Hundreds of anti-riot police have regained control of Mexico City’s historic center using water cannons and tear gas to clear the area of striking teachers, who responded with firebombs.
At least 40 people were wounded in Friday’s clashes at Zocalo Square after a few hundred demonstrators violated a deadline to vacate the area to make room for the nation’s independence day celebrations this weekend after weeks of protests against education reform.
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 Zocalo, 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 had shut their doors before the raid.
Police cleared the Zocalo within half an hour and put out small fires. 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 Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto released an invitation to the independence celebrations at the Zocalo today and tomorrow.
However, clashes continued on side streets, where hundreds of protesters staged confrontations with police. Some were masked and armed with stone clubs and iron pipes. Police responded with water cannons.
At least 29 protesters and 11 police officers were wounded in the confrontations, according to the Mexican Red Cross and the federal police’s National Security Commission.
Federal police chief Manuel Mondragon y Kalb said 31 people were detained, none of them teachers. He said the detainees held various weapons, including gas tanks used as flame throwers.
A commission spokesman said that the detainees were “anarchists” who had infiltrated the groups of striking teachers. The authorities have accused anarchists of causing disturbances in recent demonstrations.
Mexican Minister of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong stressed that the eviction was “professional” and that the police were unarmed.
Ruben Nunez, leader of the dissident National Education Workers Coordinator (CNTE) union, told reporters that teachers had agreed to withdraw from the square once the ultimatum expired to continue negotiating their claims with the government.
He later joined other CNTE leaders in resuming talks at the interior ministry.
Osorio Chong expressed willingness to reach a negotiated settlement.
Traditionally, the president delivers the “Cry of Independence” from the National Palace balcony on the evening of Sept. 15, shouting: “Viva Mexico” and waving the Mexican flag.
A military parade takes place the next day.
Pena 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.
CNTE led several protests in the city for the past three weeks, disrupting traffic in the already congested megalopolis and twice blocking road access to the international airport.
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 the newspaper Reforma.