The year 1968 was a turbulent time in many places. Disparate and more organized movements among students created unrest in France and the United States. Another place this occurred was Mexico. On the night of 2 October 1968, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City, thousands of bullets ripped into the huge crowd of protesters. Thirty people were killed. Or over 300. The shooting was initiated by leftist students who had been clashing with the police/government since July. Or was ordered and carried out by security forces.
A struck match
While there had been some protests and student strikes in the past,1 what started the march toward the outburst of violence of 2 October began with a less politicized action.
On 22 July, there was a clash between two groups of secondary students in one of the neighborhoods of Mexico City. The exact reason why it took place isn't entirely clear. Various causes have been given, including interschool rivalries, "girls," and similar things. Following the fight, the city sent in special riot police (Granaderos) to arrest those involved and stop the collateral vandalism. The tactics used to crack down on the students were so harsh that they drew protest.
From the government's point of view, this was business as usual and because of earlier incidents with university and technical school altercations between students or students and police (which sometimes included stealing, vandalism, and the destruction of city buses in order to protest fare rates), it felt that the students of Mexico had been given enough prior warnings.
And it wasn't anything new as far as government attempts to control dissent and unruly aspects of the citizenry. On the other hand, in the past it was less willing to resort to more explicit violence in order to achieve those ends. Why? The main reason was the Olympics.
Mexico had been chosen to be the first "third world" country to host the Olympic Games (this remains true through 2002) to be held between 12 and 27 October. It was the first Latin American country and Spanish-speaking country to do so (Spain hosted in 1992). Hosting was a very big deal to the country and to the government. This went beyond a great sense of pride to other things. As is usual, hosting the Olympics creates a lot of revenuenot just immediately, though the tourism and merchandising (even more true today) and other local profits, but as a means to "show off" the country for future tourism and potential business. It also meant a number of public works that would serve dual purposes of both the games and public or civil use following the end of the competition.
Mexico had a lot riding on the games and had invested a great deal of time, effort, and money (over $140 million) into the endeavor. Even though the there was little hope of winning many medals, efforts were made to use the games as a way to expose the world to the culture of Mexicoagain, beyond pride (and, perhaps, distraction from lack of awards), it was a matter of showcasing the country for future tourism and possibly business ventures. All of this would be dependent on how the country would be seen by the rest of the world. If it appeared to be a place of unrest where the government could not control its own citizens, the carefully constructed image would have been for nothing.
The events of that year have to be viewed through the filter of the upcoming games and its importance to the Mexican government.
The fuse is lit
That year, both sides had upped the ante. As noted, the precipitating event was the fight and subsequent crack down by the police, but there was unrest brewing at the same time. Occasional clashes were not uncommon between the police and students from the Universidad Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM) and vocational schools that were part of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute, IPN). These were usually not overly violent, they were short-lived, and were usually confined to the vicinity of the schools.
That year the violence, area, and the numbers involved would increase. Also, the unwritten rule about leaving the president out of grievances would be broken and President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz would be blamed outright. And what were the grievances? In addition to the way the police had handled the 22 July incident, the students were increasingly becoming outraged by the divide between the rich and poor and by the way the governmentcontrary to what the Mexican people had been led to believe following the revolutionwas less concerned with social action and the regular citizen than with maintaining its own power and catering to the elites. For its part, the governmentwhich had used violence on occasionbecame far more disposed to harsh suppression of the students. As time went on, the military would be brought in.
To protest the actions of the riot police, IPN and another technical institute staged a protest march on 26 July. They happened to hold the march near another group, the Central Nacional de Estudiantes Democráticos (CNED), a pro-Castro group (protesting among other things, Vietnam and US "imperialism" in places like the Dominican Republic). The students stopped to listen to CNED and its call for a revolution similar to that of Cuba. Rather than continuing on to the campus, the march became redirected toward the Zócalo, the city's central square and the heart of the city and national government (the National Palace is located there).
