We Don’t Forget, We Don’t Forgive

Fifty years since the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, Mexican students again face repression and violence. Today they draw inspiration from that past, in the name of building another future.

University students march in support of the forty-three missing students from Guerrero State, November 5, 2014 in Mexico City, Mexico. Brett Gundlock / Getty

On September 3 of this year, the peaceful demonstration called by students at two schools of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was attacked by a group of “porros.” In Mexico, “porros” are shock-groups of (often fake) students who try to break student strikes in high schools or universities or themselves strike against leftist school leaders. These groups have been historically used in Mexico by the state, school governing bodies, and political parties to combat dissent. Today they operate as mercenaries for a policy of fear imposed on the education system. The attack injured at least fourteen people.

Since August, the students of the CCH Azcapotzalco have been protesting to demand full contracts for teachers, to oppose the “cleaning” of the murals used by the students to express homage or social critique, and to insist there should be no retaliation against students participating in the movement, among other things. CCH Oriente students struck in solidarity with their colleagues from CCH Azcapotzalco and to demand justice for Miranda Mendoza, a student murdered, aged just eighteen.

On the day after the attack, more than thirty campuses (high schools, faculties, postgraduate schools) of UNAM declared a 48- to 72-hour strike. Major assemblies took place the following days to discuss strategy and shared demands. Between the assemblies, lasting up to ten hours, students organized a communications network and debated such questions as democratizing the education system and combating gender violence and sexual harassment. Labor unions and other educational institutions expressed their solidarity with the strike and repudiation of the violence committed against students.

From these first assemblies came a mass demonstration inside the main campus of UNAM (University City) that rallied more than thirty thousand students. Days later, on September 7 came the first assembly bringing together forces from the different universities, and three weeks later a common platform was agreed.

Composed of ten points, the movement’s demands focus on the dismantling of the “porriles” groups; on combating insecurity in schools, with emphasis on gender violence; for democratic election of school authorities and the elimination of the authoritarian governance structure of schools and faculties. Furthermore, it demands an increase in the education budget and greater dignity being accorded to both teaching and other faculty staff’s work, together with the immediate abrogation of the education reform implemented by the outgoing president Peña Nieto.

Just a few days later, this emerging students’ movement joined the demonstration for the fiftieth anniversary of the October 2, 1968 killings. That day, one of the country’s biggest-ever student protests had ended in a massacre at Mexico City’s Three Cultures square. This fresh “porrile” attack against a peaceful student demonstration in September brought up a painful historical past. But not only the attack itself made the movement think about 1968. Just like fifty years ago, Mexican students struggle today for a free and quality public education, a school environment that prioritizes security, and in opposition to authoritarian management.

Fifty Years Hence

1968 was a very important year for Mexico. The Olympic Games were taking place in the country. The government’s enthusiasm for the Games had more to do with politics rather than sports. The holding of the nineteenth Olympiad sought to provide a display of political and social stability — a Mexican economic miracle. Yet this image of harmony was disrupted by the social tumult under an authoritarian state.

Political and cultural changes taking place abroad (from the Cuban Revolution to May ‘68) had also contributed to the emergence of a new type of youth culture in Mexico — a youth that rebelled against state authoritarianism and fought for secularism and against the normativity of the family. But the movement that came together in 1968 was also part of a long struggle that had been initiated in the mid-1950s by workers, peasants, and students. Woman played a central role therein, though this is still not widely recognized.

Just like this year, what is known as the student movement of ‘68 started with a conflict that seemed confined to students alone. On July 22, 1968, students from two preparatory schools, one belonging to UNAM and the others to IPN (National Polytechnic Institute), got into a fight in the streets of Mexico City. The reasons for the fight remain unclear. A clash among youths? Or was the conflict provoked deliberately, aiming to make students as a whole a legitimate target for government repression?

The following days saw several confrontations between students and riot police. These events triggered a series of students’ mobilizations, resulting on August 2, 1968 in the formation of a National Strike Council (NSC). Its first demands concerned police violence and the organized crime within schools. These demands were later expanded in order to connect the student struggle with other sectors of Mexican society facing heavy repression, and especially labor. However, the students’ platform did not well integrate labor’s own demands. The labor movement had lost important battles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its struggle over wages was repressed by state forces, who took hundreds of political prisoners. The students’ demands importantly questioned state authority and demanded freedom for all political prisoners but did not go beyond formal democratic concerns.

The students involved in the ’68 movement faced a harsh situation. Struggling against state disinformation and harassment, students started to organize in street brigades. These latter initiated spontaneous assemblies with thousands of people, painted slogans on walls, and provided a continuous stream of information, in a campaign against state attempts to create confusion inside the movement. The government answered the students’ initiatives with a military invasion of university campuses around the country. On September 18, the president ordered the army to enter UNAM. Thousands of soldiers with tanks took control of the university during the NSC meeting. The military occupation lasted until October 1.

