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Column 100614 Wall

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mexico Observes the 46th Anniversary of the Tlatelolco Massacre

By Allan Wall

October 2, 2014 marked the 46th anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City, when the Mexican security forces opened fire on protesting students and killed many.

At that time, Mexico was still a one-party state.  The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government controlled the media and kept the extent of the violence under wraps.  This was in the days before 24-hour cable TV and Internet blogs.  But the news eventually spread throughout Mexico by word of mouth.

One of the reasons this particular massacre occurred when it did was that the 1968 Olympic Games were being held in Mexico City less than two weeks later.  It was the Mexican government's chance to prove to the world that it had made Mexico a success.  Mexican leaders were determined not to be embarrassed.

On the other side of the coin, the international media attention given to the Olympics provides a platform for protesters, hoping to attract the world's attention to promote their causes. 

These Olympic-related factors are, of course, not unique to Mexico.  In 2008, forty years after the Mexico City games, the Chinese government locked up some potential Chinese protesters, planning to keep them jailed until the games were over.   

Forty years earlier, in 1968, the Mexican government was trying to keep a lid on things before the Olympics.  The result was the horrible massacre of Tlatelolco Plaza.  Mexican security forces, including the joint Olympia Battalion, fired on demonstrators and bystanders, killing hundreds, some even say thousands.  

The Mexico City Olympic Games opened on schedule, ten days later.

A foreign correspondent who was in Mexico City during the Tlatelolco massacre was Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci.  She was shot thrice, dragged downstairs by the  hair, and left for dead.

The PRI-government of the time claimed a revolutionary mandate to govern Mexico in the name of the people.  Though preferring patronage, co-option and corruption to violence, if pushed against the wall the regime would use force to protect its power.   That's what the Tlatelolco Massacre proved.

Paradoxically though, the Tlatelolco Massacre, and another massacre in 1971, helped to discredit the PRI regime in the eyes of the people, while energizing a whole generation of activists who demanded change.

This pressure for change, resulting from various factors and from various sectors of society, eventually contributed to bringing about the gradual end of one-party rule in the following decades.  

There's a well-done 1989 Mexican movie called Rojo Amanecer, which deals with the Tlatelolco massacre.  It was released in 1990, during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari presidency, that is, when the PRI was still in power but the system was opening up.  The government did cause some problems for the film, but eventually allowed its release.

The movie was directed by Jorge Fons, and its stars include Hector Bonilla, Maria Rojo, the Bichir brothers, and Eduardo Palomo.

Rojo Amanecer was a low-budget but skillfully executed film, proving that money isn't everything in film.  Rather than attempting a big plaza massacre scene, which might have turned out looking ridiculous with such a small budget, the moviemakers  portrayed the massacre from the perspective of a family who lived in one of the apartment complexes surrounding the plaza.  It worked.

As for the 2014 Tlatelolco anniversary in Mexico City, it was observed by a march in which thousands participated.  The march began at the Tlatelolco Plaza and ended at the Zocalo Plaza.  It took an hour and twenty minutes to traverse the distance between Tlatelolco and the Zocalo, where a rally was held, demanding change and a new direction for Mexico.

As demonstrators marched down a Mexico City street, masked, self-styled "anarquists" among the marchers took it upon themselves to vandalize a bank and a restaurant.

Even today, forty-six years after Tlatelolco, the fearsome massacre still casts a shadow over Mexican public life. 

And yet, are the right lessons being drawn?  After all, the Mexico of 2014 is not the Mexico of 1968.  Does not Mexico need a judicious use of force to rein in armed criminal gangs?  It's all a question of how it's carried out though.

Knowing when to use force to maintain public order requires a delicate balance anywhere, and  there are jurisdictional questions to consider.

Certainly such problems aren't limited to Mexico.  In the United States, for example, there was the 1993 Waco Massacre, when federal forces stepped into a local situation and wound up killing over 80 people.


Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at

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