Central America / Politics

A Besieged University Movement Joins the National Strike in Guatemala

Johan Ordóñez
Johan Ordóñez

Monday, October 9, 2023
Roman Gressier

Leer en español

Just past nine on Friday night, some fifty people form a circle, shifting their weight from one heel to another and clapping to the rhythm of a group of drummers with dreadlocks. A skinny young man dressed in black and white stripes climbs onto an eight-foot unicycle. His friend tosses him three bowling pins and he starts juggling, even sticking a foot in the air. He jumps down to the applause of the crowd, picks up a lit torch, kneels down and holds it out like a lance. Another man, his chest poking out of a leather vest, approaches in dance and spits a mouthful of gasoline that lights into a tongue of flames. This is a protest, a blockade, and a party.

Below an overpass near La Reformita Market in Zone 12 of southwestern Guatemala City, a dozen university students have gathered under the yellow street lamps and intermittent rain for a national strike organized five days ago by Guatemala’s main Indigenous movements. The demonstrations have brought national commerce to its knees and even further isolated Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the antagonist of a political battle that could define the future of Guatemala.

University groups, unions, neighborhood families with small children, and a pair of homeless people share food and drinks. For just a few hours, this place has become an oasis in an increasingly turbulent political environment enveloping the country. The stubborn efforts by the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) to avoid the electoral victory of Bernardo Arévalo last August and to boycott the transfer of power in January have unleashed the mobilization of an influential coalition of Indigenous authorities joined by thousands of people. Today there are nearly one hundred blockades along thoroughfares like this one. The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Porras, two prosecutors close to her, and the judge who at her request issued illegal orders against the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and its magistrates. The streets are also denouncing the business lobby CACIF and President Alejandro Giammattei, seen as the puppet masters of Porras’ political maneuvering.

Protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor
Protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor's Office denounce judicial interference with the electoral process in July 2023. Photo Víctor Peña

“We’ll be here until our bodies give out or until they resign,” says Janssy Velásquez, an architecture student at USAC, the storied state University of San Carlos. “They should at least respect the elections.” She is 23 years old and has come to this blockade with her mother and two sisters, one who is 17 and the other, holding a large Guatemalan flag in her hand, who just turned 10 two days ago. They hang timidly around the periphery of the crowd and Janssy is the spokesperson for her family. “We voted for Arévalo because he was the only decent option in these disastrous elections. Let’s hope he does what he has promised. That’s why we’re here, so that there can be a bit of change. We’re not very political, but we agree that we have to support [the strike]. We don’t want to live in another Venezuela.”

The comparison between the corrupt Guatemalan political system and Chavismo is striking in a country where the omnipresence of Venezuelan migrants passing through the capital has become a frequent topic of public debate in recent months and where conservative elites tried to brand Arévalo, a cautious social-democrat, as a Castro-Chavista.

The fever pitch and burnout of the election season tensions have gone viral among Guatemalans who have tended to steer away from politics, viewing it as corrupt and a magnet for troubles: “I just want to live well, with some normalcy,” recounts Germán Ramas, a 74-year-old man with a wide smile displaying large white teeth. “Since my youth I’ve seen all of the injustices of these governments,” he says. When his wife died “six or seven years ago” he lost the lunchroom that they ran together for years and moved in with one of his children some five blocks away from this underpass. He excitedly approached the music, shouting, and honks of the cars turning away along an alternative sidestreet. The 18-wheeler transport trucks that make their routes at night have been left with no other choice but to retreat or squeeze through the sidestreet, as large white and green cones cut them off from the demonstrators. The students only clear the way for ambulances and their blaring sirens.

Highways were similarly shut down in protests against Porras in August 2021, following the forced exile of anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval. That time, too, the conservative business sector bitterly complained. This week, the Chamber of Agriculture requested an injunction from the Constitutional Court so that the National Civil Police could clear the streets to “protect the right to free circulation.” The CC concurred, but for some strange reason Giammattei has not given the order and only a few scarce riot squads have been deployed without using tear gas. Here, along Aguilar Batres Roadway, some 15 police officers observe the soirée from a wall at the back of the overpass. An officer tells El Faro that they are only there for “prevention, until the demonstrators leave.” These days, that assertion is also a political gesture. He elaborates on the orders he has received: “We’re here to prevent other groups who are against the strike from getting involved here, so that there are no confrontations.”