It isn't clear what stated the next incidentwhether some of the protesters (from one or both groups) began vandalizing businesses and shops or the police and Granaderos simply began attacking them (the police forces used both fixed bayonets and armored recon vehicles). Police made numerous arrests, including members of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). They would also go on to raid PCM headquarters and the offices of La Voz de Mexico, the PCM newspaper. This is likely the moment when the student uprising became associated with and blamed on Communist elements domestically and abroad.
The students dispersed, running down streets and through narrow alleys back to the schools, tipping over buses (in some cases setting them on fire) to act as obstacles on the way. They then occupied and barricaded themselves in UNAM. There would be a three day siege during which students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails to keep the police back. The Secretary of Defense made a public statement that the military was prepared to "repel any aggression" and do so "with all energy and force necessary" (www.gwu.edu). The mayor called in the army which, in a stunning example of heavy-handed overkill, blew open one of the UNAM's doors with a bazookaresulting in the event becoming known as buzukazo. The soldiers stormed the buildings and arrests were made. There were a number of injuries and four deaths. Or zero deaths, as the government maintained.
A (US) Department of Defense Intelligence Information Report (future references to these reports will be referred to as "DIA") from 15 August comments that the "military performed creditably" in stopping the "disorders." It does mention that "Private comment of 'over-reaction' by the Army has been heard" and that some eyewitnesses have claimed "they may have acted a little too firmly."
Besides the use of violent tactics to invade the university, this was significant because the school was supposed to be "autonomous," meaning that police could not interfere with the university (largely for reasons of education and general freedom from governmental control) except on rare occasions. Though this might have been justified (the use of force excepted), setting up a siege and bringing in the army violated that autonomy and the tradition of the universities being off limits to security forces. Taken together, the government's actions united the students against the government and brought them sympathy from students throughout the country and eventually from other groups like unions, women (traditionally second class citizens), intellectuals, and the PCM (which was to be expected).
It was at that time that the students formed the Consejo Nacional de la Huelga (National Strike Council, CNH) around which to organize. They did fairly well but were barely able to organize and control the large numbers of students that would later be involved. They issued a series of demands to the government:
1. Liberty for political prisoners. 2. Dismissal of [police chiefs] General Luis Cento Ramirez and Raul Mendiolea, and Lt. Colonel Armando Frias [chief of the granaderos]. 3. Abolition of the granadero corps, direct instrument of repression, and prohibition of the creation of similar corps. 4. Abolition of Articles 145 and 145 bis of the Penal Code, juridical instruments of aggression. 5. Indemnification of the families of the dead and injured who had been victims of aggression since July 26th. 6. Clarification of the responsibility of officials for the acts of repression and vandalism committed by the police, granaderos, and the Army.
The penal code articles were a means the government could use to imprison people who were a threat of "social dissolution" (rwor.org). This included most dissidents, communists, and unionists. It should be noted that none of the students that had been arrested for the 22 July incident or during the Zócalo incident were being held under those articles. That the PCM also demanded the articles be revoked only served as "proof" that they and supposed outside agitators were responsiblesomething the Mexican government would claim for almost 30 years. The mayor promised to accede to most of the demands and take the rest "under study."
On 1 August, the president promised to begin a "dialogue" with students and start negotiations. The next two weeks were spent deciding on the place and time for the talks, as well as the agenda of the meeting. That week, both UNAM and IPN students held marches through the city, numbering in the thousands. To show both solidarity and commitment of purpose, the CNH held a march from the National Anthropological Museum to the Zócalo on 13 August. There were an estimated 300,000 students involved (the DIA report estimated 80,000). The dialogues began shortly after, though little progress on any of the demands was made.
Another demonstration at Zócalo was held on 27 August. This time estimated crowds of 100,000 to 400,000 filled the square (the lower number was the DIA estimate). When the demonstration was over, a number of students remained (possibly as many as 5,000) with the intention of camping there until things were resolved. In the early morning of 28 August, the government activated police forces, soldiers, armored vehicles, and firemen to break up the crowd.
