Suzanne Bilello
Suzanne Bilello

Fellowship Title:

The Massacre in Mexico – Twenty Years Later

Suzanne Bilello
November 25, 1988

Fellowship Year

Editors Note: APF Reporter Vol.11 #3 exsisted only as a photo copy, becuase of this the pictures in this story are of poor quality.


MEXICO CITY–On the eve of the 1968 Olympics, a helicopter hovered over the colonial Santiago church in Tlatelolco, the Plaza of the Three Cultures in central Mexico City. Shortly after 6 p.m., a Bengal flare dropped.

Hundreds of troops emerged from behind austere Pre-hispanic ruins and opened fire with automatic weapons on the defenseless crowd of more than 10,000 people gathered for yet another protest against the authoritarian government of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. Many were students whose political sympathies ranged from liberal to leftist. Since late July they had taken to the streets to pressure the government for basic political reforms.

A squad of plainclothes soldiers, each wearing a white glove on his left hand and a revolver in his right, converged on the third floor balcony of the Chihuahua apartment building where student leaders had addressed the crowd. They ordered the students to the floor, witnesses say, and began shooting from the balcony into a crowd of hundreds rushing to the defense of the leaders.

Tanks ringed the plaza. Thousands were trapped amid a barrage of gunfire that continued sporadically throughout the night.

By the next morning approximately 300 people, among them children, were dead. The government officially reported 32 dead.

“The plaza was covered with bodies,” says Raul Alvarez Garin, a student leader who witnessed the massacre. Physicians would later report that some victims had been run through with bayonets.

Alvarez was among at least a thousand people arrested that night, many of whom were tortured. He and scores of other protest organizers would later be convicted on a series of trumped up charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to seventeen years.

“With one huge blow the movement was crushed,” said Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer.

Ten days later, the lighting of the Olympic torch in Aztec Stadium peacefully inaugurated the first games ever hosted by a developing country. Outside the stadium, troops and tanks were poised beyond the view of television cameras.

The Tlatelolco massacre–Mexico’s biggest slaughter since the 1910-1917 Revolution–was a fleeting news item in the international press, one more social scar of that turbulent year. To this day, the 1968 Olympics are more likely remembered internationally for black American athletes’ protests.

In Mexico, 1968 was a watershed that undermined the credibility of the one-party political system that has ruled since the aftermath of the revolution. Two decades later, the events of 1968 are frequently referred to, but to date, no one has systematically examined the events and their repercussions. This illustrates just how sensitive the issue remains. Yet in many respects, 1968 is the key to understanding the current political conflict that is building in Mexico today.

“The crisis of 1968 was a crisis of legitimacy,” said Miguel Basanez, contemporary historian and former government official.

Since the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, was formed in 1929, Mexico’s system of government has relied on a series of coalitions, at times cooption, and as a last resort, repression to insure stability. In 1968, it used the latter.

While the immediate threat that the anti-government protests posed disappeared after the October 2 massacre, the lingering fear of leftist dissent influenced Mexican policy for years.

Two decades after Tlatelolco, Mexico, which has been a paradigm of stability in troubled Latin America, again is suffering political trauma. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, has recently faced its most difficult electoral challenges in decades.

The source of the current political crisis is rooted in 1968 and the subsequent failure of the system to regain the legitimacy it lost twenty years ago.

“The system never recovered the prestige it lost in 1968,” said Luis Javier Garrido, an historian of the Mexican political system, adding that since 1968 there has been “a deterioration of the image of the government.”

Today’s discontent and that of two decades ago are spawned from the same source; diminishing economic expectations that make an authoritarian system less tolerable.

“When things are going from bad to -worse as they are now, you become very bitter,” Meyer says.

These days the direct political challenges to the PRI come from the right as well as the left wing opposition. While the center-right National Action Party, PAN, has posed electoral challenges to the PRI for years, this is the first time the left has ever threatened the PRI electorally.

