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Upsurge and massacre in Mexico 1968: part 2 blood at Tlatelolco

Revolutionary Worker #976, October 4, 1998

When the Tlatelolco Women Boiled Water--
But Not for Dinner

(Part 1: The Youth Revolt)

As battles between youth and security forces became more and more pitched--and as supporting the movement became more risky--more sections of the masses stepped in to join them. This happened most especially in the Tlatelolco complex, a huge, mainly middle-class project which also housed many workers and poor families in its rooftop flats. One press report estimated that 12,000 residents participated in the movement on the side of the students.

On September 21, 1,000 police attacked Voca (Vocational) 7, a high school within Tlatelolco. Students held them off in a fierce battle in which police set fire to two buildings, fired round after round of gunfire into the school, and launched clouds of tear gas into apartments.

Tlatelolco housewives spent that night boiling water to throw out the windows onto soldiers or hunting for rags, bottles, and fuel to make molotov cocktails for the students. Children lined the roofs aiming rocks and sticks on the uniforms below. Hundreds of youths from Vocas in surrounding poor barrios broke through the police cordon by blowing up police cars. Newspapers reported that "gangster youth" from Tepito also joined with the student fighters. Even after calling in reinforcements from the army, the security forces were often driven back. They finally gave up at 2 a.m.

A baby girl and at least three students were killed and many hundreds arrested during this battle. Twenty granaderos (antiriot police) were injured. Four more were shot--one fatally--by an army lieutenant who saw them beating his mother.

The police seized Voca 7 two days later in a fierce exchange of gunfire. In response, a woman representative of Tlatelolco residents called for a rent strike, to continue as long as the student conflict did.

On September 24-25 a similar but even more ferocious battle pitted 1,500 police and soldiers against up to 2,000 students at the Casco de Santo Tomás vocational school near the refinery district. The students, some armed, barricaded the neighborhood, cut trenches, set up a command post and runners, and fortified themselves on rooftops. The Washington Post reported that students commandeered an oil truck to firebomb police cars and that perhaps 15 students were killed.

It is no accident that the government forces chose Tlatelolco as the site of the massacre and that bystanders, even small children, were targeted. The participation of Tlatelolco residents showed the potential for the student movement to unleash an even more powerful wave of mass rebellion against the ruling class.

At 6:10 p.m.

On the evening of that fateful October 2, 10,000 students and residents filled the Plaza. Almost every rally in the previous two weeks had been broken up by police, with up to 1,000 arrests a day. Many more residents leaned out from their windows. Speakers had told the crowd that a planned march on the Casco de Santo Tomás campus would be canceled to avoid "provoking" a fight and that the rally was about to end. But the government didn't need an excuse to launch what it had planned as a show of ruthless power. About 300 tanks, jeeps, and armored cars, 5,000 soldiers, and hundreds of police had crept up to surround the Plaza.

At 6:10 p.m. green signal flares burst in the sky. Police helicopters opened fire from above. Immediately the undercover Olympia Battalion (elite police in charge of security for the Olympics) seized speakers from the CNH (National Strike Council, the leadership of the student strike movement) on a balcony of the Chihuahua apartment building. The police beat the CNH speakers and forced many into the line of fire.

Other Olympia Battalion members and plainclothes police began to fire on people from the balcony and from inside the crowd. The Olympia Battalion police wore white gloves so that other security forces could tell them apart from the masses. These police provocateurs not only added to the terror against the people; later the government would blame "student snipers" for starting the massacre. At the same time, soldiers with fixed bayonets began to advance from two sides while raking the crowd with machine guns. Waves of people ran from one side of the Plaza to another where they met up with more gunfire which forced them back.

Autopsies showed that most of the officially recognized dead were shot in the back at close range or bayoneted. Hundreds banged on the doors of the church which blocks one side of the Plaza, begging priests to let them in. But the church remained closed--the archbishop had ordered the priests not to let any demonstrators in.

The tanks opened fire against the Chihuahua building, and its first three floors caught fire. So many bullets hit the building that the pipes and the boiler burst. Thousands of residents crouched for hours in wrecked apartments as bullets zinged around them. Heavy automatic fire lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and continued on and off into the early morning hours.

The shooting was so indiscriminate that the soldiers and police shot 12 of their own, killing two. An ambulance attendant was killed and a nurse injured as they tried to remove the wounded. Police sealed the Red Cross Hospital to arrest the wounded and to prevent any more ambulances from arriving on the scene. Even in the middle of this hellish scene, people struggled to fight fear and panic and protect one another. At the risk of their lives, many residents opened their doors to hide fleeing students.

There has never been an accurate count of how many people actually were murdered at Tlatelolco on October 2. Police admitted to only 32. The British newspaper Manchester Guardian reported that after careful investigation it found that 325 probably died and that the number could be much higher. There were reports that army trucks sneaked out hundreds of corpses and that bodies were burned or tossed into the sea.

About 1,500 people were arrested. Many were stripped naked and forced to stand in the rain for hours with their hands up while being beaten and stabbed with bayonets. In the streets outside the Plaza a wider ring of police fired tear gas at the angry crowds and arrested anyone who tried to enter. Soldiers rampaged through Tlatelolco, looting and tearing up apartments in search of weapons and escaped students. Remaining leaders were hunted down and jailed. Some disappeared.

Made in the USA

Many of those arrested were tortured. In the book Massacre in Mexico, a prisoner reports that a U.S. agent joined Mexican officers in the prison torture chambers. A policeman threatened another prisoner during his torture: If you don't talk now, we have gringos here who know how to make you. But U.S. interrogation experts didn't have to be physically present for "Made in the USA" to be clearly stamped on the crackdown.

