Mexico: The Storm in Education

Revolutionary Worker #1051 April 23, 2000

"We may give our lives, but this school will open."

Woman resident of Tepatepec
who fought the police in defense of
the rural teaching college El Mexe

All over Mexico there is a storm of struggle to defend free, public education. Acting in obedience to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Mexican government is carrying out a "neo-liberal" program that would subordinate the educational system to the dictates of the capitalist free market and cut off education to the poor. In the past two months, the government has moved in with heavy police operations and mass arrests against student struggles. The government has rejected all attempts to dialogue and has unleashed a witch-hunt against anyone opposed to their plans.

Recently the president of the main organization of industrial executives (Concamin) spoke to the delicate situation the government faces just four months before the important presidential elections. Referring to the student struggle at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Concamin president called the university conflict an "enormous red flag" that could endanger the presidential elections. He said that the government must "do the impossible" to achieve a presidential transition that is "tranquil and orderly so that the economy does not come to a halt."

But the attacks on education are running directly up against the will of the people and are drawing wide sections of the population into struggle against the government. As the General Strike Council (CGH) at UNAM put it, "The government brings down repression to terrorize; but at the same time, this generates a profound indignation that overcomes fear--and this is something the government doesn't want."

El Mexe: A Taste of People's Justice

On February 6, 2,600 troops from the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) invaded the UNAM campus and arrested hundreds of members of the CGH--which had led the UNAM strike since its start last year. Just two weeks later, the state government in Hidalgo sent the riot police into the rural teaching college "El Mexe" to close the school. But in a wonderful exhibition of people's power, the people turned the tables on the police. The cops ended up stripped down to their underwear and tied up in the town's main plaza, surrounded by the furious pueblo. The inspiring images of the humiliated police were transmitted all over Mexico on the front pages of major newspapers--and also appeared on the front page of the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion in Los Angeles.

El Mexe is a teacher's college located near the town of Tepatepec, in the countryside of the state of Hidalgo. The students have been fighting for control of their college--a battle that intensified in the month of January. The government has gone to great lengths to try to break this struggle and close the school.

On January 26, the government declared that the school was closed and that the remaining students were illegally "occupying" the school. Electricity, water and phone lines were cut off. About one-third of the student body was jailed after arrests during protests. In order to be released from prison, or to guarantee the release of their classmates, the students were forced to sign documents stating they would not participate in further protests and agreeing to transfer to the National Pedagogic University in Pachuca, the state capital.

Students arrived from rural teaching colleges all over the country and set up a tent city in Pachuca in support of El Mexe. Many of these students have been involved in battles to prevent the closure of their own schools. On February 19 at 3:00 a.m., 400 state riot police in 81 patrol cars attacked the tent city. They smashed the glass doors of the city hall and arrested 736 students. Seven hundred were deported back to their states of origin. Four students from the state of Zacatecas have been reported missing since that day.

At 6 a.m. on the same day, 300 police--fresh from attacking the students in Pachuca--rampaged through the town of Tepatepec. They beat women, children and elderly people and destroyed homes. Then the police violently invaded the El Mexe school campus and arrested 176 students. The police raped women students. They loaded the students onto trucks to take them to jail in Pachuca. One hundred and fifty police were ordered to stay to guard the campus.

By 8 a.m. the whole town knew what had happened--and people began to organize resistance. They blockaded the entrances of the school and roads into town with rocks and burning tree trunks, forcing the police to retreat back into the campus. Some cops were able to escape in their vehicles. Others jumped the school fence and threw themselves into a canal of raw sewage that runs by the school and serves as an irrigation ditch for the surrounding fields. The people burned seven police vehicles and destroyed eleven more. The people of the town captured 68 police, stripped them to their underwear, took their boots, tied them together in a line and marched them five kilometers into town.

The captured cops were put on display in the main plaza. Church bells were rung to call the town into the plaza. One police agent in his underwear had a sign hung around his neck that said, "I'm a fink for the governor." The people yelled, "Free the arrested students or we will burn these fucking police!"

Upon searching the school and the police vehicles, the people discovered an arsenal of weapons that the supposedly unarmed police had with them. The people figured out that the cops were probably planning to plant these weapons on the El Mexe campus as a pretext to closing the school for good. The arsenal included a grenade launcher, assault rifles and other guns. The arsenal was brought to the plaza and displayed to the angry people. A report in La Jornada, a Mexican daily newspaper, said, "Shivering from the cold, half-naked, stripped of their weapons, clubs and arrogance, the police faced an on-the-spot people's trial. The plaza was packed with people as it had been all day long. The people's fury, caused by the violent invasion of the riot police to take the school, impeded concrete attempts to negotiate."