On October 2, just one day after the army withdrawal from UNAM, students gathered on the Three Cultures square, in the capital’s Tlatelolco neighborhood. It was then that an undercover state group, called the Olympia Battalion, began shooting at the crowd. The army intervened, and then came a massacre.

Still today the number of people murdered by the state that day is unknown and there are many theories on why it orchestrated such a violent response. But despite the blood and the victims, the movement did not end immediately. The fight went on. But until the end of the strike in November (the strike council was dissolved in December) students continued to be harassed, arrested, kidnapped, and killed by police and military forces.

Why Now?

Despite all the attempts to undermine the students’ radicalism, which symbolized national hope and change for so many, Mexican governments have continued to face major opposition among students. This has been particularly true since the 1960s, with the strikes of 1986–7 and 1999–2000 also representing two particularly major struggles.

Students are not a social class, but class consciousness can be built in the face of the state’s authoritarian actions. After an escalation of violence against labor movements during the fifties and sixties (among rail workers, teachers, doctors, and telegraph workers) the Mexican government did make some concessions, with an increase in public spending on social policy and education. This finally allowed the children of workers and peasants access to high schools and universities. Many of these students came from families who had migrated to the cities to look for work during the industrialization of the Mexican economy.

In the high schools and universities, these students found a progressive environment which provided them with an education that made them critical of state authority and also aware of the political and cultural changes taking place elsewhere in the world. The universities of Mexico are still today characterized by heterogeneous political thinking.

This makes universities the perfect social barometer. Although this may seem a rather reductive reading of Mexico’s social and political reality, universities do tend to mimic the relations of power and the capital-labor conflicts. Historically, many political changes in Mexico started with the student movement.

So, the question is: why did the attack against students come now?

Some believe that this attack relates to the broader context of the change of government. On July 1 of this year, Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, considered a left-wing politician and firm critic of the elite that governs Mexico, won the presidential elections. Among his pre-electoral promises, Obrador committed to reverse the Education Reform implemented by the former government under Peña Nieto. This may put an end to the punitive process of teacher evaluation that the new reform introduced. The reform opened the door for the government to dismiss teachers only on the basis of their performance in an exam (a highly bureaucratic process that moreover fails to take into attention the social and cultural differences of Mexico). But it also represents the withdrawal of public investment, a path toward the privatization of the education system at all levels.

At first glance, some analysts said that the efforts to stir destabilization were driven by private interests seeking to take over the education sector. Teachers’ protests against the education reform have progressively won support among students, and there thus emerges the possibility of a strong movement uniting workers and students, able to force the new government to revoke the neoliberal reform. But, if the attack on the September 3 demonstration was driven by private interests seeking to beat back the movement, it was a mistake. For the students were not silenced; they instead responded with fresh mobilization. Furthermore, the new government was elected on a political platform that opens up space for social movements to influence future policies. In this light, the hypothesis that the attacks served private interests seems rather rash.

A second possibility is internal to the university, which itself represents the social and political relations of Mexico at a micro scale. This means that not only the government is undergoing a transition, but so, too, is education. Given that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was dominant for more than half of a century, Mexico’s institutions have historically been controlled by the party. The emergence of other political parties, and their victories over PRI, extend their political action into all Mexican state institutions. The universities were no exception, and the battle for control therein remains open.

The specific actors behind the attacks thus remain in the shadows. Yet it is also important to recognize that the mobilization that they have provoked represents an opportunity for the students, and not only in terms of resisting privatization.

“Your Fist Will Not Break My Spirit”

One of the reasons why students from CCH Oriente joined the demonstrations on September 3 was a demand for an investigation into the murder of their colleague Miranda Mendoza, who was eighteen years old. Miranda was kidnapped in front of the school on August 20 and a few days later her body was found burned.

Impunity for the killing of women has long been the norm in Mexico. The scenes the world associates with Ciudad Juárez — considered one of the most violent cities on Earth, with women especially hard-hit — have long been spreading across the entire Mexican territory. This plague reflects an institutionalized impunity for crimes against women. How can we explain that every hour in Mexico a student is raped? That just last year thousands of students were raped in their schools? Or that every day in Mexico seven women are murdered?

Rape, murder, kidnapping, and disappearance are all daily realities for Mexican students. When they go out into the streets to demand their rights to free education and protection of their safety, they have to write their personal information on their arms or legs, in case they disappear and only their body is found. This also reflects how today the Mexican state shares its monopoly of violence with narco forms of organized crime (kidnapping, murder, trafficking in women and children, slavery). The relationship between them seems profitable for both sides; the government can be labelled a narcocracy. Together, they continue with the “Mexican Dirty War” of the 1960s and 1970s. The state-led military repression aims to dissolve — by means of torture, arbitrary detention, kidnap, execution, and massacre s— both armed opposition and political resistance, such as that from the students.

