The Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968

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The Mexico of 1968 showed every indication of being the most modern nation in Latin America. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz oversaw a country with a booming economy and a middle class predominately able to send their children to college for the first time in Mexico’s history. Mexico City was even getting ready to host the 1968 Summer Olympics to open on October 12th. The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) even considered Mexico City to be completely safe for Vice President Hubert Humphrey to visit in the early spring.

Unfortunately, on July 30th, 1968, a group of high school students began a street fight after a football game. The fight got so out of control that Mexico City riot police was called in, but couldn’t disperse the students. They resisted police for several hours, causing the army to be called in to remove them from the National Preparatory School in San Ildefonso, Mexico where they’d dug-in. During the removal process, the army killed several students in the building when they forced the main door open with a bazooka.

Students across the country who were already outraged by President Diaz Ordaz’s actions in office, rallied and the neatly constructed image of a peaceful and progressive Mexico crumbled almost overnight. The students took to the streets in order to protest not only the police brutality, but also the lack of a truly democratic government. They claimed that President Diaz Ordaz, like other Mexican presidents, governed more like a dictator rather than an elected official. They railed against the fact that his government controlled the media and forbid protests within Mexico City’s city limits; independent labor unions were also harshly suppressed from forming, among many other apparent abuses of power.

Student protests now became commonplace, as did an often brutal police reaction. A protest on August 27th in the Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, drew a crowd totaling an estimated half a million people. That protest was marked by the students fighting back against soldiers with bayonets attached to their rifles. It also caused President Diaz Ordaz to draw the line in the sand, refusing to tolerate any more of these protests. Mexico City began to resemble a police state.

Tensions reached a breaking point on October 2nd. With only ten days until the start of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the Diaz Ordaz government faced tremendous pressure to end the protests before the world media arrived in the city. Student interest had started to wane, and there was discussion among some about whether or not they should just return to classes. So only between 4,000 and 5,000 students gathered at Tlatelolco Square on October 2nd compared to the estimated half a million during the August 27th protest at the Zocalo.

The reason for the protest varied depending on the source. The United States CIA claimed the students were trying to have the Olympics cancelled; members of the press said that the students demanded the release of students jailed during other protests; and other sources stated that the students simply gathered to learn what would happen next during the movement.

Police and soldiers arrived and surrounded Tlatelolco Square near the end of the protest. As they approached the crowd of students, gunshots from one of the buildings bordering the square were fired, including hitting and wounding Brigadier General Jose Hernandez Toledo of the Parachute Battalion. Soldiers then fired their guns into the crowd while a tank moved into a position. Student David Huerta later described the event.

They [the army] started to advance toward the crowd. At some point, we heard some shots. We didn’t know where they came from. And seconds later – how do you say in English? All hell broke loose. … Somebody said they were not real bullets. These are only blanks. Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, be calm. But they were not blanks.

Official reports from the Mexican government originally quoted the death toll as four, but local hospitals reported the actual number as twenty-six. Later figures claimed that 100 were injured and over 1,000 protestors were detained by the Mexican Army. The death toll has since been estimated to have been much higher, somewhere between 40-300.

The Mexican government claimed that the shot(s) from the buildings around Tlatelolco Square came from communist agents who had infiltrated the student protestors. President Diaz Ordaz further placed the blame for the violent protests, such as the one on October 2nd, on the Soviet Union and the Cuban government.

However, the United States government and journalists have cast doubt on that story. The National Security Administration (NSA) released documents in the late 1990s that noted the United States failed to find evidence of any communist or outside involvement in the student protests. It instead claimed that the Mexican government turned to the explanation of communists and foreign influences to disguise the fact that students felt deeply dissatisfied with the government as it stood.

Further, investigative journalists have also uncovered evidence (including government documents and supporting video footage) that the shots fired from the buildings around Tlatelolco Square most likely came from snipers in the Presidential Guard.  The documents further indicated that the snipers were instructed to fire on the army so that the army would in turn be provoked to take drastic action against the crowd.

Despite promises of conducting an open and thorough investigation into the Tlatelolco Massacre, many are still unsatisfied with the government’s efforts there, and certain documents that would shed light on the incident remain sealed. However, in 2005 and 2006 the then 84 year old former President Luis Echeverría (who was the interior minister and head of national security at the time of the massacre) was brought up on genocide charges concerning the 1968 massacre, and also separately accused of the same crime due to the Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971, where more student protestors, among others, were killed.  However, within a month this was dismissed because the statute of limitations had passed.  Further legal action was taken, but by 2009, Echeverría was cleared due to lack of direct evidence.

As for Echeverría, he claims the order for such an act by the snipers and army during the Tlatelolco Massacre could only have come from President Ordaz himself, who died in 1979.  “There was a hierarchy. The army is obligated to respond to only one man. My conscience is clear.”

Today, besides occasional gatherings to commemorate the event, a statue  in Zapopan, Jalisco of former President Díaz Ordaz is traditionally vandalized on the anniversary of the massacre.

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Bonus Fact:

  • The Summer Olympics in 1968 marked the first time that winning athletes were subjected to drug tests for narcotics and stimulants.
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