Mexico City hosted the Games of the XIX Olympiad in 1968, the first developing nation and Latin American country ever to host the Olympics. Since 1968 no other Latin America country has subsequently hosted the Olympic Games, although Rio de Janeiro is scheduled to host the games in 2016. The Mexican government invested a massive $150 million in preparations for the Olympics, equal to roughly $7.5 billion dollars by today's terms. The Mexican president during the Olympics, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, ineptly 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 porras, 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.
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 Díaz 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:
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.
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. 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.” However, 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.
On October 2, 1968, La Noche de Tlatelolco (the Night of Tlatelolco), around 10,000 university and secondary 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. The students had congregated outside an 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 Olympic games, we want revolution!"). Rally organizers did not attempt to call off the protest when they noticed an increased military presence in the area. Around 6:30 P.M., 5,000 soldiers, 200 tanks 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 massacre began at sunset when police and military forces, who were equipped with armored cars and tanks, surrounded the plaza. 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 proceed 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 Olympic Battalion, composed of soldiers, police officers, and federal security agents, were ordered to arrest the leaders of the CNH and advanced into the plaza. The Olympic Battalions wore white gloves or white hankerchiefs 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 many dead and more wounded in its aftermath. The soldiers retaliated by firing into the crowd, hitting not only the protestors but also 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. The killing continued throughout the night, with soldiers operating on a house-to-house basis in the apartment buildings adjacent to the square. The Chihuahua Buiding, where the speakers were standing, as well as the rest of the neighborhood got their electric energy cut out. 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. The soldiers rounded up the students onto the Chihuahua Building's elevator walls, stripped them and beat them up. Other witnesses claim that on the later days Olimpic Batallion 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.”
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.
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 historic president that ended the 70-year reign of the PRI, attempted to resolve the greatest of these unanswered questions: 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 were 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 Echeverria 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.
In October 2003, the role of the U.S. 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:
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 Chambers issued the 2nd of October starting 2009 like National Mourning Day initiative to pass the Deputy Chambers.
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.
Richard Dindo, a documentary film maker, has made Ni olvido, ni perdón (2004), which includes contemporary interviews with witnesses and participants as well as footage from the time.
A new film, Tlatelolco: Mexico 68, is currently in post-production. This version focuses on an American journalist in Mexico for the Olympics who gets caught up in the events of October 2, 1968.
Roberto Bolaño released Amulet, a Spanish-language novel, in 1999  recounting the tragedy from the point of view of a woman 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.
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 in 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.
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