Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Advocating expressive and economic liberties, student protesters and others were gunned down by army troops and police officers in a public square in Mexico City on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Summary of Event

The Tlatelolco Massacre was a dreadful coda to a year full of radical student protests worldwide, but it had its underlying causes in the failure of the Mexican Revolution to construct a viable social democracy with expressive freedoms and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Unlike transformations in Russia or China, Mexico’s revolution never had a truly communist stage, but it did hold out the promise for a more just society. The constitution of 1917, in particular, addressed both political and economic rights, and the cultural contributions of indigenous peoples and of peasants were finally appreciated by official patronage. Tlatelolco Massacre (1968) Massacres Civil unrest;Mexico Civil liberties;Mexico Student protest movement [kw]Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Massacre Stuns Mexico, Tlatelolco (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Mexico, Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns (Oct. 2, 1968) Tlatelolco Massacre (1968) Massacres Civil unrest;Mexico Civil liberties;Mexico Student protest movement [g]North America;Oct. 2, 1968: Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico[09960] [g]Mexico;Oct. 2, 1968: Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico[09960] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 2, 1968: Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico[09960] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 2, 1968: Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico[09960] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 2, 1968: Tlatelolco Massacre Stuns Mexico[09960] Díaz Ordaz, Gustavo Echeverría Álvarez, Luís Barros Sierra, Javier

Only under Lázaro Cárdenas Cardenas, Lazaro in the 1930’s was that egalitarian potential partially realized with some land redistribution and nationalization, but it had become empty rhetoric for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), or Institutional Revolutionary Party, Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexican by the 1960’s. Disillusionment with the PRI grew steadily under the rule of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who continued to reverse pre-World War II policies favoring workers and peasants to garner favor with large landholders, banks, and foreign investors. This yawning gap between progressive rhetoric and oppressive reality especially rankled Mexican college students, who were influenced in part by the rock-and-roll subculture among American youth that poked fun at the hypocrisy of establishments and systems of any kind. Student protests against the authorities’ attempts to counteract the counterculture from the north set the stage for a potentially universal movement for civil rights and social justice, which the corrupt Díaz Ordaz regime saw as a grave threat to its own financial and industrial oligarchy.

The elites were also worried about the potential sabotage of the Olympic Games, which were slated to open in Mexico City on October 12, 1968, and which were supposed to showcase the country’s modernization to a global audience. Accordingly, the PRI government overreacted by ordering army troops to fire on an unarmed crowd of students, workers, and their sympathizers in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, or Tlatelolco Square, in the nation’s capital on October 2, killing scores of their own civilians as well as their own soldiers and police in cold blood just ten days before the start of the Olympic Games.

Tragically, increasingly heavy-handed tactics by the PRI government led to this indiscriminate slaughter. As scholar Ronald L. Ecker has pointed out, student unrest and popular protest against the Díaz Ordaz regime were nothing new by the fall of 1968. In 1966, student strikes had been squashed by military occupations at two major universities, while a student mob that same year forced the embattled rector of Mexico City’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), Ignacio Chávez Chávez, Ignacio , to resign. Students, largely from the upper and middle classes, not only demanded better conditions and more freedoms for themselves but also championed the downtrodden, the very constituency that the government was supposed to represent. This collaboration enraged authorities, who saw these “naïve” young adults as being hoodwinked by communist sympathizers.

Those in power responded with escalating shows of force, which, in turn, deepened student alienation. It was unusually rough police brutality against high school students, not college students, which sparked the chain of events leading up to the Tlatelolco Massacre. On July 25, 1968, a fight between students of two rival high schools within Mexico City was ended by police, who roughed up both sides. Almost immediately, the youth demonstrated publicly to protest their mistreatment and were joined by contingents of communists celebrating Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba. Arrests of protesters led to more violent destruction of property by students and their leftist allies. These arrests, in turn, led to more than one thousand other arrests and the army’s takeover of four high schools; these schools happened to be feeder schools for UNAM. This connection proved key to energizing the university, whose rector had organized a march of fifty thousand students to end the military’s intervention in school business.

Faced with government intransigence, university student leaders from both the UNAM and National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) pushed the political envelope on August 9 by effectively shutting down classes until troops left the affected high schools. Students also warned authorities that further disruptions of commerce might ensue if law enforcement officials did not address their demands of firing police officials, ending police brutality, compensating victims of previous brutality, releasing political prisoners, and abolishing the crime of “social dissolution,” a catch-all indictment used against dissenters.

