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Update on the UNAM Strike

After nine months of unsuccessful negotiation attempts, the student movement at México's National Autonomous University (UNAM) suffered a severe blow in early February. During a January 20 plebiscite held by University officials, less than half of the University community participated. Yet of those who did vote, 87 percent called for an end to the strike. The results were used to legitimize a series of repressive actions directed towards terminating the movement. On February 1, the UNAM-administered Justo Sierra National Preparatory School 3 ("Prepa 3") was taken by some 250 strike-breakers. Student activists arrived to the scene and clashed with city riot police, resulting in 37 people seriously wounded and taken to the Red Cross. Although things had calmed down by the afternoon, UNAM Rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente reportedly called for the intervention of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP). 248 strikers were arrested on the spot, charged with a variety of offenses, including the serious felony of terrorism.

Then, on the early morning of February 6, over 2000 agents of the PFP marched into the University's main Mexico City campus and arrested 745 students who were meeting in the Che Guevara auditorium. The students - including several Strike General Council (CGH) leaders - opposed no resistance, and were driven off to several prisons around the city.

After the operation, an inspection of the campus installations revealed that allegations about the student's weapons hoarding and vandalism were entirely unfounded. Nevertheless, students were charged with "destruction," "plundering" and, again, "terrorism," the latter charge dropped after public outcry. On February 9, tens of thousands of Mexico City residents marched down Reforma Avenue demanding the unconditional release of arrested students.

Classes at the UNAM reopened on February 14, to the dismay and anger of many who believed the Rector was failing to address serious unresolved issues such as the CGH demands and the prisoners's plight. On March 6, strike supporters seized part of the administrative building (rectoría) at the UNAM's main campus, demanding the administration drop charges against the 181 students still in prison. They decided to end the action two days later. Nevertheless, frustrated strike-supporters continued engaging in other attempts at closing down University schools. Violent scuffles with reporters and CGH critics often ensued. On March 28, Rector de la Fuente called for a "respectful, inclusive and tolerant" dialogue that include all members of the University. The broad offer was rejected by the CGH, which claims it is the sole representative of the students for strike negotiations. They also questioned the Rector's honesty in light of the previous day's arrest of Guadalupe Carrasco ("La Pita"), a professor advisor to the CGH, accused of mutiny and theft. The CGH undertook actions to boicott the Rector's "conversation tables" installed around the University campus. On April 6, it blocked the entrance to the administrative bulilding, thus impeding the University Council officials form holding their work meeting.

It is in this context that the following interview with Tania Hernández was made, published in La Jornada de Morelos on March 13, 2000. Tania is one of the 745 students arrested on February sixth.

Women Political Prisoners from the UNAM

A conversation with Tania Hernández,
by Odina e Hijas del Mais

Major state crimes continue to go unpunished in México. The most corrupt individuals are protected by the system. But the students, young people who dare to defy the trends of neoliberalism and demand a free education, are put in jail.

62 women from the UNAM's student movement are currently (March 12, 2000) jailed in Mexico City's Northern Women's Prison. They have been behind bars for more than a month.

Tania Hernández, a 22-year-old psychology student, remarks, "Prison has strengthened us. I feel that our political awareness has grown, but it's pretty fucked that you have to go to jail in order to fight for your education. Feelings of anger and rage have also increased with this experience. In that sense, there are none among us who now feel they want nothing to do with the CGH (General Strike Council), or with the struggle. To the contrary, I want to get out of prison and continue the struggle. After a month of jail, none of us regret having been in the Prepa 3, or at the CGH assembly the morning of February sixth. I remember when they arrested us, we yelled 'goya' (victory) slogans, crying, feeling very firm in our beliefs."

The story of greatest concern that Tania tells is that of Erica Romero Rubio, an 18-year-old who received blows to the stomach by the Federal Preventative Police during the Prepa 3 eviction. She suffered a detached uterus from the beating and hasn't stopped bleeding since. They didn't treat her in jail until three weeks after her arrival. "How is it possible she wasn't released for medical treatment?" asks Tania, "her reproductive capacity was put in jeopardy at the age of 18." Another prisoner, Rosario Paniagua, received a blow to the hip, leaving her with a fracture. She has not been treated, nor have they taken the necessary x-rays.

