1968 was an iconic year all over the world. Young people wanted a revolution from within the system, and in Mexico, society seemed on the verge of positive transformation.
But that all changed on October 2, 1968.
10,000 university and high school students had gathered at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, located in Tlatelolco, a huge public housing project not far from the city center. Their agenda called for speeches and peaceful resistance.
The President felt pushed beyond his limits; there had been similar protests all summer. And in less than two weeks, the Olympic Games would be inaugurated in Mexico City – his government had invested billions of pesos preparing for the event. They wanted Mexico to be seen as the most developed country in Latin America, and this goal seemed to trump every other interest. Certainly the President was not about to allow the students to spoil his carefully orchestrated plans.
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 quickly disperse the crowd, panic reigned. With the bedlam in full swing, a secret government group received orders to arrest the “rebel leaders.” 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 fair game. The bodies soon piled up on the ground.
Murder continued throughout the night of October 2, 1968. Soldiers and police searched in the apartment buildings around the square, looking for more students. The electricity and telephone lines were cut. At first the corpses were removed in ambulances and when there were too many – the army threw bodies into military trucks, not caring if they were dead or alive. Witnesses said that some cadavers were carted away in garbage trucks.
A number of terrified survivors 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. Anyone who spoke up against the abuse was beaten and terrorized.
There are many claims that in the days following the riot, soldiers disguised as light and water company employees, raided 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 of 1968. We can’t take back the innocence that Tlatelolco took away. The fragile trust between the people and the politicians was severed forever.
For forty-five 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.
And now – 45 years later – we have the protests by teachers. It would be hoped that the massacre, four and a half decades ago, would have taught the entire nation a lasting lesson.
Millions of children have gone for weeks without regular classes because their teachers are marching. Mexico City’s traffic has grown so chaotic that motorists have reached the breaking point. Business owners in parts of the Capital are nearly bankrupt because of the disruption, and the tourism industry in the whole country has seen cancellation after cancellation – tourists shy away from unrest. The lack of hygiene in the “tent camps” is a Petri dish for serious bacterial and viral infections.
When the teachers march into Tlatelolco tonight, I hope they will be mindful that our country needs to find a way to pull together. If we don’t come to consensus, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past – all over again.