World's longest college sit-in ends with ride down Insurgents Avenue

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The Independent US

To cut across the south section of Mexico City, there's a rat run that's just reopened. The barricades are down at the three-square-mile university campus. The roads that circle towering academic halls, with their leftist 1930s murals and 1990s graffiti, are without traffic: no bikes, no motorcycles, no beat-up VW Beetles. It is eerily empty. Students are under arrest, and most classmates are downtown, marching for their release.

To cut across the south section of Mexico City, there's a rat run that's just reopened. The barricades are down at the three-square-mile university campus. The roads that circle towering academic halls, with their leftist 1930s murals and 1990s graffiti, are without traffic: no bikes, no motorcycles, no beat-up VW Beetles. It is eerily empty. Students are under arrest, and most classmates are downtown, marching for their release.

A pre-dawn police raid on Sunday turned up only half a dozen Molotov cocktails and a handful of scraggy marijuana plants. But 745 groggy young revolutionaries woke to find themselves at the wrong end of a police truncheon, their radical dreams abruptly ended. Striking students had been camping there for nine months in a call for sweeping social demands.

A big march was planned to bring the city to a halt and they had chided public officials for "declaring war" against them after violent clashes five days earlier.

More than 2,000 police tore down the barricades of desks, chairs and disembowelled computers that blocked entrances. The Che Guevara auditorium was turned into a temporary holding cell. A few students managed to hoof it to the hills and watched their comrades herded into luxury coaches that sped away down Insurgents Avenue.

The few remaining rebels posted a message on their website: "We are in an emergency situation. The movement is only beginning." But the mood was not overly optimistic. Parents of many arrested students are taking to the streets to protest against the police action.

Students who evaded the dragnet vowed to transform themselves into urban guerrillas. Many link themselves with Mexico's student martyrs of October 1968, hundreds of whom were unceremoniously shot dead by soldiers during a demonstration.

Ernesto Zedillo, the President, was roughed up there as an idealistic student, and the nation is still so scarred by memories of that massacre that the government was loath to move against the strikers. Unwilling to retake the campus by force, it encouraged the university authorities to capitulate to most of the strikers' demands.

But the "Mega-Ultras", led by "El Mosh", AKA Alejandro Echavarria, were determined to push through their grievances without getting mired down in discussion. Soaring unemployment, widespread poverty, and a moribund political system in which the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) has held sway for 71 years colour the students' demands for reform.

Recently, the students felt isolated by adverse media coverage, deserted by most leftist professors and betrayed by the government's cuts in university funding. An attempt to increase semester fees from a nominal few pence was "like raising the price of bread in Marie Antoinette's France", explained one professor.

The feelings of persecution after bloody confrontations last week heightened the strikers' fervour. Backed into a corner, President Zedillo ordered police to storm the campus but forbade the use of arms. "I gave instructions to the police to act with maximum caution and take the greatest steps to avoid the use of force,'' President Zedillo said. He insisted that police were accompanied by human right observers.

A part-amnesty has been promised to some students, to waive charges of trespassing, robbery and damage to public property, and at least 75 minors were let out on bail. But 35 hardcore strikers considered a "danger to society" face up to 40 years behind bars if convicted of terrorism. All but 100 students are in jail and consider themselves political prisoners.

The university's charter was overhauled after the 1910 Mexican Revolution to guarantee free public education to all. It is a far cry from the original Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, founded in 1553 by the Spanish crown, which it superseded. Two- thirds of the past Mexican Presidents are alumni, and it once was one of the most prestigious schools in the Western hemisphere.

But its reputation has suffered since last April because of the continuous closure. Many of its 275,000 students missed classes for a full academic year and 90 per cent of them voted to end the strike. Now, officials say, all that remains is to fumigate the classrooms. The new semester is long overdue.

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