by Malcolm Beith / The News / Oct 10, 2009
Clouds loomed as night closed in. By the hundreds, the students streamed into the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. A little past 5:30 p.m., some 10,000 students – not to mention hundreds of workers, farmers and others attending in solidarity – had gathered in the square. Rain splattered down.
From his vantage point on the 5th floor of the Edificio Chihuahua, Félix Hernández Gamundi saw soldiers appear at the entrances to the Plaza, but thought little of it. He and fellow members of the “Consejo Nacional de Huelga” (National Strike Council), or CNH, had met with representatives from President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s office earlier that morning. They had struck a tentative agreement to dialogue in the hope of ending what had been a summer of sometimes bloody discontent. He knew the Army had to be present, to make sure no trouble occurred.
Then he saw that the soldiers had the square surrounded. All exits were blocked.
“At that moment, I knew,” he recalled in an interview with The News. “It was a planned operation . for blood.”
Forty years ago on Thursday, the Mexican government and the military committed what has come to be regarded as one of the most brutal acts of repression in the history of the country. The year was 1968, and students and workers from Paris to Prague to London to Los Angeles had spent the summer protesting their governments’ policies.
Mexico had not been untouched by the revolutionary fervor. Throughout the year, universities and schools in the capital, Chihuahua, Veracruz, Sonora, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Puebla, among other states, had been hotbeds of political and civil protest. Some had been violent. Some had been quelled through force.
With the eyes of the world on Mexico for the Olympic Games – the capital was to host the XIX Olympiad from Oct. 12-27 – the Díaz Ordaz administration was keen to show its allies, the United States in particular, that it could keep dissent under control.
DESPERATE TO LOOK GOOD
As early as April and May of 1968, the Mexican military had issued urgent requests to the Pentagon, asking for radios, gunpowder and mortar fuses, according to since-declassified U.S. government files.
And in the weeks preceding Tlatelolco, with the student protests showing little sign of waning, foreign observers noted that the government was becoming increasingly edgy.
“Govt has been committed to forceful showdown with students ever since army took over UNAM; showdown reinforced by attack on rector,” read a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to Washington on Sept. 27.
The Army had taken over the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, on Sept. 18, as it was considered to be the primary center of subversive activity at the time.
“Govt at moment not seeking compromise solution with students but rather seeking to put end to all organized students actions before Olympics. Secretary of government has informed Emb. officers that CNH itself does not want settlement. Aim of govt believed to be to round up extremist elements and detain them until after the Olympics.”
Shortly after 6 p.m., a professor from the Instituto Politécnico Nacional began to address the crowd.
According to testimony since published in works like “The Night of Tlatelolco,” many of those present recalled seeing men wearing white gloves on only their left hand enter the buildings surrounding the square, and dispersing themselves among the crowd, too.
Jesús Sandoval Acuña told The News that he remembered seeing those men in white gloves – the Olympia Battalion, a special security force set up for the Games – enter the Edificio Chihuahua and other buildings on the perimeter of the square.
“They didn’t seem right,” recalled Sandoval Acuña. “It didn’t seem right.”
Then they heard the shots.
`STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL’
Through his bullhorn, the Politécnico professor on the podium urged the people to remain calm, Félix Hernández recalled. The military was simply trying to provoke them, the professor said. Remain calm.
Until the soldiers started firing into them.
“The soldiers fired at the buildings, from the buildings, and then, into the masses,” Félix Hernández said. “The plaza was full, there were kids there. We could see that many were dead. The massacre was brutal.”
The bullets were indiscriminate, according to eyewitnesses who lived to tell their story. Women, children – even the white-gloved special forces, by some counts – were fired upon.
“In a few minutes the whole thing became a scene straight out of hell. The gunfire was deafening,” recounted one witness in Elena Poniatowska’s “The Night of Tlatelolco.”
Unable to get past soldiers and Olympic special forces to help those below, Félix Hernández and his fellow students ran to the third floor of the Edificio Chihuahua, and knocked on a friend’s door. About 20 of them crammed into the friend’s apartment, sneaking glances out the window every now and then to survey the carnage in the square. The soldiers were firing everywhere.
But before long, the gunfire became sporadic. Then it stopped completely.
Dead silence. Not even a scream.
“We thought it was over,” Félix Hernández said.