Demonstrators in Guatemala block a highway in Guatemala City on Oct. 9, 2023 during a national strike. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP
Demonstrators in Guatemala block a highway in Guatemala City on Oct. 9, 2023 during a national strike. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP

The blockade here began 14 hours ago, at 7 a.m., when a group of San Carlos students from the economics department walked into the middle of the road and halted the dense morning traffic. There has been no shortage of refreshments. The protests in recent days have generated an infectious solidarity. Every so often the demonstrators allow cars to approach and leave them sandwiches, juice boxes, plastic bags of drinking water, and sweets. At the back of a gray pickup truck with a loudspeaker provided by the STUSC, the San Carlos University workers’ union, some gulp hot soup and noodles and sway to cumbia by Bomba Estéreo: “Mantenlo prendido, fuego. No lo dejes apagar” (“keep that fire burning, don’t let it be blown out”), they chant. As is common in recent protests, they also sing the national anthem. On a posterboard tied to two interlocked bicycles in the middle of the street someone has written: “The golpistas [coupmongers] have the true blockade. This is dignified resistance.”

The words university and resistance rhyme along this street. Byron Cock is 50 years old and works with the professors at Mariano Gálvez University. He explains that he and his wife, Ana Luisa Paloma, from the USAC health clinic, and their two college-age children support the strike because they hope “that all will return to normal and that we will stop depending on the actions of others.” Ana Luisa adds: “Our university is the only one run by the state and is three centuries old. The U is in resistance. That’s why we’ve been here since this morning; we’re tired of the thieves who steal our taxes.”

Trouble at the University

While it seems a show of strength, the blockade along Aguilar Batres also lays bare the burnout and fracturing of the student movements facing hostilities from the political, judicial, and university systems. The USAC’s historic University Student Association (AEU), a key motor of the strike in 2021 along with their peers from the Jesuit-run Rafael Landívar University, announced they would take highways on Friday at 5 p.m. before hundreds of people gathered at the MP headquarters, but only four AEU leaders have made it to the underpass and not a single representative of the Landivarianos has accompanied them. The acting secretary general of the AEU, Byron García, is wearing a black T-shirt and the association’s green handkerchief around his neck and came without a jacket because, he says, he didn’t think the blockade “would last this long.”

A blockade of El Incienso Bridge, a major thoroughfare in Guatemala City, on Oct. 9, 2023. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP
A blockade of El Incienso Bridge, a major thoroughfare in Guatemala City, on Oct. 9, 2023. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP

Past 11 p.m., most of the neighbors have gone home. A dozen members of the economics and law departments sporting their orange and red handkerchiefs, respectively, are bickering in the middle of the street as a scent of stadium beer wafts through the air.

Muchá, guys, I’ll make it easy for you: either stay or go,” says a law student who goes by Darwin Roger and appears to be drunk. “You might as well leave. We’ll be here resisting.”

“Re-sis-ting!” echoes another girl, turning her back to the circle and walking away with a flare of theatricality.

Erwin Pérez, a gray-haired economics student, tries to calm the waters: “Look, we convened this today, we’ve been here since this morning, and I’ll say it again: We’re grateful you’ve joined us, but we’re going to leave now.”

When asked about the spat, Erwin raises his eyebrows and blames the internal divisions on the alcohol: “What happened is things have gotten out of hand because of a bunch of drunks who can’t be reasoned with.”

“They’re wasted,” adds one of his companions.

“We want to control the situation,” Erwin continues dramatically. “What happens if they light a car on fire or mess shit up? They’ll stain everyone’s reputation.”

“Next week will be key,” says the companion.

The students believe the strike will last longer than a week. Darwin, the law student, promises to call in more of his guys.

“Don’t sweat,” he tells me, agitated. “Right now there’s a tiny division and some are going to leave because there’s an event tomorrow.”

“Where are the people you say you’ll call in?” I ask.

“Ah, those cerotes [assholes] are asleep.”

At this point it seems clear that the alcohol has done away with the evening and potentially the Aguilar Batres blockade. Andrés García, an eloquent law and political science student whom I met in the central plaza of Guatemala City during the strike in 2021 —when he was assistant secretary general of the AEU—, mentions that a handful of students are thinking of heading to another blockade less than a mile away, in front of the very entrance of the USAC.

“The people there are more chill and there won’t be any blows to our reputation, but it’s a more insular group,” he says.

Andrés now advises the interim leadership of the AEU, which has not managed to confirm a new board since the end of 2021, amid denunciations of irregularities in its internal elections. He’s contemplating an offer to work for the legislative bloc of Semilla, Arévalo’s party, next year while he continues working toward his second bachelor’s degree in political science.

“The university has pressed charges against some of our companions before the MP,” he explains in reference to retaliation for the seizure of university facilities in 2022 following the fraudulent election of the new rector, Walter Mazariegos. “Things have been complicated for the AEU. There have been lots of fights and the movement has been weakened due to disagreements over strategy, because of the criminalization we’ve faced,” he explains.

Andrés expresses some reservations about the incoming government of Arévalo and Karin Herrera, an USAC professor close to the student movements. “Arévalo could be more forceful in his discourse, but if he is sworn in, his administration will be a transitional government that can have concrete democratic impacts,” says Andrés. “He will choose the next attorney general.”

