Mexico, October 2, 1968: the Tlatelolco massacre

Vangelis Koltsidis

On October 2nd, 1968, one of the biggest mass murders of civilians in the world took place in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City.

In the words of Jaime Rochin, chief of the Executive Commission for Victims’ Assistance in Mexico (CEAV),

“The Tlatelolco massacre, which took place on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1968… represents a historical chapter in which the Mexican state showed its most authoritarian face by silencing the voices of the citizens’ movement,” 

The police, the military and paramilitary forces killed hundreds of people with bayonets and guns that day. No one has been punished for these criminal acts to this day. 

60’s: economic growth for the few

The Mexican economy benefited from the global advance of the capitalist economy after World War II and specifically from the growth of the American economy for which it was the main supplier of raw materials.

Public investments in major infrastructure and housing projects multiplied, creating new jobs and boosting the domestic economy. The country’s ruling class inspired confidence in the Western world, the capstone of which was the assignment of the 1968 Olympic Games to Mexico.

However, behind this falsely pretty picture of the country, the workers, the poor farmers and the students experienced harsh economic exploitation and political oppression by the government.

After the suspension of the agrarian reform and land redistribution by President Cardenas, the land had begun to get concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners again as well as in multinational agri-food companies that had joined the “development” game. The situation of millions of peasants was truly desperate.

Until 1968, social inequality had significantly increased. The richest 10% of families owned half of the national income.

A common front of farmers-workers-teachers-students 

More and more farmers and workers were radicalized and took part in combative struggles, finding allies in the face of the teachers of the country.

However, as the mass labour and agricultural trade unions were totally controlled by the state and the big employers, new student groups came forward and began demanding education, work, democracy, freedom and social justice. The final straw in this expression of indignation was the fact that the Mexican state, instead of giving money to social policies, decided to spend hundreds of millions on the organization of the Olympic Games. 

The uncertainty of the future, along with a series of revolutionary events and uprisings across the planet, were those elements which drove the students to collectively fight for a better life.

Earlier in the same year, important social events took place and marked political developments: the Prague Spring, May ’68 in France, the anti-war movement in the US, the assassination of Martin Luther King, etc. 

The first demonstration was called on July 26, 1968, by the National Federation of Technical Students (FNET) and was brutally suppressed by the police in the streets of the city center.

Any youngster who happened to be in the area would be harassed and mercilessly beaten, including students from the Preparatory Schools of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which was located in the heart of the city, although they did not participate in the demonstration.

The official excuse for the suppression of the demo was the usual: “foreign communists” were trying to organize riots to destabilize the country just before the beginning of the Olympic Games. 

The violence of the police fueled the indignation of the student community of the two largest universities of the country (the Polytechnic and the Autonomous University) and led to the rejection by the students of the official student organization (FNET) which, until then, was controlled by the government.

The first victims

During the following weeks, continuous demonstrations and mobilisations were organised by both students’ unions and parents’ associations, as well as workers of the oil industry, the railways, the electrical company and even doctors.

On August 27, the mobilisations in the center of the city gathered half a million people, while strikes and demonstrations were organised in the following days in the rest of the country.

The Independent Farmers’ Union, the Revolutionary Teachers’ Movement, the residents of Topilejo joined in and supported the students’ struggle.

Actions of solidarity took place at the universities of Nuevo Leon, Yucatan, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosi and Veracruz, and similar demonstrations were held internationally in places such as in Paris, New York, Montevideo, Lima and Guatemala.

The government was in panic and on September 23 it was decided that police and military forces would invade the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico City which at the time was occupied by the student unions.

The army even used bazookas in this operation and after a real battle succeeded in occupying the university campus. Independent sources reported 15 dead, while the government claimed that they were only 4.

The events of October 2

In the morning of October 2, state security agents arrived in the Tlatelolco district and proceeded with cutting telephone lines as well as the public lights in the area.

The student associations had scheduled an afternoon demonstration in which workers, residents of the area with their young children as well as journalists and tourists also participated, as there were 10 days left until the Olympic Games would officially start.

Snipers had been placed at strategic points of various buildings in the area of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, along with paramilitary groups carrying items that could be secretly identified (such as gloves and white handkerchiefs on their right hand). The square was surrounded by tanks as well as military units.

The government had turned the square into a death trap. 

At 6 in the evening, in the presence of 10,000 people a flare was dropped from a helicopter and gave the signal. Snipers and soldiers began shooting indiscriminately. The hundreds of dead bodies, riddled with bullets piled up in the middle of the square.

Soldiers with bayonets attacked the crowd and wounded people who were trying to escape. The official media reported just 30 dead, all of them youngsters between the ages of 18 and 20.

The international media and the reporters who survived the massacre reported over 500 dead

The majority of the bodies were removed from the square and dropped from helicopters into the Gulf of Mexico, a method of extermination which would be massively used later by Operation Condor in the dictatorships of Chile and Argentina that happened next. 

The crackdown ended with more than 1,000 arrested and injured.

What happened next

After the massacre of Tlatelolco, the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) did not dare to claim representing the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 anymore.

Despite the Olympic Games “truce”, strikes and demonstrations continued for two more months, demanding the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of security forces from universities.

Finally, in 1971 the government of Luis Echeverría Alvarez was forced to succumb to the demands of the movement, releasing the majority of the political prisoners and revoking article 145 of the Constitution.

Article 145 provided prison sentences of up to 12 years for any citizen who “spread information with the guidance of foreign powers” or took actions responsible for the destabilisation of the social life of the country.

In 2006, classified documents kept in the National Security Archive at the George Washington University were declassified. According to the research and the study of the documents, the Pentagon had sent weapons, radios and special material to suppress demonstrations to Mexico in 1968.

Recruitment of CIA agents from the upper echelons of the Mexican government between 1956 and 1969 was also revealed in the declassified US documents. 

The study of the documents concludes that the CIA helped in the protection of Mexico’s ruling party from claiming responsibility for the Tlatelolco massacre and delivered a confusing and misleading account of it to the US government.

No consequences for any government in either country were enforced after these documents were published. 

In recent years, whenever Mexico and the 1968 Olympics are mentioned, the immediate connotation is the protest of the two American runners with their fists raised on the winners’ podium – a symbol of the Black Panthers.

However, the October 2nd events have remained in the history of the Mexican movement as an unspeakable massacre by the state, whose victims never found justice. Until today, it is considered to be a day of struggle, remembrance and mass movements.

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