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Mexico teacher protest disbanded ahead of independence celebrations

Teachers protesting education reforms have been cleared by police from the center of Mexico City ahead of independence celebrations this weekend. The move comes after weeks of protests.

Police had set a deadline, announced on national television, that they would move in at 4 p.m. local time on Friday. Manuel Mondragon y Kalb, head of the federal police, said officers would clear the Zocalo - Mexico City's main square - once the deadline passed: "otherwise this will go on forever and we will never resolve the issue," he said. "We won't go in swinging but we will use other techniques."

Shortly after the deadline most of the protestors had left. Police moved in, shooting tear gas from specially equipped fire extinguishers. Some two hundred protesters hurled sticks and chunks of paving broken off from the nearby streets.

The police action came as the city prepares for Independence Day celebrations, including the traditional presidential shout of independence from a balcony overlooking the square, due to take place in the Zocalo Sunday and Monday.

The teachers are being led by the National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), the smaller of the country's two main teachers unions. The larger union has supported President Enrique Pena Nieto's reform. He signed the new system into law Tuesday.

The CNTE-led protests of the last week have paralyzed parts of Mexico City. Lawmakers have withdrawn, at least temporarily, a clause imposing mandatory teacher evaluations for job security and promotion. The teachers said the new rules violated their labor rights.

On Wednesday, the protests began turning violent, as protesting teachers scuffled with riot police after officers set up a line to keep protesters from blocking one of the city's main expressways. City officials reported 15 police hurt as protesters seized some plastic riot shields from officers.

Pena Nieto, head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began a six-year term in 2012. The PRI had governed Mexico uninterrupted for 71 years until it was defeated by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) in 2000.

While Pena Nieto won the presidency he did not win a majority in Congress. So the president has worked to unite the three major parties to drive reforms in Congress. In his first month, he secured the constitutional amendments necessary to launch the biggest change in the Mexican educational system in more than six decades.

Education union leader Elba Esther Gordillo was jailed on corruption charges just as she was promising to take her million-strong membership to the streets to protest the reforms. The new education union leader has gone along with the reforms and the major teachers' union has not protested against them.

Challenging monopolies

Congress has approved more constitutional changes aimed at reducing the power of Mexico's long-time monopolies in telephone and television. Pena Nieto is also planning to reform the state-owned oil company Pemex to allow private companies to explore and exploit Mexico's vast oil and gas reserves.

Mexico's oil fields are drying up and Pemex lacks the equipment to explore in deep water or to extract shale gas. Production has fallen by about 25 percent over the last decade. But the proposed reform would require changes to former President Lazaro Cardenas' nationalization of the oil company in 1938.

Latin America's second-largest economy shrank 0.7 per cent in the second quarter. This obliged the president to limit his tax reform plans, including a widely expected sales tax on food and medicine that could have intensified a wave of popular protests.

jm/lw (AP, AFP)