The next afternoon, a counter (pro-government) demonstration was held that erupted into conflict when demonstrators tried to burn the black and red "strike flag" that the students had erected in the square the day before (replacing the Mexican flag). Rocks were thrown and armored cars moved in. Some soldiers shot into the air. There was a report of someone who fired a rifle from a balcony (the man arrested was a jewelerno further mention of him in the reports). Some other shots were fired elsewhere during the afternoon. Students were dispersed and once again barricaded themselves in the university neighborhood. Soldiers and other security forces patrolled the streets while things quieted down.
On 1 September, the president gave his State of the Union Address. He spent about a third of his three hour speech discussing the student problem. While a few concessions were made, he took a firm stand on the whole situation. While there had been talk of the students trying to disrupt the speech, it did not happen (some of the students had unwisely or mistakenly asked to have their "dialogue" with the leader at the same time the speech was scheduled to take place).
There was an incident, however, reported in the papers on 3 September. Apparently, someoneit isn't clear who, but there are some obvious potential suspectshad taped 26 sticks of dynamite to an electrical tower north of Mexico City. A faulty connection in the trigger mechanism kept it from exploding which would have cut off power during the president's address, making it difficult, if not impossible, to broadcast it over television or radio to the country.
With the exception of the sabotage attempt, things remained relatively quiet in the city for the first two weeks of September, while the city geared up for the annual Independence Day celebration. There was some tensionas there had been since the start of the unrest in Julybut little confrontation or conflict (it should be noted that while most of the main events are being listed, throughout the period there were other minor clashes and demonstrations).
Since the government had actually done little of anything consequential, despite having made some promises, another major march was planned for 13 September. It was to be a controlled, disciplined, non-confrontational march (again to Zócalo). There is some dispute over the number involvedthe DIA source gives its usual lower number of 24,000, another gives a total around 250,000 (though possibly a typo). The protesters marched in silence, some even making their point by placing tape over their mouths. The government kept a close eye on the proceedings but felt it wise not to intervene.
Meanwhile, the opening of the Olympics was just a few weeks away and the government felt pressure to clear up the situation to save its image before the world (there were also rumors of plans to disrupt the games). Also, some of the events were being reported in the foreign media and other governments were beginning to reconsider the wisdom of Mexico as the site for the games. The government still maintained that foreign subversives (Communists, Soviet and Cuban) were supporting and influencing, if not actively taking roles, in the unrest.
As early as 9 September, there were doubts about that assertion. A CIA Intelligence Information Cable noted the government's taking the opportunity to "blame the communists, who are always a plausible and tempting target, since they stand to benefit from and have been involved in the disturbances." In fact, the president "attributes the student uprisings to the communists" according to reports and he claimed they had support from both the Cuban and Soviet embassies. However, the report adds that "it is impossible to say with certainty whether he actually believes this to be true" and points out that there is "no hard evidence" linking either beyond "moral support" ("reasonable to assume").
Then the government decided to take decisive action against the uprising. On 18 September, the army invaded the UNAM campus. They arrested/detained as many as 700 or more students, who were marched out with their hands up and some made to lie on the groundaccording to a DIA report cited below; other sources give a count twice as high and report that those arrested included students and their parents who were at the university for examinations. The 30 minute operation ran up against little resistance and there were no casualties. It was accompanied by a governmental announcement justifying the action by claiming knowledge of threats to sabotage the games. It also stated that the students (and some nonstudents) had seized and used the public buildings illegally and were "planning anti-social and possibly criminal activities" (DIA report 24 September 1968).
The government also claimed that the traditional autonomy had been violated by the students and the army had been sent into "restore order," being a "constitutional right and duty" to do so. They reportedly found about half a room of propaganda (Cuban and Chinese), some Molotov cocktails, anti-president and antigovernment posters, and pictures of Che Guevara and Mao.
