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Teachers Roil Mexico Capital


Thousands of unionized teachers blocked streets in central Mexico City last week. 'We will be here as long as necessary,' said one union official.

MEXICO CITY—Thousands of unionized teachers have blockaded roads and set up a tent city in the Mexican capital's colossal main square, threatening to remain until the government aborts its plans to revamp the country's public-schools system.

Their actions have delayed a key component of President Enrique Peña Nieto's education-overhaul plans and presage a bigger standoff in September, when opponents to the government's broader legislative agenda plan mass protests here.

The chaos is a glimpse of what is likely to be a turbulent period in Mexico, one that could decide the fate of the president's agenda, which in addition to the education overhaul also includes a contested proposal to open the state's oil monopoly to private investment, and a tax revamp.

Thousands more disaffected teachers have begun to stream into Mexico City to participate in demonstrations scheduled for Sept. 1 and 8.

In the past two days, thousands of teachers have snarled traffic in this city of 20 million by blocking many of the city's principal avenues, have surrounded the studios of Mexico's two main broadcasters and have protested in front of the French, Spanish and U.S. embassies.

Last week, the teachers blockaded Congress, forcing lawmakers to work out of a racetrack on the city's outskirts, and then vandalized the building, officials said. They destroyed several cars and blocked the main roads to the airport, causing thousands of passengers to miss flights, officials said. They also forced the city's marathon to reroute.

"We will be here as long as necessary," Heriberto Magariño López, a teacher and union official from Oaxaca, said during a protest. "Until the government knocks down the three educational laws, we are not going anywhere."

The unsuccessful presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador plans to lead protests against the energy proposal, which he and his followers view as akin yielding national sovereignty. The government hopes the measure will revive Mexico's oil and gas industry and lure huge investments.

Next week, Congress will again take up education reform after it was blocked last week, before moving on to the energy and tax initiative in September.

"This could be the most important week of the presidential term…," political analyst Leonardo Curzio wrote in the blog Animal Político.

Wall Street has begun to worry that the delay in passing the first step of the education law—which would make teacher evaluations mandatory and allow poorly performing teachers to be dismissed—could set back Mr. Peña Nieto's ambitious plans.

"We view the fact that Congress has not yet approved the law…as creating a bad precedent," wrote Citi Research in a research note Monday. "This could energize movements opposed to other reforms."

The union blames Mexico's poor state of education—which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks near the bottom of its membership—on inadequate funds. It says Mr. Peña Nieto's proposal effectively privatizes schools and doesn't take into account Mexico's indigenous cultures. Its members also say the law threatens their labor rights and vow not to back down.

"This is to defend public education!" shouted a teacher with a megaphone mounted on a truck as hundreds of teachers faced off on Monday against dozens of black-helmeted riot police in front of the French Embassy. "This is in defense of our oil! This is against oppressive neoliberal reforms!"

Critics of the union say that far from being concerned about the education of their students, many of teachers want to protect lifetime jobs that they say are sold or often passed from generation to generation.

Until last week, Mr. Peña Nieto's aides remained confident they would pass the education overhauls in Congress, where they can count on conservative legislators to back them. But some now seem less confident, as pressure from the demonstrations grows on lawmakers.

The Mexico City Chamber of Commerce estimated that the teachers, who belong to the radical National Coordinator of Education Workers union, carried out 21 demonstrations in the past three months, causing lost sales of around $25 million for businesses in downtown commercial and tourist zones. The city center "has been taken hostage, once more, by political vandalism," the chamber said.

The union, known as the CNTE, has a history of violent protests. Over the years, union members have fought off police and troops with rocks and knives. In 2006, the union and leftist allies literally took over the colonial city of Oaxaca for five months, preventing authorities ranging from judges to police from working. Young protesters, faces hidden by bandanas, burned cars and buses and occasionally stormed government offices.

Police in Mexico City have refused to act against the protesters. The capital's leftist Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera said he opposed all types of repression, and takes credit for avoiding bloodshed.

Observers say the mayor's reluctance to use police stems from an infamous 1968 incident in which army troops killed dozens, if not hundreds, of protesting students in Mexico City, and government concerns that the country's ill-trained police will again commit human-rights abuses if faced with violent protesters.

"They have kids, women with them, and if a cop hurts a child, do you imagine what would happen?" asked a Mexico City official. "There would be more violence. They are very aggressive. They are looking for trouble."

Some lawmakers say the president will prevail. "I am positive in the Congress we will move forward on all the reforms we have scheduled, energy, tax and the law we still need to complete on education," said Javier Treviño, a legislator with Mr. Peña Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

But Mr. Treviño said it was imperative that the Mexico City mayor act to uphold the law. "Mancera will have to act," said Mr. Trevino. "This is about applying the law. It's not about repression."

A version of this article appeared August 28, 2013, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Teachers Roil Mexico Capital.

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