Mexico 1968: Massacre in Tlatelolco

By Dave Stockton

OCTOBER 2, 1968 witnessed the massacre of between three and four hundred of the 10,000 young demonstrators who had gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City. State forces under the orders of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime, claimed they had been fired on from rooftops surrounding the square. In fact it was government helicopters launching red flares and provocateur snipers, from a special Brigada Olimpica, who unleashed the horrific carnival of killing, in which machine guns were used.

According to official figures 1,345 demonstrators were arrested, many were cruelly tortured; some released after several years in prison, others simply disappeared. For many years all serious investigation or publicity concerning the events was suppressed. The PRI ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929-2000. However as the PRI regime eventually crumbled the truth about the Tlatelolco massacre was brought to light. The square now contains a large monument and museum to the events. However impunity still exists and no one has been brought to justice for the massacres.

In 1968 Mexico was about to host the Summer Olympic Games, on which the government had lavished $150,000,000 or $1 billion in today’s money. In a still desperately poor and underdeveloped country this had provoked outrage. In addition Mexico had – like so many other countries around the world that year – seen the rise of a massive and militant student movement. In the preceding years there had been militant miners’, railway workers’ and teachers’, strikes. But independent trade unions were repressed and broken up.

The students protested with demonstrations and occupations against the government violations and suspension of university autonomy. Their manifesto demanded basic rights: free speech, a halt to state repression, an end to impunity of the police and military, the release of political prisoners and the opening of a dialogue with the government.

A nationwide student strike was launched involving a wide range of educational establishments. It was organised by a national strike council, the Consejo Nacional de Huelga (CNH) made up of 240 delegates from 70 universities and preparatory schools and had equal representation of female and male students.

As the date for the games approached, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered the army and police to occupy the campus of the capital’s prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In late September when the army tried to occupy two Polytechnic campuses the students put up fierce resistance for twelve hours and 15 of them were killed.

Although the PRI was to enjoy the fruits of another three decades in power, it was constantly contested by new parties and movements.

But despite the transition to democracy, only four years ago another similar outrage was perpetrated, the “disappearance” of 43 student teachers from the Raúl Isidro Burgo School in the town of Ayotzinapa in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. The students had been participating in a demonstration against education cuts in the city of Iguala when police herded them into buses and, it seems, handed them over to over to a local criminal gang, never to be seen again. The remains of only one of the victims have been recovered.

An investigation by the National Attorney General’s office “discovered” that the gang killed the students and incinerated their remains. Despite arrests of the gang members, as yet not a single one has been convicted of the crime. Indeed a number of them have been released when it was revealed that their confessions were the result of torture by the police ‘investigators’.

In July this year voters swept aside the parties of Mexico’s political élite and handed a landslide victory to left populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now President Elect. At a rally to commemorate the victims of the1968 massacre, Obrador promised “never ever to use the military to repress the Mexican people.” But will he ensure an independent investigation of both the Tlatelolco and Iguala massacres (and many others, including of peasants and indigenous peoples)?

Will he end the impunity of the forces of repression? Will he facilitate the Mexican workers and young people’s right to defend themselves against repression, arms in hand whenever this is necessary? Today Mexican popular forces, trade unionists, students, indigenous communities, women, face not only a state machine utterly unreformed or purged of the murderers of 1968 or 2014, but also the criminal gangs that have mushroomed as a result of the USA’s war on drugs.

To really complete the struggles begun by workers and students in the late 1960s and since will require the breaking up of the whole violent and corrupt machinery of repression and the installation of a workers’ government, based on revolutionary forms of democracy and self-defence – workers’ councils and a workers’ militia.