Administrators and the angry students occupying a main building at Latin America's largest university were at a potentially explosive standoff Tuesday, after an official rally by conservative faculty members failed to dislodge the students from offices they seized four days ago.
The occupation by a militant student group calling itself "the excluded ones" is more a reflection of Mexico's current economic crisis than a vestige of the student militancy of 1968, when the Mexican army 27 years ago next week opened fire on a rally and left scores--perhaps hundreds--dead.
At issue in the current standoff is access to higher education.
With police helicopters and riot squads on alert Tuesday but out of sight of the sprawling National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, campus, the two sides screamed, threatened and nearly came to blows.
But violence was averted at the last minute when the conservative faculty members stopped short of breaking through the student protesters' barricade during "a march of silence" that left the student body polarized.
The student protesters are demanding that the university admit at least 8,000 students who qualify but were rejected for admission this year. Most of the rejected students are from lower-middle-class families battered by the soaring inflation, taxes and unemployment that followed December's sharp peso devaluation. They no longer can afford private universities.
But the state-run institution, already overburdened with about 250,000 students, says it cannot accommodate them. The crunch comes at a time when UNAM quietly has been cutting back on admissions to improve its academic quality, protest leaders and professors said.
Still, leaders of "the excluded ones" insist that the conflict goes deeper, illustrating the corruption in Mexico after 66 years of one-party rule. They presented evidence of political favoritism and the sale of entrance exams by school administrators that they said was found when they first seized the offices Friday.
Among the documents displayed in the occupied administration building was a letter from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to a school director demanding admission for specific candidates. The protesters claimed they had other papers showing that administrators sold advance copies of the entrance exam.
The documents on display also contained statistics showing that the university--which theoretically is open to all who pass the exam and qualify academically--denied admission to as many as 8,000 qualifying students this year. One document shows that just 30,700 of the 38,593 qualified students were allowed to attend when classes began this month.
For parents such as Juan Castenada Moreno, a 54-year-old laborer whose youngest daughter was rejected for admission, that was reason enough to leave work and join the students occupying the administration building.
Castenada said he is convinced his daughter, Viridiana, was among those unjustly rejected. She passed her entrance exam with high marks, he said. She graduated high school with high honors. But when the admissions list was published, her name wasn't on it.
"We all have the right to education," he said. "We want an explanation."
Unlike 1968, when a handful of leaders mobilized most of UNAM's students in a series of massive protests just before the Mexico City Olympics, the majority of the university's student body has been silent during this protest--or had been silent, until Tuesday morning.
The administrators cut power to several major colleges during the scheduled anti-protest rally, infuriating students--and some teachers--who saw it as a ploy to draw thousands onto the campus grounds in an apparent show of support for the administration.
But some students appeared to be leaning toward the protesters' side. "They suspended classes and turned off the electricity. There's been a huge manipulation," said a law student who identified himself only as Yacir. "They're indirectly forcing us to be here."
Inside the administration tower housing the rector's office, a place now adorned with "education for all" graffiti, occupation leaders said they will remain until the administration meets their demands. These include reopening admissions, increasing the number of university slots and investigating the protesters' allegations of corruption.
Organizer Adolfo Llubere, a student in the political science master's program, insisted that his group will avoid confrontation at all costs. But he added that they have no plans to leave the building soon.
"We're going to keep on seeking dialogue and occupying this rectory until we get an answer--whatever it takes," he said. "All we're asking for is our right to education."
"Those kids are confused," said Luz Maria Mendoza, a library administrator. "The university does not have spaces, and it cannot lower the academic quality. The growing population is a problem. But it's the country's problem, not the university's."