Though the students had been removed, the army remained to occupy the buildings. This caused more clashes to flare up as other students and nonstudents were outraged by the military invasion of the university and what many called "excessive force." During at least one of the confrontations, the police used tear gas to disperse and/or incapacitate their opponents. One particularly violent one took place 21-22 September (at night) near Tlatelolco (in some historical foreshadowing). Students seized buses and spread graffiti. Shoots rung out from somewhere. Over 500 soldiers accompanied by tanks (with the usual assortment of police and riot cops) battled with the students. Vandalism and Molotov cocktails caused property damage. Injuries may have gone into the hundreds and one Granadero was killedinterestingly, he was killed by an off-duty army lieutenant who claimed the Granadero had been beating and arresting his mother.
Following that, the army occupied IPN as well (23 September). Violence continued sporadically throughout the city; more buses taken and clashes with the police. Students reportedly fired a homemade bazooka at security forces and police. In another area, police apparently fought with snipers firing from the roof of a school. Other incidents of gunfire being exchanged were also reported. Things were becoming tense and the violence was increasing. The city was filled with patrols of police, soldiers, jeeps, and armored cars. Even tanks. Casualties? Many wounded. The number of deaths (if there were any) depends on which side one asks. It is difficult to believe there were not at least a few.
By 27 September, things were quieting down somewhat. The leadership of the CNH knew things would have to move ahead without the conflict that had characterized the preceding week and a half. There was a march at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas numbering about 3,000. It went ahead without incident, though it was small and less enthusiastic compared to past demonstrations. Another was planned for 2 October. The next day, the government named representatives to begin the discussions with the students. The students first demanded the occupation of the universities end, which was carried out on 30 September. They also promised not to disrupt the games. Negotiations began.
Explosion: La noche de Tlatelolco
It was 2 October 1968. Students and other demonstrators gathered at the plaza throughout the day. Some of the people from the apartmentsmany of whom who were sympathetic to the causethat surrounded it joined, as well. Others watched from their windows. At the same time, security forces armed with bayonets and automatic weapons made their presence known (primarily surrounding the plaza). Police, Granaderos, soldiers, jeeps, armored cars. Estimates of protesters range from 3,000 to 10,000. Some had brought spouses, children, and other family members. There were hundreds (at the very least) of security forces, and they likely numbered well over 1,000 (the high estimate being 5,000). Helicopters circled overhead.
As tension began to rise, the students decided announce a cancellation of the proposed march to IPN (supposedly something the government was going to demand they not do) in order to diffuse any chance of worsening that tension. Between 6:00 and 6:15 PM it happened.
One or more flares were fired by one of the helicopters overhead (or from the ground). Police who were in the crowd began to move toward the CNH leadership who had been giving speeches from a balcony. The exits were sealed off. According to witnesses, undercover security forces (an elite battalion specially chosen to be used during the games) in the crowd, identifiable by white gloves they wore (so other forces could differentiate them from the protesters), seized the leadership and arrested them (later there were also accusations that they were being used to incite the students into returning fire to serve as a pretext to attack). According to some eyewitnesses and those involved, those arrested were also beaten.
The plaza exploded in chaos. A shot or shots were heard. Some said it was security forces firing into the air (followed by them being fired upon by snipers on the rooftops). Some said they simply started shooting into the crowd. The government maintained that it was entirely initiated by the students (the DIA report from 18 October 1968 claims the shot or shots preceded the flare). A press conference held afterward, announced that it was begun by students firing automatic weapons. While there will always be a certain amount of doubt as to the definitive precipitating event, the eruption of violence was unquestionable.
Security forces advanced on the crowd, bayonets fixed and firing into it. They also strafed the apartments. The crowd tried to escape but many of the exits were clogged with troops and armored vehicles. According to the DIA report, those fleeing were "hampered (and some were trampled) by encircling foot soldiers and recon vehicles." Students and other protesters threw stones, Molotov cocktails, and other objects from windows. It is not unlikely that some also exchanged fire with the soldiers. The church offered no sanctuary as the priests had been ordered by the archbishop not to allow any of the demonstrators inside. Later, police would seal off the Red Cross Hospital so demonstrators could not seek shelter or aid. Those receiving medical attention were arrested and ambulances stopped.
One of the buildings caught fire after tanks opened fire. Thousands of residents huddled in their buildings waiting for the shooting to stop. As the crowd was beaten backfiguratively and literallyarrests were made and dead and wounded littered the square. Hospitals began filling up with both. Though the most intense shooting only lasted an hour or so, sporadic automatic fire rattled off into the night.
It took over six hours before the shooting stopped at Tlatelolco.
The forces began making sweeps of the 144 buildings surrounding the plaza. More arrests, more claims of beating, more wounded. Those arrested were taken away by the police and "interrogated" (most claimed they endured some degree of torture, in some cases possibly under the supervision or at least observation of US intelligence operatives).2 Many of those not immediately taken away to jails, police stations, or detention centers, were stripped half naked and forced to stand with their arms over their heads. Some were reportedly beaten or stabbed/prodded with bayonets.
In all, well over 1,000 people were arrested. General Jose Hernandez Toledo, who had been shot during the massacre (most likely by protesters) and hospitalized, spoke to a US intelligence source. He had previously stated that the army had "taken good care" of a number of foreigners that were arrested (reportedly some of them Cubans). When asked to elaborate on what he had meant, Toledo explained they had been sent to a military camp (DIA Intelligence Report 23 October 1968).
The security forces suffered some casualties, though at least twelve who died were probably shot by their own men (apparently the autopsies showed they were shot in the back or bayoneted). They claimed to have killed only about 32 of the protesters. Even early estimates put the toll over 200. Some foreign correspondents already suggested higher numbers. Others involved in the protests claimed that trucks arrived on the scene and began carting away bodies.
Most estimates put the number of dead around 325.
Following the house to house search, the police amassed a pile of "evidence," including:
three submachine guns, fourteen .22 caliber rifles with telescopic sights, five shotguns, four carbines, twenty-one revolvers, ten angle irons, 4425 shotgun shells, five 7 millimeters, a radio transceiver, some dynamite, and a few other minor pieces.
Out of 144 buildings inhabited by 70,000 people. Given the amount of force used and the claims of the government it seems odd that the list is so small. The DIA document also mentions reports of soldiers looting.
The back of the student movement had been broken and the CNH knew it. That still did not stop small flare ups of violence between the "guerillas" (as the government referred to them) and police over the next several days. A few small protests were held. On 5 October, the CNH met with the press, pledging and requesting others to renounce violence and demonstrations. Again they promised not to disrupt the games.
By 10 October, the security forces were taken off full alert but remained visible throughout the city. Of the 1,000 plus arrested and detained (and interrogated) on 2 October and within a few days of it, only 128 were formally changed. Charges included were "inciting to rebellion, sedition, property damage, homicide, resisting authorities, robbery, illicit carrying of arms and criminal association" according to the DIA report from 18 October.
The student movement and strikes continued for almost two months and even had some popular support at home and abroad by those who had the same causes or who were outraged by the actions of the Mexican government. It wasn't the same concentrated, passionate movement it had been prior to Tlatelolco. Many of the leaders were subsequently rounded up and arrested. There would still be the occasional protests and a few of the more radical students and nonstudents did go on to fund and participate in antigovernment action, violence and crime being two of the methods used. Governmental forces, using the same violent methods, including "disappearances" (when a "target" is picked up by security forces and usually never seen againalive, at least), continued cracking down on those groups throughout the 1970s.
Despite being hamstrung and knocked down, the movement succeeded in making it more difficult for the Mexican government to repress dissent among the general populace as it once had (criminal rogue elements excepted). In 1970 a (somewhat) less right wing leader was chosen as president: Luis Echeverria. He managed a few slightly more than token reforms and put more money in the educational system.
On the other hand, he had been the Interior Secretary at the time of the movement/massacre (number two to the president) and was in charge of the police and other internal security forces. It was widely believed that he had been the one who ordered the actions of the men in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The government, under Echeverria, continued its harsh methods of dealing with undesirable elements.
The "official story" of the events was maintained by the government for nearly three decades. In 1997, the opposition party won a majority of governmental seats in the Congress for the first time since the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) came to power almost 70 years earlier. They appointed a committee to look into what happened in October 1968. Early the next year, in an interview with the committee, Echeverria denied that he had given the orders to begin shooting the demonstrators. He stated that President Ordaz (who died in 1979) was the only one who could have given those orders.
On the other hand, he did something unprecedented: he admitted that the demonstrators were not the ones who started shooting first. In his words, "These kids were not provocateurs. The majority were the sons and daughters of workers, farmers and unemployed people." The action, if not the massacre (though probably not the scale), was planned ahead of time. This was in contrast to comments he made in 1978, when he adhered to the government's version of events. He also "exonerated" the military by using the "only following orders" argument: "There was a hierarchy. The army is obligated to respond to only one man. My conscience is clear" (www.wlu.edu), he said again placing the blame on the deceased Ordaz.
Hindering investigation (besides reluctance of any governmentally connected people to testify) was that the documents relevant to the 1968 uprising were sealed and even after the 30 year waiting period (as per of Mexican law) expired in 1998, were refused release to investigators. Some were in army archives and claimed to be exempt from the legislation. It is also likely that many documents have been destroyed (or "disappeared"). In 2000, the PRI lost the election and Vicente Fox became president. He promised to open files and start investigations into human rights abuses, disappearances (estimates of as many as 400 since 1970), and Tlatelolco. In 2001, it was decided that a truth commission would not be created to investigate and determine what happened, despite campaign promises to establish one. A special prosecutor's office was set up instead.
During 2001 and into 2002, anonymous photos of the events began to appear, including ones of the security forces wearing the white gloves as identified by eyewitnesses. In February 2002, the paper El Universal published a series of twelve photographs that had taken of the massacre that had been hidden away from security forces who confiscated any material concerning the event shortly after it took place.
Examined by forensic doctors, it was determined that the pictures of bodies and wounded demonstrators exhibited signs of being bayoneted and shot: "They have something in common: they show to the skillful use of the bayonets and firings of firearms with expansive bullets. They knew where to attack. The wounds are not in the arms, the legs or a foot. They go to the heart and the vital organs" (El Universal).
In August, Echeverria refused to testify before the committee. In November, Retired General Luis Gutierrez Oropeza (accused of stationing men at Tlatelolco) also refused to testify. When handed a list of 36 questions, he only gave his name and rank.
As time goes on, it becomes more and more evident that the story given and maintained by the government for 30 years has been a lie. But no one seems willing to accept responsibility for the actions takenbeyond blaming the deceased president. The soldiers were only doing their duty. The commanders were relaying their orders. Those orders are laid solely at the feet of one who cannot say different. Three decades of impunity threatens to become four.
And in a current world situation where any dissent and unrest (legitimate or otherwise) can be dealt with by harsh, even violent, means as long as the word "terrorist" is evoked, it is doubtful that those thousands of people who fill the Plaza de las Tres Culturas each year on the anniversary of the massacre are going to feel justice has been served any time soon.
1There was another incident occurring on 10 July, in which college students fought each other over election results of the school's governing board. It resulted in two killed, a few wounded, and classes being canceled for an indefinite period of time. Another university had a student strike (which turned into a hunger strike) over demands for better salaries for professors. There was also the belief that the government was lying about having won elections in the state of Chihuahua (election fraud was a common charge against the ruling party in Mexico, along with other accusations of corruption).
2US intelligence had a great deal of freedom and cooperation within Mexico. In fact, US operatives, being better equipped and more effective, shared a great deal of intelligence information with the Mexican government in regard to the student situationthe unrest surrounding the opening of the games being a security concern for them, as well. The president received information from CIA intelligence.
US Intelligence documents are available at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB10/nsaebb10.htm
rwor.org/a/v20/970-79/976/mex2.htm (Revolutionary Worker Online site, potential bias taken into account)
flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/history/tlatelolco_1968.html (originally from the Mexican Labor News October 16, 1998 Vol. III, No. 18 Part II
www.wsws.org/news/1998/oct1998/mex-o06.shtml (World Socialist Web Site, potential bias taken into account)
El Universal (online) 11 February 2002 (translated with http://babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/tr)