As thousands of teachers from the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico converged for a protest in Mexico City, the New York Times published a front-page article alleging that the family of José Murat Casab, a former governor of Oaxaca, and his son Alejandro Murat Hinojosa—the current head of Infonavit, the federal government mortgage lender for laborers—has amassed millions of dollars worth of property in the U.S. over the course of their careers.
The family was reported to own six properties in the U.S., including a condo in Manhattan that overlooks Central Park and another in Boca Raton, Florida. The suggestion of mysteriously gotten wealth are an embarrassment for Murat, a politician who portrays himself as a man of humble means who left office with “the same trousers, with the same shoes, with the same shirts and the same car” that he owned when he took office.
For the teachers who work in Mexico’s poorest rural communities, the Murat scandal is just one more source of frustration with the country’s political system. On Feb. 11, with protesters gathered in front of the statue of the Angel of Independence, a man in a gray long sleeve shirt yelled into a microphone, “We’re frustrated with the political parties.”
A few blocks away in the plaza in front of the copper-topped Monument to the Revolution, teachers from Oaxaca, the third-poorest state in the country, waited for their colleagues at the march to make their way back to the makeshift tent-city where the teachers were staging a sleep-in.
While they were in the country's capital city to voice their dissatisfaction with an educational reform they fear could cut their salaries and restrict their ability to work in some of Mexico’s most marginalized communities, the scandal involving Oaxaca's former governor was on many of the teacher’s minds.
But, for Lorena Ruiz, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher from Oaxaca, the news about José Murat wasn’t surprising.
In Mexico, she told Fox News Latino, “We know our public servants have a lot of properties. I mean, look at the president, he has a multimillion-dollar house,” she said, referring to scandal that President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife have amassed millions of dollars worth of real estate.
Ruiz added, “We need a different kind of politician, but we can’t [have them] because Mexico is corrupt and politicians are easily corrupted.”
Another teacher, Rigoberto Martinez, a 48-year-old who has worked as an educator for 27 years, explained, “What we’re demanding is that the government help all of Mexico and not just part of the population. There’s harsh poverty in Oaxaca.”
Corruption is a way of life in Mexico, and in the minds of many, it is all tied together: The politicians who feed off the public till and the difficult conditions many people live under.
Almost a quarter of Oaxaca’s residents live in extreme poverty, and six out of ten of live below the poverty line.
Martinez says that frustration with entrenched poverty and the lack of effort and investment in improving schools in southern Mexico is the driving force that has united teachers from different parts of the state to work together in a coordinated protest.
“Murat—he took money from the people and bought chauffeurs and ranches. He took from the public coffers and bought properties in the United States,” Martinez claimed, despite the fact that the Times article makes no claim that Murat Casab did anything illegal.
Standing in front of the monument commemorating Mexico’s 1910 revolution, Martinez said he feels like many of the original ideals of the revolutionary fighters have been forgotten.
“The Mexican revolution didn’t give the poor anything. They took some [property] from the wealthy but it’s the politicians who have gotten rich,” he told FNL.
Over the last 30 years, as the country shifted toward more free-market economic policies, small farmers in rural Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico have struggled to survive.
Eric Merino, a 30-year-old physical education teacher from the town of Huajuapan in Oaxaca said that many of his students are the children of farmers. “They eat corn and beans, and when the harvest isn’t good they suffer,” he said.
To Merino, Murat is just another politician who “did his projects and got rich.”
The anger in Mexico over the New York Times report flashed through the local media, and Murat Hinojosa issued a statement detailing just which relative owned which U.S. property — basically, uncles and in-laws.
For his part, Murat Casab issued an open letter, saying, “I told the [Times] that many of their questions, which they printed in their article, stem from lies and defamations that aren’t worth acknowledging. It is incomprehensible to me that they involved me in a situation that’s totally false and compromises my reputation and my family’s. I will consult with attorneys to determine how to proceed legally."
But, even as Oaxaca’s teachers point their finger at Mexico’s political class and talk about nepotism and graft, a broad swath of Mexico’s population is making the same claim about public school teachers, and their insular and notorious corrupt union, the CNTE, one the largest and most powerful in Latin America.
A recent review found that, while the average teacher’s salary is $2,000 a month, 70 are paid more than $180,000, and one teacher from Oaxaca makes more than $500,000 a year.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, at one point, more than 800 schools in the state of Guanajato alone received government funding without actually existing.
Two of President Peña Nieto’s first moves upon entering office in 2012 were arresting Elba Esther Gordillo, the notorious head of the CNTE and passing a education reform bill that generated backlash in many poor, indigenous communities where teachers feel they can’t be held to the same standards as those in wealthy, urban school districts.
Many teachers, including Lorena Ruiz, are frustrated, however, with Peña Nieto’s policy. “It’s a labor reform, not an education reform,” she told FNL.
What many teachers want to see is more investment in rural schools.
Ismael Ramírez, a teacher from a town six hours outside of the city of Oaxaca, the state’s capital, explained that in the area “there are schools with no resources to give a good education. There’s no money for paper.”
By most measures Oaxaca has the worst schools of any state in Mexico. Four out of ten schools in the state do not have running water and more than a quarter lack electricity.
Union leaders, however, aren’t necessarily fighting for their state’s students and hardworking rural teachers. Alexandra Zapata, an education policy expert from IMCO, a Mexico City-based think tank, told FNL that at the negotiating table Oaxaca’s teachers union demanded that the federal government make payouts to 14,000 people who had not been verified as teachers.
“In Oaxaca [the union] would not let the government come in because they didn’t want the government to ... cut out people who claim to be teachers but really work for the union,” Zapata said. "In Mexico, 90 percent of the education budget goes to payroll. That’s why it’s so important to filter out these fake teachers. Then more money could be used to improve [school] infrastructure.”
And the teachers’ union protest is somewhat quixotic in other ways, too. They are protesting a bill that has already been passed, and also demanding to be paid for the days they miss while they protest. Which certainly sounds a bit like small-scale corruption.
Oaxaca’s current governor, Gabino Cue, has stated that “no teacher who participated in these days [of protest] should be paid because they aren’t giving classes and doing their job, and they don’t have a right to their salary.”
The teachers, for their part, continue to protest, fueled in part by an anger at a historical trend of Mexican officials who look and talk like the Murats doing more to enrich themselves than to boost the economic development of their districts.
Jesus Meneses, a young teacher from Ramírez’s town, said, “Oaxaca has natural resources and beaches for tourists. The problem is that instead of building infrastructure, [politicians] rob resources.”