The mayor of Tepatepec (who belongs to the PRD, one of the main bourgeois opposition parties) worked feverishly throughout the day to arrange negotiations with the state government to save the lives of the police. Around 7 p.m.--as bonfires made of police uniforms, bullet-proof vests, and police boots still burned in the town's central plaza--the mayor arrived with a proposal to exchange the captured cops for the students arrested in the police operation. But it was not until 10 p.m. that the people agreed to release them. The police were packed onto a bus in their underwear. The police have been forbidden by their superiors to ever mention the incident again. But one freaked-out cop was heard to say, "We always win, but this time we lost...We thought they were going to kill us."

The Radical Tradition of the Rural Teacher Colleges

At the entrance to the drive up to El Mexe is a sign that says: "Welcome comrades. Unhappy are those people whose youth do not shake the world and whose students are submissive in the face of tyranny." On the walls of the school buildings are huge murals of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and on another building a mural of Che Guevara. One student from El Mexe explained: "In the face of injustice we are rebels. The objective of the 16 rural teaching colleges is to train future teachers whose starting point is the fight against educational backwardness and ignorance, as well as for social change so that there will be economic equality. [The government] has tried different strategies to denigrate us and make us look bad in the eyes of the people. They have called us pseudo-students, guerrilla vandals, murderers. And we say: If in order to defend our school and public education we have to be those things, then that's what we'll be."

There is a long history of mutual support between the school and the surrounding communities. The students and graduates of the school have participated in the peasant land struggles and helped the communities get roads and other necessary services. One El Mexe graduate said, "The solid core against the police were the ejidatarios [farmers on ejidos, or state-owned communal land] of San Juan Tepa, who we've helped to get their lands back..."

The 16 rural teaching colleges are known as the source of higher education for "the Mexico of extreme poverty"--in the countryside and in the indigenous communities. These colleges were started in the 1920s as one of the reforms won in the 1910 revolution. Their students, mostly from poor peasant families, have a commitment to stay in the area and educate the people. The government is trying to close these schools down, claiming that there is no longer work for so many teachers in isolated, rural communities. As a father of one student put it, "How is it possible that there is no work, with so many people who need education? Or is that now they don't want campesinos to be educated?"

The government sees the rural teaching colleges as breeding grounds for subversion. Many of the students and professors of these schools have a history of being in the front lines of people's struggles. For example, Lucio Cabaqas, a guerrilla leader in the 1970s, was a graduate of El Mexe. As rural impoverishment reaches intolerable proportions and guerrilla groups spread throughout the countryside, the government feels an urgent necessity to act to try to shut down these schools. A professor at El Mexe and a father of an imprisoned student pointed out: "They are acting with vindictive cruelty against the youth. There is no equal justice, because there are politicians that have serious accusations against them and justice is not applied to them. But the students are pursued like criminals."

The Struggle Spreads

Students and professors from rural teaching colleges, together with parents, have been confronting the police all over the country to save their schools and to demand employment for graduates. Their actions have received very little coverage in the press--until the uprising at El Mexe. The rural schools are joined together in an organization called Federation of Mexican Socialist Peasant Students (FECSM), and the students travel to support each other in their struggles.

At a women's college in Morelos, the students have blocked roads and commandeered buses. In Puebla, women students took over the offices of the Public Education Secretary and were attacked by riot police. In Campeche students took over 15 vehicles and blocked the Campeche-Mirida freeway. The students in Nayarit are on strike. In Morelia, Michoacan students fought with the police and set fire to the front door of the city hall. In Jalisco students occupied the state congress for four hours. In Zacatecas--at the same time as the struggle in El Mexe--students occupied the state government building to demand dialogue with the PRD governor. The students say, "We defend the rural teaching colleges because it is the only school for the poor."

After the uprising at El Mexe, the directors of rural teaching colleges in surrounding states were put on alert by the government to be more vigilant--to prevent the spread of the example of El Mexe. The governor of Hidalgo said, "Fortunately, the actual situation of the seditious students of El Mexe has not contaminated any other institution of middle or higher education, and the social peace in the state exists, has existed and will continue existing." The authorities set up blockades on the roads to prevent other students from coming to the area to join in solidarity with the El Mexe struggle.

However, there was a 24-hour strike in ten rural and urban teaching colleges in Oaxaca to support the El Mexe struggle. The strike demanded the liberation of the remaining imprisoned UNAM students in Hidalgo. There were also strikes at some schools affiliated with the National Pedagogic University.

The governor of Hidalgo had declared, "In Hidalgo we don't negotiate the law." But the people's rebellion at El Mexe forced the Hidalgo authorities to negotiate with the students, agree to reopen the school, and begin classes again. The students who were forcibly transferred to the National Pedagogic University have been reinstated in El Mexe. The students and their parents were given a bigger say in the functioning of the school. However, five student leaders are still imprisoned.

The Continuing Struggle at UNAM

It has been more than two months since the federal police marched into the UNAM in Mexico City, arrested almost 1000 students and issued arrest warrants for almost 450 more. The police invasion was aimed at putting an end to the 10-month-long strike by the UNAM students to demand protection of the right to free, public education.

As of this writing, 28 UNAM students are still behind bars. Several students have been singled out as leaders and denied bail based on the political charge of "danger to society" by order of the Attorney General. Other students who are eligible for bail have pledged to remain in jail until all students are freed.

Recently 400 prominent artists and intellectuals in the U.S. and Europe signed a statement calling for the release of the imprisoned students. Among the signatories are Oliver Stone, Noam Chomsky, Ozomatli, Jose Saramago (winner of Nobel Prize for Literature), and members of the Spanish parliament.

UNAM Chancellor De la Fuente recently announced that he wanted to "dialogue" with the CGH in preparation for holding a "democratic" congress in the fall to reform the university. On the same day as this announcement, 12 armed thugs carried out a death-squad type action against Guadalupe Carrasco--a professor who has been active in student struggles since the 1980s. Carrasco was kidnapped shortly after speaking out at a forum in support of the CGH. After her husband reported the kidnapping, Carrasco turned up in jail--charged with "riot" and several other counts. The thugs turned out to be plainclothes police. A CGH press release stated, "Kidnapping--this is the dialogue of the authorities.... Every time they offer dialogue, there come attacks against the CGH--that is what they call normality."

The CGH also issued an alert to the university community--that "the chancellor plans to use the supposed dialogue in the same way the plebiscite [held before the military police entered the campus] was used to legitimize repression by the Federal Preventive Police and the continuing harassment, kidnapping and arrest warrants."

The government, the television, and the university authorities have been working hard to claim that there has been a return to "normality" at UNAM--and that only a small and isolated band of students continues to protest. This picture has been seriously challenged by, among other things, the actions of the parents of the jailed students. Right outside the chancellor's building, the parents have tied themselves on to huge wooden crosses in mock "crucifixions." They have maintained a tent city in front of the building since the military police invaded the campus. And every day, they paint the word "Freedom" on the building in their own blood. The university threatened that the arrested students would be kept in jail until the parents removed the tent city. But they stayed put.

On the one month anniversary of the mass arrests, students reoccupied the chancellory building for two days. On March 13, the general secretary of UNAM announced that the university was looking into setting up a permanent outpost of the military police on campus. As the CGH said, "What kind of normality is it that requires a military guard?"

The CGH has fought hard to continue the struggle in the face of severe repression. None of the demands that gave rise to the strike have been met. And they have added a seventh demand to their original six demands: the release of the imprisoned students.

All across the campus of 270,000 students, the CGH has reconstituted the student assemblies in each school and department. These assemblies come to decisions and raise them to the general assembly. The students no longer control the university buildings, and classes are going on. But many areas of the campus have been transformed into centers of debate over the issues of the strike. There are daily actions such as marches, seizure of buildings, closure of director's offices, etc. At least one school is still on strike until the imprisoned students are freed. Some directors of university departments had helped to bring criminal charges against students by letting the police read student files. These directors are now helping the police draw up new arrest warrants against those fighting to keep the struggle going.

Imprisoned students have held marches in the prison. The CGH reported: "The common prisoners supported them from their cells, throwing confetti made out of newspapers and yelling, `You are not alone'...The march was an example that jail does not break them--on the contrary, the struggle continues."

In the midst of the attacks, over 30 organizations founded the National Council of Struggle--including students from UNAM, teachers, El Mexe and other rural schools, El Barzon (the national movement of debtors), housing activists, the electricians' union (which is fighting against privatization of their industry), and others. A National Day of Protest on March 18 saw actions at 32 schools and departments at UNAM.

The CGH has vowed that they will not allow "normality" to return to UNAM until their compaņeros are freed and the demand to guaranteed free, public education is met.

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