Mexico: Repressing Organized Dissent

By Marcie Neil*

Mexico teacher protest

A photo from the protest on June 19. Credit: LibreRed / Google / Creative Commons

The Mexican government’s latest reaction to the country’s largest teachers union’s challenge to education reform is triggering accusations of gross human rights violations at a time that President Enrique Peña Nieto is already under severe pressure over the case of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa, even if the union’s reputation – and the government’s historical demonization of it – may undercut the teachers’ cause.  Protesters associated with the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) clashed with state and federal police in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, on June 19, leaving eight dead, more than 100 wounded, and at least 25 detained.  The clashes culminated a series of CNTE-led protests over a 2013 reform that puts the onus on teachers for student success through government-mandated tests and teacher evaluations – akin to the U.S. “No Child Left Behind Act.”  CNTE members consider the reform disconnected from the realities of teaching in Mexico’s underprivileged, indigenous, and rural environments, and view it as a threat to their collective decision-making authority and hard-won benefits from the 1980s and 1990s.

  • The CNTE denounced Nochixtlán as another example of excessive police force, and press reports and citizen testimony have refuted the President’s claim that police met protesters unarmed. The administration subsequently offered to meet with union leaders to discuss the reform, but it was seen as offering too little too late.

The CNTE is not the country’s most respected institution, but its complaints about the brutal police reactions to its protests have merit and have stimulated a national debate on Mexico’s commitment to human rights.  The union’s reputation has been tarnished by repeated disruption of school schedules, internecine strife, recent arrests of leaders on corruption charges, and a recently eliminated, but oft-cited, benefit that allowed union members’ children to inherit their jobs regardless of merit.  But the state’s implicit culpability in the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa and the death toll on June 19 seems to have tipped the perceptions of its dispute with the state momentarily in favor of CNTE.  That dispute and others with popular organizations have deep roots – going back to mobilizations in the 1960s, including the Tlateloco Massacre in 1968, and the brutal repression of a 2006 teachers strike in Oaxaca.  The historical pattern is one of state abuse against mostly harmless citizens who feel denied democratic participation.

The Peña Nieto administration’s reactions thus far do not suggest a desire to break with that pattern, even in the face of public outrage over this month’s killings.  The Mexico representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and others have called for an independent investigation into the Nochixtlán violence, but the government’s stonewalling of the Ayotzinapa investigation suggests these attempts at overcoming impunity face dim prospects.  Education Minister Aurelio Nuño’s statement the day after the confrontation confirming the government’s commitment to uphold the education reforms further fueled public anger.  Absent an independent evaluation, the bloody events of June 19 could remain as evidence that the Mexican government is simply unwilling to overcome its historical tendency to attack those it considers subversive. 

July 1, 2016

* Marcie Neil received her Masters in Latin American Studies at American University in 2015 and served as a Graduate Assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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  1. jreedbrundage

     /  July 1, 2016

    This gives a picture of the government’s reprehensible actions and of the formal issues involved, which have complex political, economic and social histories. However, it doesn’t
    address the issue of the techniques the CNTE has been using in its protests, what they call their “right to free speech and the use of public space.” They have repeatedly blocked both local roads and federal highways for hours. The road block in Nochtixtlán was at the strategic intersection of a federal expressway between Oaxaca City and Puebla and a two-lane federal highway to Mexico City.

    Over the past three years, CNTE members have blockaded the Mexico City International Airpórt and major plazas, streets and highways in the nation’s capital. They have commandeered private buses and trucks to create blockades and have set them on fire. They have seized and burned both state government and political party offices. They have blockaded private businesses. They have blockaded testing sites so teachers arriving to take the mandated exam could not enter. They have seized election voting sites to prevent people from voting. They have destroyed the offices of teacher groups who don’t support their strikes, which, not incidentally, have left thousands of children without schooling for months.

    These actions do not constitute the justifiable exercise of the rights of free speech or use of public space. Any appeal for support by the CNTE should also include a call to the teachers to cease from using tactics that violate the rights of others or that are violent in their attempt to be heard by the Mexican government and gain the support of the domestic and international public.

    We also recommend Behind Teacher-Government Collision Lies Faulty Reform ( and Consequences of Compromising with Crime ( by political scientist Jorge Javier Romero Vadillo. They are the best critique we have seen of the serious problems both within the government’s reform process and the dissident CNTE.

  2. John Ackerman

     /  July 1, 2016

    Thanks for sharing! The first half is right on and very important. Unfortunately, the third paragraph is way off base. The jailed members of the CNTE are political prisoners and this democratic arm of the union is much more respected than most government institutions in Mexico. For more on my argument:

    • Thank you for your note, and certainly we are not intending to suggest that the CNTE is completely innocent in its tactics, nor that the public views it as such. However, the point is that when the government misuses force to silence dissent, immediately lies about police being armed and then fails to respond to rapid and widespread calls for an independent inquiry, the argument in the public sphere tends to “tip the scales” in favor of the victimized. That the public view seems to be “temporarily” tipped in solidarity with this group is perhaps more of a reflection of the government’s historical tendency to repress dissent and misuse police force, which is the greater focus of the article.


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