MEXICO CITY – Anti-riot police raided Mexico City’s historic center to remove striking teachers on Friday, using water cannons and tear gas to clear the area while protesters responded with firebombs.
Hundreds of officers flooded the Zócalo square after some 200 demonstrators disobeyed a deadline to vacate the area to make room for the nation’s Independence Day celebrations this weekend. The move followed weeks of protests against education reform, AFP correspondents said.
At least four protesters were injured, a Red Cross worker told AFP. Police warned that violent protesters would be detained, but no figures were immediately released.
The teachers, many armed with sticks and wearing masks, had set trash on fire and placed metal barriers in adjoining streets to block the police from entering the Zócalo, home to the National Palace, Aztec ruins and the city’s cathedral.
Thousands of teachers had been occupying the plaza for the past three weeks, but most had left before the deadline, leaving makeshift tents and trash behind. Local businesses shut their doors before the raid.
Police cleared the plaza within half an hour and put out small fires, an AFP photographer said. An hour later, clean-up crews were dispatched to remove the plastic tarps from the tent city.
Minutes before the police moved in, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto released an invitation to the independence celebrations at the Zócalo on Sunday and Monday.
But clashes continued on side streets with television images showing police using water cannons, while thousands demonstrated peacefully in one of the city’s main boulevards. Police corraled dozens of protesters on a sidewalk.
Manuel Mondragón y Kalb, head of the Federal Police, had warned earlier that the officers would clear the plaza after the deadline passed “otherwise this will go on forever and we will never resolve the issue.”
He warned that aggressive protesters would be detained. The police were not carrying firearms or truncheons, he said.
The government had insisted that the traditional independence commemoration would take place as scheduled.
Traditionally, the president delivers the “Cry of Independence” from the National Palace balcony on the evening of Sept. 15, shouting “¡Viva México!” and waving the Mexican flag before a military parade the next day.
Peña Nieto signed an education reform this week that requires teachers to undergo mandatory performance evaluations. The teachers say the new rules violate their labor rights.
The dissident National Education Workers Coordinator (CNTE) union led several protests in the city for the past three weeks, disrupting traffic in the already congested megalopolis and blocking road access to the international airport on two occasions.
The demonstrations irritated many chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known, with 59 percent favoring the use of force against the teachers, according to a poll conducted last month by Reforma newspaper.