The Mexican state of Guerrero should ensure that all children have full access to primary education, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Guerrero Governor René Juárez Cisneros. The school year begins this month across Mexico.

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that children in several indigenous communities in the state's La Montaña region have been unable to attend primary school due to an absence of teachers where they live.

"Guerrero should do all it can to make teachers available to all the state's children," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "When a community lacks teachers, its children are denied their fundamental right to an education and often condemned to lives of poverty and marginalization."

During the past school year, Human Rights Watch interviewed parents and local leaders from thirteen Mixteco communities in the municipality of Metlatonoc, Guerrero, who reported that there were no primary school teachers where they lived. Each of these communities reported having twenty or more primary school age children, enough under Mexican law to warrant a school. The nearest functioning school for most of them was an hour or more away.

Representatives from several of these communities reported having formally requested that the state provide teachers for their children. Their requests were either rejected or ignored, they said. In most of these communities, the children have never attended school. As a result, they are illiterate and have very poor command of the Spanish language.

The thirteen communities were Agua Azul, Arroyo Olor, Barranca Ocotera, El Ciruelo, Colonia Nuevo Jerusalen, Costa Rica, Cuesta Bajes, Itia-Tio, Loma Canoa, Peña Colorado, Peña de Venado, Piedra Negra, and Rancho de los Hilario. (State education officials told Human Rights Watch that two of these communities did in fact have teachers; however, in one, Loma Canoa, a single teacher was responsible for 95 students, while in another, Costa Rica, a single teacher was responsible for 51 students.)

Under both international and Mexican law, all children in Guerrero have a right to an education. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which Mexico has ratified) and the Mexican constitution establish that primary education should be compulsory and available free to all. Mexico has delegated the responsibility of administrating primary education to the state governments.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed teachers in twelve other indigenous communities in La Montaña who reported that their schools did not have sufficient teachers to cover the number of students enrolled. As a result, each teacher was required to handle forty or more students in half of the schools, and over thirty in the other half. In several schools, teachers were required to teach all six grades simultaneously — an arrangement, which according to both teachers and students, made meaningful academic progress extremely difficult.

One 16-year-old girl in the community of Costa Rica described her experience in a school with over sixty students and just one teacher. "We can't learn much, since the teacher is always busy with the other students."

The director of the school in Cochoapa El Grande, whose teachers must teach over thirty children each, told Human Rights Watch: "A teacher spends all his time making sure the children don't fight. Many of the students graduate speaking little Spanish. They can read, but not well."

State education officials have expressed their commitment to ensuring that children in these communities have access to school. Yet they also point to obstacles to fulfilling this commitment, including the difficulty of sanctioning teachers who abandon their posts in remote communities.

Human Rights Watch urged Governor Juárez Cisneros to ensure that all the communities in La Montaña, as well as the rest of the state, have full access to primary education. The governor should seek to provide the Education Ministry with the resources and political support it needs to overcome any obstacles that may prevent it from fulfilling its obligation to provide these children with teachers.