The memory of Mexico's 1968 student massacre hung like a protective shroud over a group of students who shut down Latin America's largest university for the past 10 months.
On Sunday, the shroud was rent - peacefully.
Thousands of Mexico's Federal Preventive Police took back the campus of the National Autonomous University, arresting more than 600 strikers without violent incident.
Public opinion appears to be largely siding with the government's action. In recent weeks, the strike that started over tuition hikes was rapidly deteriorating into a student war between pro- and anti-strike factions. The use of force was "the lesser evil," says political analyst Enrique Krauze.
With surveys showing most Mexicans place education near the top of their list of concerns for the country, the desire now is for reconciliation and a national effort to repair Mexico's "maximum house of studies."
"It hurts to see the police inside educational institutions, but it was even worse to see the university held by strikers who represented such a minority view," says Jess Pablo Mercado Daz, a Mexico City civil engineer who graduated from the university, known by the acronym UNAM, in 1995. "It's their intransigence that brought this on. Now maybe we can come together and place the emphasis ... on education."
UNAM students went on strike April 20 and brought the university to a halt over a proposal to increase tuition from a symbolic 2 cents a year to approximately $220. As the strike dragged on, and university officials dropped the tuition plan, the student movement fell into the hands of the university's most radical students and teachers, who raised their demands.
By this year, when a new rector agreed to all of the strikers' core demands, protesting students known as "ultras" had turned their cause into a fuzzy movement against Mexico's pro-market, pro-foreign-investment economic model. They insisted President Ernesto Zedillo wanted to privatize the university and all public education.
That view echoes in some sectors of Mexican society, for example, in the southern part of the capital. On Sunday afternoon, as Federal Police used huge bolt cutters to pry open abandoned barricades at the Coyoacn UNAM feeder high school, Sergio Gonzlez looked on and lamented the government's action.
"Those poor soldiers think they're doing something for their country, but it's really a hard blow against the people, common people like them," says the 1994 history graduate of UNAM. "The university is managed by a junta of the government that can't tolerate the idea of educating the masses. For them no one else's opinion counts."
Intolerance has also been high among the strikers, Mr. Gonzlez says, "but that does not justify favoring force over dialogue." His views make him an example of how, even as the strike dragged on and student and general public support for the strikers dwindled, opposition to police intervention remained high.
That opposition was a remnant of events of June 1968, many analysts agree, when hundreds of university students were gunned down by soldiers in central Mexico City. With so many Mexicans suspicious of all authority, force is equated with antidemocratic authoritarianism.
Cognizant of broad suspicion of police intervention, Interior Minister Diodoro Carrasco said Sunday's operation was carried out with "full legal backing, correctness, and efficiency. Neither arms nor violence was employed." More than 600 strikers and supporters were arrested.
In a televised message, President Zedillo said he had personally given the order that the federal police undertake the UNAM operation without carrying firearms.
Still, some observers suspected the Zedillo government of ignoring the strike until last week's violence, allowing the situation to deteriorate. Diego Fernndez de Cevallos, who ran against Mr. Zedillo in the 1994 presidential race and is one of the opposition's most respected voices, says the strike was allowed to drag on because the UNAM, once a motor for a growing middle class, now generally serves Mexico's poor and working classes. If the UNAM served Mexico's wealthy and elite, he insists, the strike would have ended long ago.
But some analysts say it was a mistake to let the strike drag on into 2000 - with presidential, congressional, and local elections coming in July.
The deepening politicization of the UNAM strike became evident last week after violent incidents at a UNAM feeder high school left various political leaders pointing fingers.
No one believes the UNAM conflict is suddenly over with the strikers' eviction. Mexico City will continue to be the scene of street protests, particularly by aggrieved parents, as long as so many students remain in jail. Recognizing this, Rector de la Fuente has called for charges against the arrested students to be dropped.
The UNAM will not open as long as police occupy campuses, which the head of the preventive police says could last two weeks or more. But Mexicans say dialogue among all sectors interested in the university's future must be reestablished. "A successful university is one where a plurality of ideas can be expressed and debated, and that's what we must get back to," says Mercado.
His girlfriend, a UNAM accounting student says she agrees, but admits she has more practical worries. "There's already ... discrimination against UNAM grads because of the reputation for political troubles and low standards," says Nayelly Len Montes de Oca. "I'm afraid that now it's going to be even worse."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society