1968 in Mexico was a time of good will, change and new hope for the future. Alliances formed between students, workers, and the urban poor. Society seemed on the verge of transformation. Young people marched and spoke to everyone who’d listen. They explained how they wanted a revolution from within the system. They were nonviolent and driven by the kind of passion and conviction that only the young seem to externalize.
On Wednesday October 2, 1968, 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a huge public housing project, not far from the city center. Their agenda called for speeches and protest against some of the government’s high-handed actions. Many of the students congregated outside one of the largest apartment buildings – the Chihuahua.
Shortly before 6:00 pm, red flares were shot from a nearby tower. Around 6:15 pm, one red and one green flare were fired from a helicopter, and at that moment 5,000 soldiers and 200 armored vehicles surrounded the plaza.
Despite the efforts of the student union organizers to quiet the thousands, panic reigned. With the bedlam in full swing, a secret government group received orders to arrest the student leaders. The members of the elite government contingent were not easily distinguishable from the crowd but once the hostilities began, they put on white gloves so that the regular police and army troops would recognize and not shoot them.
The advance of this special unit into the plaza left dead and wounded in its wake. They fired into the nearby buildings, and not only at the protesters but also at bystanders. Everyone there, including children, journalists and the elderly were hit by bullets, and bodies soon started to pile up on the ground. Many said the soldiers must have been drugged to act with such barbarism.
Murder continued throughout the night of October 2, 1968. Soldiers and police searched all the apartment buildings on the square looking for students. The electricity and telephone lines were cut. At first, the bodies were removed in ambulances and later, when there were too many; army officials threw bodies into military trucks, not caring if they were dead or alive. Witnesses said that some cadavers were carted away in garbage trucks and sent who knows where.
The soldiers rounded up the survivors, stripped and beat them. Many were taken to the convent next to the church and left there until early in the morning, many had nothing to do with the students; they were neighbors who happened to be on hand at the start of the speeches.
Others claim that in the days following the riot, soldiers disguised as light and water company employees, inspected the nearby homes, still looking for students.
In Mexico, no one will ever forget Tlatelolco or the friends and family who died. We cannot recapture the youthful optimism. We can’t take back the innocence that Tlatelolco took away. On October 2, 1968, the fragile trust between the people and the politicians was severed forever. It was the defining event in contemporary Mexican history.
For forty-three years, activists have tried to get the government to admit their complicity. They have attempted to prosecute the guilty. They have asked for retribution. And the struggle has taken them nowhere.
I agree with those who feel that the nation must move on. No one should ever forget the tragedy but the country needs to put its energies into creating institutions and passing laws that will ensure that such a terrible thing never happens again. And the very great challenges that the country faces now, must be addressed by everyone. We need to pull together.
For further information, click here to view Elena Poniatowska’s chronicle “Massacre in Mexico.”
To see a video compilation of actual photographs of the Tlatelolco protest, click here:
*** The photos are mine. All were taken at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas last year. My novel If Only You Knew begins on October 2, 1968. It is the story of what happens to a group of people in post-Tlatelolco Mexico City and Merida