Bernardo Arévalo in a July 2023 campaign visit to Sumpango, Sacatepéquez. Photo Víctor Peña
Bernardo Arévalo in a July 2023 campaign visit to Sumpango, Sacatepéquez. Photo Víctor Peña

He says that Arévalo’s coalition could be more diverse: “They’re inclusive with women, but they haven’t achieved parity with Indigenous peoples. I hope they take this into account for their administration and for the next elections.”

When the umpteenth truck arrives to leave more and more sandwiches and a mass of plastic baggies of water, he smiles: “It’s incredible to see the solidarity coming from everywhere. The people don’t want us to leave.”

The Reconquest of San Carlos

The leader who receives me at midnight in front of the entrance to the USAC, along Petapa Avenue in Zone 12, identifies himself only by his nom de guerre “Alpaca”.

He is one of twelve students and alumni from the self-proclaimed University Student Collective who at 6 in the morning stopped three semi-public Transurbano transportation buses in their tracks, and used them to block any traffic in both directions of the five-lane street. He spends almost all night inside one of these buses, now empty, and when he steps into the streets he dons a black windbreaker with the hood up and a ski mask that only allows his brown eyes and light complexion to poke out. He has agreed to speak with El Faro only with the mediation of Andrés and says that the collective’s plan is to “expand the blockades” to other points. But nobody knows who will arrive to relieve them, or when, from this one.

Here the students have prohibited alcohol and have forced several who broke this code to leave, but two of the bus drivers trapped here have gotten their hands on a pack of beer cans. The demonstrators have spent the day killing time: They sang karaoke, jumped rope, and now a man wearing a red Mario Bros hat is dancing with a group of women in the middle of the street. A speaker playing merengue, rock, and Chilean trova will muddle any effort to catch some shut-eye until morning while members of the collective rest in one of the vehicles or underneath a tarp tied to a bus stop. Some sit on empty pizza boxes to avoid grazing the ground and joke that they are being bitten by fleas.

Eulice, a curly-haired biology student, arrived in the afternoon with Fausto, who studies at the private Galileo University and sports a thin padlock goatee. “I’m fed up and I don’t want to be part of the problem by not going out to protest,” says Eulice. “We’re doing alright,” adds her companion, “but there are others in this country who will suffer if the political crisis continues, and we’re here for them. There is no worse struggle than one that you don’t undertake.”

Demonstrators spend the night on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, blocking Petapa Avenue in Guatemala City, in front of San Carlos University. Photo Roman Gressier
Demonstrators spend the night on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, blocking Petapa Avenue in Guatemala City, in front of San Carlos University. Photo Roman Gressier

There are those who have come to the blockade to pick a fight. A man with a blue baseball cap and a piercing gaze approaches, introducing himself as a “philosopher.” “You know what the problem is?” he exclaims. “That people here are taking the streets instead of using the law.” When I ask him about the numerous injunctions filed by the president-elect and an array of civil society groups asking for respect for the TSE and electoral process, he angrily demands evidence: “Then show me them!” Soon after, he slinks off.

Alpaca believes that the Ministry of Governance, in charge of the police, has not taken tougher measures to vacate the group because “they have orders for this to not get out of control.” He is a veteran of a barricade of USAC facilities for more than a year after the election of Mazariegos, a Giammattei ally who the most strident student movements have labeled a “narco-rector.” Tonight a sign in the middle of the street reads: “Mazariegos is no rector, he’s a cowardly usurper.” Alpaca explains that after the protest he became more secretive, and that is why he now hides his identity: “The authorities have me in their sights,” he says. Alpaca was the one who convened the group on Monday, October 2, the first day of the national strike, to take this street.

A tiny man about 40 years old, with brown leather loafers, beige chinos, and three upper teeth forming an island in his mouth, approaches curiously to shake my hand. He scours my face as if searching for a message between the lines.

“How are things?” I ask, trying to break the ice.

“Everything is fantastic,” he responds, making an exaggerated rainbow motion with one hand.

“Are you also a student here?”


“In which department?”


“Oh. Sounds complicated,” I say.

“Why?” he asks, gazing at me perplexed as if I’ve just insulted him.

“That was the department of the rector, Mazariegos, no?”

“With all due respect, I have no rector,” he declares, and after shooting one more look my way he jumps into dance, spinning away to the beat of merengue from Los Hermanos Rosario: “Y tiene swing. Y baila swing. Y goza swing. Qué lindo, swing, swing, swing”.

Morning for the Resistance

Now past 2 in the morning, nobody is dancing. Two early-twenty-somethings sleep on top of their backpacks below the tarp. Amid more rain and more cold, a handful of the 12 original demonstrators, who will stay up the entire night here, share the reasons for their undertaking.

