Anniversary of ’68 Massacre Brings Facts to Light
By SAM DILLON
MEXICO CITY — The protest rally here on Oct. 2, 1968, began
like many others across the world in that era of campus revolt and
rock-and-roll. Thousands of demonstrators huddled in a drizzle to hear
student leaders with bullhorns denounce the army occupation of a
Then the sky over downtown Mexico City crackled with flares and
Tlatelolco Plaza exploded in gunfire. Shooting at the panicked crowd,
troops and the police turned the plaza into an inferno of carnage and
screams. When the firing stopped, 2,000 demonstrators were beaten and
jailed, scores of bodies were trucked away and firehoses washed the
blood from the cobblestones.
Like the killings outside Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, the
Tlatelolco massacre seared the conscience of an entire Mexican
generation. Government officials have resisted every attempt at
investigation, insisting that students had provoked the bloodshed by
attacking security forces.
But now, 30 years later, the official version of the events is under attack
as never before. In a new book, a prominent academic argues that the
violence erupted when government snipers, not armed students, opened
fire not only on the crowd but also on the army’s own troops.
The president at the time, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, orchestrated the violence
and blamed its victims to justify a broad crackdown on a democracy
movement that he considered embarrassing on the eve of the 1968
Olympics here, says the author, Sergio Aguayo Quezada.
Aguayo’s book, “1968: The Archives of Violence” (Grijalbo/ Reforma),
one of six by Mexican authors on Tlatelolco scheduled for publication this
year, is part of a broad effort to clarify the massacre.
Opposition politicians have used their growing powers to pry open some
long-secret government files. Newspapers have published new details. A
television network has broadcast previously unseen film of the repression.
Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has ordered that Mexico City flags be
flown at half-staff for an anniversary memorial on Oct. 2.
Photos recently surfaced showing Ernesto Zedillo, the current president,
being roughed up by the police as a student in 1968. But his government
continues to cite national security concerns in denying congressional
requests for access to army and other files that could shed light on the
“The 1968 student movement was the beginning of Mexico’s fight for
democracy, but it was interrupted by the massacre,” said Pablo Gomez,
who as a student was jailed after 1968 and who now, as an opposition
legislator, is a leader of a congressional committee investigating the event.
“We’re advancing again, but the authorities still want this history secret.”
The cover-up began immediately. Recently uncovered documents show
that newspaper publishers worked closely with Diaz in 1968 to present a
sugar-coated version of Tlatelolco and that the police closed and
ransacked the office of a magazine that published stunning photos of the
In 1993, the 25th anniversary of the massacre, intellectuals who formed a
Truth Commission gave up trying to reconstruct the 1968 events because
the government refused to open its archives.
Enrique Krauze, a historian, helped shatter the inertia in a history of
Mexico published last year, “Mexico: Biography of Power”
Using Diaz’s memoirs, Krauze showed how the president’s insecurities led
him to view the demonstrators as participants in a worldwide conspiracy
plotting to undercut his authority. “The president’s account is riddled with
fantasies and lies,” Krauze concluded.
After the opposition won control of Congress last year for the first time
and demanded access to the long-secret files on Tlatelolco, the
government released 3,000 boxes of papers stored in the National
Archives, mainly from the Interior Ministry. Although many key
documents appear to be missing, some are useful and will form the basis
of a congressional report.
But the government continues to hold on to the most important
documents. A deputy interior minister, Salazar Toledano, this year
declined to give Congress even an inventory of Defense Ministry papers
related to Tlatelolco, saying, “Those files will not be opened for reasons of
Among the missing materials are about five hours’ worth of 35-millimeter
film, shot by government movie crews sent to Tlatelolco hours before the
massacre by the interior minister at the time, Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who
later succeed Diaz as president. He refused to submit to congressional
questioning earlier this year.
Still, many new historical materials are turning up. Aguayo, a professor at
the Colegio de Mexico, has reviewed not only the Mexican archives but
also those in the United States and Europe. He has also interviewed
scores of officials.
Aguayo says Diaz, following a script he had used earlier against smaller
crowds, wanted just enough violence to crush the 1968 democracy
“He didn’t order up a massacre, but he was ready to sacrifice the lives of
a few soldiers and civilians,” Aguayo said during a walk through Tlatelolco
Plaza one recent afternoon.
“But the violence flared out of control,” he said, gesturing to the apartment
buildings towering over the site, “after the snipers opened fire from the
Aguayo argues that the army, ordered to disperse but not shoot at the
demonstrators, was not told that there would be sniper fire. The soldiers
opened fire themselves, he said, after a general in command of a
paratrooper battalion was among the first to be wounded.
The government originally insisted that 27 people died, but others put the
body count far higher. Robert Service, who was a diplomat at the U.S.
Embassy in 1968, estimated for Aguayo that “nearly 200” had died.
“This year a lot of new information is coming out,” Aguayo said. “But this
wound isn’t going to heal.”