The Mexican government’s inability to maintain law and order is having a major impact on access to higher education in the drug violence-ravaged northeast of the country.
According to a report by Mexico’s Proceso magazine, a wave of extortion, kidnappings and even killings of university students by vicious drug cartels in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila has forced the closure of several universities.
The breakdown in security has also fueled a major exodus, with thousands of students leaving the region to complete their studies in safer parts of Mexico or across the border in the United States.
For the last two years, the Gulf Cartel and its fearsome former armed wing Los Zetas have demanded that universities in Tamaulipas pay them 100,000 to 350,000 pesos (US$6,500 to $22,900) per month in return for “protection,” Proceso reported.
The extortion has led to the closure of two campuses run by the private University of the Valley of Mexico (UVM), while Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce has denounced threats against another 18 universities in the region.
UVM temporarily shut down its facility in the border city of Reynosa last September as a direct result of the authorities’ inability to provide sufficient protection.
The university claimed that the campus had been receiving military protection, but as soon as the soldiers withdrew from the facility it was attacked by organized crime.
Then, in February, UVM announced the permanent closure of its campus in nearby Nuevo Laredo, again citing recent threats from organized crime.
The university reported the presence of “hawks,” or cartel lookouts, and armed men circling in trucks outside the Nuevo Laredo campus grounds.
“Due to the serious nature of the threats, which included direct attempts against the lives of members of our community, we took the decision to vacate the premises and close the campus,” UVM said in a statement.
While emphasizing that extortion is a national problem that also affects many other aspects of society, Dr. Sergio Cárdenas, a Harvard-educated specialist in higher education policy at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), told Latin Correspondent that “universities are particularly vulnerable” to organized crime.
“When closures occur because of threats or extortion then without doubt the authorities should be doing more to protect them, especially because educational institutions are the primary tool we have to lead young people away from a life of crime,” Cárdenas added.
One of the first indications that Mexico’s universities were becoming caught in the crossfire of the drug war came in March 2010, when two students from the prestigious Tec de Monterrey were shot dead at the entrance of its Nuevo León campus.
The pair were collateral damage in a shootout between the military and cartel gunmen but, in a bid to brush the killings under the carpet, the soldiers planted firearms on the innocent students’ bodies to make it look like they were criminals.
Since then the number of people studying in the region is said to have fallen drastically.
Dr. Rossana Reguillo Cruz, a renowned sociologist and anthropologist from Guadalajara’s Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESO), confirmed the reports of students fleeing from northern Mexico.
“I was recently giving a talk in Torreón, Coahuila, and several teachers told me that there has been an incredible exodus of students from the region. This demonstrates the deterioration in the quality of daily life, security and democracy that we’ve suffered in Mexico,” she told Latin Correspondent.
“Of course the government should be doing more to protect them, and not just the universities, but the population in general,” Reguillo added. “But the authorities are not doing the job that they’re supposed to do.”