MEXICO CITY (AP) — Thousands of striking teachers seized two of Mexico City's central thoroughfares on a double-pronged march to the president's residence Wednesday, spawning choking knots of traffic chaos after definitively losing their battle to block new educational reforms less than 24 hours earlier. Some briefly clashed with police.
The teachers disrupted the center of one of the world's largest cities for at least the 14th time in two months, decrying a plan that tries to break union control of Mexico's dysfunctional education system by requiring regular standardized teacher evaluations.
President Enrique Pena Nieto dashed the teachers' hopes of blocking the overhaul when he signed the new testing system into law Tuesday. But the protests seem to be morphing into a near-daily feature of life in many Mexican cities, a form of political theater increasingly independent of the struggle that triggered them in the first place.
Protesting teachers scuffled with riot police Wednesday after cops set up a line to keep protesters from blocking one of the city's main expressways. City officials reported 15 police injured as protesters seized some plastic riot shields from officers.
The teachers say blocking the reform itself is no longer the point. They say they have launched a new phase of trying to maintain pressure to protect their rights and privileges as the government puts the labor reforms into effect and reduces union control over teacher hiring and assignment.
In the car-addicted capital, the protests have become a regular part of morning traffic reports. The seemingly endless series of disruption is fueling increasing anger from many Mexico City residents spending hours more than expected on their commutes and work routines.
"This hurts a lot of people. It creates more unemployment and hurts small businesses like us," said Faustino Gregorio Sotero, who runs an oil-change and car-repair business facing Constituyentes Avenue, one of Mexico City's main east-west thoroughfares. The avenue was empty of its usual heavy traffic Wednesday morning as thousands of teachers gathered on both sides of the six-lane boulevard to prepare to march to the gates of the park that surrounds the presidential residence, Los Pinos.
Teachers also blocked highways and city centers in at least 15 other Mexican states in response to calls for a national day of protests led by the National Education Workers Coordinating Committee, or CNTE, the smaller of the country's two main teachers unions. The larger union has supported Pena Nieto's reform.
"We're Fed Up, CNTE," was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in Mexico on Wednesday afternoon.
The teachers say their tactics aren't meant to win the sympathy of Mexico City residents. Because Mexico's elite control the levers of government power and the media, they say, it would be pointless to appeal to popular opinion through less-disruptive protests. The powerful will only listen to power, they say, and the teachers' main power is their ability to shut schools and make life inconvenient in the heart of Mexico's economic, political and cultural life.
"Unfortunately, in Mexico, political pressure has more weight than reason and dialogue," Renato Jimenez, a teacher at a Mexico City teacher-training school, said as he prepared to march down Constituyentes. "It's a shame, but we feel it's necessary."
Many independent observers offer the more cynical observation that most of the striking teachers come from poor southern states where they are part of a major political bloc with the ability to essentially extort concessions like better pay and benefits from state governments with the same tactics they are applying in Mexico City.
Mexico City's government has avoided intervening, increasing many residents' frustration. Analysts say the leftist local government, whose head, Miguel Angel Mancera, is a potential 2018 presidential candidate, fears open confrontation with leftist groups that could lead to violence on the capital's streets.
Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for seven decades before losing the presidency in 2000, was known for coopting and intimidating dissenters instead of killing, torturing and beating them in the streets.
Partly as a result, two massacres of hundreds protesting students in 1968 and 1971 became national traumas that left Mexican officials warier of open confrontation with peaceful protesters, even those who are breaking the law, than authorities in many other Latin American countries.
While Mexican federal police and city riot officers have carefully guarded public buildings during the teachers' protests, they have done nothing to stop the blocking of major streets and highways.
"What's happening with the teachers isn't an exception. This happens with every group that comes to protest, even those that break the law and affect the public. Nothing happens," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City think tank. "The authorities confuse the legitimate use of force with repression, as if they were the same thing, when clearly they're not."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein