Friday, September 9, 2011
Teachers become Mexico gangs' latest targets
A child looks at a sign reading, "There are no classes until new notice" at one of 80 public schools that were closed in Acapulco after the threats. Photo: Staff, PEDRO PARDO / AFP
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS
Fewer people every day are spared the gangland violence besieging Mexico and now even poorly paid educators - charged with the tenuous future of the country's children - find themselves in corruption's cross hairs.
Hundreds of teachers stayed off the job in the troubled Pacific beach resort of Acapulco this week after receiving extortion demands and death threats circulated via handouts and the internet. Teachers earning more than $175 a week were warned to cough up 50 percent of their salaries and bonuses beginning Oct. 1 or face the consequences.
'Chance to leave'
"Those who don't agree have the chance to leave," explained a note sent to a finance officer of the local school district, which ordered a detailed list of teachers and their salaries. "If they don't, they know we're not fooling around.
"Advise the principals that we are aware of the high charges they ask of parents," the note said. "They will receive a special visit."
The note was not signed, but widely assumed to be from local gangsters who are warring for control of illegal drug sales, smuggling and other criminal rackets in Acapulco.
The walkout shut down at least 53 elementary schools and threatened to close hundreds more in and near Acapulco. Most of the schools reopened Wednesday after state and federal officials vowed to provide adequate security.
"The schools have returned to normal," Jesus Nava, a spokesman for the Guerrero state government, said by phone Wednesday.
Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre vowed in announcing the enhanced security Tuesday that "the teaching community, the students and their parents can be assured that the vigilance operations will be working at all times."
It remains to be seen if more police and army patrols will quash the extortion attempts. But the Acapulco walkout was but the latest incident involving threats to children.
Duck and cover drills
Schools in many cities and towns where the violence is greatest routinely drill young pupils on how to duck and cover should gunfire erupt. A Monterrey teacher gained international fame last spring when she kept her kindergartners calm by singing to them as a battle raged just outside the school.
Several mothers were shot and wounded last month as they waited for children to leave a grade school in Ciudad Juarez. Gunmen had chased a target who tried to find refuge at the school, spraying him and others nearby.
Two weeks ago, warnings circulated via Twitter, text messages and Facebook that gangsters planned to attack schools, sending panicked parents pull their children from class in the port of Veracruz.
Prosecutors have charged two people with "terrorism" for sending the warnings on Twitter.
Most of the targeted Acapulco schools are located in the poor and crowded back side of Acapulco, over the mountains from the once-popular beaches and tourist hotels. Gang warfare this year has killed hundreds of people in those neighborhoods.
Though notoriously low-paid, the teachers now join countless businesses as extortion targets of the gangs. Amid President Felipe Calderon's 5-year-old criminal crackdown, the gangsters have diversified beyond drug trafficking into an array of cash-generating enterprises.