casualty, Oscar Luna, didn’t want his name or any family photos shown. The son was 23 years old. The family hadn’t really been participating in the teachers’ movement. His son had said, “I am fed up with what’s happening in Mexico and my town, and I want to go out and help the teachers.” His son had just left the house and, upon arriving closer to the barricades of the blockade, he was killed.
DB: He was killed. What is your best understanding of the situation now? We know that the teachers and medical workers are mobilizing. What is the growing response to this?
AL: People have been protesting all over the country, and the world. Mexicans living around the world have been organizing protests. There was arbitrary detention the other day in Mexico City of at least six people, perhaps nine or more, [Later reports say there were over 30 people detained] who went to protest at the government offices of Oaxaca in Mexico City. They were arbitrarily detained, including an independent journalist from a media collective called Subversiones. These are people showing their discontent with the repression in Oaxaca. Fortunately, they have been released.
Eight people were murdered, and there is evidence that it was the federal police who killed them. Now I am at a school where different teachers are gathering and government human rights workers are here to document what happened and determine whether it was a mysterious armed group or the police responsible for the repression and killings. There have been blockades all across Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City and surrounding towns. … I believe one young man was killed there. It’s escalating. It’s not just about educational reform. In many ways it’s a repeat of 2006 where it started as a teacher’s movement and expanded into a popular movement.
DB: People might not have the exact terminology, but they are very aware, in real terms, of what neoliberalism and free trade are, and what the impact will be if these institutions, like the teachers union and schools that train teachers, are undermined by government policies. This is the front line of the battle.
AL: Correct. There has also been an economic crisis, which people in Mexico know is related to oil prices. Before NAFTA, the value of the peso was 10 to a dollar, and now it’s almost 20 to the dollar, which has affected people’s purchasing power. Minimum wage has not gone up in 30 years, so people’s purchasing power is almost 70 percent less than it was. Oaxaca is a rural state, largely indigenous, with a lot of rural poverty. There aren’t even paved roads, and often communities have no electricity, so no computers. So teachers in these rural isolated communities play a very, very important role in the communities. People know that teachers were already paid horrible wages, and now lost their job security.
The reform requires that parents need to pay for more school supplies, taking on more of the economic burden. They might not know this is neoliberalism, but they know that this is financially affecting them and that they are against it. There is a very strong current in all of Mexico to defend them. The CNTE Section 22 has for decades been a strong leftist institution. Many people have grown up with their families, aunts, uncles, being teachers, so are part of this teacher’s movement.
DB: You are at a school where people are coming together and organizing. There is a call for a protest by medical workers.
AL: Blockades are being planned. A large protest is planned in Oaxaca City, including labor organizations. Also, in the Zocalo in the city there is an encampment of teachers and others. Here, people are sending support of supplies, food and water from all over the country.
[Andalusia Knoll Soloff can be followed on twitter and tumbler as Andalalucha. She is a frequent contributor to Vice News, TRT World and Democracy Now!]