Mexico's 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened? In 1968, students in Mexico City challenged the country's government. On Oct. 2, troops opened fire on a crowd of student demonstrators. Forty years later, the exact death toll remains a mystery. But official documents suggest that military snipers may have triggered the massacre.
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Mexico's 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?

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Mexico's 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?

Mexico's 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Eight years ago today, a new president was inaugurated in Mexico. Vicente Fox's election ended 70 years of one-party rule, and he promised to usher in a new era of democracy and openness. In doing so, Fox cracked open the door to exploring one of the darkest episodes in Mexican history - the massacre of university students in Mexico City in October 1968. The students had been protesting against Mexico's authoritarian government. Independent producers Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries brought us this story of what happened and the 40-year search for the truth.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARCELINO PERELLO VALS (Former Student Leader, Consejo Nacional de Huelga): My name is Marcelino Perello Vals. I was a leader of the '68 student movement in Mexico.

Ms. MARTA ACEVEDO (Former Student): