Teachers and parents sustain the struggle for Mexico’s missing Ayotzinapa students

A march for Ayotzinapa in Guadalajara, Mexico on November 20. (Flickr/ Miriana Moro)

A march for Ayotzinapa in Guadalajara, Mexico on November 20. (Flickr/ Miriana Moro)

Five months ago, Mexico was shaken by one of its worst acts of political violence in decades: the disappearance on September 26 of 43 student teachers and killing of several others from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in rural Guerrero, by police acting in concert with a drug cartel. Massive protests led by the parents of the abducted, the national teachers’ movement and networks of university students, are perhaps the largest yet under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, which has seen much dissent. Hundreds of thousands have participated in mass marches, student walkouts at public universities and strikes by teachers, especially in Mexico’s southern and central states — Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan and Mexico City — where teacher and student organizations are strongest.

Nowhere has the impact been as powerful as in Guerrero itself, a predominantly poor, rural mountainous state southwest of Mexico City, better known to foreigners as a place with great beaches. City halls and government buildings across the state have been occupied by teachers, university students and allies supporting the demands of the survivors of Ayotzinapa for the return of their missing classmates. While control over some has been relinquished, many remain shut down, including in the state capital of Chilpancingo, as well as Acapulco and Iguala — the town where the attack and disappearances occurred. Some are the site of popular assemblies where local residents and teachers attempt to assert some forms of direct democracy, together with the community police movement, which has taken some power from the official municipal police in the face of the latter’s widespread complicity with drug cartels.

The Mexican attorney general and President Peña Nieto have been fervently trying to make the issue go away. They argue that justice has been done with the arrest of dozens of local police and cartel members who participated in the attack, along with the mayor of Iguala and his wife, the chief of police, believed to have given the orders. State governor Angel Aguirre Rivero was also forced to resign by the federal government, but has not yet faced any criminal charges.

However these developments have not satisfied the movement. Its slogan, “It was the State,” contends that it was far more than an act of a criminal local government, and that military and senior police forces were also involved. The initial attack — the surrounding of buses carrying the students by police and their strafing with bullets — occurred barely 300 feet from the barracks of an army regiment with an infamous history of human rights abuses. Mexican investigative magazine Proceso has published evidence of the army, federal, state and local police sharing information on the students on the night of the attack.

“We’re going to continue until we find our children, or at least until we get a real answer of what happened to them,” said one of the mothers of the disappeared at a meeting on February 22 at the Ayotzinapa teachers college. “The government is telling us to forget our pain. We’re poor. We’re workers and farmers. But it hurts us that the government treats us like this.”

This is perhaps an implicit, if very painful, acknowledgement that despite the movement’s slogan “Vivos los llevaron, vivos los queremos,” or “They took them alive, we want them back alive,” after over five months of disappearance, it is very unlikely the students are still alive.

However, the movement is fiercely contesting efforts by the attorney general and Peña Nieto to close the case without implicating higher authorities. Claims by the attorney general that the students were executed and their bodies burned to ashes in a garbage dump, are also challenged by an independent forensics team from Argentina hired by the parents, citing the lack of positive DNA matches for all but one of the missing students.

While months of mobilizations and media reports have raised the sympathies of wide segments of the public and generated awareness abroad, Joel Amateco Venancio, a primary school teacher and leader of Ayotzinapa graduates supporting the struggle, is aware that the Mexican government is trying to tire out the movement without satisfying its primary demands. While striving to maintain mobilization in Guerrero and elsewhere in Mexico, his group and the parents of the disappeared are now applying an international strategy to bring pressure on the Mexican government, which he says is “very concerned with its image abroad.” A delegation of parents and the Tlachinollan human rights legal team that is assisting them are bringing a complaint to the United Nations in Geneva as well as the Inter-American Human Rights Tribunal, while recognizing that these routes have long timelines.

In the meantime, according to Amateco and the parents, the primary strategy is to urge a citizen’s boycott in Guerrero of the upcoming mid-term elections on June 7 for governor, federal and state representatives, and mayors, arguing that all the major parties are complicit in the student disappearances, and are continuing to collude with drug cartels. They vow to disrupt electoral campaign events with loud protests. The movement identifies these political parties and politicians as more vulnerable to pressure at this point prior to elections, than other state or federal institutions, like the army or federal police.

Legacy and importance of the Rural Normal Schools

Ayotzinapa was founded at its present site in 1936, alongside many other teacher training schools, especially in the rural south, during the presidency of leftist Lazaro Cardenas. Students and faculty became active supporting campesino groups in the area engaged in land reform backed by Cardenas. These alliances with rural farmers became the backbone of the strength of Guerrero’s teachers’ movement, but also quickly drew the ire and long-term opposition of big local landowners. Like many politicians in Guerrero, recently-deposed governor Aquirre Rivero descended from the lineage of one of these ruling families. His affiliation and that of the former mayor of Iguala who ordered the attacks symbolize how Mexico’s ostensibly center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution has become corrupted and turned into a vehicle for the elite little different from the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Peña Nieto which governs in much of the rest of Mexico.

Originally conceived by Cardenas and radical teachers as a means to both provide a “socialist” education and bind the country together through a national education system that would reach the most remote villages, Aytozinapa and other rural teacher colleges offered free tuition, room and board, aiming to attract bright students from poor campesino families who would graduate and return to their communities as teachers.

Ayotzinapa has produced 88 generations of teachers. Before the disappearances, it had over 500 students enrolled in its four year education degree program (which students enter after completing high school), with a graduating class of around 150 each year. The college boasts the highest rate of graduates obtaining teaching positions of any teachers college in Guerrero. “The goal of the school is to form teachers who are socially and politically aware and on the side of the vulnerable,” Amateco said. “Graduates of this school have a more profound understanding of the essence of what it means to be a teacher.”

Teacher instruction at Ayotzinapa blends three focuses. Expansive fields, pastures and workshops facilitate courses in farming, animal husbandry, textile weaving and construction related to the rural context of the pupils who will be taught by the school’s graduates. Despite federal directives to prioritize the instruction of Spanish, mathematics and English for national standardized exams, the school also trains teachers to enrich their future student’s understanding of their indigenous identities with language classes. As a manifestation of the college’s commitment to political consciousness raising, Ayotzinapa also includes courses on community organizing, political economy and Marxism.

The Mexican government has steadily closed rural teachers’ colleges across the country over the past 30 years, claiming better instruction would be provided in private urban institutions, less likely to produce radical teachers. Guerrero’s last rural teachers’ college, Ayotzinapa lost federal funding soon after the disappearances. It has been kept open by surviving students, parents of the disappeared and its alumni. Parents and students at the college use the facilities as a full-time organizing center. Having devoted themselves full-time to the movement for the past five months, they rely on donations to survive. A campaign will have to be waged to restore federal funding to eventually reopen the school to classes.

Guerrero’s teachers continue the struggle

The graduates of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero’s teachers organized in the State Coordinating Committee of Education Workers of Guerrero, or CETEG, have historically been among the strongest members of Mexico’s democratic teachers’ movement, the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers, or CNTE. The CETEG was at the forefront of the national struggle in 2013 against neoliberal education reforms which omit teachers from many job security provisions enjoyed by other workers, making them more vulnerable to firing, and expanding the role of standardized testing in student and teacher evaluation.

A primary school teacher in Chilpancingo with seven years of experience, who is responsible for a crowded classroom of 42 students, said that new teaching strategies would be good, but the Mexican government’s current policies are about labor reforms to make teacher employment more precarious, not about improving education for her students. “The politicians creating these laws have completely different life experiences,” she said. “They aren’t struggling to pay the rent like us.”

A teacher in the next classroom with a class of 34 students and 22 years experience is the school’s elected union representative. Her school and other elementary and secondary schools across Guerrero were closed in late February for two weeks as teachers struck against the non-payment of salaries since November for nearly 12,000 teachers and school secretaries. Last year, the federal government centralized payroll, but disputed with the state government over its responsibility for paying these workers. She was busy organizing staff participation in a march the following day in Acapulco to support the CETEG’s negotiating committee with the state and federal governments. Teachers unable to attend the march donate willingly and generously to help cover gas and food for those who will attend.

“What teachers have gained has been through struggle,” she contends. “If you’re not willing to participate and raise your voice, then get used to saying, ‘Yes sir, yes sir’ for the rest of your career.” Pointing at her classroom’s freshly painted walls, she explains that the school receives special attention from the government as a showpiece in the state capital. Nevertheless, she brought in her own TV for her classroom and notes that all parents pay a monthly fee to cover the school’s maintenance budget, ensuring it has photocopy paper and working plumbing for its 950 students and 40 staff.

The CETEG has been the largest and most powerful group to support the parents of Ayotzinapa’s disappeared, alongside the rest of the CNTE and student networks inherited from the Yo Soy 132 movement of 2012. With its capacity to organize thousands and power to push back on the programs of state and federal governments, Mexico’s teachers’ movement — not to be mistaken with the official government controlled union — stands apart from a labor movement that is otherwise struggling to survive, said sociologist Enrique de la Garza Toledo, professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico.

However, the CNTE and specifically the CETEG also have weaknesses he said. Despite the many organizations and groups that have joined protests in support of Ayotzinapa, the teachers at the national and state level have neglected to build long-term robust coalitions with other unions, progressive branches of the Catholic Church or other social movements. In part this is due to institutional rivalries, and according to de la Garza Toledo, a suspicion from the most radical contingents of the CETEG that other groups, even within the CNTE itself, are too reformist.

Sectarianism is evident within the CETEG. Even while striking against the non-payment of salaries and continuing to mobilize for Ayotzinapa, a split among its regional contingents — long simmering according to local activists — over strategy and tactics came out into the open when a faction publicly disavowed the CETEG’s elected secretary general, Ramos Reyes Guerrero on February 19. Teachers dispute the best strategies to both pressure the state and sustain public support. The elementary school union representative expressed her apprehension over recent acts of property destruction attributed to the movement, worried that it will turn the public, previously strongly supportive of the movement for Ayotzinapa, against the teachers. “Perhaps it’s easy for people who don’t live here to break windows, she said. “But I live in Chilpancingo; I’m a part of the community. We participate in marches, highway blockades, but we try not to deliberately provoke confrontations that would alienate people.”

The teachers’ march on February 24 in Acapulco over unpaid salaries was violently attacked by federal police. Hundreds of teachers fled into nearby supermarkets and malls, pursued by police. As many as 500 were injured, 200 required hospitalization, and four female teachers were raped while detained by police. Claudio Castillo Peña, a 65-year-old retired teacher and union activist afflicted with polio, was killed after police pulled him out of the march’s sound car and beat him, according to Mexico’s Reforma newspaper. Activists fear the attack on the march marks a return towards violent repression as the state’s strategy for dealing with the movement. In the short term at least, it may also restore a degree of unity.

Names of the school and its teachers have been withheld to protect their identities.

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