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Tlatelolco 1968: How to Kill a Social Movement
The movement focused on trying to remove the mask of hypocrisy and of false democracy portrayed by
the government, thus creating a youth culture of protest and discontent over the lack of opportunities for
By Eduardo Barraza
Ocrober 2, 2008
Tlatelolco, Mexico City - The story is widely known: what became a social movement of large and tragic proportions in
Mexico City, originated from an irrelevant street fight between students from rival schools. The Student Movement of 1968
began that way: violence at a smaller scale leading into a slaughter of atrocious scope. Therefore, four decades after the
bloody night of October 2, 1968, the memory of the events that stained the Plaza of the Three Cultures with blood, remains
as an irredeemable tragedy in the social consciousness of Mexicans.
The use of excessive force by the "granaderos" —the special police trained to suppress protests and riots— turned that
irrelevant fight of students against students into a conflict of this riot police against students, and later into a spiral of
conflict that led to a clash between the government and the people. The brutality used by this riot police at the beginning of
the movement sparked stronger student protests, which nobody could predict would lead to a larger student movement.
From then on, the clashes between students and the “granaderos” unit would become the violent characteristic of the
interaction between a youth social movement and a repressive government determined to dismantle it.
In his determination to maintain the social order and political stability, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970) reached
a drastic decision to accomplish a nefarious purpose: to kill the rising student movement. Diaz Ordaz’ lethal answer
against a crowd of young people thus marked forever Mexican society with one of the most brutal actions of government
repression against unarmed civilians.
The persistent and escalating use of excessive force deepened the outrage and anger in the students, forcing them to
retaliate in the extent of their limited resources. In an attempt to suppress them, the government rushed to stop the
growing outbreak of students’ protests, but the brutal repression caused an opposite effect. This repression would
increase the intensity of the students' struggle, resulting in the participation of a growing number of youth who were
joining the powerful but threatening movement. However, the clashes between riot police and soldiers against the youth
quickly produced students being arrested, wounded and even killed.
As a social movement, the students lacked the level of preparedness and experience in organizing demonstrations of
such proportion, which were necessary to shape and equilibrate the magnitude of this movement that would increase in
strength every day. Nevertheless, the upward spiral of their struggle fueled by the government’s repression began to give
them a strong sense of identity as a homogenous group, and helped them to devise at the very core of their protests, a
stronger cause of deeper and greater scope. In the government’s eyes, the youth’s activism was reckless, irreverent and
subversive and would become the inevitable target of its rage.
While it is true that the degree of repression and turmoil caused by the violence perpetrated against the youth helped
students create a common front to defend against the government's tactics, their initial strategies of resistance —seizing
and burning buses, occupation of educational facilities, and tagging of walls— actually worked out to show their
vulnerability. On the other hand, the rudimentary and limited resources and methods of the students were only able to
build weak levees that the government’s reaction would eventually overcome. The students’ decision to lead their
movement through democratic means was evident when they prepared and presented a formal list of demands –a
document that would fuel their impetus and strength, but the government would only interpret their actions as a direct and
constant threat. The youth movement was inevitably heading towards a dead-end alley where the crushing power of a
government disposed to do anything —even kill them— awaited them.
The antagonism between rival schools —vocational and preparatory, hotbeds of the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN)
and Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) respectively— that had been the cause of their street fights, and
unintentionally giving birth to the youth movement, paradoxically dissipated when they realized they needed a common
front. Their rivalry was channeled consequently in that way, by creating an inter-schools mutual cooperation to confront the
repression that both sides were facing.
The attempts to formally systematize and unify the movement led to the emergence of the Strike National Committee
(CNH was the acronym in Spanish for Comité Nacional de Huelga). Through this organizational structure, rallies,
protests, and students’ strikes became the main means of action to confront the attacks of the administration of President
Diaz Ordaz’, and of Mexico City’s mayor Alfonso Coronal del Rosal, a president’s ally. The fire of the movement spread
through the leadership of the CNH, and incorporated to the struggle a total of 128 schools and 250 representatives.
The Committee gave shape and direction to the movement. It transformed it from a series of dispersed protests into a
real social force. Public and private schools became part of this committee and then established sub-committees of
struggle and brigades of action. Members of the Left and the opposition joined the movement. Through the activities
organized by the students’ board, the message of their cause began to appeal the general public through posters and
leaflets produced underground, and speeches given on the streets and inside buses. The students’ organization
followed democratic principles in the form of free assembly, free speech and participatory democracy.
The authoritarian government, however, did not recognize these democratic methods, much less respected them. The
advancement and the tactics of the student’s movement represented a serious and direct challenge to the government,
which despite its repressive attitude could not decrease the tide students were having. In his State of the Union address
in September of 1968, Diaz Ordaz, made it clear that he would not tolerate nor allow students to continue challenging his
administration, the office of the president and his meager patience. Bluntly said, there would be no negotiation between
the presidency and the students’ movement.