Then the tanks came. The students in the third-floor Edificio Chihuahua apartment heard the rumbling of the massive vehicles, and huddled together. They heard the footsteps of soldiers running up the stairs. The soldiers ran back down the stairs.
Hours passed. Then, at about 11 p.m., a rap on the door.
“Military. Open up.”
A whispered, but furious debate ensued, Félix Hernández said: If the guests gave themselves up, the family who owned the apartment would likely suffer the consequences too. If the students went quietly, there was a chance.
They opened the door. The soldiers hauled everyone away, the friend and his family, too.
Most accounts of Tlatelolco put the number of detained at about 1,000. Some were lucky.
Sandoval Acuña was one of the lucky ones. As soon as he heard the gunfire, he made his way to the church at the corner of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Backed by a group of about 15 people, he barged past the handful of soldiers guarding that particular passageway. A few blocks away, out of their sights, he paused for breath.
The guilt hit him immediately.
“I felt terrible,” he recalled. “Being outside, being safe, while the shooting was still going on.”
Then the shouting began: “Assassins! Sons of bitches!”
Even as the massacre was taking place inside the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, some of those on its fringes were protesting, expressing their fury at the atrocity occurring mere meters away.
Some people outside the square started taking out their pistols and shooting at the soldiers, Sandoval Acuña said. The soldiers fired back.
To this day, official accounts have maintained that the soldiers were fired upon by the students, provoked into acting in the repressive manner that they did. The students maintain they were engaging in a peaceful protest, and were indiscriminately fired upon.
At the time, the government line was easily bought. (Or forced upon the media. Documents uncovered in the 1990s revealed how publishers and the Díaz Ordaz administration had worked closely to cover up the events. Some newspapers and magazines were reportedly raided at the time for printing photos of the events that did not comply with the official version.)
“Serious Fighting for Hours between Terrorists and Soldiers. 29 Dead and More than 80 Wounded; Casualties on Both Sides,” read El Universal’s headline on Oct. 3.
“Bloody Encounter in Tlatelolco. 26 Dead and 71 Wounded; Sharpshooters Fire on Army Troops. General Toledo Wounded,” reported El Heraldo.
“Foreign Interlopers Attempt to Damage Mexico’s National Image. The Objective: Preventing the Nineteenth Olympic Games from Being Held,” read El Sol de México’s morning headline.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
To this day, what exactly happened on the night of Oct. 2, 1968 remains murky.
Poniatowska’s book, which revolves around testimony garnered from dozens of eyewitnesses, is considered by many to be one of the most thorough sources on the subject.
Although governments that came after Díaz Ordaz released more and more information, huge gaps in the story remain – for one, the number of victims and those detained.
Félix Hernández remembers being held for days at a military base with “at least hundreds” of others. He recalls going through a “caricature” of a judicial process – they were never given the chance to present their case before a judge – during which 500 people were effectively convicted of the murder of one judicial police officer who had been at Tlatelolco.
Félix Hernández spent more than two years behind bars before being freed on account of the payment of a fine by an anonymous patron.
“The sentencing, the judge – even our liberation was illegal,” he said.
Those digging for the real dirt have failed to come up with real answers.
Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives at George Washington University, has spent much of the past decade poring through files released by the Mexican and U.S. governments. But at nearly every turn, her investigations have been hindered.
In 1998, a special congressional commission was granted access to some 3,000 boxes of files on Tlatelolco. But according to Doyle, that “fell through. The government continued to stonewall.” The congressional commission was never given the opportunity to follow through on the promise that had been made.
In 2002, then-President Vicente Fox announced the opening of the nation’s security archives – which included files from the Interior Secretariat on the ’70s and ’80s “dirty war” era, among other state secrets. A year later, he green-lighted a promising Freedom of Information Law.
“This was a watershed moment,” said Doyle.
But investigators would soon find that holes remained, and key documents missing.
Doyle made it her mission at the time to pursue all records from every government agency on Tlatelolco – “every piece of paper that we could find on those who actually died.” But while the declassified information was clearly useful – it gave researchers new leads on government policy, “rich information” on the military and intelligence during the Tlatelolco period, Doyle said – there were still problems.
A special prosecutor’s office, set up by Fox to investigate “dirty war” crimes and compile evidence that could be used in criminal cases, was seizing files even as Doyle and other researchers were trying to seize on their newfound access to them.
