School children in parts of Mexico are getting some extra summer vacation – for all the wrong reasons.
One week into the academic year, students at 140 elementary schools in Acapulco – the tourist resort city previously known for sun-tanned Americans rather than gang wars – have been sent home, due to teachers fearing extortion and kidnappings by gangs.
About 600 teachers, mostly from schools in mountainside slums surrounding Acapulco’s resorts, are refusing to come to work after colleagues received threats demanding they turn over half of their salaries or face attack. At least four teachers in the city have reportedly been kidnapped in the last two weeks.
It is the latest threat against educators, as drug fuelled lawlessness seeps into all levels of the social fabric in various corners of the country.
In the city of Juarez on Mexico’s northern border with Texas, gunmen attacked a group of parents waiting for their children outside an elementary school on August 25, killing one man and injuring five parents.
Extortion and murder
“There are a lot of negative influences here,” a vice principal at an elementary school in Juarez told Al Jazeera during an interview in January. He didn’t want his name used as he was not authorised to speak to the media. “Kids all over town are used to seeing violence. They record pictures of dead bodies on their cellphones and put them on Facebook.”
Like their counterparts in Acapulco, teachers in Juarez – one of the world’s most violent cities – have also faced extortion demands.
Beginning in November 2010 gangsters “wrote graffiti on the school’s walls saying: ‘If you don’t pay up a massacre will happen,” the vice principal said.
After graffiti was sprayed on the walls, someone left a note under the vice principal’s car, demanding 1,000 pesos – $84 – from each of the school’s 30 teachers within 24 hours. The note was not signed by any particular cartel, and it instructed school officials to leave the money at a public swimming pool. They never paid and the massacre did not take place. But the graffiti, openly threatening teachers, terrified the youngsters.
“To see the sorrow and the situation with the parents and students is the hardest part,” said a teacher in Juarez, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, during an interview in January. “I just want it to end,” she told Al Jazeera.
Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in drugs violence since December 2006, when Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president, launched a full scale assault on cartels.
And things have gotten worse over the past 18 months. Today, a person dies from drugs violence in Mexico every 35 minutes, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Compared to other countries in Latin America, schools in Mexico fare quite well in terms of educational standards. A survey from PISA, an international test of 15-year-olds, says Mexico has the region’s second best educated children after Chile.
Around 45 per cent of Mexicans finish secondary school, according to Mexicanos Primero, a non-governmental organisation. Meanwhile 75 per cent of US students graduate high school on time with a regular diploma, according to the US department of education.
Mexico – the world’s fourteenth largest economy – spends about five per cent of gross domestic product on education, which is on par with other industrialising countries. But critics say much of this money is wasted due to corruption and mismanagement. Teachers and principals say the biggest threats to education come from violence and social decay.
“Being a teacher in Juarez is really hard. You must be a psychologist, a mediator, and a mentor,” the vice principal said. “And we do not have the resources of other countries.”
The spirit of criminality gripping Juarez and Acapulco, where might makes right and retribution creates a vicious cycle of exponentially more gory violence, can be seen in classrooms.
“One six year old was being reprimanded by a teacher,” the vice principal said. “The child said ‘if you punish me, I’ll hit eight kids.”
“We are all products of our society and we reflect our environment,” he said. And that is a problem if you are a student in Juarez or Acapulco.