The Tlatelolco massacre, also known as The Night of Tlatelolco (from a book title by the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska), was the killing of student and civilian protesters as well as bystanders by Mexican government employees that took place during the afternoon and night of October 2, 1968, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. The violence occurred ten days before the 1968 Summer Olympics celebrations in Mexico City.
While at the time, government propaganda and the mainstream media in Mexico claimed that government forces had been provoked by protesters shooting at them, government documents that have been made public since 2000 suggest that the snipers had in fact been employed by the government. Although estimates of the death toll range from thirty to three-hundred, with eyewitnesses reporting hundreds of dead, Kate Doyle—a Senior Analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America—was only able to find evidence for the death of forty-four people. According to the reports of the head of the Federal Directorate of Security 1,345 people were arrested on October 2.
The Mexican government invested a massive $150 million in preparations for the 1968 Olympics that were to be hosted in Mexico City. That amount was equal to roughly $7.5 billion dollars by today's terms. The Mexican president during the Olympics, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, strained tenuous conditions in Mexico in an attempt to preserve the peace. During his presidency, Mexicans endured the suppression of independent labor unions, farmers, and the economy. Under the administration of Díaz Ordaz's predecessor in 1958, labor leader Demetrio Vallejo attempted to organize independent railroad unions, which the Mexican government quickly ended, arresting Vallejo under a violation of Article 145 of the Penal Code that made "social dissolution" a crime.
Although at first simply a response to the violent repression of fights between rival porros (gangs), the student movement quickly grew to include large segments of the student body who held general dissatisfaction with the regime of the PRI. Sergio Zermeño has argued that the students were united by a desire for democracy, but their understandings of what democracy meant were incredibly different.
National Strike Council (CNH)
Officially formed after the Mexican government's violation of university autonomy during the summer of 1968, the National Strike Council (Consejo Nacional de Huelga or CNH) organized all subsequent protests against the Diaz Ordaz government. The CNH was a democratic delegation of students from 70 universities and preparatory schools in Mexico and coordinated protests that promoted social, educational, and political reforms. At its apex, the CNH had 240 student delegates and made all decisions by majority vote, equally represented female students, and reduced animosity among rival institutions. Raúl Álvarez Garín, Sócrates Campos Lemus, Marcelino Perelló, and Gilberto Guevara Niebla served as the four de facto leaders of the CNH. As the world focused on Mexico City for the Olympics, the CNH leaders sought to harness that attention into a peaceful resolution for festering political and social grievances. The CNH demanded:
- Repeal of Articles 145 and 145b of the Penal Code (which sanctioned imprisonment of anyone attending meetings of three or more people, deemed to threaten public order).
- The abolition of granaderos (the tactical police corps).
- Freedom for political prisoners.
- The dismissal of the chief of police and his deputy.
- The identification of officials responsible for the bloodshed from previous government repressions (July and August meetings).
Assault on Vocational School #5
The student movement began to coalesce after the government's assault on Vocational School #5 in Mexico City, which marked the first major infringement on student autonomy. After that, the student movement gained support from students outside the capital and other segments of society that continued to build until that October.
On July 23, 1968, the police claimed that they attacked Vocational School #5 in order to capture street gangs that had enrolled in the school. The granaderos (riot police) were used by the Mexican government to control and suppress the student demonstrators and they were first used against the students in July 1968. However, the riot police assaulted numerous students and teachers in the process of clearing Vocational School #5. In an informal interview with some granaderos, Antonio Careaga recounted that, "the granaderos said that the authorities gave the men in the riot squad thirty pesos (eleven dollars) for every student they clubbed and hauled off to jail."
In response to this repression by the police and government, students began to form brigadas (brigades), groups of six or more students that distributed leaflets in the streets, markets, and most often on public buses. These parochial organizations, the smallest units of the CNH, decided the scope and issues the student movement would take up, which included rural and urban concerns. The brigadistas would board buses to speak to the passengers about the government's corruption and repression, while others distributed leaflets and collected donations. Eventually, the passengers and bus drivers began to sympathize with the students’ demands for democracy and justice, which was evident in the increasing amounts of money they collected . However, the increasing militancy among the students began to disillusion the bus drivers about the students’ motives.