Faculty and students in the liberal arts went even further, linking student demands to those of peasants and workers for land reform and higher wages. This radicalization made Díaz Ordaz signal on September 1 that he was clearly willing to employ any amount of force to make the universities behave and comply. The president did offer a few cosmetic commissions to study the situation, but the students were used to these PRI smoke screens. They continued their strike, which led to the army occupation of the UNAM campus on September 18. Five days later, students and police clashed on the Casco de Santo Tomas campus of IPN, killing four and wounding far more.

The next day, September 24, the president ordered the army to take over the IPN campus. Both UNAM and IPN students and faculty were arrested, as the left-leaning rector of UNAM, Javier Barros Sierra, tendered his resignation and more violence erupted. A deceptive pause in the tensions followed, however, as the rector withdrew his letter of resignation and pleaded with the army to leave the schools alone. On September 30, army troops actually left UNAM but remained in control of IPN at Casco de Santo Tomas, the scene of the bloodiest violence there to date. The violence at IPN was just a foretaste of what was to come. Indeed, the immediate purpose of the crowd of three to five thousand gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on the evening of October 2 was to urge the army to leave the IPN campus as well.

How and why the massacre began has been disputed, and the precipitating situation in the plaza became a focus of a belated investigation put forth by the first non-PRI government in eighty years. The official story remains that student snipers in surrounding buildings and on rooftops opened fire on troops and police who were trying to clear the square of demonstrators. According to the consequent cover-up, this situation left the panicked troops with no choice but to defend themselves. Another spin on this disaster at the time (pushed in part by now-elderly former president Cardenas) was that U.S. agents provocateurs intent on embarrassing the radical-sounding PRI made the soldiers fire on the students by shooting from neighboring buildings. More credible are the 2004 findings of the investigation of government prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto Carrillo Prieto, Ignacio , who found that government snipers placed in the buildings surrounding the square fired on the troops and police below and that Díaz Ordaz and his interior minister, Luís Echeverría Álvarez, not only knew about these machinations but also approved of them and later tried to prevent any exposure.

Even the outcome was disputed. The official death toll was thirty-two, but the U.S. State Department claimed 150 to 200 were killed, including nearly forty troops and police officers. Other sources claimed between 350 and thousands dead. At any rate, the death of military and law enforcement personnel by “friendly” fire, ultimately blamed on unruly students, was just many of the underhanded strategies in the “dirty war” against leftists in Mexico that extended well into the 1970’s.

Significance

The Tlatelolco Massacre and consequent episodes of state-sponsored terrorism in Mexico eviscerated any leftist opposition to the PRI for the rest of the twentieth century. The hollowness of official populism became even more evident after 1968 as more and more ordinary Mexicans left for the United States after seeing no hope for true reform at home. The government’s success in suppression ushered in another generation in which the rich got richer, the poor poorer, and many politicians became even more overtly corrupt.

The massacre itself was overshadowed worldwide by the Olympics later that month and the iconic black power salutes of two U.S. track athletes on the medals podium. Only with the election of Mexican president Vicente Fox in 2000 was there a bit of justice for the victims and their families, as the aging Echeverría and other surviving henchmen finally were charged with the murders in the square. In July, 2006, however, Echeverría was cleared of any wrongdoing. Tlatelolco Massacre (1968) Massacres Civil unrest;Mexico Civil liberties;Mexico Student protest movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, Kate. “The Tlatelolco Massacre: Declassified U.S. Documents on Mexico and the Events of 1968.” National Security Archive, George Washington University. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB99/index.htm. Offers a rich treasure trove of previously classified U.S. documents responding to the crisis and crackdown.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ecker, Ronald. “The Mexican Left, 1961-1968: Disunity and the Search for Renewal.” Unpublished master’s thesis. Gainesville: University of Florida, 1969. Provides vivid details on student unrest prior to Tlatelolco. Ecker adds to this narrative and also covers the renewed interest in Tlatelolco during the Fox era on his Web site: http://www.hobrad.com/massacre .htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joseph, Gilbert, with Anne Rubenstein, Eric Zolov, and Elena Poniatowska. Fragments of a Golden Age: Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Traces the cultural causes and consequences of the massacre within the authoritarian Mexican state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poniatowska, Elena. Massacre in Mexico. English translation reprint ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Describes poignantly the eyewitness accounts of the military firing into the assembly in the plaza.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zolov, Eric. Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Places the Tlatelolco Massacre within the global context of youth rebellion during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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