Through a method of plural, revolving and evolving leadership, the Strike Committee prevented authorities from identifying
a single leader to who direct its retaliation. Unfortunately, this approach of multiple and rotating leadership employed by
the movement would backfire later. Despite the temporary success of this style of leadership, the arrests and torturing
continued against any suspects the police got their hands on; to be a student was equivalent to being a seditious and an
agitator. The government, coupled with some media either gagged or sold out, tried to paint the movement as a bunch of
disgruntled students who were being manipulated by foreign forces and outside communist organizers.
Despite the authorities’ attempts to extinguish the flame of the students’ struggle, this continued thriving and attracting
more and more adherents to the ranks of their daring militancy. Due to the prevailing social discontent in Mexico, many
citizens began to be attracted and to sympathize with the bravery of the students. Many others agreed that the students’
movement was the opportunity to seek a more profound social change in Mexico. Thus, what began as a local nightmare
for the Diaz Ordaz’ administration, evolved into a national yearning for social and economic change.
The approaching and imminent celebration of the XIX Olympic Games in Mexico City, came to represent a powerful
symbol for both the government and the students, but with an opposing meaning. For the students, holding a sporting
and cultural event of such magnitude and millionaire infrastructure in Mexico was a shocking paradox. They realized that
while the government was trying to give an impression of progress to the rest of the world, it had largely failed the people
by not meeting their most essential needs of housing, health care, and basic education.
Conversely, the government wanted to seize the opportunity to host the games to place Mexico on the map of economic
progress and prosperity. Therefore, Diaz Ordaz saw the student movement not only as a threat to his almost absolute
power, a challenge to his authority, and as a serious social problem, but basically as a very bad image at the precise time
when the eyes of the world were on the country of Mexico.
The evolving forces of the students’ movement led to a more fundamental and defined struggle, which became the focus
of the widespread social discontent, due to the manner in which the economic priorities of the people had been managed
and distorted by the government. The millions spent on organizing the Olympic Games in the midst of the millions of
hungry and unemployed individuals was a terrible discrepancy between the real and urgent social reforms of Mexicans.
And to cap it off, it was the young people who were leading this movement, something the despotic government of Diaz
Ordaz —who wanted to give the world a false impression of Mexico as a country in progress, and a modern and
democratic nation— was not about to allow.
Given this divergence, the movement focused on trying to remove the mask of hypocrisy and of false democracy portrayed
by the government, thus creating a youth culture of protest and discontent over the lack of opportunities for advancement.
The students realized there were social constraints blocking their way to success in society, something they could not
achieve unless they became part of the official and corrupt machinery of the ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI,) the political apparatus they held responsible for their situation in the first place. Ultimately, these young
people would taste the sour truth that when there is no alliance with this monster of repressive power, the monster will
crush its opponents with no mercy.
Nevertheless, the students were focused on reaching a solution to the conflict in the midst of the clashes and the
oppression, so the National Strike Committee targeted the players and the mechanisms of the repression by requesting
the following: the release of political prisoners; reforms to the penal code; the abolition of the riot police; the resignation of
police chiefs; the investigation of the abuses and acts of brutality; and the Army’s departure from the educational facilities
occupied. By requesting these demands, the students showed that they still recognized the authority of the government
and that they needed its intervention. In fact, the movement essentially called for the recognition of constitutional rights
and civil guarantees, which were being blatantly ignored by the government.
The ineffective and momentary failure of the government's repressive methods, and the imminent beginning of the
Olympics, pressured the president to take a conclusive decision: to employ large-scale violence. His ultimatum was to
perpetrate a brutal slaughter against the defenseless and unarmed crowd that had gathered for a peaceful rally in the
Plaza of the Three Cultures, in the working class housing complex of Tlatelolco. The sinister and well-planned event
happened on the fateful October 2, 1968, just ten days before the inauguration of the Olympic Games.
At the end, the tactics of deterrence that had not worked for the government against the students until that day was
achieved through brutal force. The mass action carried out by the joint operation of the army and paramilitary forces not
only resulted in hundreds of dead people and thousands injured; it also led to a spreading terror among the students and
the general population, and mainly to the fatal blow of the student’s movement. Thus, the roar of the high-caliber weapons
silenced the dissenting voices and bluntly killed the students’ struggle.
A month and a half after the killings, the CNH asked the students to return to classes. Many leaders and students were
made prisoners or were missing; many others were never accounted for. New and emerging leaders lacked an
ideological cohesion to revive the movement. Their way of thinking would only revolve around making massive marches
and demonstrations, which the bloody events of October 2, 1968 had proved powerless and ineffective.
The Olympic Games would begin on October 12. A smiling Diaz Ordaz led the opening ceremony within the festive
framework of thousands of white doves flying, a symbol of apparent peace juxtaposed to a dead struggle and an
Copyright © 2008 Hispanic Institute of Social Issues