The U.S. imperialists are very worried about the security of their southern border. By enforcing a bloody law and order, the Mexican regime helps protect the economic and political stranglehold of the U.S. over Mexico. But this repression is often directly supervised and coordinated by agencies of the U.S. government. Mexico is the only foreign country where the FBI openly operates, and the CIA's Mexico City station is the largest in the hemisphere. Many Mexican military officers and police of strategic agencies are trained under the CIA or at U.S. police institutes.

Philip Agee, a former CIA agent who is now a critic of the CIA, was sent as a spy to Mexico in 1968 under the cover of organizing cultural exchanges during the Olympics. In his book Inside the Company, CIA Diary, Agee wrote: "In Mexico the government keeps our common enemy [the left and Soviets] rather well controlled with our help--and what the government fails to do, the [CIA] station can usually do by itself."

Agee probably was not in on the most sensitive operations in Mexico City, including those which might tie the U.S. directly into the massacre. But he does report that the CIA exchanged intelligence reports daily with its most important liaison contacts. One such contact was President Díaz Ordaz. According to Agee, Díaz's relationship with the CIA was "extremely close," and he received expensive gifts.

Another important contact was Luis Echeverría, who as Interior Minister was directly in charge of carrying out the massacre and who later became president. The CIA's intelligence on left and student organizations and activities, says Agee, was vastly superior to the Mexican government's. The information gathered by the CIA helped the Mexican police carry out raids and arrests.

After the massacre, there were no statements of condemnation from the U.S. State Department or President Johnson. This silence amounted to complicity with the killings, if not outright approval. On October 3 the executive board of the International Olympic Committee met in emergency session to decide whether to go ahead with the Games in spite of the massacre. Led by the American chairman of the committee, Avery Brundage, a narrow majority voted to continue. Brundage explained that Mexican authorities had assured him "nothing will interfere with the peaceful entrance of the Olympic flame into the stadium on October 12, nor with the competitions which follow."

So 10 days after Tlatelolco, the Games opened in an atmosphere of brutal hypocrisy. As streets rumbled with tanks, billboards grinned in a dozen languages: "Everything is possible with peace." The Mexican government decked out young women in miniskirts to serve as "Olympic hostesses" to the athletes. One hostess, still in her bullet-shredded Olympic uniform, lay in the police morgue, where thousands of parents filed through hunting for their missing children.

The massacre shocked thousands out of the illusion that the government would not commit so inhumane an act or that it would be held back by public opinion in Mexico and worldwide. As Mao Tsetung said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"--and the imperialists and their henchmen proved it one more time at Tlatelolco. In an oppressed country like Mexico, whatever facade of democracy they may find convenient in "normal times" is ripped away very quickly when their rule is threatened.

Democratic Opening--
Cover for More Repression

Despite the lockdown atmosphere after the massacre, the student strike continued for two months with much support. In over a dozen cities in Europe, Latin America and the U.S., Mexican embassies were immediately hit by furious student actions protesting the massacre. Four hundred were arrested in Paris confrontations. Many protested the bloody hand behind the regime's slaughter; for example, the U.S. embassy in Chile was stoned. Students in many countries demanded that their national teams withdraw from the Mexico City Olympics.

However, the arrests of most strike leaders and the government's tactic of holding out the promise of negotiations while threatening more murder did have some effect. The student strike was increasingly dominated by the "soft-liners" who wanted to compromise with the government. In late November the council announced the end of the strike. The majority of students at the large and tumultuous meeting stormed out, shouting strike slogans. Several schools were briefly taken over by striking students to prevent a return to classes. But the movement was unable to continue in the face of mounting government threats and a leadership that had declared surrender.

Still, a deep disgust and outright hatred for the ruling regime had spread broadly throughout society. The true nature of this brutal, neocolonial state had been laid bare for all to see, and many illusions about the possibility of any real progress without its overthrow had been shattered. Clearly shaken by this situation, the U.S. and the Mexican regime launched some new initiatives to try and control the damage of '68.

Interior Minister Echeverría, who became president in 1970, was just the man to carry out these initiatives. The man identified by Philip Agee as a top CIA liaison now put up a show of standing up to the Yanquis. Meanwhile, his administration relied on more U.S. loan capital than any administration had up to that point and used U.S. military assistance to eliminate armed opposition movements. The man who had been directly in charge of the Tlatelolco massacre now declared an amnesty for many political prisoners. Wages and services for some workers improved, and university attendance was also allowed to increase.

Under this "democratic opening," parties which renounced violence and foreign ties were promised funds and seats in the powerless Congress. This "opening" was a chance for opportunists to stomp on the struggle of the masses while they asked for favors from the comprador bourgeoisie. Today this "democratic opening" is upheld by the electoral left as a major, or even the main, fruit of the '68 struggle.

In fact, these initiatives under Echeverría were both a continuation of the old repression and a cover for the new. On the one hand, the ruling class desperately needed to renew illusions about the state's legitimacy among sections of the urban middle classes. They hoped that the willing cooperation of members of the left, including some who had been leaders of the student movement, would help accomplish this. At the same time, other sections of the population and the movement which were considered more of a threat were isolated and viciously attacked. During the "democratic opening" period, Echeverría directed a harsh repression against Guerrero peasants and the "disappearances" of hundreds of people accused of being urban and rural guerrillas.

On June 10, 1971 a beginning renewal of the student movement was nipped in the bud by a new massacre. This time the murders were carried out by rightist paramilitary gangs brought to the scene of a demonstration by government trucks and given free rein. They killed at least 42 students, maybe many more, and injured over 100.

But the 1968 massacre continued to burn in the memory of students. When Echeverría attempted to speak on the campus of the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM), he was forced to take to his heels, bleeding from a hail of stones thrown by enraged students.

Part 3: Mexico 30 Years after the Tlatelolco Massacre


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Published or Updated on: January 1, 1998
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