On September 3, students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) organized a peaceful rally outside the Dean’s office in Ciudad Universitaria, the location of UNAM’s main campus in Mexico City. Soon after rallying, the students were attacked by criminal gangs known as porros with knives, steel poles, stones, molotov cocktails, fists and firecrackers. The attack left 13 injured, one with an ear cut-off. Two students were gravely injured: Joel Meza Garcia, 21 years old, who was treated for right kidney injury, broken nose, head trauma and bruising in various parts of his body; and Emilio Aguilar Sanchez, wounded with a sharp object in his left gluteus and a damaged hypogastric artery.
The porros are students who are members of organizations known as porriles, whose origins go back to the 1940s and 50s. They were organized and nurtured by the UNAM administration and the Mexican state itself as a counterweight to leftist organizing at the universities. The porriles are the result of a fusion of students from Catholic and traditional conservative backgrounds with the repressive Mexican state.
UNAM’s Dean revealed to the public that the porros who attacked students on Monday, September 3 were from the UNAM campuses CCH Azcapotzalco, CCH Vallejo, and CCH Naucalpan; or from UNAM’s affiliated high schools. The porros are a protected group of students, who carry out political acts of violence with the objective, as scholar and former student movement leader Imanol Ordorika put it, of “control, intimidation, disorganization, and subordination of a naturally rebellious and critical sector: the student-body of higher education”.
Why did students protest on Sept. 3?
The events which lead up to the attack on Sept. 3 is rooted in a struggle waged by students at one of the UNAM’s campuses, CCH Azcapotzalco. The students there initiated a strike on August 27 to protest a lack of teachers; incorrect inscriptions fees; removal of murals created by students; “shady” management of school budget; abuse by some professors and administrators, especially campus director Maria Guadalupe Patricia Marquez Cardenas; and the presence of porros on their campus. The students were set to meet with the director, discuss their demands and come to some agreement.
The director did not show up to the meeting, so in response the student activists took over the administration building. They were harrassed by the porros, who took over a different building to tear apart to get items to throw at the protesters. The following day, as the strike continued, the students were harassed by porros of CCH Azcapotzalco with rocks and firecrackers. After three days, director Márquez Cárdenas resigned to, as the official communication from UNAM claimed, “contribute to the normalization of academic activities at the campus.”
Students at the CCH Oriente branch of UNAM were also engaged in intense struggle. Their main demand was justice for the murdered 18-year-old, Miranda Mendoza Flores, who was kidnapped walking home from school on August 20. The kidnappers called her family demanding a 5 million peso ransom (approximately $265,000). It would be the only communication the family received.
A body believed to be a woman’s was found the day after, charred, on the federal road Mexico-Cuautla. A week later, the authorities confirmed it was in fact Miranda’s body which was found.
The students of CCH Oriente, and the other campuses saw the murder of Miranda, as one more feminicidio, a homicide targeting a woman. It was estimated that in Mexico, seven women were killed every day in 2016. Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicides in the world, with 12 women killed every day.
Finally, the neoliberal reforms applied to higher education, specifically targeting UNAM and its affiliates, motivated the September 3 action that was so brutally repressed. For quite some time UNAM’s commitment to free public education has made it a target for right-wing political forces that want to institute tuition. In 1999, the UNAM administration approved a plan to charge students tuition and fees, but the students militantly rose up and shut down the university for almost an entire year, defeating the measure.
In August, the Coparmex, a right-wing business association, once again proposed to charge students tuition. This proposal argued that tuition and fees were needed to solve the financial situation of the public higher education system, especially teacher retirement, renovations and improvements to facilities. One must only look at the levels of inequality to surmise where these funds can easily be found instead. Carlos Slim, the second richest person in the world, and three other Mexican billionaires account for 9 percent of Mexico’s Gross Domestic Product, equivalent to the income of 20 million poor Mexicans on the other end of the income inequality spectrum.
Students strike against repression, hold first inter-university assembly
As the images went viral of the attacks on the afternoon of Sept. 3, the students and departments of UNAM took immediate action and within hours the students of Philosophy and Letters along with Political and Social Sciences convened assemblies, where they decided to begin a strike, occupying their schools and shutting down classes. They initially decided on a 48-hour strike as a measure to demand justice and an investigation on the attacks of that September 3 afternoon. Soon thereafter, the strike was extended to 72 hours. Solidarity strikes quickly sprung up at other UNAM schools until over 41 departments and schools were involved.
On September 5, tens of thousands of students, faculty and supporters of the students occupied the area surrounding the dean’s office in one of the largest actions since the student uprising of 1968, which led to the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre. This upcoming Oct. 2 will be the 50th anniversary of this mass murder where students were killed in the hundreds by the country’s military and police.
The demonstration of September 5, dubbed Marcha a la Rectoria, denounced the violence committed by the porros on September 3, but extended the demands beyond justice for those attacked to: expulsion of all porros from UNAM and UNAM-affiliated schools; resignation of the Dean; recognizing the parallels between the attack and the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014; and an end to femicides, like in the recent case of Miranda Mendoza Flores. The demonstration chants rang true to all students of Latin America: “Porros get our of UNAM!”, “Why do they kill us, if we are the future of Latin America!,” “Not one more, not one more, not one more woman murdered!”
Following this mass mobilization, students convened an Inter-University Assembly. Representatives from over 30 UNAM campuses, students, faculty members, leaders from the 1968 student movement, activists against the privatization of water and others gathered for over 17 hours of debate and presentations. The assembly decided on seven points: fulfillment of demands by the Azcapotzalco student protesters and an investigation into and redress for the attacks of September 3; democratization of public universities; improvement in the conditions of campus life at all campuses; an end to gender violence and violence against women; guarantees of student security including an end to violence from porriles; free public education; and transparency with university budgets.
The assembly agreed to convene a march on September 13, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Silent March” of September 1968. The march was led by students from CCH Azcapotzalco and was supported by contingents made up of family and friends of 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students, survivors of the repression of 1968, family members of students assassinated at UNAM and students from campuses across Mexico City. As the student movement did in the past in 1968, the march began at the Anthropological Museum and ended at the Zocalo, the main public square in the city. The action drew over 35,000 people despite the rain.
The assembly had additionally called for a second convening of the inter-university gathering on September 14 to continue the debate and discussion on how to move forwards with the seven demands.
The student movement in Mexico has reignited, advancing a broad program that not only demands protection from the porros but puts forward a vision of comprehensive public education available to all. The inter-university assembly’s first official statement proclaimed:
“The violence that the neoliberal administrations have unleashed has overwhelmed the youth with murders, forced disappearances, rapes, femicides and narcotrafficking … The government and its institutions of control have made people believe that this condition is normal, that we should learn to live with it. We say NO. The organized students of this inter-university assembly speak out against the state of extermination to which we have been submitted, demanding optimal conditions for the full development of youth, as well as the guarantee of a high-level academic education and a dignified future. Our struggle is driven by the modifications and attacks that public education has suffered through the educational reform, to adapt it to the needs of the market and respond to business interests. At 50 years since the movement of 68 and 4 years since the forced disappearance of the 43 teaching students of Ayotzinapa, we call for the participation of the students, young people, teachers, workers and the different popular fronts to join this genuine and legitimate movement for the defense of a free, autonomous and emancipatory public education. Likewise we extend our solidarity to the educational struggle that develops in Latin America.”