Worse, the special prosecutor investigators were placing them “under seal,” Doyle said – they were removing them from the archives, apparently as evidence for future cases.
Two years later, the special prosecutor’s office was shut down. It had not made one single conviction. The files remained “under seal.”
Luis Echeverría Alvarez, interior secretary at the time of Tlatelolco and widely considered to have overseen that massacre and ordered other atrocities as president in the 1970s, was placed under house arrest, but charges of genocide had already been dropped by the special prosecutor.
Some believe things could have been – and could still be – different.
“There is a core set of what we imagine to be the most important documents, which were whisked out from the archives’ control,” said Doyle. “Rather than provide us with solid legal cases, the prosecutor served to identify and remove the most important evidence. That’s a scandal.”
Today, those documents – a list 9,000 pages long, which Doyle’s team has put together from the national archives’ list of documents in existence – are in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office, or PGR, which was never ordered to release its files.
On Thursday, Doyle plans to publish a formal letter to the PGR, among other agencies, requesting access to these documents. If the PGR doesn’t release them, she said, “We’ll go to court.”
HOLE IN HISTORY
What transpired on Oct. 2, 1968, was for decades not taught in schools; for years, textbooks simply ignored the event altogether or brushed over it and blamed the students, according to academics. In 1992, then-Education Secretary Ernesto Zedillo included a few paragraphs in public school textbooks that many felt blamed the military and government. The result: Hundreds of thousands of books were recalled. Similar efforts have since been quashed, too, according to education experts.
Still, 40 years on, Tlatelolco resonates among the Mexican public.
And as time passes, information about other incidents from that era – the “other Tlatelolcos” – has emerged.
For some, it’s been a long time coming. Sandoval Acuña, a native of Tampico, Tamaulipas, said that the focus on Tlatelolco in years past , while warranted, has taken limelight away from other Mexican student movements that were suppressed at the time.
“Nineteen sixty-eight was a cocktail, where lots of things were going on. There were liberal people, miniskirts . it was the beginning of the `brigadistas’ (a group of female protestors who are today often associated with Andrés Manuel López Obrador). The solidarity of the people was gigantic. But all of the focus is on one aspect, on a few leaders of the CNH,” Sandoval Acuña said. “They did everything, according to them.”
Now 63, Sandoval Acuña is finishing up a book about those other incidents and movements, which addresses demonstrations earlier in the summer – including one on Aug. 27 which he refers to as “the mother of all marches.”
He sheds light on a Sept. 3 farmers’ march, which students joined in the Mexico City suburb of Topilejo. He has investigated student clashes with police in Zacatenco on Sept. 20. In Veracruz, students were reportedly run out of the Gulf state by authorities throughout the summer. The list goes on.
Marco Rascón remembers one of the other Tlatelolcos. A secondary school student in Chihuahua at the time, he recalls how the summer of discontent played out in his northern state.
The hippies, the revolutionary thinkers, the foreigners, the would-be guerrillas, were all out on the campus which he and his peers shared with the university kids. Peace and love were in the air, as was progressive thought, he said.
“There were new ways of thinking, of living,” Rascón recalled. “There was an aspiration of democratization.”
Until the military came, that is. The students protested, and their classrooms were occupied. A military helicopter was downed near the state capital, Rascón recalled. Students and locals were reputedly responsible.
Rascón, then just a teenager, remembers the protests and the heavy hand of the police and military.
But even he admits that Oct. 2. – the “sum of all the barbarism,” as Félix Hernández described it – holds a special place in his memory.
That day, the Chihuahua students had held a protest. All had gone peacefully. But at night, he and his fellow students heard a report, passed along by someone who had read a news cable. Something had happened in the capital.
“Everything was rumors, there was no media,” recalled Rascón. Telephone calls to relatives and friends followed. Soon, word got around. A peaceful protest in Mexico City had been suppressed. A group of students had fired on the military. There was an indeterminable number of dead.
There was confusion in Chihuahua, Rascón said. Opinions differed over what had happened.
But everyone knew what to do: They had to go to Mexico City.
When he and his fellow students from Chihuahua finally arrived, they had a resolve about them, said Rascón, who now lives in the capital.
But they were also of two minds over what would happen next. Throughout the summer, there had been much debate over whether or not an armed uprising would ever be necessary, or whether peaceful protests would be sufficient to reveal the repression of the regime and incite real change.
