Walking on Eggshells

Tlatelolco, UNAM, and Mexico's resurgent student movement

by Jacob Alabab-Moser

Illustration by Alex Westfall

published October 26, 2018

content warning: state violence, gore, gender violence

I am WhatsApping my friend Carolina on a Wednesday night in early October in the library. She is also a student; she studies English literature at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), the largest university in Mexico located in the southern reaches of Mexico City. She tells me her classes have just resumed that Monday after three weeks of closure. I ask naively if she had a vacation.

As Carolina explains, on September 3, 2018, students held a peaceful protest in front of the Office of the University Rector. They urged for the administration to pay attention to various issues such as the understaffing of teachers, the presence of groups proliferating violence on their campuses, and continuing gender violence. The protest quickly devolved into chaos when members of armed paramilitary gangs called porros arrived, attacking students with rocks, sticks, knives, and homemade bombs. Porros are young men organized informally in groups called grupos porriles that university and state authorities have historically called on to disperse protests and maintain order on campuses. Photos circulating online of the attack at Ciudad Universitaria, the university’s main campus, show students being kicked, punched, and impaled by young men in plainclothes. The assailants’ faces are fully exposed in the broad daylight. Four students were injured, including a student from the same department as Carolina who lost part of his ear and almost his kidney from a knife wound in his chest.

In protest of the porros’ attack, students and faculty from 41 of UNAM’s university departments and high schools went on strike, suspending classes and administrative operations indefinitely. Students met in various types of assemblies, some arranged between students of specific departments and others university-wide, where they held discussions to organize a list of demands. On September 5, 30,000 students from UNAM and other universities  converged on the Office of the Rector—a sea of people under umbrellas marching in the rain—to condemn the violence enacted two days earlier and ask the rector to accept the list of demands. By the time of my conversation with Carolina, it was the first week of October and the UNAM administration claimed it had normalized university operations by finally reopening classes on most of the universities campuses. But to Carolina it feels like “walking on eggshells.” She says, “None of our demands have been met, but I don’t know. It’s too early to know.”

Like the concentric rings of a tree, the history of student activism in Mexico City is uneven from fits and starts of growth and ridden with scars. The precedent for hostile relations between progressive student activists and the repressive Mexican state was established 50 years ago, when a student movement was crushed in the violent 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. The student protests at UNAM last month and the resulting violent reprisals occured in the long trajectory of student activism amidst university-sanctioned violence. The issues burdening students have built up over the course of months, but more importantly, the current movement underway is the most recent incarnation of the decades-long fight by student activists for their ability to study, demonstrate, and live in an environment free from direct or indirect government repression.

While some conditions have improved since then, students at UNAM still face violence by criminal groups on their campuses and an unwillingness by university administrators to meet their needs. Nonetheless, student activists at UNAM, like my friends, have proved resilient and undeterred by these threats, reinvigorating the once-vibrant student movement in the face of increasing danger.




I visited UNAM for the first time this past July to visit its Central Library. Driving south to Ciudad Universitaria, the university’s main campus, I watched Mexico City’s crowded skyline thin out and give way to patches of clear blue sky and views of distant mountain ranges. Low modernist buildings in concrete began to appear along the road before I reached my destination: a tall, square building covered entirely by a mural constructed of hundreds of vibrantly colored stones. As I learned later, the Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman designed each panel of the mural to narrate a different period in Mexico’s rich history—one of a nation in constant flux that is very much reflected in the history of its largest public university.

UNAM occupies a unique place in Mexico’s national politics. Historically, it has been known as a battlefield between revolutionary leftist student activists and reactionary elements like porros whose actions have proliferated violence and repression. The origins of UNAM as a breeding ground for political action can be traced back in part to 1929, when the university became autonomous. Ideologically, this means the university “organizes itself as it deems best” to ensure academic freedom; in application, the university operates independently from Mexican government in administrative decisions—like choosing its authorities, exercising its budget, and, most importantly as of late, protecting and surveilling its campuses through law enforcement. This radical policy of autonomy, which was intended to prevent political control and censorship of the institution by the government, has ironically allowed for the uninhibited growth of porros that traffic drugs and employ violence against students. Since involvement by Mexico City authorities risks violating the university’s autonomy, protocol for government response is murky in dealing with cases of threats to campus safety, such as the attack on September 3.

The threat of porros continues to be among the student protesters’ top concerns. Many of the students present at the September 3 protest were high schoolers from UNAM-affiliated high schools CCH (College of Sciences and Humanities) Azcapotzalco who demonstrated because of the large presence of porros on their campus. Eleven of the 43 groups of porros said to operate on UNAM campuses at present are at CCH Azcapotzalco alone. What defines a porro remains up in the air. Besides crushing student demonstrations, they also are involved in drug trafficking. They do not have military training—they are not soldiers and belong to informally organized gangs—nor do they adhere to any particular ideology.

On one hand, the university administration has seemingly made an effort to accommodate requests to eliminate porros since the early September demonstrations. On September 13, the Rector of the University, Enrique Graue, accepted the list of demands by the students of CCH Azcapotzalco that included a request for “actions for the dismantling, dismissal, and expulsion of grupos porriles.” In addition, the university has already identified several porros from September 3 attack, in part through help from students, linked perpetrators’ clearly visible faces and numbers of jerseys in photos from the attack with social media accounts. At least 18 porros have since been expelled from UNAM—their names were published on UNAM’s website—and eight more were arrested by Mexican police and imprisoned. But the university administration is stalling further action: it has refused to satisfy the list of demands requested by students from the Inter-UNAM Assembly, as well as a more general document from the Inter-university Assembly that contains demands for truth, justice, and freedom of expression to be implemented in 35 universities across Mexico.