Protest at UNAM
On August 1, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Rector Barros Sierra led 50,000 students in a peaceful protest against the repressive actions of the government and blatant violation of university autonomy.
The orderliness of the demonstration proved to the Mexican public that the students were not rabble-rousers; additionally, the demonstration showed it unlikely that communist agitators could have coordinated the students’ actions. The protest route was planned specifically to avoid the Zócalo (Mexico City's main plaza). The current UNAM website stated that the march route began from "University City (CU), ran along Insurgentes Avenue to Félix Cuevas, turned on Félix Cuevas towards Coyoacán Avenue, and returned by University Avenue back to the starting point." The march proceeded without any major disturbances or arrests.
On September 9, Barros Sierra issues a statement to the students and teachers to return to class as "our institutional demands… have been essentially satisfied by the recent annual message by the Citizen President of the Republic." This was followed by the CNH issuing a paid announcement in the newspaper El Día for the Silent March on September 13 and inviting "all workers, farmers, teachers, students, and the general public" to participate in the march. In the announcement, the CNH emphasized that the organization had no "connection with the Twentieth Olympic Games…or with the national holidays commemorating [Mexico's] Independence, and that this Committee has no intention of interfering with them in any way. The announcement also reiterated the list of six demands from the CNH.
Díaz Ordaz was determined to stop these demonstrations and, in September, he ordered the army to occupy the UNAM campus. Students were beaten and arrested indiscriminately, and Barros Sierra resigned in protest on September 23.
The battle for the occupation of IPN (the Polytechnic)
The students were much better prepared after the occupation of the university, so they presented a much stronger resistance when the police and the army tried to occupy the Polytechnic campuses of Zacatenco and Santo Tomas. The University campus was taken without firing a bullet, but the battle for taking the Polytechnic campuses lasted from the 17:00 hours on September 23 to the early hours of September 24. The physician Justo Igor de León Loyola wrote in his book "La noche de Santo Tomás" (Santo Tomas' night): Today I have seen bloodier fights, unequal battles: Both sides are armed... but what a difference in the weapons, handguns caliber 22 against military rifles M-1, bazookas against Molotov bombs.
Even so the Polytechnic students defended their campuses against the army for more than twelve hours, and the Mexican government never forgave the Polytechnic for presenting such a resistance. The French journal L'Express published that 15 people died in the battles and that more than one thousand bullets were fired, while the government reduced the numbers to only three dead and 45 injured people. Students from the Santo Tomas campus who were arrested in the occupations have said in later interviews that they were concentrated in the entry lobbies and shot in a random way, some of their friends were not lucky enough to survive.
On 2 October 1968, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest the government's actions and listen peacefully to speeches. Along with the CNH members, many men and women not associated with the CNH gathered in the plaza as spectators of the demonstration, including -but not limited to- neighbors of the Residential complex, bystanders and children. The students had congregated outside the Chihuahua Building, a three-moduled thirteen stories tall apartment complex in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, for what was supposed to be a peaceful rally. Among their chants were ¡No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución! ("We don't want Olympics, we want revolution!"). Rally organizers did not attempt to call off the protest when they noticed an increased military presence in the area. Two helicopters, one from the police, and another one from the army, overflew the plaza. Around 5:55 P.M. red flares were shot from the nearby S.R.E. (Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations) tower. Around 6:15 P.M. another two flares were shot, this time from a helicopter (one was green and another one was red) as 5,000 soldiers, 200 tankettes and trucks surrounded the plaza. Much of what proceeded after the first shots were fired in the plaza remained ill defined for decades after 1968; however, much has been corroborated by since released information from American and Mexican government sources.
The question of who fired first remained unresolved years after the massacre. The Mexican government stated that gunfire from the surrounding apartments were the impetus for the army's attack, while the student protesters claimed that helicopters overhead signaled the army to begin firing into the crowd. Author and journalist Elena Poniatowska culled interviews from those present that night and described what proceeded in her book Massacre in Mexico: "Flares suddenly appeared in the sky overhead and everyone automatically looked up. The first shots were heard then. The crowd panicked…[and] started running in all directions." Despite the efforts of the CNH members to reestablish order, the plaza quickly fell into chaos.
