Striking Teachers Forced Off Mexico City Plaza

Federal police removed thousands of protesting teachers Friday from the main downtown plaza where they had camped out for weeks. The teachers are angry about a new education law that takes power away from their union.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Police using water cannons and tear gas rolled into the main plaza in downtown Mexico City yesterday to remove thousands of protesting teachers. They've been camped out since mid-August and are upset about a new law aimed at overhauling Mexico's failing education system. Federal authorities vowed to remove the protesters before this Sunday's Independence Day. From Mexico City, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The teachers had been in Mexico City's historic Zocalo Plaza for weeks. It took less than an hour to push them out. But they didn't leave without a fight. Hundreds blocked side streets with metal gates and plastic traffic dividers. They set trash on fire and constantly engaged police in violent confrontations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Yelling in foreign language)

KAHN: The police have just shot tear gas at the crowd that is yelling profanities at them and started throwing sticks and other objects at the police. The crowd carrying sticks. Some have metal poles. The police is pushing everyone back and we are going to move out right now.

CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

KAHN: The teachers are upset over a new education reform President Enrique Pena Nieto pushed through Congress and signed into law on Tuesday. Among many changes, the law institutes for the first time mandatory annual evaluations for teachers and greatly reduces the power of the union in the hiring and firing of educators. It has long been common practice in Mexico for teachers to buy, sell and pass their tenured positions onto relatives. With little resistance from local police, the teachers had been able to hold daily protests paralyzing major parts of this already chaotic city, causing traffic nightmares and at one point blocking access to the international airport. That's until federal police stepped in yesterday. While protesters and police clashed throughout the afternoon, business owners scrambled to roll down their metal doors and close up shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATES CLOSING)

KAHN: (Foreign language spoken)

JAVIER SANDOVAL: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Javier Sandoval shut his doors just as protesters moved down the street toward his jewelry store. He says it's been a long three weeks of near daily protests.

SANDOVAL: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Sandoval says he's lost a lot of money since the teachers erected hundreds of tents in the huge Zocalo Plaza. He says his clients have been too scared to come downtown. Elementary school teacher Cesar Puc, wearing a red bandana across his face and carrying a wooden stick, says the government should invest more money in schools instead of blaming teachers.

CESAR PUC: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: We aren't against being evaluated;- on the contrary, says Puc. We want the best education system. But he adds you can't have that when most of the country lives in poverty. With the teachers gone, President Pena Nieto can now preside over this Sunday's traditional Mexican Independence Day celebration in the historic Zocalo. He's also dealt a blow to a very visible opposition group that had threatened to derail his plans to push through even more controversial reforms in the coming weeks. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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