MEXICO CITY, Oct 17 2014 (IPS) - The images filled the front pages of Mexico’s newspapers: 61 half-dressed state policemen kneeling, with their hands tied, in the main square of the town of Tepatepec in the central state of Hidalgo, while local residents threatened to burn them alive.
It was Feb. 19, 2000. The reason the townspeople were furious was the police occupation of the Normal Rural Luis Villarreal rural teachers college in the town of El Mexe, and the arrest of 176 of the students, who had been on strike because of the government’s announcement that enrollment would be reduced.
Between that episode and an incident on Monday Oct. 13 in the southwest state of Guerrero, when teachers, students and local residents of the town of Ayotzinapa set fire to the state government building, there has been a history of repression and criminalisation of the country’s poorest students: the sons and daughters of small farmers who study to become teachers in rural schools.
“It’s built-up anger,” Etelvina Sandoval, a researcher at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, Mexico’s national university for teacher training, told IPS. “For years there has been a campaign against the rural teachers colleges and they have been scorned for what they do. In the view of the government, they are very expensive, and the students have to constantly fight to keep their schools running. And no one says anything because they’re poor kids.”
Guerrero is the third-least developed state in the country, and one of the most politicised. It has been the birthplace of social movements, and four decades ago it was one of the targets of the “dirty war” – a time of military repression of opponents of the government, which left a still unknown number of dead and disappeared.
“For years there has been a campaign against the rural teachers colleges and they have been scorned for what they do. In the view of the government, they are very expensive, and the students have to constantly fight to keep their schools running. And no one says anything because they’re poor kids.” — Etelvina Sandoval
It is also one of the most violent states. And since Sept. 26 it has been in the global spotlight, after police in the city of Iguala attacked three buses full of students fom the Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos teachers college of Ayotzinapa.
The reason for the attack is not yet clear. But it was reported that the police handed over a group of students to the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel.
In the clash with police, six people were killed, 25 were injured, and 43 mainly first-year students went missing.
Implicated in the massacre were Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda, both of whom are fugitives from justice and who, according to investigations, were on the cartel’s payroll.
In the search for the students, 23 mass graves have been found so far, containing dozens of corpses.
“The indiscriminate violence against the civilian population that we saw during the six-year term of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) has been directed towards organised social movements since the change of government. What happened in Iguala was just a question of time,” said Héctor Cerezo, a member of the Cerezo Committee, an organisation that documents forced disappearances and the dirty war.
The young people who study at the rural teachers colleges – known as “normales” or normal schools – are the poorest students in the country, who receive training to educate poor “campesinos” or peasant farmers in the most marginalised and remote communities, where teachers who have trained in urban areas do not want to go.
The students are themselves campesinos whose only chance at an education is the normales, which were founded in 1921 and are the last bastion of the socialist education imparted in Mexico from 1934 to 1945.
In the normales, which function as boarding schools, and where students are given meals as well as a scholarship of three to seven dollars a day, the students are in charge.
They participate directly in administrative decision-making, and have established support networks among schools through the Federation of Socialist Campesino Students of Mexico, the country’s oldest student organisation, which has frequently been accused of churning out guerrillas.
Through its ranks passed legendary guerrillas like Lucio Cabañas, who in 1967 founded the Party of the Poor, and Genaro Vázquez (both of whom were graduates of the Ayotzinapa teachers college). Another was Misael Núñez Acosta, who studied at the “normal” in Tenería, in the state of Mexico, and in 1979 founded the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación teachers union and was killed two years later.
“They were created for that reason – to do political work and consciousness-raising. The students are very independent young people [in comparison with students at the urban ‘normales’] with very strict discipline,” said Sandoval, who added that the rural teachers colleges have been “a thorn in the side of the governments.”
Of the 46 original rural teachers colleges, only 15 are left. Half of them were closed after the 1968 student movement by then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970).
The ones that are still open have been waging a steady battle since 1999 to avoid being turned into vocational-technical schools. But the state governments have financially suffocated them, with the argument that the country doesn’t need more primary school teachers, because the declining birth rate has reduced student enrollment.
As a result, fires and other incidents have become common in the rural teachers colleges as the installations have become more and more rundown. In 2008, for example, two students died in a fire caused by a short circuit in the first rural school of its kind in Latin America, the Normal Rural Vasco de Quiroga in the northwest state of Michoacán.
“What I can say is that there are not enough teachers in the most remote areas,” Sandoval said. “There are communities who go for months without a teacher. In some places a ‘non-teacher’ covers the gap temporarily, working without any contract or fixed timeframe.”
The attack on the buses carrying students from the Ayotzinapa school has put President Enrique Peña Nieto’s human rights policy to the test.
The incident occurred in the context of growing tension caused by attempts by the latest governments to close down the school.
In January 2007, then state Governor Zeferino Torreblanca tried to reduce the number of students enrolled and declared that his government’s aim was to reduce the “studentocracy”. In November of that year, the anti-riot police cracked down on students when they demonstrated outside the state legislature.
On Dec. 12, 2011 the police killed two normal school students: phys-ed student Gabriel Echeverría de Jesús and primary education student Jorge Alexis Herrera Pino.
They were taking part in a roadblock to protest cuts in the school budget. In addition, Édgar David Espíritu Olmedo was seriously wounded, and 24 other students were beaten and injured.
“Ayotzinapa is standing up to fight for justice. The academic excellence that we are seeking cannot be conditioned on our political submission,” the Federation of Socialist Campesino Students of Mexico stated in a communiqué at the time.
No one was held responsible or punished for the deaths.
Nearly three years later, as they were getting ready to visit Mexico City to take part in the commemoration of the anniversary of the Oct. 2, 1968 massacre of students in Tlatelolco square in Mexico City, the students from the Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos teachers college in Ayotzinapa were ambushed by municipal police, and the detained students, according to the investigations and testimony, were handed over to a criminal group that the mayor worked for.
Since then, there has been no sign of the 43 missing students.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes