MEXICO CITY - Thousands of striking teachers strangled traffic and blocked access to Mexico City's international airport on Friday, flexing their muscles in a bid to block educational reforms intended to introduce teacher evaluations and reduce union power over hiring decisions.
Several thousand teachers blocked the main expressway leading to the airport; they had vowed to seize the terminal, but police were called in to block the march.
Travellers were forced to walk part of the way to the airport to catch their flights. Some fliers were ferried into the airport aboard federal police trucks once they reached police lines set up to prevent protesters from seizing the terminal.
Other travellers, both Mexican and foreign, were seen walking glumly up the expressway leading to the airport dragging suitcases and dodging teachers sitting on beach chairs under plastic tarps doing crossword puzzles or reading the newspaper.
Weary of almost a week of constant protests, Mexico City residents expressed anger at city authorities who seemingly allowed the teachers to block as many streets as they wanted.
"Unfortunately, this happens because the government allows it," said businessman Jose Marmolejo, who was stuck in snarling traffic for three hours before reaching the airport. "These teachers are not from Mexico City and they don't understand the chaos they are creating."
Thousands of teachers belonging to the radical teachers' union, known as the CNTE, began gathering in Mexico City in recent weeks. The union's members have battled police in the past in the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan. In 2006, a union-led coalition seized almost the entire city of Oaxaca for nearly five months, until federal forces retook the city amid pitched battles.
The protesters took over much of Mexico City's downtown historic district, erecting a vast tent encampment in the main plaza and surrounding streets.
The teachers have refused to move to make room for Sunday's Mexico City Marathon race, forcing organizers to reroute the run.
Hundreds of striking teachers battled police at the Congress building Wednesday night and later blockaded streets around the building, forcing lawmakers to meet in a convention centre to vote on the education reform bill, parts of which were approved by the lower house.
The bill introduces teacher evaluations and reduces the power of corruption-ridden unions in hiring teachers, many of whom inherit their jobs from relatives under current rules.
Protesters say the reform relies too heavily on tests, and say student and parent evaluations and other factors should be taken into account.
But seldom has the largely rural union flexed its muscles in the nation's capital, where daily traffic is chaotic at best, and nightmarish at worst.
Patience was running out by Friday.
"This is a nightmare," said Maria Aragon, 52, as she dragged her suitcase through groups of teachers chatting or sleeping under tarps. "They can't defend their rights by trampling on the rights of other people."
Guillermo Gazal, president of the downtown business group Procentrhico, said "the Mexico City government has acted irresponsibly by allowing CNTE protesters to seize the congress buildings ... reducing the city to a state of defencelessness and chaos that harms its residents, social, work and commercial activities."
Federal authorities and the airport's private management said they were drawing the line at the airport.
"This can't be like the other buildings they have tried to seize," said airport Director Alfonso Sarabia. "The operations at the airport cannot be interrupted, come what may. Over my dead body."
Mexico City police chief Jesus Rodriguez Almeida defended the non-confrontational approach of the city's leftist government. Past demonstrations have shown that the city's police do not have the training or skills to contain such protests without using excessive force.
"We are avoiding confrontation at all cost, to avoid bloodshed, to avoid this becoming a battle ground," Rodriguez Almeida told local media.
Claudio Mendoza, a 35-year-old teacher from Oaxaca who travelled to Mexico City to take part in the protest, said teachers plan to remain in the blockade until the federal government heeds their demands.
"We have asked the Mexican people to join our protest," Mendoza said. "We are sorry we are affecting regular citizens but this is the only option the government has left us."
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