Mass Arrests and Resistance at
University of Mexico Strike

Revolutionary Worker #1043, February 20, 2000

At 6:35 a.m. on February 6, 2,600 troops from the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) surrounded the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. The PFP arrested 745 members of the General Strike Counsel (CGH)--the student organization that has led the 10-month-long strike to defend the right to free, public education at the largest university in Latin America. Many CGH members were charged with terrorism, riot, robbery, sabotage, and destruction of property.

Operation UNAM

As the day unfolded, the military police invaded other schools and even private homes to arrest students and professors who supported the strike. "Operation UNAM" also swept up construction workers, housewives, neighborhood residents and even homeless street orphans as young as 8 years old who sleep in the university buildings. The troops occupied UNAM and carried out a building-by-building search for strikers and weapons. No weapons were found.

The PFP is a newly created force that combines military and elite police under federal control. Its official tasks include maintaining "law and order," preventing "aggression against strategic and federal buildings," "crisis management" and "anti-terrorist actions."

The UNAM strikers jailed on February 6 joined 251 others who were arrested on February 1 when the authorities unleashed an armed paramilitary group called "Cobra" to attack the students occupying Prepa #3 (one of the high schools associated with UNAM). Military police stood by as students fought to defend themselves against the reactionaries. When the students reoccupied the school, the police swept in and arrested the students.

As we go to press, about 580 students have been released. The PFP has ended its occupation of the campus. Over 260 students and professors are still detained. It appears that the authorities are targeting students and professors they consider leaders. People charged with terrorism are denied bail, and they can be jailed for up to 40 years if convicted. In a dangerous precedent, the authorities denied bail for a professor who is charged with a minor offense but is deemed a "threat to public order."

Hundreds of detained students began a hunger strike and released a "Manifesto to the People of Mexico." The manifesto says in part: "The charges against us are laughable and do nothing more then convince us to keep fighting against injustice and for free education...Gentlemen of the government: the struggles of our people are a consequence of the despicable political, social and economic conditions in which the country lives."

A Storm of Protests Against the Repression

The attacks on the UNAM strikers have touched off protests throughout Mexico and among broad sections of the people. The protests began two hours after "Operation UNAM"--by that night, there was a march of 15,000. The following Monday, 80 organizations--including indigenous groups, unions, the Zapatista Front for National Liberation (FZLN) and human rights groups--declared their support for the CGH. The Barzon--a movement of farmers and small businessmen who were ruined by Mexico's economic crisis--announced that it will call on its chapters nationally to demand the release of the students. The Barzon also said it will blockade the U.S.-Mexico border bridge at Ciudad Juarez. A manifesto from the organizations said: "The cause of the conflict is the policies of President Zedillo...the agreements he has made with international institutions aimed at eliminating free higher education. Civil society not only has the right but the obligation to speak out in this conflict."

Also on Monday, 800 CGH members met and announced that the six demands of the strike have now become seven--to include the demand for the release of their jailed compaņeros. They also called for the resignation of UNAM Chancellor De la Fuente and demanded the PFP stay off the campus. The CGH stated in a press release: "The government and the Chancellor are mistaken if they think that with the detention of almost 1,000 members of the CGH--political prisoners--and unleashing a witch hunt, they will defeat this movement... The people have openly embraced the demand for free public education and freedom for our unjustly jailed compaņeros... Those who clamored for the use of repression against the movement...are the same ones who strip the people of their rights. They are the ones who have robbed us with the protection of the State (FOBAPROA [the $800 million government bailout of banks--RW]). They are the ones who rip babies out of the wombs of their mothers in Acteal [in Chiapas--RW]. Those who now accuse us of terrorism, robbery, injury, sabotage, criminal association, property damage and riot, are the real criminals, the murderers of the people. They are the ones who should be in prison."

Parents and friends are camping out in front of the police station to demand the release of the arrested strikers. Many parents are veterans of the 1968 student movement. One father said of the students, "They are very brave and they have made us remember what we used to be." A mother declared, "Kids like these don't grow on trees... I am proud, not just of my son, but of all them." A widow who has four children and who does washing and ironing for a living said, "If they make us pay to attend UNAM, do you think I could send my children to school?"

On the afternoon of February 7, 11 Nahua Indians arrested in "Operation UNAM" were released from jail. Originally from Veracruz on the southern coast of Mexico, they were working on a construction site on the campus--where they also slept, since they had no housing. On the morning of February 7, the Nahua workers were kicked awake by the PFP troops and arrested. The parents keeping a vigil outside the jail took up a collection to help the Indians return home to Veracruz.

Mexico's Rulers Move Against the Strike

"Operation UNAM" is the culmination of a strategy pursued by UNAM Chancellor De la Fuente since he took office in November. The students warned that De la Fuente, handpicked by Zedillo, was following a strategy that would lead to large-scale repression. While he talked about negotiation and compromise, he worked to divide the university community against the strike. University officials never sat down with the students to actually negotiate their six demands, even though they agreed in words to do so. Instead, the Chancellor came up with an "institutional proposal" that he claimed fulfilled the students' demands. And in mid-January, he held a university-wide plebiscite on his proposal.

In conducting the plebiscite, the Chancellor had the resources of the Mexican state and the PRI, the ruling party, at his disposal--including the PRI's vast experience in vote fraud. Based on the results of this plebiscite the Chancellor, together with anti-strike student organizations, claimed to have a "popular mandate" against the CGH and for an end to the strike. They called for students, academics and researchers who are against the strike to force their way onto the campus and hold meetings against the CGH. This maneuver deliberately set up a tense situation all over the campus. When the anti-strike students came to the meetings, they found paramilitary goons, police, and school officials waiting for them--planning to use them as shock troops in violent takeovers of buildings controlled by the strikers. But overall the tactic backfired on the university authorities; the CGH invited anti-strike students to their assemblies and, in many cases, won them over to issue joint declarations for a new round of dialogue on the strike demands.

At the end of January, major Mexican papers published a statement calling for the "reestablishment of the rule of law" at UNAM. The call claimed that "due to the radicalism and absurd positions of the CGH there is no longer room for dialogue." The statement was signed by major media owners, the highest representatives of the Catholic church, several Protestant churches, the head of finances for PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, and one of the businessmen who most benefited from the $800 million government bailout of the banks.

The attack on Prepa 3 came two days after this statement. Prepa 3 was one of the schools where students who were originally anti-strike had joined with the strikers to call for dialogue. The attack at Prepa 3 was very violent and vicious--and it made clear that the government had decided to end the strike by force.

Many people at UNAM had been sucked into the Chancellor's maneuvers against the strikers. On February 7, there was a mass meeting of students, professors, parents and UNAM workers. They agreed to form an organization to demand amnesty for all who were arrested and charged. Many participants of the meeting said that they believed De la Fuente was working to continue the dialogue within the university community--but now they felt they had been lied to by the Chancellor. They plan to start a campaign to collect signatures on a document saying, "My participation in the plebiscite was in good decision to participate did not mean that I endorsed the use of public force and repression."

The UNAM student strike has been an important struggle against the Mexican rulers and their imperialist backers. This is the year of presidential elections in Mexico--and the government desperately needs to convince foreign investors that the country is "stable" and moving toward capitalist "privatization." This is the situation behind the move against the UNAM strikers.

The U.S. is the main imperialist power oppressing Mexico and its people. Those who live in the "belly of the beast" have a special responsibility, and opportunity, to expose and denounce the repression of this important movement in Mexico.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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