Facing a hostile society, the feminist and women’s movements have in recent years been the organizations most active within schools. They have kept spaces of democratic decision-making and participation, open and safe. Other struggles are also important for the movement, such as the struggle in defense of precarious teachers and against the education reform. But we also need to recognize the central importance of the women’s movements to this new student strike.

In recent years the feminist and women’s movements have been organizing inside schools against the killing of women and against sexual harassment, launching important debates on notions of safety and protection that try to escape heteropatriarchal influences. It has been this movement that has demanded, for more than a year, justice for Lesvy Berlín Rivera Osorio. While her murder was first reported by the police as a suicide, thanks to women who demanded that the investigation process follow a gender perspective, it was later acknowledged as murder. This movement has also demanded that Mariela Vanessa Díaz Valverde, an UNAM student that disappeared on April 27 on her way to university, be returned alive.

Faced with the concrete reality of violence against women, and amidst an increased wider consciousness of violence and harassment, the university provided a space in which women could respond and organize. This student movement, which also embraces school teachers and university staff, has in recent years opened up safe spaces for reporting different forms of violence against women. “We believe in you” (Yo Te Creo Compañera) is one such example. This movement aims to report cases of sexual and work harassment against women within the university. It has also attacked university authorities’ obstruction of investigative processes, and their wider complacency and silence. Such is the example of Pedro Burrola Ávila, former secretary of student affairs at the UNAM Faculty of Economics, who faces four complaints of having sexually assaulted students. As in 1968, it is again women who must face not just violence and authoritarianism but also an institutionalized machismo.

Unfortunately, the role of women during the student strike in 1968 has not been properly recognized. Back then women’s presence in universities was relatively low. The most optimistic statistics suggest that 16 percent of students at UNAM at the time were women; at IPN, 1 percent. Women’s involvement in the strike has mostly focused on the care tasks they performed during that period. It’s important, therefore, to mention that women were also active in the street brigades, faced the police just like the men, were also arrested, and were at the heart of decision-making. Two delegates of the National Strike Council were women, Roberta Avendaño Martínez (Tita) and Ignancia Rodríguez (La Nacha). Furthermore, the women’s movement that emerged during this period was not confined to students. The mothers of the students that disappeared, or were arrested or murdered, led demands for justice and amnesty for the political prisoners.

The presence of women during the Mexican student struggle of ‘68 also allowed the rise of feminist movements. These women not only protested state authoritarianism and police violence but confronted the gender role expected of women in both the family and society as a whole. Today, women face the same structure of oppression, in a context of even greater violence. This new student movement is, figuratively, constituted by the granddaughters of the women of ‘68. But unlike fifty years ago, today’s demands have an embedded gender perspective.

The Future Is Open

This year’s student uprising in Mexico is a response to state criminality, corruption, authoritarianism, gender violence, and neoliberal attempts to privatize education. Once again, Mexico’s students are making clear that the country’s democracy is hostage to interests that do not serve the common good of the people.

Entering office on December 1, López Obrador will himself have to answer to the demands of these students. They carry the memory of ’68, lit by the flames of an unbroken spirit. As the students themselves emphasize, “We are the grandchildren of ‘68, the children of ‘99, the brothers and sisters of Ayotzinapa; the fight is not beginning, it has never ended.”

Students need a strategy that allows them to go beyond bureaucratic procedures and control the negotiations table. A union between students, workers, and peasants today pushes back against decades of destruction of the public education system and institutionalized violence. And although we should not consider López Obrador’s incoming administration as a socialist government, we can at least expect that any protest or mass movement will not be answered with violence.

The president-elect has already expressed his solidarity with the students’ strike and promised to end all “porriles” groups in schools and universities. His administration has also recently announced that a demand coming from the movement of 1968 will finally be fulfilled, with the creation of scholarships for all high school students. According to López Obrador, each student will receive an annual scholarship of approximately 531 US dollars.

The success of this movement will depend, therefore, on the control the movement has of negotiations with the new government. To this end, the student movement continues to promote a close relationship with the workers’, women’s, and peasants’ movement, as they join together questions of labor, gender, and democratic rights.

Those that believe that repression can prevent a student uprising have not learned from history. State violence against students has always resulted in new forms of organization and resistance. In fact, efforts to disrupt the relations between students and the state seem only to feed the students’ movement.

The opportunity for a real change in Mexico does not rely on the new government itself, but on the social movements’ capacity to pressure it to fulfill its promises and open spaces of dialogue with communities, workers and students. The future is open.