Many have doubts that the UNAM administration will actually seek to eliminate the porros when it ultimately relies on them to exercise its authority over students. Carolina stressed that the porros “know they’re protected” by the university administration, explaining why they attacked students without any disguises in plain daylight. Moreover, students at UNAM are increasingly threatened in the context of proliferating violence in Mexico City as a whole, which was relatively immune to the actions of drug cartels until recent years.




Vania is a 22-year-old Political Science and Public Administration student at UNAM and has attended protests since she was a child. The first contact I have with her is through voice memos that sound like she is riding the bus. As she records herself explaining the events unfolding at UNAM in real time, high-pitched beeps punctuate the cycle of stopping, boarding, and taking off of the metrobús as it runs through Mexico City.

Vania grew up in the midst of several major social movements in Mexico and the country’s burgeoning political democratization. Her first protest in 2005—against the attempt to impeach the then-mayor of Mexico City and current president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)—was one of the largest in Mexican history with over one million people marching in the Zócalo, the city’s central plaza. When she entered high school, university students rallied around the #YoSoy132 (#IAm132) movement to demand transparent and unbiased coverage of the 2012 presidential elections from media conglomerates backed by the ruling political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). As a teen, she also joined the movements for Ayotzinapa, regarding the 2014 disappearance of forty-three students of a teachers college in the state of Guerrero that was never solved. It goes without saying that she has been participating the assemblies at UNAM, particularly those that demand policies to eradicate gender violence on campus. When I ask Vania if she can remember when she realized she was an activist, she responds simply, “I can’t remember a precise moment that I became an activist because my whole life has been this way.”

An approximate starting point for the history of student movements in Mexico can be traced back 50 years exactly to the Tlatelolco Massacre in 1968. Like their counterparts around the world launching movements to ignite radical change, Mexican students began to organize demonstrations in the months leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics—the first Olympics ever to be held in Latin America—in part to demand an end to brutality and repression by the government under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. After the organization of a National Strike Council (CNH) by students from various universities in August, the military became increasing violent in response, occupying Ciudad Universitaria in September and inflicting violent assaults on students. Ten days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, on October 2nd, 1968, around 5,000 students from various universities and other demonstrators met in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City to peacefully protest. It was a cloudy afternoon and it looked like it was about to rain. At around 6 PM, military helicopters flew over the plaza and flares were shot, prompting both snipers in surrounding buildings and columns of troops on the ground to shoot at the protesters. A dense crowd of figures in the plaza frantically dispersed upon the attack—the majority fled, sprinting out of the camera’s frame, but many were shot by the enclosing troops, resulting in dozens murdered, their bodies left lying in the plaza amidst the rubble. One survivor remembered seeing the corpses of swans and ducks that used to live in ponds in the square.

Carolina’s aunt, who was an anthropology student at the time, attended the protest at Tlatelolco. Upon seeing the arrival of tanks, she went home before the violence escalated. But from inside her house, which was located nearby, she could hear the gunshots and screams from people attempting to escape. She felt the urge to help them, but her mom refused, fearing the government would punish them for sympathizing with the protesters. The police began to search door to door in the neighborhood for survivors who had fled; those found were arrested and imprisoned. This show of unbridled government violence communicated not only an unwillingness to meet the demands of the students and allow them to peacefully protest, but also the insecurity felt by the PRI and the president when presented with any form of unrest, especially with worldwide attention directed towards the country ahead of the Olympics.

Government repression continued into the massacre’s aftermath. The official death count released by the government was a drastic underestimation at 25 dead; most estimates by activists soar to 300 or 400. The government purportedly seized all photographic evidence of the massacre and it did not appear in many of the Mexico’s major newspapers, whose owners are known to align their interests with those of the ruling party. Those that did cover it maintained that armed provocateurs in the crowd or the students themselves provoked the massacre, keeping with the official government explanation. Film footage of the massacre was only released after over 20 years had passed; in 1968, there were no cell phones to capture and livestream the events to share them with the rest of the world. Rather, the Mexico City Olympics continued as planned and PRI’s authoritarian hold over the Mexican state remained for over three more decades. But the violence that was inflicted that night had inscribed the memories of the survivors and all future generations of students. It was no coincidence that the 43 students of Ayotzinapa were en route to Mexico City to commemorate the annual October 2 march when they were intercepted and disappeared in 2014.




Vania and Carolina both tell me that much has changed since 1968, namely that the government, ruled for the past six years by President Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, no longer blatantly exercises military violence against student protesters at UNAM. But students are still killed, “by people who the government does not pay attention to and (whose actions it) even foments,” Carolina reminds me. “Still, Mexico is filled with violence.”

This past July, I was in Mexico City during the landslide election of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as Mexico’s next president. Enthusiastic crowds flocked to the Angel of Independence, one of the city’s most iconic monuments, to ring in what his supporters have heralded as the fourth transformation in Mexico’s history in terms of political democratization and his administration’s potential for radical reform, including an end to the political and social hegemony that AMLO calls the “power mafia.” For student activists, he could be a potential ally in their struggle. He has already spoke out against porros and in praise of the students’ demands in a video uploaded to social media (which curiously shows Graue, the Rector of UNAM, beside him).

But as the history of student activism in Mexico has shown in its repeating cycles, only the students themselves can guarantee improvements in their conditions. While Carolina voted for AMLO, she is skeptical of how much he can accomplish in his term of six years. “He himself is not the change.” Carolina tells me. The students know very well that they are.


JACOB ALABAB-MOSER B’20 interviews his subjects solely through Instagram DMs.