Once in Mexico City, a friend of Rascón’s headed straight over to the UNAM campus.
“He said, `I’m going to see for myself how, with this act, the government has revealed its repression,’ ” recalled Rascón.
But the friend was not prepared for what he would see. The campus was “lifeless,” he told Rascón and the others. It was horrific evidence of what had transpired, and of the extent their government could and would go to quell what it deemed subversion.
“He saw that there was nobody – everybody had left. And then he started to weep,” said Rascón.
It was at that moment, Rascón said, that they all realized, “this was the beginning of a revolution.”
Throughout the world, student movements came to a head in 1968. The momentum for change slowed, and for most, the year would soon become a distant memory.
But for Mexico, to echo Rascón, it was just the beginning.
ANOTHER EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT:
The most terrifying night of my life’
In October 1968, British journalist Robert Trevor was in Mexico City getting ready to cover the Olympic Games which were about to start.
But he ended up reporting on one of the bloodiest episodes in Mexican history, what he calls “the most terrifying night of my life”.
Mr Trevor, then aged 34, was the sports editor of the London Evening News and was in the Mexican capital to report on his third Olympics.
In the run-up to the Games, Mexico had been caught up in the wave of social and political unrest that had erupted in other parts of the world throughout 1968. But Mr Trevor says the people he first met were just excited about the sports events.
“The atmosphere was one of pleasure at having the Olympic Games. The Mexicans were proud of their Olympics. They wanted them to go off as well as possible,” Mr Trevor told BBC Mundo.
He heard that a political demonstration was planned for the evening of 2 October in Tlatelolco Square, or Plaza de las Tres Culturas. He went along to see if there would be a story in it.
“There was a big crowd there, about 3,000,” he says, most of them young students and union activists.
“To begin with it was very peaceful and quiet. Everyone was listening to the speeches calling for the resignation of President Diaz Ordaz and for the government to rule according to the Mexican constitution.
“There were calls for better housing, better education, better food.”
But then shots were fired from nearby rooftops.
“Before people could grasp what was happening, helicopters arrived, helicopter gunships that started firing down on the crowd,” he says.
An American journalist from the UPI news agency standing next to Mr Trevor suddenly found himself covered in other people’s blood.
“When the helicopters opened fire and flares were dropped to light up the square, people were absolutely terrified,” Mr Trevor recalls.
The crowd began darting down side-streets to try to escape.
“As we ran down the streets we were met by Mexican soldiers in full battle order – steel helmets, rifles – and backed by armoured cars.
“People were being shot at from the front, by the foot soldiers, and from behind by the helicopter gunships, so they were trapped. It was terrible, there was no escape.”
Mr Trevor managed to run down a street that eventually took him back to Mexico City’s main thoroughfare, Paseo de la Reforma.
“There it was unbelievable because the restaurants were full, people were coming out of cinemas, people were walking up and down the boulevard. Nobody knew what was happening 800m (2,600ft) away. It was unreal.”
Some of them said they had been escorted from the square by security forces before the shooting happened and held at gunpoint in nearby houses until it was all over, so they did not see anything.
Robert Trevor filed his report which was on the front page of the London Evening News the next day.
“I published the story of what I had seen and heard. I also reported the fact that the police commissioner in Mexico City, Luis Cueto, had held a press conference claiming that only 25 people had been killed, including seven policemen. I knew this wasn’t true because I had seen more people than that being shot.”
In fact, the number of victims has remained shrouded in mystery and controversy.
In the days afterwards, the government spoke of some 30 victims, human rights groups and foreign journalists have put the number of dead at around 300.
The names of many of the victims or what happened to their bodies remain unknown.
A week after the killings, the media’s attention had switched to the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
“We were all there to cover the games, really,” Mr Trevor says.
But Mr Trevor, who has not been back to Mexico since then, says his memories of that time are still powerful.
“It was the most terrifying night of my life, there’s no question about that.”
And he recalls meeting a woman who told him how she went to the police in the immediate aftermath of the shootings to try to get news of her missing son.
Officers told her to go away and not annoy them.
“She hadn’t got a son and never had, they told her. There was no proof of his existence. That story I will remember all my life,” says Mr Trevor.
To this day, no one has been held to account for the Tlatelolco killings.