Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
by Donald J. Mabry, Professor Emeritus of History, Mississippi State University.
On July 22, 1968, two rival groups of male adolescent students fought each other in the Ciudadela neighbourhood of Mexico City; the next day the city government responded by sending policemen to stop the accompanying vandalism and to arrest the perpetrators. These riot police (granaderos) attacked the students so ferociously that protests were lodged. No one could have foreseen that both of these testosterone-driven events were the opening scene of the drama of the 1968 University-State conflict which climaxed in the Tlatelolco massacre. On October 2nd of that same year, Mexican government forces fired upon a large crowd gathered in the Tlatelolco plaza, killing scores, if not hundreds, of people. The connections lay in the history of student behavior, the nature of the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, and anxiety concerning the Olympic Games to be held in Mexico in October, 1968, the first time the Olympiad had ever been held in a Latin American nation.(1)
More and more students, particularly porras (gangs), had been engaging in various acts of violence and the government had responded with warnings and then with the deployment of regular and riot police, but these appeared to be minor events. Fights between preparatory students, who were part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Autónoma de México or UNAM) system, on the one hand, and vocational school students, who were part of the less prestigious National Polytechnic Institute (Instituto Politécnico Nacional or IPN) system, on the other, were not uncommon. Males of that age sometimes fight to "prove" their masculinity and sometimes fight because of class tensions. Both were true on July 22nd. In the months before that date, there had been instances of students stealing, sometimes destroying, city buses as a protest about fare prices or the quality of service. Porras had become an all too familiar phenomenon within UNAM, but were difficult to control or abolish because UNAM's autonomy since 1929 made it off limits to police except in rare instances. Some of the porras were backed by powerful politicians. The protracted UNAM strike of 1966 in which a rector (president) had been ousted and the university police had been abolished did not produce much violence.(2)
None of this was atypical of 20th century Mexican history. What was different was that the Mexican government had become more willing to use force to suppress student violence.
For Mexico, 1968 was a special year, one in which it would host the Olympics during October 5-27 to demonstrate to the world how modernized and civilized it was. The Mexican economy had been booming for years and was to be displayed so the world would know that the nation had arrived. That this would be the first time the Olympics had ever been held in a Spanish-speaking country gave the nation a special claim to prominence among Latin American countries and allowed it to surpass Spain itself. The government spared no expense to provide excellent facilities for the athletes, retainers, journalists, and others who would flock to the country. Realizing that Mexico would not fare well in the medal competition and sensitive to the ancient charges that the nation was barbaric, government leaders arranged a cultural Olympics that would allow Mexicans to shine and give the Mexican Olympics a special tone. Not all of the $140 million dollars spent on the Olympics was to be a one-shot affair, for many of the buildings would be used later by the general population for housing and recreation; the money was also a capital investment in the tourist business, an important source of profit and foreign exchange.
President Díaz Ordaz and other government officials believed, no doubt, that hosting the Olympics was the most important act of the year, if not of decades, and that nothing could be allowed to interfere with this great enterprise. Believing this, they assumed that all other Mexicans were equally concerned with the Olympics, that the consuming passion of the organizers and promoters was shared by students, workers, peasants, and provincials. Thus, all acts were seen through the filter of the Olympic Games; all words and events were linked to this great celebration of youth.
But Mexican officials differed little from their counterparts in the United States, France, and other nations of the Western world; they did not recognize the causes of nor understand the rationale behind the youth cult flowering in the 1960s and the emergence of the iconoclastic New Left. Youthful rebellion was nothing new in Mexico, as the long history of university student strikes demonstrated and as many in the government knew from having once participated themselves. Mexico in 1968 seemed to be riding a wave of prosperity and the government was proudly proclaiming to the world that the Mexican Revolution worked, so how could the managers of the miracle understand that affluence brought guilt and rebellion, that middle- and upper-strata youngsters felt ashamed that they were doing so well while the bulk of their fellow citizens suffered from privation and despair, that they chafed under the yoke of the contradictions between what schools, the media, and government officials had told them and the reality they saw around them? Even though the rebellion of the young was evident in the United States, even at elite schools such as Columbia, or in France during the May Revolution, these seemed irrelevant to Mexico, for the latter was moving upward and onward, and Mexican students could be as "decadent" as those in France or the United States.
Although students had challenged governmental authority in years past and the government had employed violence as a tool to suppress open dissent, neither had gone as far as they did in 1968. Usually, university student conflicts with governmental authorities had been confined to university neighborhoods and involved only minor skirmishes; in 1968, students were much more violent and they and their allies demonstrated and fought in widespread sections of Mexico City. Students vilified President Díaz Ordaz by name, breaking the longstanding tradition of holding the President as sacrosanct. The national government, which controlled Mexico City, not only used the tough granaderos but also the national army. The conflict escalated, partly because neither side was playing by the rules. Non-students also entered the conflict, perhaps unnerving the government.(3)
The Federación Nacional de Estudiantes Técnicos (FNET) staged a protest march on July 26th, a move that would have been symbolic but harmless except that march passed by Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City where the Central Nacional de Estudiantes Democrátiticos, a pro-Castro group, was also holding a rally. CNED leaders praised the Cuban Revolution and called for a similar revolt in Mexico. Instead of proceeding to the IPN campus, the FNET marchers stopped to hear the harangues. No one can prove whether students began to vandalize neighbouring businesses or the granaderos and other police stationed in the area attacked the demonstrators. What is known is that students and police fought each other as the students fled through the narrow streets towards the National Palace and then to the old university quarter a few blocks from the Palace. The students burned a bus and overturned other buses to form barricades. Students and police were injured and some students were taken to jail.
Both sides responded in ritualistic fashion. The government asserted that Communists, foreigners, and outside agitators were responsible. Students from the IPN, the Normal School, and the national agricultural school denied the accusations and demanded that the government release and indemnify the arrested, suppress porras and some student groups, expel trouble making students, and abolish the granadero corps, all predictable in light of events. Further, these students demanded repeal of Article 145 and 145 bis of the penal code, a vaguely-worded statute which the government used to imprison selected opponents, particularly leftists. Only this last was unusual since no participant had been arrested on political grounds. Communist students also argued for the repeal of this law but few of their other demands matched those of the IPN-led group. In spite of this rhetoric and continued scuffling on July 29th, some resolution might have been achieved had the government inadvertently increased the size of the protest and altered its nature by employing the national army.
The army was used because the various other security forces were having little success in bringing the students under control. Much of the fighting was occurring only a few blocks from the National Palace, too close for comfort for those who ruled. Early on July 30th, an army officer, frustrated by the inability of his troops to enter the precincts of the National Preparatory School #1, the historic prep school from whom generations of national leaders had graduated, ordered the firing of a bazooka to blow down its wooden doors. With that act, students and faculty of UNAM who had not been involved joined the movement. Strikes and protests quickly spread to other universities in the city and across the nation. To many, it appeared that the government had little regard for higher education and the national tradition that UNAM was off-limits to public security forces.
On August 1st, President Díaz Ordaz, speaking from Guadalajara, promised that his government would engage in a dialogue with the students. For the next few weeks, both sides would negotiate the agenda and the place for the dialogue while trying to gain a better bargaining position. Javier Barros Sierra, rector of UNAM, led a protest march of 100,000 persons through the city on August 1st. Not to be outdone, IPN students and faculty held their own mass march four days later. To create a united front, students from these institutions and others organized a National Strike Council, an organization so large and unwieldy that it could never effectively represent student interests.
The CNH led a 300,000-person march through the central city on August 13th to emphasize its level of support. When no progress occurred on the dialogue front, the CNH led another mass march on August 27th to the Zócalo, the central plaza bordered by the National Palace, the National Cathedral, and the city hall. Demonstrations and celebrations were common in the Zócalo for it was physically at the very heart of the national government. Had this demonstration been like others, relatively short in duration, nothing significant would have occurred. Instead, the CNH leadership decided to leave 5,000 people there to "hold" the plaza, an act which could be and was seen as a direct confrontation with the authority of the national government. The movement had gone too far. Soldiers, police, and firemen retook the Zócalo in the early hours of August 28th, using force indiscriminately. Díaz Ordaz had made it clear that his government had been pushed to the limit. In case the movement had not understood the meaning of the events of August 28th, he issued a stern warning as part of his State of the Union address on September 1st. Student leaders had not been paying attention or had overestimated how much popular support they enjoyed, for the CNH had demanded, foolishly, that their dialogue with the government take place in the Zócalo at the very hour the president would be delivering his State of the Union address.
Both sides wanted to break the impasse, but only the government could win. Students and their allies were part of the privileged sector of Mexican society; most Mexicans did not enjoy the luxury of attending university. They had to struggle daily to acquire the basic necessities. Although many of them probably hoped that a day would come when their children or grandchildren could attend university and some of them might sympathize with anti-government sentiment, they relied on the government to maintain public order and provide social services. Students battling public security forces was unlikely to appeal to them, and the government had, after all, agreed to discuss the issues with the students. By September 13th, the CNH understood that it could no longer risk a physical confrontation with the government and chose to try to prove that the movement was still strong and to gain moral authority via a silent march through the city. The government wisely ordered its forces to monitor the march and not intervene unless the marchers clearly endangered public safety.
Pressure to end the student movement before the Olympics increased. Foreign reporters were reporting the events, an embarrassment to Mexico. The marches and street theatre would interfere with the athletic and cultural Olympics if they continued. Too little progress was being made on starting the dialogue which might bring a speedy end to the controversy. UNAM, located in the southern part of the city and near some major Olympic venues, had become the headquarters of the movement, so, on September 18th, the army invaded the campus, assaulting anyone in its way and arresting persons it hoped were members of the CNH. Although few CNH members were arrested, the organization had to yield its authority to its central coordinating committee; the government had successfully begun the fragmentation of the movement and caused the protest resignation of Barros Sierra on September 23rd.
