Wednesday, August 30th 2023
The Massacre of Tlatelolco
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The Mexican Government’s Brutal Crackdown on the Protest Movement of 1968
On October 2nd, 1968,
the Mexican government killed between 200 and 300 people demonstrating peacefully in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (the Plaza of Three Cultures). Relics of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, convents from the Spanish conquest, and the post-revolutionary structures, such as the foreign relations building, ringed the plaza. The killings took place in the center of the Tlatelolco neighborhood.
The Mexican military, including secretive units, police, and even snipers posted in buildings surrounding the square opened fire on the students. In the confusion, the government successfully covered up the story. Over the next days and weeks, the newspapers and radio reports of the massacre recounted the government’s version of the events: that the students had posted snipers in the surrounding buildings and police and military forces were defending themselves from the students who had initially opened fire.
This story was clearly a bald-faced lie from the Mexican president at the time, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. However, combined with a series of arrests of student organizers and even civilian passers-by, the government had achieved its goal of quelling the students movements before the opening of the Olympic games a mere 10 days later. When the opening ceremony took place, there was hardly a whisper of the massacre in the foreign press.
Who Were The Students
The student activists were largely from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The independent university, one of the largest in the world, had seen their campuses raided by police and even covert military divisions. The students were primarily protesting the pervasive inequality in Mexican society and the government’s indifference to the country's wealth gap. This turned to a general protest against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, for its Spanish initials), Mexico’s de facto political party, which had been in power since the Mexican Revolution for nearly 40 years. A “one-party democracy” was the catchphrase for the PRI’s 79-year political monopoly where they enjoyed a nearly uncontested run of presidencies, governorships, and even local government seats.
As the movement progressed, the supporters grew in number. Workers demonstrating for improved wages and working conditions joined the students.The urban lower classes and even wealthier Mexicans, annoyed by the excessive corruption, added their numbers to the “student” marches.
The protests began to escalate as the Mexico City Olympics was set to begin in October. On the 27th of August, one march drew an estimated 400,000 culminating in the Zócalo in the center of Mexico City—right outside the Palacio Nacional, offices of the government, and other grand buildings housing the levers of power. After this march, it was clear how popular the movement actually was.
Who Was the Government
The government was under the administration of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. As mentioned before, his party, the PRI, had been in power for the first 40 years when Diaz Ordaz was elected—with the blessing of the previous president. Despite the popularity that the PRI enjoyed at the time, largely due to strong economic growth nationwide, they relied on shady practices, including electoral fraud, co-optation of opposition groups, censorship and control of media, vote-buying, and manipulation of the judiciary.
The PRI's control over important institutions, such as the National Electoral Institute, raised concerns about transparency and fairness of elections. Moreover, the PRI's dominance in Mexican politics often meant that opposition parties faced significant challenges gaining widespread support and couldn't compete on an equal footing. Corruption was pervasive within the PRI's ranks. Party members and officials often engaged in bribery, embezzlement, and other corrupt strategies to maintain loyalty and ensure support.
Adding to these dubious practices was the character of the Mexican President. Obsessed with order, Diaz Ordaz refused outright to bend in the slightest. His position in regards to the students was one of antagonism from the first. Rather than accede to the (reasonable and widely popular) demands by the protesters, Diaz Ordaz treated them with brutality, arresting organizers and intimidating the participants.
It's unclear how much Diaz Ordaz believed the insults he hurled at the student movement. He accused the students of plotting to overthrow the government and install a communist regime, which was clearly false.
To that end, the police and other government officials would regularly arrest student organizers and others involved (often only marginally) with the protest movement and force them to sign “confessions” to their imagined and fabricated crimes. One important point of contention was the Constitutional Article 145, giving police the power to arrest anyone for the crime of “social disillusion”, which had such a loose definition that it could be applied to any supposed infraction the government determined.
The Eyes of the World on Mexico
The student movement was likely planning demonstrations during the 1968 Olympic Games, which were hosted by Mexico City, when the eyes of the world would be on them. Diaz Ordaz surely knew this, and in his paranoia and inflexibility, there was only one path. As the Chief of State of the army, navy, air force, and the shadowy Batallon Olimpia. This last was a radical government-aligned student group, which ostensibly had been created to maintain order during the Games. This organization was also deputized to carry out arrests, torture, and forced disappearances of protesters leading up to the Olympic Games. With these armed forces at his disposal, Diaz Ordaz had the means to use lethal force and horrible violence to stop the protests in their tracks. Furthermore, with the national press under the thumb of the PRI, the president chose the path of murder and coverup. The stage was set for a showdown.
After the protest march of August 27th, it was clear that the students had a broad base of support and would not simply go away. However, the president’s hard line against the protest was also clear. At midnight of the 28th, police and military forces began to attack the protesters who had not left the Zócalo. The next day, the president issued his Informe (similar to a State of the Union address) where he swore to use any necessary force to quell the student protests. In the coming months, he would keep his word.
Throughout the month of September, the government ramped up espionage against the demonstrators and arrested organizers. Police and other thugs would harass the student movement, invading universities, attacking protesters, violently breaking up gatherings, and arresting leaders.
The Massacre of Tlatelolco
Even before gunfire shattered the peaceful protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on the night of October 2nd, it was clear that something was awry. The electricity and telephone lines in the surrounding buildings had been cut off, and a disproportionate military, police, and paramilitary presence was felt. In the evening, a police helicopter and an army helicopter circled above the crowd. A force of 5,000 soldiers with armored trucks and small tanks surrounded the plaza. It was later revealed that the infantry had orders to seal the plaza and not let anyone either in or out so that the government forces could round up and make arrests. Appearing to signal the attack, the helicopter sent out two signal flares, one green and one red.
Elena Poniatowska, a prominent and influential Mexican journalist of Polish descent described the attack in her book Noche de Tlatelolco (meaning "Night of Tlatelolco" in Spanish), with the title of the English translation as “Massacre in Mexico”. "Flares suddenly appeared in the sky overhead and everyone automatically looked up. The first shots were heard then. The crowd panicked [and] started running in all directions," she wrote. Carefully assembling the stories and eyewitness accounts, Poniatowska was able to publish the gruesome truth of the night–the Mexican army and other forces of the state had conspired to carry out one of the most heinous massacres in its post-colonial history.
In order to avoid crossfire from the snipers and government soldiers, members of the Batallon Olimpa wore white gloves or white pieces of fabric on their left hands, indicating that they were in on the conspiracy to kill the demonstrators. Eyewitness accounts confirm that members of the Batallon Olimpia set up a machine gun on the 19th floor of an adjacent building, El Molino del Rey. It's worth noting Luis Echeverria’s role in the events. As Diaz Ordaz’s Secretary of State, he was tasked with maintaining order within the country. Echeverría, who had a sister-in-law living in that building, likely authorized and facilitated the Battalion. He would later be arrested on charges of genocide.
The chaos lasted through the night and into the next morning. Thousands of people were injured and hundreds killed. (There were an estimated 10,000 people in the crowd that night.) Blood ran in the gutters. The military’s established lines held the crowd in and police and military combed through the surrounding buildings, arresting, beating, and killing the protesters they found hiding.
Ambulances transported the bodies of the maimed and killed. When the number of bodies grew too large for the ambulances to transport, military officials piled the bodies (both dead and alive) into military trucks (though some claim they were garbage trucks) and removed them from the square. At one point around 3,000 people in the square were rounded up, stripped naked, and locked in the adjacent convent building until the next morning. In the following days, members of the Batallón Olimpo, dressed as utilities workers combed the nearby houses searching for and arresting students, protesters, and people aiding them.
In the morning, the Mexican government’s carefully curated retelling of the events came out in the newspapers. According to these accounts, armed protesters had begun the shooting and the government forces returned fire in self-defense and that between 20-28 people were killed. According to Kara Michelle Borden, in her, Mexico '68: An Analysis of the Tlatelolco Massacre and Its Legacy “the news outlets, fed information by the government and watched closely by Díaz Ordaz, uniformly portrayed the students as armed attackers who had snipers in the buildings.” The coverup was successful. No major newspapers reported the presence of the helicopter flares or the carefully staged trap into which the protesters had stepped. Nearly all newspapers in the nation, heeling to the PRI, dutifully reported the government’s version of the events.
Even the foreign press, some of whose reporters had been present at the massacre, stayed largely silent as the veil of chaos and confusion was so complete. The Olympic Games proceeded without incident (with the notable exception, of course, of the controversial Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium), and the world looked on at a whitewashed “one-party democracy”, shining a beacon of civility and decency in Latin America.
The Truth Comes Out
Though the truth remained mostly hidden for decades, like all conspiracies on such a grand scale, the loose ends of the government’s tale began to unravel. During the following 32 years, the PRI retained its grip on the levers of power and successfully stymied multiple attempts to investigate the incidents, including PRI president Ernesto Zedillo authorizing a congressional inquiry in 1998.
Finally in 2000, with the election of Vicente Fox from the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN political party), the PRI lost its grip on the presidency. In 2002, Fox declassified documents related to the massacre and appointed a special prosecutor to investigate and eventually prosecute the parties responsible for the atrocity. After four years of investigations, Luis Echeverría, at the age of 84, was charged and placed on house arrest awaiting trial for genocide. As a blow to the prosecution, those who lost loved ones, and those who were injured on that night in 1968, the charges were dismissed due to a lack of evidence and Echeverría went free.
In October of 2003, following a Freedom of Information request, the National Security Archives at George Washington University in Washington DC released thousands of records from the US Department of State, CIA, FBI, Pentagon, and White House detailing the role the US government played in the suppression of protests and the harassment of the students and others involved. The CIA produced reports on the movements of the students in Mexico and shared this information with the Mexican government on an almost daily basis. In one ominous document drafted just days before the massacre, the head of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad and Secretary of State Echeverría assured the CIA that the situation would be “under complete control very shortly.”
The Legacy of Tlatelolco and the Beginnings of Mexico’s Dirty War
As details began to emerge of the sheer scale of the massacre, Mexicans’ former high regard of the government (the PRI after all drew its legitimacy from the Revolution, a point of pride for most Mexican citizens) dissolved, turning to apathy, anger, and contempt. Though having produced immensely popular presidents like Benito Juarez and Lázaro Cardénas, the PRI's rule was marred by human rights abuses and political repression. Extrajudicial killings, the detainment of political prisoners, and forced disappearances of opposition members and activists were the status quo.
More widespread still was the corruption, in particular bribery, conspiracy, and embezzlement from federal politicians, to state government officials, and even municipal leaders. During the presidencies of Diaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverria, and Jose Lopez Portillo, Mexico was in the height of its nearly twenty-year Dirty War. Apathy and general disdain for the Mexican government grew and persists to this day. Few young people regard politicians as anything other than criminals, subject to scorn and derision. If you asked, many would probably list zero politicians they admire or even respect.
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