A Student Strike Becomes an Occupation, for 17 Years
From The New York Times
MEXICO CITY — Exams are over and classrooms have gone dark as summer comes to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the pride of the country’s public education system.
But as students and professors melt away, there remains one strange and lively corner of the university’s main campus where nothing much will change, where tomorrow will be a lot like yesterday, and next month a lot like this one.
Since 2000, the university’s Justo Sierra Auditorium has been commandeered by political protesters, making it one of the longest-running occupations of a university building in history and putting more famous college takeovers to shame.
The student occupation at Columbia University in 1968, for instance, lasted only about a week. At the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known by its Spanish initials UNAM, the occupation has stretched for nearly 17 years and shows no sign of flagging.
It remains unclear exactly who occupies the building and how many members compose the occupying force. Insular and mercurial, they refused repeated requests for interviews.
“We’re against the mass media,” explained one occupier, who declined to give his name, saying it was a policy of the occupation not to grant interviews without consent of “the general assembly.” He was standing in what was once the lobby of the auditorium, its walls now covered with insurrectionist stickers, graffiti, posters and murals.
“I don’t want to be assimilated into the mass media,” he said.
But what is absolutely clear is that the administration of UNAM, the largest university in Latin America with more than 230,000 undergraduate and graduate students, lost control of the building nearly two decades ago.
And despite the occupation’s widespread unpopularity on campus, the university authorities seem incapable of, or uninterested in, regaining possession and returning it to the general use of the UNAM community.
(The occupiers do not have a monopoly on reticence: UNAM’s communications office ignored or refused repeated requests for interviews and information about the matter.)
The occupation began after a crippling student strike that started in 1999 and stretched for more than nine months. Strikers were protesting the administration’s attempt to raise tuition for some students, threatening the institution’s longstanding promise of a nearly free, quality education.
The auditorium had for years been a focus of political and cultural life on campus, hosting presentations and conferences involving prominent writers and intellects from Latin America and elsewhere. Since the late 1960s, the building has been commonly known as the Che Guevara Auditorium.
“This has been the most politically symbolic space that the university has had in its entire history,” said Imanol Ordorika Sacristán, head of UNAM’s office of institutional evaluation.
While a student at UNAM, Mr. Ordorika was a prominent activist, helping to lead a strike in 1987 against tuition increases. He and his comrades used the auditorium for assemblies and meetings, as did successive generations of student activists.
During the strike of 1999-2000, the protest leaders made the auditorium their base of operations. But in September 2000, months after the strike had ended, some activists took up residence there, beginning the long occupation.
For many years the occupation operated as a collective of various radical groups, though its composition mutated, sometimes violently.
In 2013, for instance, self-proclaimed anarchists drove other groups out of the building, according to local news accounts. Three months later, however, a band of rivals stormed the auditorium and ejected the anarchists. Later the anarchists — armed with metal rods, fire extinguishers and sticks embedded with nails — violently retook control of the building.
The university administration issued a denunciation of the violence and ordered “the immediate surrender” of the auditorium, to no avail.
The building is hard to miss. Its exterior walls are now tattooed with murals and graffiti and draped with banners covered in hand-painted slogans demanding the liberty of imprisoned comrades and urging revolution. “Burn the jail,” one banner says.
The occupants have cultivated a garden on the roof for making herbal medicine and run a vegetarian cafeteria, open to the public, that charges less than $2 for a multicourse lunch.
A banner hanging over the main entrance puts a label, however opaque, on what is going on: “OkupaChe: Autonomous, Self-Managed Work Space.”
The occupation appears to be affiliated with a politicized, international squatters’ movement, sometimes known as Okupa, that involves the conversion of abandoned buildings into community centers managed through collective decision-making.
While there are some students still involved in the UNAM takeover, most of the occupiers apparently are not enrolled at the university, faculty and students said.
They move in and out of the building throughout the day. Some appear to work in an informal market out front; vendors sell T-shirts, used books, handmade journals and jewelry, marijuana paraphernalia and food. A sound system outside the auditorium blasts hard-core punk music.
Ambrosio Velasco Gómez, a former director of the School of Philosophy and Literature, adjacent to the auditorium, said that during his eight years running the department, he repeatedly tried to engage the occupiers in a dialogue that might have led to an end to the occupation.
He never got a handle on how many occupiers were maintaining control of the place. On some visits he might have crossed paths with six to eight occupiers, he recalled, adding: “But they have networks of people and in a few minutes there could be 200.”
The group claims to have an open-door policy, though it comes with limits: One occupier said that most everyone but the news media, political party representatives and governmental authorities were welcome.
Occupiers also tried to block a New York Times photographer from taking photos, even of the exterior, claiming that it would compromise their security.
Beyond the lobby and cafeteria, the auditorium itself is now empty; the chairs were long ago removed, leaving only terraces. During a recent visit, the entire place looked tidy and swept.
The occupiers have been accused of dealing drugs and running other criminal operations out of the building, charges they deny. But many in the broader community say the persistence of the occupation has contributed to a culture of lawlessness on the campus.
“Around the auditorium, a kind of zone of tolerance has been created,” said Gabriel Ramos García, a professor and administrator in the School of Philosophy and Literature. “Now anybody can come and do what they feel like with the excuse that they are in autonomous territory.”
Nallely Pérez, 23, who is completing her undergraduate studies in the School of Philosophy and Literature, said the occupiers had sullied the reputation of her department. “They give the students of the school a bad image,” she said. “They occupy the space.”
Over the years, faculty members and students have organized petitions, meetings and protests to pressure an end to the takeover.
UNAM’s administration seems to have frozen somewhere between its stated desire to regain possession of the auditorium and its hesitance to call in the police.
The idea of government security personnel on public university campuses is anathema throughout Latin America. UNAM faculty members and students said an attempt to retake the auditorium by force would most likely provoke wider resistance and social upheaval, leaving negotiation the only widely accepted path to a resolution.
The durability of the occupation, and the lack of visible effort by the administration to resolve it, has dismayed many in the UNAM community.
Dr. Ordorika urged the university’s leadership to take action on the issue. “Do politics, people of the rector’s office!” he said. “Solve it! Get them out!”
He added: “It’s my auditorium!”
One undergraduate student, a close ally of the occupation, praised the occupiers for creating what he said was a horizontal organization — no hierarchy, no leaders, no political parties.
He suggested there was little chance that the occupiers might be willing to broker some sort of accord with UNAM to end the occupation. Should an outside force begin an assault on the building, he warned, the occupiers had a defense plan ready. And he would be alongside them, he vowed — fighting, if necessary, to the death.