It happened a quarter of a century ago, shortly after 6 p.m. and just 10 days before the opening of the XIX Olympiad: Soldiers and riot police opened fire on thousands of demonstrators, mostly students, who had gathered in this capital’s historic Tlatelolco district, once an Aztec stronghold.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were killed. The final toll remains a mystery. It is but one of numerous nagging questions for which many Mexicans are now demanding answers amid a national fervor of commemoration.
“Don’t forget Tlatelolco!” has become a rallying cry here for activists eager to recall a watershed event that many insist has been too long denied and covered up, leaving an “open wound” for this nation.
It is as if one protest had the galvanizing impact of the Haight-Ashbury movement, the Chicago Democratic Convention riots and the killings of four college students at Kent State--all rolled into one. That might give a sense of the importance that many find in the Oct. 2, 1968, “Tlatelolco massacre.”
It was not only an unprecedented challenge to the ruling party Establishment, which still runs this nation. To many Mexicans, the now myth-shrouded event also marked a great political, social, economic and cultural divide; since--or because of the student protests that culminated in Tlatelolco--Mexico was transformed from a stagnant, closed society into a vibrant, comparatively open nation, they say.
“You can’t comprehend anything that has occurred in Mexico in the last 25 years without understanding what happened in 1968,” said Salvador Martinez Della Rocha, an economics professor who was one of thousands jailed as student activists.
And while contemporary Mexico is far from an ideal democracy, it is, unquestionably, a much freer, more lively and energized country than it was in the 1960s--though many would push for even more openness and political reforms now.
“One can criticize the government now in ways that would have been unthinkable in 1968,” observed Carlos Monsivais, a prominent author and commentator who launched his provocative column in August, 1968. “What happened in 1968 obliged one to use the freedom of expression. It was a triumph against censorship and self-censorship.”
Enrique Krauze, a historian, added: “I believe that 1968 was a turning point in Mexican life. By simply walking out and taking the streets, the students created an extraordinary breathing space for freedom and posed a challenge to the entire political regime.”
The student revolt here unfolded during an extraordinary period of anti-Establishment upheaval from Paris to Berkeley to Rio de Janeiro. The Vietnam War was at its height; the Cuban Revolution was in its heyday. This was the year of the Prague Spring and, later, the black power protests at the Mexico City Olympics, the first Games in Latin America.
But nowhere else did repression of student protests quite compare with the pre-Olympic matanza (massacre) in Tlatelolco’s central square--dubbed the “Plaza of the Sacrifices” by poet Octavio Paz, who then resigned as Mexico’s ambassador to India in a stunning repudiation of the government’s actions.
The 1968 protest actually began more than two months before the bloodshed of Oct. 2. Students, responding to clashes with police and soldiers, had called a national strike in late July, setting forth six relatively modest demands, including the release of political prisoners and the disbanding of a police squad accused of brutality.
But authorities struck back harshly, beating protesters, arresting thousands, and at one point reportedly using a bazooka to blow down the wooden doors of a university building. Violent confrontations between protesters and security forces then became daily events.
In August, 300,000 people marched down El Paseo de la Reforma, the capital’s central boulevard. Seemingly out of nowhere, students had mobilized a mass protest movement, the likes of which had never been seen in inflexible modern Mexico.
“The government decided that it absolutely had to stop us,” said Raul Alvarez Garin, then a student leader and now an opposition congressman. “There was a great fear that this could affect the Olympics and embarrass the government.”
President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, a stern ruling-party traditionalist, was outraged that privileged youths--beneficiaries of the Mexican Revolution--would be so ungrateful, shaming the government on the eve of the Games.
“We cannot allow this continued, unforgivable undermining of the law that all of the world has been witnessing,” he declared on Sept. 1, a few weeks before he ordered tanks into the national university.
On the evening of Oct. 2, demonstrators gathered in Tlatelolco’s central square, the Plaza de Tres Culturas, named after the nation’s indigenous, European and mestizo cultures. Initially, it was peaceful when the crowd filled the square, flanked by high-rise complexes, the remains of pre-Columbian pyramids and a colonial church built with stones pirated from the Indian structures.
But thousands of police and soldiers were on hand. Helicopters hovered overhead. And shortly after 6 p.m. flares lit up the sky, followed by the first shots, then a general firing on the crowd.
Onlookers, soldiers and police panicked, witnesses said, as tens of thousands of rounds filled the air. “One could hear the steady gunfire and the rattle of machine guns,” Elena Poniatowska reported in her acclaimed 1971 chronicle, “The Night of Tlatelolco.” She wrote, “the Plaza of Three Cultures was converted into a living hell.”
Casualties were strewn about the blood-spattered slabs of volcanic stone, amid the ruins, in the corridors of adjacent buildings; shoes, bags and other belongings littered the area. “In a minute, the plaza was empty, except for the people who were down,” recalled Alvarez Garin, who, along with hundreds of other survivors, was immediately arrested. He and other key organizers spent almost three years in jail.
Initial reports put the toll at fewer than 30, including soldiers and police caught in a confused cross-fire. Authorities blamed “snipers” on nearby roofs for provoking the tragedy.
