Protesting Teachers Block Mexico City Airport

MEXICO CITY—Thousands of teachers from a radical union faction Thursday blocked access to Mexico City’s international airport for a second time in three weeks as they protested a newly passed law that requires teachers to undergo periodic evaluations, exposing some of them to dismissal.

Lines of helmeted police with riot shields faced off against the teachers, who shouted slogans and wielded metal staves ripped from a barricade. The teachers, members of the National Coordinator of Educational Workers, or CNTE, snarled traffic on the main avenue that leads to Mexico City’s only airport, forcing passengers to walk. The protest didn’t affect operations at the facility, but many passengers were unable to make their flights. Mexican airlines Aeromexico and Interjet said they were waiving charges for passengers who as a result of the blockade change the times or dates of their flights.

The teachers want President Enrique Peña Nieto to veto the law passed by Mexico’s senate on Wednesday amid three weeks of almost daily protests that have snarled traffic in this sprawling capital of 20 million people.

The blockade of the airport for a second time ratchets up the pressure on Mr. Peña Nieto, who is at a G-20 meeting in Russia, as well as local authorities. The protests come as the congress is about to discuss a controversial energy reform which is expected to open up Mexico’s energy sector to private investors. The government is also about to introduce a fiscal overhaul in congress.

For weeks, thousands of teachers have occupied the Zócalo, Mexico City’s monumental central square, turning the plaza into a huge tent city of multicolored tarps. From the Zócalo, the teachers have marched out on daily demonstrations targeting Mexico’s lower house of congress, the senate and other government buildings, as well as the embassies of the U.S., Spain and France, snarling traffic across the capital for hours.

But Mexican authorities, anxious not to provoke bloodshed which could increase resistance to the government’s proposed reforms, haven’t allowed either federal or Mexico City police to clear the streets.

“It’s a touchy situation and quite volatile,” said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “But the government is bending over backwards to avoid spilling one drop of blood.”

The government and many education activists see the reforms as a crucial first step in fixing Mexico’s broken public education system. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to which the country belongs, ranks Mexico near the bottom of its list of members as to academic achievement, even though spends more of its budget on education than any other OECD member except New Zealand.

But the lion’s share of the money—about 92%—goes to paying teachers’ and bureaucrats’ salaries, leaving little for improving infrastructure or innovation. Mexicans spend 8.6 years in school on average, as opposed to 11.9 years for all of the OECD. Only 64 out of 100 children get past the sixth grade.

“A lot of money is spent on education, but the corruption and waste is enormous,” says Alberto Serdán, an official with Mexicanos Primero, an educational think tank.

The teachers say they are angry because their concerns have been ignored by the legislators who wrote the law. They say the reforms don’t take into account the difficulties in teaching children who are poor, as well as Indian children, many of whom don’t speak Spanish. The reform, they say, opens up the door to privatizing Mexico’s education system.

Teachers have promised to mount a nationwide “teachers’ insurrection” with protests in Mexico City and around the country.

“We will take over roads and radio stations to transmit our message. We will take over airports, and toll booths to allow free passage on toll roads,” said Roberto de la Cruz, 53 years old, a union official from Oaxaca. Since the teachers went on strike last month, at least 1.5 million children have missed school in Oaxaca and the other affected states.

Some CNTE leaders say they will join forces with fiery former leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has planned a huge march on Sunday to protest the energy reform, but it isn’t yet clear whether the two will make common cause.

—Anthony Harrup and Amy Guthrie contributed to this article.

Photo from Press Tv