“This is a symbolic place in front of the university,” says Betsabel, a friendly woman with large, round black glasses who worked at a publishing house until the pandemic and is now unemployed. She recalls the legacy of social activism and political influence of the USAC: “There have been so many struggles, so much blood. We’re here to revindicate the USAC in its absence. Most of us are alumni and we’re well aware that it is the people of Guatemala who have paid for our education.”

Chino, a photographer who has known Betsabel for a number of years, interjects: “I see this as a reflection of what is happening downtown. We already tried the marches, filling the plaza and in front of the Constitutional Court. It didn’t work. We have an obligation to the coming generations.”

“What’s more,” adds Betsabel, “heavy trucks pass through here in front of the university. When you stop the trailers you paralyze the country, but the truckers, too, are in a tough spot. They have to deal with crumbling highways and are forced to work through their exhaustion.”

One of the Transurbano drivers, Fernando Orellana, a heavy-set Guatemalan-Salvadoran who is 28 years old, confirms that the Collective stepped out in the morning in front of the three buses, which are now parked diagonally, two on one side and the third in the other direction, cutting off traffic. He says that the students pooled their money to refund the passengers’ tickets.

On Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, a group of students and alumni of San Carlos University blockaded a major thoroughfare in front of the university. Photo Roman Gressier
On Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, a group of students and alumni of San Carlos University blockaded a major thoroughfare in front of the university. Photo Roman Gressier

Hours later, the collective now sees the parked buses as the ace up their sleeve discouraging the police, which mid-morning sent a group of riot police but without incident, from dispersing them.

Nobody is eager to say whether they paid the Transurbano drivers for their time, but Orellana recounts that when the group stopped him he called his boss, who responded: “Do what they say. Stay there with them.”

“I support the strike. It’s important for the country,” he adds. “They are fighting against a coup d’état that will set Guatemala even further back.”

The third driver has shut himself in his bus all day, refusing to emerge and accusing the protesters of having kidnapped him. He told them that if he were to refuse to stay he would lose his job. “It’s too bad what has happened to the drivers, but as Subcomandante Marcos would say, it’s collateral damage,” shrugs a student with a long, raspy mustache.

By 3:15 in the morning the intense rain has returned and the group’s thinned ranks are sleeping or chatting under the tarp. A group of women discuss current events: how surprised they are that Sandra Torres won 40 percent of the second-round presidential vote; or their attribution of the support that Zury Ríos maintains in Quiché, where her father led the perpetration of genocide, to Evangelical conservatism; or how police officers in Guatemala must purchase their own uniforms and even their bullets. They speculate that this is why “they don’t like to shoot.” Let’s hope the blockades have let the truckers rest, they say, pobrecitos, poor them; the owners of the companies run them ragged.

The hours just before dawn are delirium.

“Ah, it’s past 4,” announces Betsabel. Three police officers far off in the distance look like dormant zombies in their pickup cruiser. “Jacobo Árbenz used to say that if nothing happens before 3:30 a.m. then there will be no coup d’état tonight. And he dealt with that for six months until they overthrew him.”

At 6:15, a truck brings half a dozen new officers within 50 yards of the buses. One by one they form a line, the last one clicking his boot in place in military fashion. After posing for a photo taken by a superior officer, they break formation. Three women who brought coffee and sweet bread to those who spent the night in front of the university also shared some with the police. “Those boys must be awfully tired, too,” said a woman maternally. The blockade at the entrance of San Carlos has endured its first 24 hours. Two days later, on Monday afternoon, it will still be in place.

On Friday night the president of the USAC workers’ union told me that at 7 a.m. the following morning he planned to travel to the MP headquarters for an in-person meeting with the leaders of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, the most influential Indigenous authority in the country, as a first step in exploring stronger political ties. Indigenous authorities’ mobilization is the undisputed center of this protest movement and appears to be the only point of certainty in the public showing of support for Arévalo and his future administration.

At the allotted time in front of the MP there is no sign of the meeting. Neither of the two sides has appeared yet.

“Ah, you were with the students?” asks Félix Aguilar, a 60-year-old Xinka man sitting in a line of plastic chairs near a fireplace with a kettle brewing in the middle of the street.

“That’s right. I spent the night with them.”

“They’re a bunch of chingones, badasses. After I got out of the Army in the eighties I was arrested by riot police with some of the university students. And some lawyers from the university got us out of there.”

“Is there solidarity today between the university students and Indigenous peoples?”

“Now there is, today. Just yesterday we were able to finally see the in-person support.”

Nearby vendors are preparing breakfast on stoves to feed the protestors who will fill this street again today. The place looks hungover. Some doctors spent the night in a tent in the center of the protest area. A woman, sweeping away brown sludge-water and trash from the pavement, turns to Félix: “Everything needs to be ready for when all these people come back.”

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