Commemorations will take place across Mexico on Tuesday, October 2 as the nation remembers one of its most iniquitous chapters: the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968.
Although now ingrained in the minds of many as a turning point for democracy in Mexico, the quashing of the dissident student movement 50 years ago in the nation’s capital changed little in the short term and foreshadowed one of the most repressive decades in the nation’s recent history. Throughout the 1970s and part of the 80s, hundreds of young people were detained and many disappeared as the government abused its authority in a relentless bid to extinguish all vestige of what it believed to be a growing Marxist threat in the republic.
The scene for the calamitous events of October 2, 1968, had been set several months earlier, in July, when the anti-riot police unit known as the “granaderos” entered the campus of the private Instituto Politecnico National (IPN) to break up a fight that had broken out between students of that institution and a group from the Isaac Ochoterena high school, incorporated in the public National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The brutality of the officers’ actions provoked both schools to join forces and demand the dissolution of the polemic police unit. In the ensuing days, several marches were organized, drawing – for the first time – students and faculty from both the public and private sectors. These demonstrations also deteriorated into violence, with the granaderos once again being accused of using excessive force.
On August 1, UNAM Rector Javier Barros Sierra led 50,000 students in a peaceful protest against the repressive actions of the government and violation of university autonomy.
The demonstrations, marches and clashes with police continued throughout the month, and the climate of hostility toward the authoritarian government of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) intensified, with many universities around the nation adding their backing to the dissident movement in Mexico City.
The timing of the student protests was embarrassing for the federal government. The Olympic Games were due to start in the capital on October 12 – a sporting showpiece the country’s leaders believed would show the international community the significant economic and social advances Mexico had made since the end of World War II.
As the clamor against the government increased, so the response became more intransigent. Ordaz – who had become a chief target of the students’ ire – ordered the Army and police to break up sit-ins at both the UNAM and IPN campuses, resulting in much violence and many arrests in the latter case.
Tanks were drafted in to dismantle a camp set up in the Zocalo (main square) and on September 23, Barros resigned as rector of the UNAM.
The sentiment among the students reflected the times: protests in Europe and the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States stirred the emotions of idealistic young men and women who now had the courage to voice their opinions about how they were governed.
On October 2, thousands of students, professors, workers and others gathered peacefully in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of the capital to hear members of the National Strike Committee deliver speeches from the third floor balcony of the apartment block facing the large public square.
Shortly after the rally got underway, an army helicopter dropped a flare into the crowd of around 10,000, triggering a volley of gunfire from the upper floors of the apartment building. Meanwhile, soldiers who had begun to move into the plaza from its edges started to fire on a panicking crowd desperate to flee the carnage.
When the gunfire, which went on for about half an hour, finally stopped, bodies littered the plaza. These were quickly dragged away by soldiers, who combed the apartments and surrounding area, arresting hundreds of people, many of whom were subsequently hauled off to internment camps.
The government later put the death toll at 32, a figure that has always been disputed and one that journalist Elena
Poniatowska debunked in detail in her celebrated book, “Massacre in Mexico,” which contained interviews with hundreds of participants and witnesses.
While accounts differ as to the exact sequence of events that afternoon and the identity of those who fired the original shots from the apartment block, it has since been well documented that government infiltrators had been deployed at the meeting. Photographs and film footage later showed these to be membersof the Olympia Battalion, an elite antiterrorism force formed to provide security for the Olympics. Whether they fired the shots from the apartment building in a deliberate attempt to create confusion and provoke a reaction from the soldiers has still to be proved, but it is indisputable that no coordination existed between the army and the Olympia Battalion on that fateful day. In addition, no weapons belonging to alleged agitators – whom Mexican authorities said initiated the shooting – were ever found in the apartment block.
The outcry against the massacre was muted, as the print and broadcast media collaborated with the Diaz Ordaz regime to present a skewed version of events and paint the students as the aggressors. Tlatelolco effectively ended the student protest movement in its tracks and allowed the Olympic Games to go off without a hitch.
The aftermath of the slaughter, however, has had a profound influence on Mexico’s social and political life. In the short term, Diaz Ordaz and his successors, Luis Echeveria and Jose Lopez Portillo, pursued a ruthless purge of left-wing students and suspected guerrilla groups that has become known as Mexico’s “Dirty War.” With the backing of the United States, government forces carried out forced disappearances, estimated at around 1,200, systematic torture and, most probably, extrajudicial executions.
Change would eventually come. The 1990s saw the liberalization of Mexico’s closed economy and the development of a more independent press, although the PRI managed to cling to power through the end of the century. In 2000, President Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) promised a truth commission to investigate the abuses of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, but it never gained traction and no one was prosecuted for their crimes. More recent efforts to indict former President Echeverria, who was interior minister at the time of the 1968 massacre, and others suspected of ordering troops to fire on the students, have been thrown out by high court judges.
Many theories have been put forward as to the extent of the government’s involvement in the buildup to the Tlatelolco massacre. Due to a lack of documentary evidence and the subsequent whitewash of the true facts, nothing has been proved – and most likely never will be. The date, nonetheless, provides a permanent reminder to Mexican citizens to be always conscious of the fragility of their democracy and to ensure that governments are held responsible for their actions.