Remembering the Tlatelolco Massacre, 50 Years On

Photo: Latin Times


Around the globe, 1968 is the one year during the second half of the 20th century that is most remembered by historians as a year of social unrest because to the large amount of university student rebellions that took place.

Of all of them (in France, Germany and definitely the United States, among others), perhaps the only one still being commemorated is the protest that took place in Mexico. After several months of student strikes at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Polytechnical Institute (definitely the largest schools in the nation) and many others, it all came to an abrupt end on Oct. 2.

That day, the National Strike Committee summoned supporters to a meeting at the Three Cultures Plaza in the Tlatelolco neighborhood at 5 p.m. to reiterate their demands to the government, which was then headed by President Gustavo Díaz Ordáz. At the top of their demands was one for the president to resign.

Over the months, tension around the student strike had built up, making the government extremely nervous. Not only did the students not give up on their harassment of the administration, but in October, they organized strikes with the express intention of embarrassing the government by ruining all the efforts Díaz Ordaz had made to organize the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which by then were only 10 days away. The games were slated to kick off on Oct. 12 to celebrate in tandem the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

Knowing in advance of the students’ gathering, Díaz Ordaz personally ordered his private guards, known as the Presidential Major State (Estado Mayor Presidencial, or EMP), to break up “by any means necessary” the protests. Needless to say, his soldiers only knew one mean – armed violence. The EMP unit rented several penthouses in a building facing the Three Cultures Plaza and set up a group of snipers from the 13th floor of the building.

At the plaza, thousands of students gathered. The exact amount is not well known, but there were at least 5,000 and at most 10,000. Somewhere in between would be the right guess, those who were there remembered later.

The EMP unit was not the only military presence. On the ground, several thousand soldiers surrounded the plaza and approximately at 6 p.m. a red glare light was fired into the sky, giving the order to charge.

The snipers then began shooting at random, wreaking havoc in the crowd, which began running in all directions only to find out that the footsoldiers had blocked all exits.

Even today, it is not clear how many were killed. Government detractors claimed for many years that it was over a thousand who were “disappeared” by lugging them onto Air Force cargo planes and dumping their bodies into the Pacific Ocean.

As recently as last Sunday, however, researcher Susana Zavala told Proceso weekly magazine that her research shows that on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1968, there were 68 students killed, 31 who went missing, 186 wounded by bullets and 1,491 arrested. Many of the arrested were jailed for years on charges of sedition.

Zavala says that her figures are neither definite nor final – “but every registered case is based on evidence and each is collated with police, forensic and military files, as well as those of the Secret Service and intelligence we gathered.”

There are those, however, who sustain the number of gunned down students was a lot larger, but even then, 68 persons killed is no small crime. The figure of 68 killed that afternoon is reiterated by columnist and historian – as well as former Foreign Relations secretary – Jorge Castañeda in his Oct. 1 column in El Financiero daily business newspaper.

One reason why it’s been so difficult to corroborate the number of the deceased is that immediately after the Tlatelolco Massacre, as the event is now known, the Díaz Ordáz administration covered the evidence in a shroud of mystery.

Also, those were days in which the Mexican president had full control over the mostly print press (the first Mexican television newscast was not conducted until 1970) and radio stations did not report on the massacre.

Another reason for the shortage of information was the fact that it was not known for several years who ordered and organized the shooting of the students. That was finally cleared up when Díaz Ordáz published his autobiography years later.

Confusion also arose because the military claimed that several students were armed and began shooting at them, killing and wounding several soldiers, but that theory has collapsed over the years.

Another fact that has been cleared up is one of ideologies. The government claimed the students were being incited by Cuban President Fidel Castro in order to overthrow the Mexican government and impose a communist regime. This was proven to be untrue when, in 2006, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released files sent to Washington by the CIA top official in Mexico, Winston Scott. Those files also show that the United States had nothing to do with the repression as many a socialist used to claim over the decades. The problem was strictly Mexican.

The nation was immediately pacified and the Olympic Games were held without any further incident, since by then the rabblerousers were in jail.

The one fact that still stands out is that Oct. 2, 1968, has become the standard date for the leftist movement in Mexico to begin its quest to arrive in government power through democratic procedures.

That’s more or less the gist of the Tlatelolco Massacre story, which on Oct. 2. 2018, turned 50 years old.


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