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Rebel teachers challenge Mexico's leader

29 April 2013, 15:20

Acatempa - Teachers come to class just twice a week these days in the modest schools of Acatempa, a rural Mexico mountain village where children walk barefoot and donkeys graze grass behind schoolyards.

When night falls, corn farmers and brick makers take up their hunting rifles and patrol dirt roads lined with small adobe and brick homes to deter gangs from extorting or kidnapping one of their own again.

That's what many towns in the south-western state of Guerrero look like these days: a combustible cocktail of striking teachers, vigilante forces and drug cartels challenging President Enrique Pena Nieto's pledge to improve education and reduce violence.

Like several other towns in Guerrero fed up with the police's failure to stop crime, Acatempa took up arms in January after a 30-year-old villager was kidnapped by a gang, never to be seen again.

Three months later, Acatempa is safer and the villagers have joined a long-established indigenous community police backing the teachers' strike, said 52-year-old village leader Pastor Coctecon Plateado.

"The government should listen to the teachers. The children in our communities are the ones who will be hurt," he said.

National anti-reform movement

Thousands of teachers rebelling against Pena Nieto's signature education reforms have been on strike since February in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest states.

Some 5 000 teachers have lived in a tent city in the state capital of Chilpancingo for a month, venting their anger by periodically blocking the highway between Mexico City and the Pacific resort of Acapulco.

During a march on Wednesday, several masked protesters attacked the local offices of political parties, setting fire to the one belonging to Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Pena Nieto offered to help "enforce the rule of law" in Guerrero. Governor Angel Aguirre said 39 arrest warrants were issued, including against leaders of a dissident teachers' union.

"It's been a while since there were so many destabilising factors in one state," said Javier Oliva, political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

After failing to get the state legislature to enact exceptions to the federal law, the Guerrero teachers want to launch a national anti-reform movement, Minervino Moran, a leader of the Ceteg union, told AFP.

Vigilante self-policing allowed

Protests have also taken place in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacan. Moran defended the violent protests and warned that they could escalate if authorities arrest him.

"They are violating our rights, and that is a form of violence and aggression by the state," he said.

Standing at the entrance of the PRI's local office strewn with the charred remains of computers, desks and files, state party president Cuauhtemoc Salgado Romero disagreed that Guerrero was a flash point for Pena Nieto.

"Guerrero has traditionally been like this, rebellious. The guerrilla movement started here a few years back, so it has always been a rough state," Salgado said in an interview.

He insisted that each problem will be resolved gradually through reforms being pushed by the president.

Salgado noted that vigilante groups have signed a deal with the state allowing them to continue self-policing while barring them from setting up checkpoints, wearing masks or joining political events.

Teachers fear standard exam

He said 95% of the state's 70 000 teachers are still in class, and strikers might be replaced. The union says 80% are on strike.

Two months after taking office, Pena Nieto signed the reform in February to take control of education away from the unions in a system where less than half of students are expected to graduate high school.

The Guerrero strikers, who make between $500 and $1 230 a month, fear that the reform's national standardised exam for teachers will end job security.

They also argue that the law will do away with free public education while ignoring the fact that they often teach in schools with no electricity or running water, with students who learn indigenous languages like Nahuatl before Spanish.

Primary school teacher Elizabeth Rubio, aged 30, cried on her first day of work in the mountain hamlet of Los Pinos. A tin roof protected the 16 students from the elements. They had no blackboard, chairs or books.

"We worry for our children. We are not here to waste time," Rubio said while eating chicken soup under a blue tarp in the Chilpancingo tent city.

In Acatempa, some parents just want their children to have regular classes again. Teachers leave homework for the students. But some parents can't pick up the slack since they can't read or write.

"The teachers shouldn't protest over exams," said Juanita Carranza Coctecon, a 37-year-old mother standing on the doorway of her small house as her husband held their 5-year-old daughter inside. "They should just take these exams."



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