The leftist front consists of a broad coalition of groups that have rallied behind a dissident “Priista,” Cuauhtemoc Cardenas the son of Gen. Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico’s mythically popular former president. The elder Cardenas was president from 1934 until 1940 and nationalized the oil industry.

In controversial presidential elections last July, PRI presidential candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari officially won with an historically low margin–just over 50 percent of the vote–amid charges of fraud by the opposition that led many to believe the percentage actually was lower. In 1982, President Miguel de la Madrid won with 70.9 percent of the vote.

The poor showing by Salinas, an economist educated in the United States, is interpreted widely as a vote against economic policies that have brought six years of stagnant growth.

In an unprecedented showing for an opposition candidate, Cardenas came in second with just over 31 percent of the vote. PAN candidate Manuel J. Cloutheir came in third with 17 percent.

In congressional races, opposition candidates from the left and center-right won a total of 240 of the 500 seats in the chamber of deputies. And members of Cardenas’ coalition won four of the 64 senate seats–marking the first time an opposition party will be represented in the senate.

Prior to the July election, the PRI had won every presidency, state governorship and senate race since its formation in 1929.

Cardenas is part of a group of former PRI members who broke away from the ruling party when it refused to debate policy disputes internally.

Cardenas has also pulled off what has evaded the traditional left in Mexico; he’s united an eclectic array of leftists and mustered significant electoral support.

Analysts point out that the traditional left has failed in part to gain popular support because much of its natural terrain, such as labor unions, is controlled by the PRI. But the left in Mexico has also been plagued by factionalism and ideological disputes that have distanced it from the population.

In 1968, for example, the Communist Party, the main left wing opposition, only slightly influenced the student movement.

“Of the 240 or so members of the student leadership, less than 10 percent were members of the Communist Party,” said Alvarez.

“The old Communist Party was destroyed before October 2 because its program was elitist. They were marginalized because they were dogmatic,” said Herbert Braun, a Colombian historian at the University of Virginia who has studied the Mexican student movement of 1968. “The left doesn’t speak a language Mexicans understand. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas speaks the language of populism.”

In addition, the left has been repressed by the government. At the onset of the student movement the Communist Party headquarters virtually was destroyed by police. Many party activists were imprisoned. Also, most leftist parties were not legally incorporated political parties until an electoral reform law went into effect in 1978.

Regardless of the limited involvement of the Communist Party in the student movement of 1968, the government perceived the movement as a leftist threat to the state. Many leaders said they only wanted political reforms. But the government took the movement as a frontal assault on the entire system.

“It’s possible that the lesson learned in 1968 is that in a direct challenge to the state, you lose,” said Braun.

In the 1970s, after a small guerrilla movement was wiped out by government forces, the left tried to organize a political structure to challenge the PRI at the polls and failed.

“Since then (’70s) we’ve seen one attempt after another to beat the PRI at its own game. But you have to look for a pragmatic way and the most pragmatic vision is Cardenas,” said Braun. “Systems begin to break when the elite divides. And he (Cardenas) is a harbinger of a much greater change, that the left has to broaden in order to take away support from the PRI.”

The student movement of 1968 burst onto the streets of Mexico City like a social explosion. But the conditions that precipitated it go back much further than the brief time the protests endured.

Mexico’s post-war industrial boom gave birth to a middle class that grew and prospered. By the mid 60s, though, social mobility was drastically curtailed as potential employment markets became saturated.

“Having a university degree no longer automatically guaranteed a job and possibilities of upward mobility,” Alvarez said of those days.

“As we look back at 1968, we can see the seeds of discontent existed,” Braun said.

It was also glaringly evident that Mexico’s industrial development was not solving grave social disparities. To date, Mexico has one of the most uneven income distributions in the hemisphere despite the fact that it had a social revolution.

“It’s much worse now because inflation in recent years has been so high,” Meyer noted.

“The ingredients for widespread unrest had long existed, yet the fatalism of the masses, disarray among the opposition and an efficient security apparatus had helped to preserve stability,” Alan Riding wrote in “Distant Neighbors,” on the social protests of 1968. “But the system proved ill prepared to deal with a seemingly spontaneous movement.”

On July 22, 1968, a dispute between rival groups of high school students turned into a confrontation with police. A few days later a march by leftist sympathizers to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution also became the target of police attacks. Within days, a movement began that grew to unprecedented dimensions–drawing at times some 300,000 people. The seething social discontent surfaced and support rapidly spread from students to housewives and even bureaucrats.

“The movement was a protest against the lack of democracy and the authoritarian government,” historian Garrido explained.

The enormous amount of money the government was spending to host the Olympics exacerbated the public discontent.

In August, a coalition of student leaders petitioned the government with a series of demands. Among them were the elimination of the “Granaderos” riot police unit which had been responsible for the repression, indemnization for injuries or deaths in police confrontations and freedom for those imprisoned.

In one futile response to the social revolt, Diaz Ordaz summoned public employees to rally in support of the system. In the traditional manner, the workers were “accareado”–hauled–to the Zocalo, the center of Mexico City and the symbolic seat of national power. The event turned into a riot as the employees began denouncing the government they had been summoned to support.

Government officials tried to blame the unrest on “external forces” but there was never any evidence to substantiate the charge.

Meanwhile, the pressure of the impending Olympic Games and international focus on Mexico evidently were a source of enormous preoccupation for the government.

An effort to bring students and government representatives to negotiate a resolution was initiated shortly before the October 2 massacre.

The protest leaders were imprisoned on the night of October 2 and the following days but the conditions that led to the upheaval still existed.

“They had to massacre us,” asserted Marcellino Perello, a 1968 student leader. “Politically they couldn’t win; they lacked the political resources.”

In response to fears that leftist dissent might continue, Diaz Ordaz picked as his successor Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who as Interior Minister was considered a hardline conservative. He also was a logical candidate for complicity in the events of October 2, a charge Echeverria has denied in interviews since then. An unwritten rule of the one-party system is that the president hand-picks his successor, a process known as the “dedazo.”

Confirming government fears that the revolt would continue, a guerrilla movement began in the years following the 1968 repression that was eventually crushed by government forces.

“After 1968, it seemed armed struggle was the only alternative,” says Gustavo Hirales, who was imprisoned for eight years for his participation in the guerrilla movement.

While the army was battling the guerrillas, Echeverria waged a battle of his own. He tried to seduce a generation.

Mexico’s foreign policy took a turn to the left as Echeverria promoted a series of third world alliances. The measure was largely aimed to appease Mexican leftists.

During Echeverria’s term, which began in 1970, political prisoners of 1968 were gradually released from prison. But the jails soon began to fill with guerrillas. The climate internally was repressive as hundreds “disappeared” in a government counterinsurgency drive.

In an effort to co-opt the youth of 1968, the budgets of public universities, which had decreased under Diaz Ordaz, were increased. Fellowships for young intellectuals to study abroad were plentiful. Many young people also were wooed into-the government. Among them was Rosa Luz Alegria, who eventually became the secretary of tourism, and Socrates Amado Campos Lemus, who is now an advisor to the governor of Veracruz.

The legacy of 1968 did haunt Echeverria. At a speech at the National Autonomous University, UNAM, in the middle of his term, he was stoned.

The crowd at a post-election rally for Cuauhtémoc Cáardenas. Photo: Fernan Rodriquez C.
The crowd at a post-election rally for Cuauhtémoc Cáardenas. (Photo: Fernan Rodriquez C.)

And while some analysts question Echeverria’s eventual success at co-opting the youth of 1968, his policies did come at a price.

His seemingly leftist policies irked private businessmen. The fatal blow to the private sector was delivered in the final days of his term when Echeverria ordered the expropriation of valuable land in the northern border state of Sonora.

“Echeverria comes in and speaks the language of the students. He wins them over but begins to lose the support of businessmen,” Basanez said. “The private sector focuses its hatred on Echeverria and there is an enormous crisis of confidence.”

By the time Jose Lopez Portillo took office in 1976, Mexico was in economic trouble. Fueled by the oil boom, Mexico recovered briefly only to collapse into economic disaster by the end of Lopez Portillo’s term.

A decade after Tlatelolco, Lopez Portillo opened the political system with an electoral reform law that legalized leftist opposition parties and guaranteed all opposition parties proportional seats in Congress. The chief architect of the 1978 electoral reform law was Jesus Reyes Heroles, a progressive ideologue within the PRI.

Despite political reforms under Lopez Portillo and more under President Miguel de la Madrid, the opposition was only given a small voice but no real say in how the country was managed. Mexico remained a one-party system of government.

Since de la Madrid took office in 1982, the economic crisis has once again prompted a direct challenge to the system. Real wages have declined at least 40 percent since de la Madrid’s term began. There has been a regression of social gains of the last 40 years as populist measures the government once employed, such as food and transportation subsidies, have disappeared.

De la Madrid has worked closely with foreign bankers and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, in his efforts to manage the economic crisis. The IMF has required stringent austerity measures to cut public spending. Many of de la Madrid’s actions have been viewed as an affront to nationalism since they have come at the cost of enormous social sacrifice.

Opposition leader Cardenas and other members of his “Frente Democractico Nacional,” or Democratic National Front, say they disagree with the economic policies of de la Madrid. In his presidential campaign, Cardenas called for a return to the populist tradition exemplified by his father and said his ideology is rooted in the Mexican Revolution’s call for social equality.

“The democratic proposal of the front is based on the nationalistic proposals written in the principles of the Mexican Revolution,” Cardenas said. “We have to think about who are the ones that are selling out the country.”

Mexico’s economic crisis has radicalized people like Cardenas who played no role in 1968, went on to become a state governor, and who might otherwise have remained loyal to the system.”

Throughout his presidential campaign, Salinas said he would promote political reforms in his presidential administration. Several of Salinas’ aides are disciples of the late Reyes Heroles and have been greatly influenced by his ideology.

And while many question whether the final election results are accurate, the showing by the opposition in presidential and congressional races was a watershed in a country where one party has been accustomed, at times fraudulently, to monopolizing power.

“The era of what is practically a single party is ending and we are entering a new phase in the political life of the nation, with a majority party and very intense competition from the opposition,” Salinas told supporters shortly after the July 6 election.

Cuauhtémoc Cáardenas Photo: Rodolfo Del Percio
Cuauhtémoc Cáardenas (Photo: Rodolfo Del Percio)

But it remains to be seen how far Salinas will carry out the political reforms he promised during his campaign. His biggest obstacle comes from within the PRI where many old guard activists are displeased with the opposition victories.

“People who have enormous political weight lost. Some are furious,” said a high-level government official of the PRI losses in July.

“Few doubt that Mexico urgently needs positive changes in every area of the political, social and economic life,” says historian Meyer. “But we’ve heard this promise punctually every six years since at least 1969.”

Twenty years after Tlatelolco, the political debate over Mexico’s future continues. Indeed, many Cardenas supporters such as Raul Alvarez, are survivors of 1968.

The question is, will the system once again force that debate into the streets, or will the opposition be given a greater voice?

“The essential place where the presence of the opposition will be seen will ultimately be in the congress,” Salinas said in an interview shortly after the election.

“The system will have to be more flexible,” said Ifigenia Martinez, one of the four opposition senators. “But it won’t be unless we continue the pressure.”

©1988 Suzanne Bilello

Suzanne Bilello, a freelance writer, is examining the legacy of 1968 in Mexico’s political future.