Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2016
by Catherine Brilley
Luis Echeverría Alvarez was born on January 17, 1922 in Mexico City, Mexico. He studied law at the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM) where he received his degree in 1945. In 1947, he became a professor for his alma mater instructing on the General Theory of the State of the Faculty of Law. His position as a professor was not to interfere with his political career. Once he had finished his education in 1945, he immediately began his long career in politics.
Echeverría gained his first political office in 1945 as the Secretary of the President of the National Revolutionary Party, which later became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). He also held a wide variety of positions before becoming President in 1970 including Director of Press and Propaganda and Senior Officer and President of the Federal Electoral Commission. In December of 1952, he was General Director of Accounts and Administration for the Navy until October of 1957, when he became Minister of Education. He was named Sub-secretary of the Interior in 1958, and subsequently Secretary of the Interior in 1964. He held his position as Secretary of the Interior in the cabinet of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz from December of 1964 until November of 1969. It was while in this position that Echeverría became best known; unfortunately, the events that were to make him renowned resulted in the deaths or disappearances of hundreds of student protestors.
The Tlatelolco Massacre took place on October 2, 1968. It consisted of an attack by military and police forces on student demonstrators in the Tlatelolco Plaza, also known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. At the time Echeverría held the position of Secretary of the Interior, and, as such, he would have been in charge of all police operations and overall internal security. He has consistently denied responsibility for the tragic events that occurred in 1968, claiming that his superior, President Díaz Ordaz, had held the real power(1). However, when questioned about the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 that took place during his presidency, he reverses the claim saying that his subordinates were responsible(2)
. These situations have led to the belief that, in fact, Echeverría was a key part of the orchestration of the tragic events of 1968 and 1971(3). As in most political situations, however, the conclusion is based on whose story is most believable or most desirable. The survivors and observers have their version of the incidents, and the government has their own version.
Let me begin by setting the scene leading up to the massacres. As Mexico struggled to immerge from Third World status it received support from numerous countries in better standing, including the United States. The United States, as usual, was looking out for its own interests; by promoting stability in Mexico it gained support, respect, and especially security of its southern border. As such, the goal established by Mexico and its supporters was stabilization both political and economic. Feeling that Mexico was approaching a desired level of stability the "International Olympic Committee…had chosen Mexico as the first Third World country ever to host the Olympic Games"(4) in 1968. It was to be a poster-child for other Third World countries demonstrating the prosperity and stability gained by aligning with global powers like the United States.
However, not all was well within the country. Student rebellions were gaining force and becoming more frequent and more noticed. Disgust with inequality, injustice, and corruption in the government were growing, especially among students attending universities in the capital city. As they called for a truer democracy, they were gaining the support of the lower classes and later the support of the middle classes. Of course, as the support grew, the fear of a revolt grew within the government. Government officials wanted to avoid the revolt and the global humiliation that would result. After all, it couldn't exactly be an example of stability with a revolution on the horizon. In an effort to deter that situation, it implemented violent tactics intended to scare the protestors into submission. Not only did the scare tactic fail, the violent attacks only spurred further hatred among the common citizens. The government had revealed the truth to all the observers.
From the perspective of the Mexican government leaders and the supporters around the world, Echeverría and other officials were praised for their efforts to repress the rebellion. In a time when many Latin American countries such as Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala were struggling with similar "dirty wars" and claiming "to be defending against anarchy"(5)
, Mexico had already had experience with the devastation of anarchy in the early 1900s. During that period "1 in 10 Mexicans died"(6). The Mexican government may have never been seriously threatened by the student movement, but it did feel more assured in the security of the nation and their position in that nation once the movement had been suppressed.
The defense of actions taken by the Mexican government would of course depend on an admittance of action on their part. However, the official stance of the government at that time was that "the students were responsible for the violence, with the government claiming that rival factions of protesters had attacked each other"(7)
, and then-president Diaz Ordaz said, "the shots that killed the demonstrators came from other students firing machine guns from the roofs of buildings around the square"(8).
The logical question that follows is why were justifications of actions made if no action was taken? From the accounts of the incident by both survivors and bystanders, it is fairly clear that it was a premeditated attack by the police and military forces on a demonstration they felt was verging on the culmination of a revolt by the Mexican people.
The movement led primarily by university students from the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM) and National Politechnical Institute ("Poli") began months before the Tlatelolco Massacre of October 2nd when granaderos or antiriot police "viciously put down"(October 2) a gang fight between two high schools. After a number of students were killed, the students began defending themselves, and it wasn't long before students from the UNAM and Poli were supporting the high school students against the granaderos. In response to the atrocities of that day, the National Strike Council (CNH) was formed and started making strike demands. Those six demands were: 1) disband the granaderos, 2) fire police chiefs, 3) investigate and punish higher officials responsible for the repression, 4) pay compensation for students killed and injured, 5) repeal laws making social dissolution a crime, and 6) free political prisoners. In the days that ensued, hundreds of arrests were made and students were killed. Rather than dissuading the students, their stance was only more fortified.
Over the next few months, the leaders of the movement began a campaign among the common citizens of Mexico. They talked with the barrio or slum dwellers, developed a relationship with peasants from the villages surrounding the capital city, formed contingencies with workers of government-run industries, utilized the strength of formerly repressed female class, and held meetings, demonstrations, and marches. The illusion of the independence of the university from the state vanished when "on September 18, 10,000 troops invaded UNAM in an attempt to break it as a base for student actions and to nab CNH members meeting there"(9); people in Mexico and around the world were infuriated. At this point, the middle classes united with the students in their protests against the government. It seems "on the eve of the Olympics, the students were shattering the false picture of imperialist-sponsored development, economic prosperity and social peace"(10). About the only people that were unhappy with the recent development were the elites in power and the United States government. There is some evidence that behind the scenes the United States was making its plans to put an end to the disturbances.
Police had broken up rallies for weeks prior to October 2nd with thousands of arrests. On that fateful evening ten thousand rebels filled the Tlatelolco Plaza. It had been chosen because of the strong support from the residents in that area. As they gathered, "[a]bout 300 tanks, jeeps, and armored cars, 5,000 soldiers, and hundreds of police"(11) surrounded the plaza, and then at a specified time "green signal flares burst in the sky"(12) and chaos ensued.
The government contends that a mere thirty persons were killed, but witnesses claim that as many as ten times that many were either killed or captured in the confrontation. It is conjectured that the government covered up their crime by trucking off the bodies to either be incinerated or thrown into the sea. The only certainty is that hundreds that had gathered were unaccounted for at the end of the evening having "disappeared". Concerning the few bodies that were recognized by the government, "autopsies showed that most… were shot in the back at close range or bayoneted"(13). However, the bodies would not have shown close range bullet wounds if the shooters had been on the rooftops like they claimed. Once again, the government had revealed a flaw in their claim that the students themselves had conducted the violence.
From the accounts of survivors and witnesses as well as the contradictions that exist in the accounts given by the government, it seems clear that the responsibility in fact lay with the Mexican government. There is no proof that Echeverría was directly responsible, but the events of 1971 strengthen that claim. On June 10, 1971, Echeverría is accused of being responsible for the Corpus Christi Massacre. An additional thirty students were killed that day "allegedly by an elite police unit called the Falcons. Historians say the crackdown was an effort by Echeverría to prevent a resurgence of the student movement that had been crushed after the 1968 massacre"(14). Despite the evidence or lack thereof, he was able not only to continue his political career, but he advanced his position to president and was publicly supported by the United States government.
It may have been as a result of his prominence in the political arena that he was able to accomplish his objectives while president. "As president, he introduced agricultural technical assistance programs, promoted public works, and furthered Mexican control of industries by placing limits on foreign investment"(15)
. At the same time, he increased public investment, which enabled increased production of petroleum, electricity, and iron and steel production. The augmented public investment also funded the construction of new airports and the improvement of the highway network.(16)
More recently, ex-president Luis Echeverría has been in the news as the "first Mexican leader ever to face a prosecutor"(17). Current President Vicente Fox has instated a special prosecutor to investigate past crimes committed by the Mexican government. An action unheard of in Mexico's history arose during Fox's presidential campaign. President Fox is the first member of the National Action Party (PAN) to gain control after over seventy years of PRI domination.
In the summer of 2002, Echeverría was questioned about his involvement in the "dirty war". No questions were answered during the seven hours of interrogation, and Echeverría requested thirty days to gather his words before responding. It is not surprising, however, that at the end of the prescribed time, he still had no answers to give but merely insisted that he "has a clear conscience"(18)as well as expressing a lack of concern about the possibility of being sent to prison. He has good reason not to be concerned; there appears to be a lack of force in the threats. Instead, it is more likely that the Fox's efforts will result in the government "yielding a 'moral condemnation' and resulting in 'reconciliation'"(19).
Echeverría evaded responsibility in 1968 and continues to evade efforts at reconciling his past involvement. He may have accomplished a few positive objectives while president, but even they were not enduring. Mexico continues to struggle with the same things for which the student movements of 1968 were fighting. Echeverría was a part of Mexico's history, continues to be a part of Mexico's present, and is a good example of why Mexico is forced to continue to struggle in the world of today.
1. "Former Mexican president sheds light on 1968 massacre." CNN Interactive (1998). 4 Feb. 1998. <http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9802/04/mexico.massacre/>.
2.Vann, Bill. "Ex-president stonewalls Mexican massacre probe." World Socialist Web Site (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. < http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jul2002/mex-j13.shtml>.
3. "Echeverria skips questioning, prosecutor says he'll go to his house." THE NEWS (2002). 23 Aug. 2002. Lexis-Nexis database (item 2W83569605854).
4. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
5. "Wounds of Mexico's 'dirty war' are opened" Chicago Tribune (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. Lexis-Nexis database (item 2W71068976826).
6. "Wounds of Mexico's 'dirty war' are opened" Chicago Tribune (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. Lexis-Nexis database (item 2W71068976826).
7. Vann, Bill. "Ex-president stonewalls Mexican massacre probe." World Socialist Web Site (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. < http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jul2002/mex-j13.shtml>.
8. "Former Mexican president sheds light on 1968 massacre." CNN Interactive (1998). 4 Feb. 1998. <http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9802/04/mexico.massacre/>.
9. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
10. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
11. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
12. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
13. "October 2 Is Not Forgotten: Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico, 1968." Mexico Connect. <http://www. mexconnect.com/mex_/history/tlatelolco/tlatelolco1e.html>.
14. "Former Mexican president sheds light on 1968 massacre." CNN Interactive (1998). 4 Feb. 1998. <http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9802/04/mexico.massacre/>.
15. "Luis Echeverría Álvarez" Columbia Encyclopedia. Lexis-Nexis database (item IXBEcheverrA)
16. "Luis Echverría Álvarez" Artes e Historia Mexico. <http://www.arts-history.mx/mexcontempo/echeverria.html>.
17. Vann, Bill. "Ex-president stonewalls Mexican massacre probe." World Socialist Web Site (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. < http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jul2002/mex-j13.shtml>.
18. Vann, Bill. "Ex-president stonewalls Mexican massacre probe." World Socialist Web Site (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. < http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jul2002/mex-j13.shtml>.
19. Vann, Bill. "Ex-president stonewalls Mexican massacre probe." World Socialist Web Site (2002). 13 Jul. 2002. < http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jul2002/mex-j13.shtml>.