A University Under Siege

A move to outsource the dining halls at Universidad de Los Andes sends pro-government armed groups into a rampage of intimidation and violence, virtually shutting down Mérida's university.

For years, Mérida and its university have been a playground for pro-government armed terrorist groups (or colectivos, if you are fond of euphemisms). But the last few weeks have been especially violent, as an apparently harmless, boring administrative measure taken by the Universidad de los Andes sparked the rage of a newborn chavista coalition around the city.

ULA and many other public universities around the country manage a network of free dining halls for its students. To become a capable professional, the thinking goes, you must also be adequately nourished. You might agree or not to this, but either way Comedores have always been part of university life.

Lately they have actually gone from being a little help to students from other cities who can’t afford to eat out, to becoming an absolutely indispensable safety net for students who can’t feed themselves any other way.

Dining halls have been managed  for years now by openly chavista labor unions (sindicatos). These groups, constantly plagued by corruption accusations, have reportedly been involved in the disappearance of tons of food from the halls’ kitchens; creating a burden too heavy for the already stretched university budget. The result? Much worse meals.

Being in charge of several hundreds of tons of food amid hunger creates overwhelming incentives for corruption.

Earlier this year, Universidad de los Andes (ULA) decided to outsource the comedores’ administration to private contractors. Trouble.

These groups have reportedly been involved in the disappearance of entire tons of food from the halls’ kitchens.

By now, most of ULA’s campuses, all of them located in different parts of Mérida city, have been actively attacked by anti-outsourcing groups. Protesters, who accuse Rector Mario Bonucci, an outspoken opposition supporter, of trying to privatize the university, have occupied buildings, preventing people from getting in and, at times, attacking those who defy them.

Several schools have been the target of these attacks:


Located in the campus housing ULA’s main dining hall; the school of engineering has been the epicenter of the whole mess surrounding outsource-a-ggedon. Three weeks ago, a group of so-called chavista students breached the building in the middle of the night and, armed to the teeth, forced security officers off campus grounds. Hours later, as students began to arrive, they were denied entry to the facility.

After the group lifted the “protest,” classes resumed for a few days until the campus was taken again, first by colectivos, then by pro-government workers’ unions. The situation has been developing since then and to date, engineering students have not had a single class in a month.

They took us by surprise, beat us, robbed us and even took some guys’ clothes… forcing them to run away naked.

To look for solutions, the school’s student movement, along with Dean Rubén Chacón called for an assembly in a shopping center steps from the school. The meeting was meant to take place last Wednesday, but it didn’t go as planned. Before it even started, a group of hooded thugs on motor bikes waving red banners stormed the place and demanded the meeting be cancelled.

“They arrived in a very violent tone, throwing rocks and bottles a us,” a friend tells me.

“A group of them approached us and started beating up students, when the dean tried to intervene, he was kicked. After insulting everyone around and shouting out loud that the dining halls shouldn’t be privatized (countless campaigns on social media have been deployed trying to explain the difference between outsourcing and privatizing) they forced us to leave the place,” he tells me.

The Engineering school (and the mall where the meeting was being held) is located just a few meters away from the Domingo Salazar residencies, once a complex of university dorms that were eventually made the city’s colectivos HQ. As the group of students left the place they ended up being ambushed by a second group of thugs that came out of those buildings.

“They took us by surprise, beat us, robbed us and even took some guys’ clothes… forcing them to run off naked. We ran to a nearby gas station and tried to hide there. When we arrived we found a group of State Police officers blocking traffic. We asked them to help us and they said there was nothing they could do besides calling an anti-riot unit, and they had no authorization to do that either.”

In the middle of the chaos one of the students was taken hostage in a nearby hotel. He was released after a few minutes. In return, his keepers only demanded a shirt from one of the school pro-opposition student movements to burn it.

“Thank God, nothing else happened,” my friend tells me.

By my standards, what happened was bad enough.

The Engineering school remains shuttered. Student representatives issued a statement, but no one really knows for sure what will happen, or when they’ll have classes again.


ULA’s med school has been the target of several attacks by pro-government groups in the past, they even burned an auditorium to the ground last year. So no one was expecting a different outcome this time around. After being “peacefully” taken by union activists and security guards last week, most academic activities resumed following an agreement between the local student movement and the protesters. That agreement went to hell yesterday morning when a group of unidentified individuals belonging to a colectivo stormed into the school threatening to kill anyone who failed to leave immediately.

“We tried to talk to them at first” José, one of the students who was there told me.

“I personally approached them…I told them that we needed to get to class, take our exams…move forward in order to get to the hospital. I told them we might end up saving their lives or their loved ones’ one day. But they had to let us fucking study in order to do so. They kept saying the same… That they didn’t care, that it was all about the dining halls. They were not letting anyone privatize the food of the students, they insisted.”

José says the situation got more and more tense. A couple of students even reached for one of the thugs who was threatening them with a gun and apparently tried to disarm him.

“Oh I see, you’re looking for bullets,” one the thugs told José. “Look at these guys, they don’t want to leave the place… they want plomo.”

The hooded guy said as he and his partners unveiled the handguns they had under their jackets.

“They grabbed some of the students in front of me and started beating them on the head with their pistols’ grips” José says to me. “After that we left… they followed us for a while but eventually they stopped.”

I told them we might end up saving their lives or their loved ones’ one day.

As long as they were alone, the invaders started doing the usual. Breaking doors, stealing the few valuable things they could find inside, and blocking the street in front of the building with burning tires. According to some witnesses, a government truck got to the place and regularly resupplied their tire stock.

Shortly after, the thugs vandalized and destroyed most of the University Center Federation (FCU for its acronym in Spanish), the guild of the national student movement. The police, just like the day before in engineering, stood motionless a few blocks away.

Some students went to the local Police Station asking for answers. They got none.

I’ve been there myself, sitting on that very same street, in front of that very same station. Many times. I wish I could tell those students that it makes a difference, but I can’t. I was there when armed malandros stormed in, shooting doors and kicking students to the ground. I was there when they burned the place and yet the story seems to be happening  all over again.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to give next generations of students more hopeful words.

Odontología and the Rectorado building

The School of Dentistry is located in the same building that houses the rectorado. An amazing piece of colonial-style architecture built by Manuel Mujica Millán, one of Mérida’s most famous architects. Even before this current crisis hit, things have been extremely harsh for dentistry students. As dollar prices and inflation reach the boundaries of the Solar System, the items required for them to get their work done have become increasingly harder to acquire. Take a walk to Las Américas Avenue any Friday at noon and you’ll find small groups of students asking for money in the streets to buy the materials they need to get their dental practices done.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the place has been burglarized three times during the last week. Thieves breached the library, and no… they didn’t steal any books; they left with some printers, a dvd and some medicines.

The room where the University Council holds its plenaries was breached too. The only thing stolen from there was an old laptop that happened to store files apparently regarding the latest investigations the university had pursued on the corruption nightmare of the dining halls. Convenient, at the very least.

Similar situations have been taking place in other schools too. Pharmacy and Bioanalysis schools located in a building right next to the local hospital, have been shaken by riots most days during the last two weeks; similar situations have been developing in Law and Human Sciences school too.

Yesterday the university decided to suspend all its administrative and academic activities for two days, while a new course of action is set. In the meantime, mayor Carlos García asked the Governor to help him defend the university. Good luck with that, Mayor, you might as well ask Maduro to take a step forward in the defense of democracy, too.

Nobody is fooled. Comedores outsourcing is a mere pretext for an attack on the Universidad de Los Andes. The government has decided to destroy autonomous universities as an institution. They will not stop. 

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine