Mexican students defend public education at UNAM, 1999


The student strikers sought to accomplish the six following goals, as set out in their manifesto: 1) Eliminate tuition and other university charges, 2) Revoke measures in 1997 that limited the time a student could attend UNAM and ended automatic enrollment from UNAM high schools, 3) Create transparent dialogue within the university community, 4) Prevent reprisals against striking students or their supporters, 5) Make-up academic days lost due to strike, and 6) End associations with CENEVAL, a national testing service.

Time period notes

The strike began roughly a year and a half before presidential elections; Ernesto Zedillo was the current president of Mexico

Time period

11 March, 1999 to 6 February, 2000



Location City/State/Province

Mexico City

Location Description

National Autonomous University of Mexico Campus
Jump to case narrative

Methods in 1st segment

  • The General Strike issued the "Manifesto to the Nation" with their demands
  • The UNAM Workers Union (STUNAM) also began striking and supporting the students
  • Students occupied classrooms

Methods in 2nd segment

  • The UNAM Workers Union (STUNAM) also began striking and supporting the students
  • Students occupied classrooms and academic buildings

Methods in 3rd segment

Methods in 4th segment

  • Students occupied classrooms and academic buildings

Methods in 5th segment

  • Students occupied classrooms and academic buildings

Methods in 6th segment

  • Parents gathered to protest the arrests of their children
  • Students occupied classrooms and academic buildings

Segment Length

55 days


Student Leaders elected by student body, the University Student Assembly (AEU), student representatives from each academic department, the General Strike Council (CGH)


The Workers' Union at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM)

External allies

The Mexican Electrician's Union, Parents of students, Union Organizers

Involvement of social elites

Not known


The Mexican government, UNAM administrators

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Organizing marches

Campaigner violence

There were some accounts of strikers harassing students attempting to go to class, as well as a clash with police forces on February 1.

Repressive Violence

Not Known; some kidnappings and threats were mentioned in the sources, though no specifics were given.


Economic Justice
Human Rights



Group characterization

Undergraduate Students attending the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Groups in 1st Segment

Mexican Electrician's Union

Groups in 2nd Segment

Parents of students
Mexican Electrician's Union (exit)

Additional notes on joining/exiting order

Parents of students aided financially and with food services in during the entire campaign, but were most noticeably active in protests after the mass arrest of students on February 6, 2000

Segment Length

55 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

5 out of 6 points


0 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

8 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

All campaign goals were met except for trying to extend limits on the amount of time a student could be enrolled at UNAM.

Database Narrative

The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the largest university in Latin America, with over 270,000 enrolled students. It is credited with educating a number of Mexican presidents as well as prominent Latin American academics. In 1999, students attending UNAM paid approximately $0.02 for semester tuition.

On February 11, 1999, the Rector, Francisco Barnes de Castro, announced plans to raise university tuition to approximately $75 per semester. While groups have dissenting views on the motives behind this increase in tuition, his stated goal was to increase the university’s selectivity, as well as provide for increased educational quality for the increasingly competitive job market. The increases would provide an additional $48 million to support the annual $1 billion budget and also offered remissions and deferments for low-income students.

However, many university students felt that tuition hikes undermined the principle of free education for all Mexicans, a standard of equal educational access for all that allowed for a level of social mobility. With pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to make Mexico’s educational system private, many students saw the tuition increase as the first step in the privatizing of UNAM. Many argued that with the large number of low-income and working-class students at UNAM, many would be unable to pay. Students immediately began protesting against the tuition hikes, organized at the university level by the University Student Assembly (AEU).

On March 11, student protestors barricaded the entrances to academic buildings and held rallies, causing class to be cancelled for over 90,000 UNAM students. The AEU threatened to have a general student strike if Rector Barnes de Castro did not have an open discussion with the student body before March 23, but in spite of this, Barnes de Castro met in secret with the University Council and passed his proposal, the new General Regulation of Fees, on March 15. This meeting was greatly criticized by the student body due to its hasty nature and secret location, as well as the fact that a number of members who opposed the proposal were not informed in time to attend.

On March 24, another strike was held in which almost all UNAM classrooms were shut down. Students held rallies in academic buildings and began organizing the distribution of food and leaflets. They began working with other social movements, marching with the Mexican Electricians’ Union and working with the Workers’ Union (STUNAM) on UNAM’s campus. Parents also became involved in the protest by supporting students financially, helping with food distribution, or protesting.

On April 7, the AUE voted to begin a general student strike in two weeks. Eight days later, students formed the General Strike Council (CGH). The CGH was composed of 120 student representatives from different departments within the University and surrounding campuses. On April 19, the CGH issued a six-point statement of demands called the “Manifesto to the Nation” to thousands of students. These demands were as follows: 1) Eliminate tuition and other university charges, 2) Revoke measures in 1997 that limited the time a student could attend UNAM and ended automatic enrollment from UNAM high schools, 3) Create transparent dialogue within the university community, 4) Prevent reprisals against striking students or their supporters, 5) Make-up academic days lost due to strike, and 6) End associations with CENEVAL, a national testing service.

