My friend Jorge once talked about the Tlatelolco area of Ciudad de Mexico and its importance in the history of modern Mexico. He said that if I visit Mexico City, I should visit La Plaza de las Tres Culturas (the Plaza of Three Cultures).
One part of the plaza faces contemporary 1960s era housing projects. Another is adjacent to a Catholic church, built in the 1600s from the ruins of Aztec temples that were demolished by Spanish Conquistidors. At the remaining area are what’s left of the ancient remains of the Aztec City, Tlatelolco.
There is a modest sandstone marker that is rarely pointed out to tourists that honors an horrific event that took place on this date in 1968. It has been compared to China’s Tiananmen Square. It marked the bloody beginnings of Mexico’s long political crisis. The event remains shrouded in official silence and secrecy.
1968 was a year of global student unrest. In Mexico, students engaged in mostly peaceful protests against the brutality of the police. Students were equally enraged by the absence of a democratic national government. Political dissidents were frustrated that President Diaz Ordaz continued the time-worn practice of ruling like a dictator and not governing like an elected head of state.
Opposition parties, independent labor unions, and other groups were forbidden and harshly suppressed. Nationwide strikes by students and other groups resulted in strong responses from the Ordaz regime. To this heady mixture, add the worldwide attention towards the 1968 Summer Olympics scheduled to take place in Mexico City.
Clashes between police and students became ever more common as the summer wore on. A protest of perhaps 500,000 people gathered in the main square of Mexico City, The Zocalo, on August 27th. Soldiers armed with bayonets attached to rifles confronted the crowd. The students fought back. The August incident caused the government to clamp down and the capital city to take the shape of a police state.
Here is where accounts become controversial. On October 2nd, the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics was less than two weeks away. Global television and other media were about to arrive in the city. Student protests had become fewer in number and smaller in attendance.
An estimated 4,500 students arrived at Tlatelolco on that day. Various reasons for that particular protest are cited. Journalists believed that the crowd demanded the release of those students who were imprisoned from the earlier protests. The Mexican regime claimed communist agitation. The US CIA theorized that the activists wanted to have the Olympics called off.
Most accounts agree that armed forces arrived at Tlatelolco as the protest was drawing to a close and the students were beginning to disband. The soldiers surrounded the square to prevent people from leaving. During the police and army advance, someone fired from a nearby building and wounded Brigadier General Jose’ Hernandez Toledo. Then armed troops fired into the gathered students and tanks maneuvered into the foray. Chaos ensued.
A troubling range in the numbers of dead and wounded remain to this day. The official government figure claimed only four deaths. Medical officials said that about 26 were killed. Other official sources submitted a total of 100 wounded and more than 1,000 arrests. What is puzzling is that the latest death statistics vary wildly from 40 up to 300, depending on who is asked.
The Mexican government’s dubious claim that the initial shots at the protest came from Soviet and Cuban instigators has been largely disputed by the US National Security Administration and journalists. The current belief is that the Ordaz regime used the claim of outside agents as an alibi to distract from the evidence that students had been protesting the oppressive government and prior police brutality.
Independent investigations continue to question the Mexican government’s statistics and motivations behind the Tlatelolco Massacre. Some reporters have discovered official documentation and video evidence that the opening rounds of gunfire may have been shot by Presidential Guard snipers. The evidence alleges the shots were fired into the army in order to provoke the army to respond drastically against the protesters.
Ten years ago, former Mexican President Luis Echeverria, who served as national security and interior minister in 1968, was charged with genocide in regards to the Tlatelolco Massacre and another incident that took place elsewhere in 1971. Those charges were dismissed due to the passing of the statute of limitations. Furthermore Echeverria was declared innocent because of the lack of direct evidence.
There are scheduled commemorations in Mexico City today to mark the tragedy. People still do not have a definitive answer to who was responsible and why there was such a violent response for the government’s reaction to the students’ protests on that day in 1968. The real secret went to the grave when President Ordaz died and was buried in 1979.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz. “What were the reasons behind this massacre?–Only when it is answered will the country recover its confidence in its leaders and in its institutions.”