Mexico's 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre Of Protesters: What's Changed, What Hasn't Fifty years ago, government forces opened fire on a student-led protest in Mexico City. Some say the repression opened a path for democratic change; others say a legacy of impunity has endured.
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What's Changed Since Mexico's Bloody Crackdown On 1968 Student Protests?

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What's Changed Since Mexico's Bloody Crackdown On 1968 Student Protests?

What's Changed Since Mexico's Bloody Crackdown On 1968 Student Protests?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All this year, we've been remembering the upheaval of the year 1968. Fifty years ago today, government forces in Mexico fired on thousands of students protesting in a public square in the capital. Scores and possibly hundreds died. Like many other worldwide movements of the 1960s, Mexico students were demanding more freedoms and democracy. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Mexican students in the tens of thousands spent the summer of 1968 in the streets protesting the repressive one-party rule gripping Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are living the freedom of the streets," cried this protester seen in news footage of the huge march in downtown Mexico City. "We want that freedom throughout the country," he yelled.

1968 Mexico was also a time of economic prosperity. Decades-long growth had created a burgeoning middle class which many of the protesters belonged to, including Mariclaire Acosta, then a 20-year-old political science student at the Autonomous National University (ph).

MARICLAIRE ACOSTA: We were going to a public university. We had all these privileges. But we wanted democratic space.

KAHN: Inspired by student movements around the world, the demonstrators spent the summer clashing with soldiers and police. By September, then-President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz said enough was enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVO DIAZ ORDAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have been tolerant, but there are limits. The eyes of the world are watching us," said Diaz Ordaz.

The world was watching. In just over a month, Mexico was to host the Summer Olympics. On October 2, 10 days before the opening ceremony, thousands of defiant students filled the plaza in the city's northern Tlatelolco neighborhood. Law student Ana Ignacia Rodriguez Marquez was a leader of the movement.

ANA IGNACIA RODRIGUEZ MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Sitting in the plaza recently, Rodriguez, now 74, recalled seeing a helicopter circle above. It shot flares into the crowd, says Rodriguez. A hail of bullets followed from snipers atop a nearby apartment building and from soldiers at street level.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I froze," says Rodriguez. "I never thought they were real bullets." She ran out of the plaza. The official media at the time blamed the violence on student agitators and put the death toll at around 26. Activists and researchers say it was more like 300. It wasn't until just last week that a government official for the first time admitted the massacre was a state crime. Rodriguez, like hundreds of students, was rounded up by Mexico's security forces, tried and imprisoned for years.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says once released, she never went back to the law. Instead she spent decades as a local government administrator. Many of her fellow compatriots, however, took up arms. Sergio Aguayo, a student activist in '68 and now a professor at the Colegio de Mexico, says throughout the 1970s and into the '80s, dozens of guerrilla movements emerged and were brutally repressed. Aguayo says he, however, rejected violence.

SERGIO AGUAYO: We were not going to have a revolution because we were the neighbors of the U.S., and the Mexican authoritarian regime was supported by Washington. So we were our own.

KAHN: It would take until the year 2000 for Mexico's one-party rule to fall. But Aguayo says through those decades, civil society matured and democratic institutions were built. Mariclaire Acosta, now 70, heads the country's newly formed anti-corruption commission.

ACOSTA: We have an electoral system that works well. We have competitive elections. We have a lot of institutions, yes. Have we ended impunity - no.

KAHN: She says '68 left a dark legacy, too, of unpunished crimes and violence. Since 2006, the start of Mexico's drug war, as many as 200,000 people have died and tens of thousands disappeared, including the case of 43 students who went missing in 2014. The government insists the students were killed by a drug gang who burned their bodies, but independent investigators, the students' relatives and most Mexicans dispute that official version.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting in Spanish).

KAHN: Just last month, on the fourth anniversary of the students' disappearance, protesters again took to the streets demanding justice in the case.

SAMARA VIZUET: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The 23-year-old Samara Vizuet says, "we know we are the children of '68, and we know if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be out here keeping alive the fight for democracy in Mexico." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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