The following morning, the university administration held an on-campus march, in which approximately 20,000 persons attended, to counter the general student protests. However, roughly a fourth of the marchers were school officials and there are claims that some students there were coerced. The march was widely publicized by mainstream media.

On April 21, student strikes shut down classes across the university and by the next day, the entire campus was occupied. Roads were blocked and students held events across campus. On April 23, approximately 30,000 students, parents, and union workers marched to the central square of campus to a historical space where a 1987 student movement had stopped a similar tuition increase. The march was entirely peaceful; however, a student named Martha Alejandara Trigueros Cruz was accidently struck and killed by a bus during the march.

On April 24, the UNAM student body held an event called the National Student Encounter in which 15 representatives from Mexican universities gathered to call for national action “in defense of public education.” The strike continued.

On June 3, administrators revoked their proposal for a tuition increase and made the tuition increase a voluntary measure which students would determine in consideration with their own morals. However, students were not satisfied with this concession and continued to push for their other demands. There were a few reports of strikers having altercations with students who were still seeking to attend class off-campus, and UNAM issued seven warrants for the theft of computers, vehicles, and university equipment.

On November 12, Francisco Barnes de Castro resigned. Juan Ramon de la Fuente was appointed as the new rector, coming directly from his post as the Mexican Secretary of Health. He immediately entered into negotiations with the General Strike Committee.

On December 2, students continued with their meetings with the university administration and government officials. They again demanded transparent negotiations that were open to the public. The students wanted these negotiations to take place on the UNAM campus in the Ernesto Che Guevara auditorium. The government and university negotiators refused, citing safety concerns, through the students noted that their own safety was compromised during the course of the strike.

On February 1, police raided an occupied high school, causing violent clashes as students resisted leaving the building. More than 30 people were injured in the fighting and approximately 250 students were arrested

On the next Saturday, negotiations between striking students and university administrators came to a stalemate. Though students wanted to renew negotiations on Monday, the administration refused. In January, the administration had held a referendum, in which the majority of the UNAM campus community had voted to end the strike. As a result, the university administrators were able to gain a judge’s order to end the strike and 1,000-2,500 members of the Federal Preventative Police stormed the UNAM campus on February 6, 2000. The police forces were unarmed. 632-745 people were arrested with no reported injuries. Two days later, 579 student strikers were released “bajo reserve de ley,” in a process which means the government reserved the right to rearrest and had not dropped the charges against them.   

There were a number of protests by parents and other non-student civilians following the arrests. These protesters were not all in support of the strike, but opposed the arrests of students. Nonetheless, the strike was determined to be officially over on February 6. Due to the government’s generally reserved and patient response to the strike, the strike leaders were portrayed as the problematic party once the strike had ended.

Following the strike, a number of questions regarding educational spending still remained contested. The Zedillo administration struggled in the election year, torn between citizens upset with the government catering to the demands of rebellious students and others who thought the government response should have been more supportive. While the quality of education at UNAM struggled to rebound from the physical damage done by the protests and the time lost during 292-day-long strike, the two-cent tuition remained unchanged for a number of years after the strike.


The behavior of both groups was influenced by the Tlatelolco massacre of non-violent protesters in Mexico which had taken place on October 2, 1968. (1)


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Preston, Julia. “University Officials Yield to Student Strike in Mexico.” The New York Times, June 8, 1999.
Preston, Julia. “Mexico Students to Continue Strike at Empty Campus.” The New York Times, July 12, 1999.
Preston, Julia. “Big Majority Votes to End Strike at Mexican University.” The New York Times, January 22, 2000.
“Mexican Police Storm University.” BBC News, February 2, 2000.
Rhoads, Robert. “The Student Strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico: A Political Analysis.” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 45, No. 3 (August 2001), pp. 334-353.
Gilly, Adolfo. “The Long Strike at UNAM: Higher Education and the Restructuring of the Mexican State.” Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California Berkley, March 22, 2000.
Gonzalez, Manuel and Linda Joyce. “Mexico City Students Strike Against Tuition Fees and Cutbacks.” The Militant, Vol. 63, No. 46, December 27, 1999.
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Rhoads, Robert and Carlos Alberto Torres. The University, State, and Market: The Political Economy of Globalization in the Americas. Stanford University Press, 2006.
Simer, Jeremy. “‘UNAM is not for Sale!’: Students Strike Against Tuition Increase at Mexico’s National University.” Sin Domino, 1999.
Rodriguez Gomez, Roberto. “Lessons from a Long Student Strike at UNAM: Did We Learn Something?” Educacion y cultura, 2012.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Mackenzie Welch, 12/04/2012