A student strike that has gripped Mexico's main university since April has now spread to the school's research institutions. Last week, some scientists spent hours negotiating for the right to keep their labs open with activists whose siege of campus has already meant months of delays at student-controlled checkpoints, thefts of equipment, and other hassles. "The damage [to the university] ... will be difficult to repair," says Jaime Urrutia, director of the Institute of Geophysics.
The protests at the Mexico City campus of UNAM--the 260,000-student National Autonomous University of Mexico--began on 20 April when student activists protested a proposed hike in tuition from pennies to about $150 a year. In June the university abandoned that plan, but the strike has continued, with thousands of students now demanding an end to all fees, looser admissions and graduation standards, and much more power on UNAM's governing council. All classroom buildings are shut down, although some classes are being held off campus.
On 18 October, the strikers began to invade some of the 24 research institutes and centers, shutting down parts of the geography and geology institutes. Geophysicists, atmospheric scientists, and applied mathematicians convinced the activists to keep their buildings open, however, arguing successfully that work such as monitoring of the nearby Popocatpetl volcano should go on. The geosciences, says Urrutia, "are particularly important because of the [recent] earthquakes, eruptive activity, and flooding of the past months."
The school's 1300 researchers publish about half the papers by Mexico's scientists. Hundreds of UNAM faculty and many international colleagues have signed an open letter asking the government to impose the "rule of law," arguing that the strike "[puts] at grave risk one of the most ambitious and successful public and national university projects in Latin America." But Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo so far has refused to intervene in apparent fear of stirring public opposition in an election year.
Even though most research labs are still functioning, scientists say the prolonged shutdown of much of the campus has impeded their work. "The major inconvenience [for us] is traffic and communication problems," says Fernando Lopez-Casillas of the Institute of Cell Physiology. Each day researchers must pass through student-controlled gates, where they face verbal harassment. The strikes have also touched off a wave of robberies, including reported thefts of computers and several vehicles used by geophysicists. Some scientists say they may have to hunker down until the political climate is more favorable: "We hope the problem will clear up once the primaries are over" in November, notes UNAM seismologist Cinna Lomnitz.