Mexico’s student movement erupted so suddenly in the summer of 1968 that it seemed to catch even its followers by surprise The protests began as Mexico City was preparing to host the Olympics that October — an event intended to showcase a modern nation with a growing middle class at the forefront of emerging economies. By taking to the streets just months before the inauguration of the games, students cracked that veneer, revealing a generation’s latent anger against the country’s repressive rule as the world looked on.
Ten weeks after the first street protests, the government crushed the movement in a spasm of violence beyond anyones worst fears. On Oct 2, students who had gathered in a plaza for an evening meeting were picked off by government snipers perched on rooftops. Chaos broke out. The soldiers, whose mission was to disperse the crowd, instead were shooting into it.
When the carnage ended, dozens lay dead and hundreds were shoved into vans, many of them to be tried and imprisoned. Twelve days later, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz opened the Olympic Games.
The massacre at Tlatelolco, named for the vast housing development where the students were meeting, decimated the student movement 50 years ago. But for those who experienced it, those heady initial weeks marked the first time that a mass movement confronted the authoritarian control exerted by Mexicos one-party state.
Tlatelolco shattered the bargain that the government imposed on Mexicans: political acquiescence in exchange for stability. It also gave rise to a wave of activists determined to seek new paths of resistance: A few took up arms in guerrilla movements and many more turned to social organising, fanning out to impoverished city neighbourhoods and forgotten mountain villages.
Mexicos political stability was broken and 100, 200, different political youth movements arose, which spread out across the country,” said Gilberto Guevara Niebla, one of the movements leaders and chroniclers. “Mexico never returned to being the same Mexico.”
The students manifesto encompassed basic liberties and rights: free speech, a halt to state violence, accountability for police and military abuses, the release of political prisoners and the beginning of a dialogue with the government.
The movements explosive power lay precisely in the nature of its demands, said Sergio Aguayo, a professor at the Colegio de México who participated in the movement and has written extensively about the massacre.
“It was an agenda that could be adopted by all the sectors of Mexican society: left, centre, right,” Aguayo said.
Fifty years later, the city is reliving those weeks with exhibits, lectures and marches spread across the same streets and campuses where soldiers battled students. Many people cite 1968 as a starting point for Mexicos long transition to democracy.
That tidy narrative is almost certainly too simple an interpretation. Mexican democracy, still a work in progress, has evolved in the churn of internal and external pressures.
Even before 1968, there were convulsions among miners and railroad workers, students and teachers. A rural guerrilla movement was forming in the western mountains. But the attack at Tlatelolco was a powerful symbol. The surge of political and social engagement that followed, and the demand for responsive government, has endured.
Participants “started to create the institutions that gradually weakened the foundations of authoritarianism,” Aguayo said. “What united us was the desire to change the regime peacefully in different ways.”
Seven decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party ended in 2000, with the election of a conservative opposition president. And in July, voters swept out Mexicos political establishment and handed a landslide presidential victory to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has promised an administration dedicated to overcoming Mexicos deep inequalities.
One thing has not changed: The Tlatelolco massacre remains unpunished. To many Mexicans, impunity for that crime echoes the states failure to bring justice to countless other victims of murder and disappearance.
“Tlatelolco became a symbol of the collective desire to obtain justice,” said Aguayo.
In the most acute expression of that impunity, the murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of Mexicans since the government declared war on organised crime in 2006 are unsolved.
“It is very easy to produce cadavers in Mexico,” said Elena Poniatowska, a journalist and writer whose 1971 book, “The Night of Tlatelolco,” compiled witness accounts of the massacre. “It is very easy to die here.”
In the summer of 1968, during the first days of the movement, there was little thought of risk, participants said. It was a time of social ferment. Mexicos students watched Paris roilling, the American civil rights movement taking hold and the opposition to the Vietnam War explode into demonstrations. They too felt that change was possible and revelled in a new sexual and cultural freedom that challenged Mexicos strict hierarchies.
The upheaval began July 23, when the police cracked down on a fight between students. Three days later, two marches set off days of street battles that ended when the army used a bazooka to break down the 18th-century door of the high school where students had taken refuge.
Within a week, the governments harsh response unleashed a suppressed desire for political change. The rector of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, Javier Barros Sierra, joined the movement Aug 1. Students organised themselves into a National Strike Council, published a list of six demands and backed them up with marches throughout August.
The students never challenged the existence of the government. Still, an exhilarating sense of possibility filled the young protesters.
Sergio Zermeño, a sociology student at the national university, was part of a group that took over the university printing press to roll out the movements newspaper and then sell copies to raise money.
“You go from being a nobody, a student like me, to being someone who in 15 days had economic power,” recalled Zermeño, who has written about the movement.
Students went to public spaces, markets and factories to collect donations and spread their message.
“When they say that the people did not support us, that is a lie,” said Ana Ignacia Rodríguez Márquez, who was a law student at the national university.
The movement grew through August, culminating in an enormous student march to Mexico Citys central square, the Zocalo. The government saw it as a metastasising threat.
In his annual state of the nation speech on Sep 1, Diaz Ordaz, a close ally of Washington at the height of the Cold War, assailed the movement.
The students persisted, marching in silence on Sep 13, but they were increasingly anxious. They tried to contact the authorities and even wrote letters to the president, Guevara Niebla said.
On Sep 18, the army occupied the university campus. Five days later, soldiers retook the National Polytechnic Institute.
But it was not enough to contain the students. With the Olympics imminent and foreign reporters arriving to cover it, the government wanted to control the image foreigners would get of Mexico.
The army knew the dissidents were meeting Oct 2 in the Plaza of Three Cultures, by the Tlatelolco housing development. The officers prepared to arrest the student leaders.
Guevara Niebla, one of the organisers, watched from an apartment building. About an hour into the meeting, he heard a roar: “It was a cry, a collective voice, a terrible thing, but of fear.”
Soldiers with their bayonets drawn advanced from the avenue bordering the plaza.
Then came the thunder of weapons firing at the same time, he said. Peeking out a window, he could see soldiers shooting into the crowd from windows on either side of him. Two or three hours later, soldiers burst in to arrest him.
What exactly happened at Tlatelolco remained a mystery for many years. Afraid of a boycott of the Olympic Games, the government blamed the shootout on “dangerous anti-Mexican elements.”
Even the number of dead is questioned. Diaz Ordaz said no more than two dozen students had been killed. A reporter from The Guardian who was there estimated that 500 people had been killed or wounded.
Working from Mexican archives opened after 2000, Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive in Washington, an independent organisation, and Susana Zavala, a Mexican researcher, counted 44 victims, 34 of them by name.
After the massacre, the government was back in control. The Olympic Games “will proceed as scheduled,” the president of the International Olympic Committee announced. “We have been assured that nothing will interfere with the peaceful entrance of the Olympic flame into the stadium on Oct 12.”