Tania is very clear in explaining how prison has united the women. "We are beginning to organize as women. In the CGH there was never an attempt to do this, although there were some meetings among the women students who went to Chiapas, despite the different political tendencies within the group. Gender has not been a topic of reflection for the student movement. The truth is that women have made very few advances within the CGH. There have been some advances on an individual level, but not as a group. Now we have realized that we are women within a social movement and that this is something to take into account. In our daily meetings here in jail, we talk about many things, including men, and we reflect.

"We have much to contribute as women," continues Tania, "we are planning to work together in writing a letter to the men that are in prison, telling them that we will all get together, we will be united again, that they shouldn't get demoralized. We women are very affectionate among ourselves, we soothe each other, we say "it's all right little one!" But the men are more hardened; they repress their affectionate side. Us women have enormous political differences, but we deal with them. Some of the women feel demoralized. It's hard when you realize that we have already spent an entire month in prison. But our spirits are generally high. We have been able to create a 'body spirit' ('un espíritu del cuerpo'). We hug each other, we love each other, we take care of each other."

Tania explains, "We have an evening meeting every two or three days. Sometimes half the women fall asleep. We have to get up at 6:30 in the morning to turn in our mattresses. We go back to sleep after that. On days when we are allowed visitors, we take a bath, get dressed, and fix ourselves up. After that, we spend the day reading, writing and in discussion."

Organization has given these women stability and allowed them to revive their sense of struggle even behind bars. "One day the CNDH (National Human Rights Commission) came to visit us, and cynically asked us how we were being treated and things like that. We all began to yell that thanks to them the university's autonomy had been violated. We organized ourselves to say what we thought. We told them that we knew our human rights quite well, one of them being the right to an education. Later, we told them that they will pay for the suffering of our parents. Something else we did was to write on a chalkboard we had been denied access to: "Freedom for all political prisoners," and other stuff like that. As you can see, we are strong, well organized; the guys are lazy and unfocused; when the CNDH visited their prison and they didn't do anything."

Tania explains the situation in jail: "There are ten to eleven prisoners in each cell. It is very cramped. Fortunately, about a week ago they started letting us leave the doors open. Now we can sleep in the halls. We were practically on top of each other. During the day we go out into the little yard. Some of the women sunbathe, other exercise, we also yell slogans. We like to do this, it serves our purposes. The guards don't allow yelling, but we always ask them to let us do it just one more time. Now we are writing a letter to the head of the prison requesting special permission to yell slogans."

A positive relationship has been established between the regular prison population and the students. "Some of the girls have gone into the regular prison area, since most of us are new. We have been told it is good to get to know the other prisoners. Many women here that have committed a variety of crimes have been tortured. So we explain to them they have rights. We have asked the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center to send representatives to record the prisoners' cases."

The prisoners discovered certain gender-based inequalities within the prison system: "The guys had newspapers from the very first day. We weren't granted this privilege for three weeks." The prisoners also noticed that neither the press nor other organizations came to visit them as opposed to the attention directed towards the men. Nevertheless, in working with the press, as with everything else, the women organized themselves: "We have agreed to participate in everything on a rotating basis," says Tania.

Not all the differences are to the women's disadvantage: "We have had it easier than the guys with our parents; since, whether you like it or not, we are females and they come at us with 'my poor little darling!' There haven't been any cases of parents feeling hopeless. That's mostly been with the men. Now, during every visit, we discuss different subjects, like our bail. We write up communiqués for the parents. There are long lines to use the telephone. Tania tells us that one of the prisoners, Norma, has a boyfriend, Alvarito, that is in the men's prison. In order to speak to each other, they both call the same house from two different telephones, their friends then use three-way to connect them. Necessity breeds invention.

Regarding the future of the student movement and the next steps to take, the women prisoners have arrived at the conclusion that "this must come out of the consensus process, from the meetings outside prison that know where things stand. They are the ones who should make the decisions. We are not making any statements about what to do; although we are clear that the conflict has not been resolved. There is a list of demands which need to be met; not only the demand for freedom of all prisoners, but the very demands we were all struggling for."

Tania reflects: "We are afraid of freedom because the charges against us will be heavy. We will have to watch out for ourselves. We will have to see how each case moves along."

Translated by ISLA


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