1968: The massacre in Tlatelolco

October 2, 2018

With the opening of the Olympic Games days away, Mexico’s government sent in troops to carry out a cold-blooded massacre of striking students. Todd Chretien tells the story as part of SW’s series on the revolutionary year of 1968.

FIFTY YEARS ago on October 2, 10,000 striking students gathered in Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, just 10 days before the beginning of the Olympic Games.

In a flash, thousands of troops attacked, backed by tanks and helicopters, mowing down unarmed and panicked students. By the time the sun rose the next morning, as many as 300 were dead, with many more injured and more than 1,000 arrested.

Hundreds of these arrested students were tortured and humiliated throughout the night, as the presidential guard — recently renamed the Olympic Brigade — went door to door in the public housing projects surrounding the plaza, searching for students who had fled the assault.

To this day, the Tlatelolco massacre haunts Mexican politics.

The students’ courage and the government’s cowardice have never since been in doubt. It is a cultural and political reference point, a touchstone. For Mexico, it is like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Watergate scandal all rolled into one.

Mexican troops confront student activists in the lead-up to the Tlatelolco massacre
Mexican troops confront student activists in the lead-up to the Tlatelolco massacre (Cel·lí | Wikimedia Commons)

Ask any activist of a certain age in Mexico where they were when they heard about the massacre, and they will describe their memories in painful detail. For instance, award-winning journalist and author of Massacre in Mexico Elena Poniatowska recalled:

I heard about the massacre at 9 o’clock that night, when María Alicia Martínez Medrano and Mercedes Olivera [both active in Mexico’s civil society] came to my house...

I thought they had gone mad. They told me that there was blood on the walls of the buildings, that the elevators were perforated with machine-gun bullets, that the glass windows of the shops were destroyed, that tanks were inside the plaza, that there was blood on the staircases of the buildings, that they could hear people shouting, moaning, and crying.

For those who were present or lost loved ones or comrades, bringing the assassins to justice has remained a life-long crusade.

Although it came 50 years later, the downfall of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its neoliberal cousin, the National Action Party (PAN), and the sweeping victory of center-left presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is known) this past July, can be traced back this blood-soaked day in 1968.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

In many ways, AMLO’s victory constitutes the revenge (albeit only partial) of the 1968 generation against the state institutions that murdered so many of their friends and comrades.

But far from laying Tlatelolco’s ghosts to rest, AMLO’s victory has raised expectations, and hundreds of thousands of students are on strike, demanding from him what previous generations of politicians could not deliver.

THE STORY has much in common with other tales of the revolutionary year of 1968.

Like their counterparts from Prague to Chicago to Paris, Mexican students wanted their government — a government that counted Emiliano Zapata in its pantheon of revolutionary heroes — to live up to its professed ideals.

Their demands were clear and democratic in nature, including freedom for political prisoners, dismissal of generals who interfered in national politics, dissolution of the riot police and overturning a law against “social dissolution,” a legal catchall used to repress young people and political activists.

Inspired by the Black Power revolt that swept the U.S. in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the uprising against Russian intervention to put down the Prague Spring and the Cuban Revolution, radical Mexican students organized a marched on July 26, hoping the threat of disruption of the impending Olympic Games would shine a light on their cause.

President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered militarized police to intimidate the rapidly growing student population through a show of force and the threat of more. But as in cities around the world, state violence only galvanized the movement.

Award-winning mystery author and 1968er Paco Ignacio Taibo explained the psychological and social context that allowed the radicalization to leap beyond a core of socialist students to a wide layer of a whole generation:

In a society where there is absolutely no room to breath and only one area has a concentration of oxygen, when society explodes, everyone will rush toward that one place to breath in the oxygen. The university was the only place where you could see banned films, the only place where you could get information in a country where the press was 99 percent under the control of the government — ferocious, terrible censorship. It was the only place where there was freedom of debate and discussion. The university channeled all this in many ways. The conditions were being created.

At what moment did the generation of militants interact with the generation of hundreds of thousands of students who were simply there, those that were not political? It happened when repression affected them directly. It wasn’t repression against a march of campesinos, it was repression aimed precisely at the students themselves. That’s what caused the virulent reaction on the part of hundreds of thousands of students.

Once the repression touched the students and the government showed it would not relent, the pace of the protests accelerated, as Arturo Anguiano, a student leader at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), described:

On August 5, a demonstration from Zacatenco to Casco de Santo Tomás (100,000 participants); on August 13, from Casco de Santo Tomás to Zócalo (150,000); on August 27, from the Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec to the Zócalo (more than 250,000 participants); on September 13, a silent demonstration (200,000 people).

NOW DÍAZ Ordaz had a problem. The Olympics were supposed to show off the so-called “Mexican Miracle” by touting rapid growth and a booming middle class, spurred by an oil boom and proximity to post-Second World War economic prosperity centered in the U.S.

Intended as the crowing jewel in their efforts to rise into the “first world,” Mexico’s rulers wanted to have their cake and eat it, too — by posing as sovereign equals among the European and U.S. elites, while sweeping the contradictions of Mexico’s boom under the rug.

But then as now, the Olympics exposed the underlying reality of gross inequality lying cheek by jowl with capitalist profits. The economic development was real, but it didn’t come close to eliminating rural poverty, anti-Indigenous racism and the lack of adequate urban housing, health care and education.

Mexico’s rulers were determined to present a pretty picture, so they set about scrubbing the city clean of its unsightly poor ahead of the Games.

Thus, the students had to be stopped, no matter the cost. And if calculated violence only angered the students in July, Días Ordaz bet that a truly macabre spectacle orchestrated in Tletalolco might just break the movement’s back, at least in the short term.

But anger found other outlets: John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s famous Black Power salutes on the Olympic podium; prolonged booing of Díaz Ordaz when he entered the Olympic stadium; and the birth of a radical social and political current that eventually flowered into trade union organization, socialist groupings, feminist movements and even, although tangentially, the Zapatista uprising of 1994.

IT REMAINS to be seen if Mexican students and workers can overcome the social chaos that capitalism has inflicted on them in the opening two decades of the 21st century.

Despite Trump’s ludicrous charge that NAFTA has been “very, very unfair to the United States,” the truth is that his renegotiated trade pact will only aggravate the disasters of unemployment, deindustrialization, escalating drug cartel violence and state corruption and complicity.

Today, there is an expectation for change that is unrivaled since 1968. But the military power, personal depravity and individual greed of Mexico’s rulers has never been greater.

AMLO will be trapped between the expectations of his followers and the avarice of his enemies. And history demonstrates that individual politicians most often sue for peace in the face of threats from above, as a safeguard against rebellion from below.

Whatever AMLO does, 1968 will haunt him as much as it inspires those who have nothing to lose but their chains. Mexico’s future, if it is to be a better future, will be determined by its youth. As Ignacio Taibo remarked in looking back at 1968:

Every generation has a right to its own moment of glory. And that glory is social, it’s not individual. American society stimulates a virulently powerful idea in its young people that glory is an individual phenomena, associates it with athletic glory, economic success, all in individual terms.

I have had individual success. I’m a writer who’s sold several million books — that’s fine, but it matters very little if you put it next to the glory of social change. The glory of collective struggle. The glory of putting yourself at the service of your society.

To put yourself on the side of the victims, of the dispossessed, to take into your hands your right to change the world. That’s what I believe, sincerely. That’s the lesson of 1968.

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