The invasion of UNAM sparked a wave of violence and then the military takeover of the IPN. Street battles between students and other dissidents, on the one hand, and the army and the police, on the other, erupted on September 19th and continued intermittently for days. Fighting became particularly intense near the IPN campus and the Tlatelolco housing project. On September 23rd, the army took control of the IPN as well. The CNH, which had planned to meet there, made Tlatelolco its unofficial headquarters. Disoriented and on the defensive, the weakened movement did not stop.
In hindsight, it is difficult to understand how the movement leaders failed to read the signs that the patience of the government had ended. Soldiers in jeeps, armored cars, and tanks guarded the main streets of the city which, ironically, were bedecked with signs and banners proclaiming peace and brotherhood and welcoming the Olympiad. Movement leaders had to move constantly to avoid arrest by soldiers and police. The mass meeting in the Plaza of Three Cultures at Tlatelolco on September 27th did not regenerate the excitement the movement had been enjoying for months, so the leaders called for another mass meeting on October 2nd to be followed by a march to the IPN. That Díaz Ordaz named his two representatives for the dialogue on September 28th meant that the government believed that it had the upper hand. It had no intention of allowing university people to dictate terms. To some extent the student leaders realized this. They publically demanded that the army leave UNAM before the dialogue began and that was done on September 30th ,but they also publically promised that they would not interfere with the Olympic Games. Quietly, they began meeting with the governmental representatives.
In the late afternoon of October 2nd, the crowd began to gather at the Plaza of Three Cultures to hold still another rally and then a march to the IPN to protest the continued occupation by the army. The atmosphere was tense, for soldiers and their equipment were visibly stationed near the plaza. By 6 P.M. thousands of people, some residents of the neighbouring apartment buildings who were curious about the event had gathered in the historic plaza. Shortly thereafter, soldiers invaded the plaza, shooting into the crowd. Government agents, secreted in the plaza, began arresting as many of the leaders as they could. The massacre lasted for hours. No one knows how many people died and estimates vary according to the politics of the person making them. What was surely dead was the student movement. What was alive was the Mexican Olympics which thrilled the world and gave new prestige to the nation. Those who attended or watched via domestic television saw the Mexico the government wanted seen.(4)
In spite of official propaganda Mexico was an emerging democracy which sought social justice, the 1968 student movement revealed the system for what it was: authoritarian, sometimes brutal, and primarily interested in making the rich richer. In spite of a federalist, democratic constitution, the nation was ruled centrally from Mexico City and the government's political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in Spanish), "won" almost every election. Social services were dispensed according to political imperatives not need and income disparities were increasing. The misuse of force had precipitated the mass demonstrations and the continued reliance upon repression only exacerbated problems. Having mishandled the dispute and faced with international embarrassment, the Díaz Ordaz government used the strongest tactic it knew to stop the movement.
Previously immune from governmental violence, the upper and middle classes learned through their children that they would be attacked if they questioned the system too closely. Scholars, both domestic and foreign, began criticizing the system and calling for democratic reform. The best they could do in the short term was a "leftist"president, Luis Echeverría, who promised reform and even delivered on a few of his promises, and a little more money put into education, including the creation of the Metropolitan Autonomous University to reduce the enrollment pressure on UNAM. In the long term, the student movement made it more difficult for the government to defend the status quo. Change came slowly and was caused by many factors, including severe economic crises and better mass communications, but change did come. In 1997, PRI lost control of the lower house of Congress, the Mexico City government, and the governorships of several states.
1 See Donald J. Mabry, The Mexican University and the State: Students Conflicts, 1910-1971 (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 1982).
2 Ernesto Flores Zavala, El estudiante inquieto (los movimientos estudiantiles 1966-1970). (Mexico City: UNAM, 1972), 113-120; "Bus Fares and Student Demonstrations in Mexico," Minerva 5 (1967), 301-3; Fausto Burgueno, "El movimiento estudiantil en la provincia," in Juvencio Wing, ed., Los estudiantes, la educación y la política (Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1971), 46-53; Gaceta, April, 1968; Carmen Cira Guitán Berniser, "Las porras: estudio de caso de un grupo de presión universitaria," Thesis, UNAM. 1975.
3 This chapter draws upon Mabry, The University and the State and the voluminous materials consulted to produce that work. A list of the most pertinent materials for the 1968 student movement can be found on page 248 of that book; additional sources are cited elsewhere in the book or listed in the bibliography.
4 Although the government claimed that snipers had fired first and that the military was only responding to protect the people, the videotapes of ABC and NBC News for October 3, 1968 tell a different story. They can be consulted in the Vanderbilt University Television Archives.110397