While many have labeled the slaughter premeditated, others attribute it to monumental malfeasance, miscommunication and fear on the part of military and police officials, whose real goal was to arrest protest leaders. There is some speculation that authorities mistook undercover soldiers who manned area buildings for snipers.
“It was criminal stupidity, not a coldly calculated act,” Luis Gonzalez de Alba, a student leader in 1968, concluded in a provocative recent essay in Nexos, a literary journal.
His piece is just one of the many that has analyzed, assessed or dissected the Tlatelolco massacre and its aftermath. On this key anniversary, Mexico has been transfixed by the event. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are featuring retrospectives about it. Intellectuals are convening round tables about it. The curious are examining grainy film and photographs of it. And today, a first-ever monument will be dedicated to those who died at the massacre.
The recriminations about Tlatelolco still run deep. Discussion of the event in official circles remains taboo.
The Tlatelolco massacre continues to be a sensitive topic, in part, analysts say, because it goes to the heart of how Mexico is run and by whom.
The national university that produced most of the 1968 protesters was the intellectual enclave for Mexico’s elite, and the youth of then-prosperous middle classes. Mexico’s top officials--including President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, several of his Cabinet and possible ruling party nominees to succeed him--are not only alumni of the school. They are also alums of the “Generation of 1968,” and their attitudes were shaped by that drizzly October evening.
(Some dismissive contemporaries say, however, that Salinas, when a student, was more concerned with horses than campus activism.)
Today, there are still many who doubt that Mexico has made a clean break with its old authoritarian ways.
“The people in power then are the same (sort) sitting in their offices now at the government palace,” contended Heberto Castillo, a white-haired former professor who was arrested, beaten and jailed for his role in the past, tumultuous times.
Others challenge that view, especially considering that Mexico in the 1980s emerged from a particularly dark stretch of its modern history, dating roughly from the time of the Tlatelolco massacre and continuing through the 1970s.
During this grim era, the government engaged in a fierce repression of pro-democracy militants and a clandestine “dirty war” against guerrilla bands; hundreds may have become desaparecidos --they disappeared after being taken into custody.
Critics heap much of the blame for the bleak times on Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who, as interior minister in 1968, oversaw the effort to crush the student protests, so impressing party stalwarts that he ascended to the presidency in 1970. Paradoxically--many say hypocritically--Echeverria emerged as a leading voice condemning the tyranny of the day in Chile, Spain and elsewhere, while continuing to blunt dissent at home.
The 1968 protests, some analysts say, shaped the economic policies of Echeverria and his successor, Jose Lopez Portillo: Accelerating a longtime party practice, they sought to buy off their opposition--including student protesters--by plowing billions into social programs. These extravagant, graft-ridden social expenditures, increasingly underwritten with borrowed money, contributed to the Mexican economy’s collapse in the early 1980s.
As Mexico moves into the millennium, many here see a pressing need for some resolution of all the nagging issues that surround the Tlatelolco massacre and its aftermath. “Our national identity cannot continue to be filled with secrets and lies,” said Israel Galan, a political scientist and former student activist.
Prominent journalists, artists, historians and others--as part of the Tlatelolco anniversary--have convened an independent national Truth Commission, which hopes to answer lingering questions about the massacre, just as similar bodies have investigated state abuses in El Salvador, Chile and Argentina.
“Just imagine if, to this day, no one in the United States knew how many students were killed at Kent State in 1970, or who killed them,” said Sergio Aguayo Quezada, a human rights advocate and commission member. “This is a battle between the people’s democratic right to know what happened, and the government’s desire to cover it up.”
Rosario Ibarra--a former presidential candidate who heads a group dedicated to resolving the fates of about 500 desaparecidos, including her son--argued: “What happened in 1968 was part of a pattern of blatant violations of human rights,” not the least of which was repression of the press to ensure that stories about the disappeared and dissent never made headlines.
In the 1990s, of course, Mexico has a lively press that berates the ruling regime. Protesters--including farmers, teachers, pensioners and students--routinely take to the streets to air their gripes without fear of being confronted by tanks.
“Today,” said Monsivais, the social critic, “there’s a liberty of expression and a critical spirit.”
Politically, however, power still remains concentrated in the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, whose leaders then defended their role in the Tlatelolco killings as necessary to curb subversion. But the party’s aura of invincibility, and its insulation from criticism, have dissolved, as Salinas’ razor-thin electoral victory in 1988 demonstrated.
“What 1968 shows is the Achilles’ heel of the impressive, post-revolutionary Mexican governmental edifice,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a political historian at El Colegio de Mexico. “The system’s weakness was the great distance between the government’s supposedly democratic and ‘revolutionary’ discourse and the reality of an all-powerful political class that was never accountable for its acts.”
While the course of political change is slow in Mexico, a new generation of activists--many of them born in the year of the massacre or later--has taken to the streets. They openly embrace the spirit of 1968 and Tlatelolco.
Among those participating in a recent remembrance ceremony at the national autonomous university was Oscar Moreno, a 25-year-old student leader who looks to the past for inspiration. As he bowed his head to a flag lowered to half-staff in homage to those who perished a quarter of a century ago, Moreno concluded: “We were forged from the movement of 1968.”