Shortly thereafter, the Olympia Battalion, a secret government branch made for the security of the Olympic Games composed of soldiers, police officers, and federal security agents; were ordered to arrest the leaders of the CNH and advanced into the plaza. The Olympia Battalion members wore white gloves or white handkerchiefs tied to their left hands to distinguish themselves from the civilians and prevent the soldiers from shooting them. Captain Ernesto Morales Soto stated that "immediately upon sighting a flare in the sky, the prearranged signal, we were to seal off the aforementioned two entrances and prevent anyone from entering or leaving."
The ensuing assault into the plaza left hundreds dead and many more wounded in its aftermath. The soldiers responded by firing into the nearby buildings and onto the crowd, hitting not only the protesters but also watchers and bystanders. Demonstrators and passersby alike, including youngsters, journalists (one of which was Italian Oriana Fallaci), and children, were hit by bullets and mounds of bodies soon lay on the ground. Meanwhile, on the Chihuahua building, where the speakers stood, Olympia Battalion members pushed people and ordered them to lie on the ground near the elevator walls. People claim these men were the people who shot first at the soldiers and the crowd.
Video evidence also points out that at least two companies of the Olympia Battalion hid themselves in the nearby apartment buildings -including setting up a machine gun in an apartment on the Molino del Rey Building, where a sister-in-law of then-Secretary of State Luis Echeverría lived-, the church of Santiago de Tlatelolco, where snipers were positioned into the roof; the nearby convent and the Foreign Relations Tower, where there were many people involved including -but not limited to- the ones who fired the first two flares, a machine gun on the 19th floor and a video camera on the 17th floor. Interestingly enough, video evidence shows 10 white-gloved men leaving the church and bumping into soldiers, who point their weapons at them. One of the men shows what appears to be an ID and they are let go.
The killing continued throughout the night, with soldiers and policemen operating on a house-to-house basis in the apartment buildings adjacent to the square. The Chihuahua Building as well as the rest of the neighborhood got its electric energy and phones cut off. Witnesses to the event claim that the bodies were first removed in ambulances and later military officials came and piled up bodies, not knowing if they were dead or alive, into the military trucks, while some say that the bodies were piled up on garbage trucks and sent to unknown destinations. The soldiers rounded up the students onto the Chihuahua Building's elevator walls, stripped them and beat them up.
3000 atendees were taken to the convent next to the church and were left there until early in the morning, most of these being people that had little to nothing in common with the students and were only neighbors, bystanders, passerby people and others who were on the plaza just to listen to the speech. Other witnesses claim that on the later days Olympia Battalion members would disguise themselves as light and water employees and inspect the houses in search of students.
The official government explanation of the incident was that armed provocateurs among the demonstrators, stationed in buildings overlooking the crowd, had begun the firefight. Suddenly finding themselves sniper targets, the security forces had simply returned the shooting in self-defense. By the next morning, newspapers reported that 20 to 28 people had been killed, hundreds wounded, and hundreds more arrested.
Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army's murderous response with sniper fire from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. El Día's morning headline on October 3, 1968 read as followed: "Criminal Provocation at the Tlatelolco Meeting Causes Terrible Bloodshed." The government-controlled media dutifully reported the Mexican government's side of the events that night, but the truth eventually emerged.
A 2001 investigation revealed documents showing that the snipers were members of the Presidential Guard, who were instructed to fire on the military forces in order to provoke them.
Investigation and response
In 1998, President Ernesto Zedillo, on the 30th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, authorized a congressional investigation into the events of October 2. However, the PRI government continued its recalcitrance and did not release official government documents pertaining to the incident. In a 2002 All Things Considered radio interview with Kate Doyle, director of the Mexican Documentation Project for the US National Security Archive, she described the PRI government's investigations: "I mean, there have been a number of investigations throughout the years. In fact, former President Miguel de la Madrid was interviewed yesterday in the press, and said that he had asked the military and the interior secretary for documents and for photographs of the demonstrations, and was subjected to tremendous political pressure not to investigate. And when he continued to press, the military and the interior ministry claimed that their files were in disarray and they had nothing."
Enduring questions remained after "La Noche Triste" (the Sad Night) that have taken the Mexican government over 30 years to answer. Eventually in 2001, President Vicente Fox, the president who ended the 70-year reign of the PRI, attempted to resolve the question of who had orchestrated the massacre. President Fox ordered the release of previously classified documents concerning the 1968 massacre. The documents revealed that Elena Poniatowska's synthesis of the events that October night was accurate, as Kate Doyle uncovered,
Thousands of students gathered in the square and, as you say, the government version is that the students opened fire. Well, there's been pretty clear evidence now that there was a unit that was called the Brigada Olympica, or the Olympic Brigade, that was made up of special forces of the presidential guard, who opened fire from the buildings that surrounded the square, and that that was the thing that provoked the massacre.
President Fox also appointed Ignacio Carrillo Prieto in 2002 to prosecute those responsible for ordering the massacre. In 2006, former President Luis Echeverría was arrested on charges of genocide. However, in March 2009, after a convoluted appeal process, the genocide charges against Echeverria were dismissed. The Mexican newspaper The News reported that "a tribunal of three circuit court judges ruled that there was not enough proof to link Echeverria to the violent suppression of hundreds of protesting students on Oct. 2, 1968." Despite the ruling, prosecutor Carrillo Prieto said he would continue his investigation and seek charges against Echeverria before the United Nations International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
US government records
In October 2003, the role of the United States government in the massacre was publicized when the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a series of records from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, the FBI and the White House which were released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The documents detail:
- That in response to Mexican government concerns over the security of the Olympic Games, the Pentagon sent military radios, weapons, ammunition and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the crisis.
- That the CIA station in Mexico City produced almost daily reports concerning developments within the university community and the Mexican government from July to October. Six days before the massacre at Tlatelolco, both Echeverría and head of Federal Security (DFS) Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios told the CIA that "the situation will be under complete control very shortly".
- That the Díaz Ordaz government "arranged" to have student leader Sócrates Campos Lemus accuse dissident PRI politicians such as Carlos Madrazo of funding and orchestrating the student movement.
In 1993, in remembrance of the 25th anniversary of the events, a stele was dedicated with the names of few of the students and persons who lost their lives during the event. The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation has a mural commemorating the massacre.
During June 2006, an ailing, 84-year-old Echeverría was charged with genocide in connection with the massacre. He was placed under house arrest pending trial. In early July of that year, he was cleared of genocide charges, as the judge found that Echeverría could not be put on trial because the statute of limitations had expired.
In December 2008 the Mexican Senate named the 2nd of October starting in 2009 as a National Day of Mourning; the initiative had already passed the Deputies' Chamber of Congress.
Rojo amanecer (1989), directed by Jorge Fons, is a Spanish-language film about the event. It focuses on the day of a middle-class family living in one of the apartment buildings surrounding the Plaza de Tlatelolco and is based on testimonials from witnesses and victims. It starred Héctor Bonilla, María Rojo, the Bichir Brothers, Eduardo Palomo and others.
"Taco Teatro", a Spanish-language, University of Melbourne-based theatre company produced the first adaptation of Rojo Amanecer on stage in May 2008 depicting the events happened in the Plaza de Tlatelolco at the Guild Theatre in Melbourne, Australia.
Richard Dindo, a documentary filmmaker, has made Ni olvido, ni perdón (2004), which includes contemporary interviews with witnesses and participants as well as footage from the time.
A new feature film, Tlatelolco, released in Mexico, November, 2012, written and directed by Carlos Bolado.
Roberto Bolaño released Amulet, a Spanish-language novel, in 1999, recounting the tragedy from the point of view of a woman named Auxilio. Auxilio was caught in the university bathroom at the time of the police ambush. Chris Andrews' English translation of the novel was published in 2005 by New Directions.
Borrar de la Memoria, a movie about a journalist who investigates a girl who was killed in July 1968 lightly touches the massacre, which is filmed by Roberto Rentería, a C.U.E.C. student who was making a documentary about said girl, known popularly as La empaquetada for the way her dismembered body was found inside a box.
40th anniversary march
On October 2, 2008, two marches were held in Mexico City to commemorate the event. One traveled from Escuela Normal Superior de Maestros (Teacher's College) to the Zocalo. The other went from the Instituto Politécnico Nacional to the massacre site of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. According to the "Comité del 68" (68 Committee), one of the organizers of the event, 40,000 marchers were in attendance.
Protesters drawing chalk outlines of human bodies and doves with fake blood on Eje Central
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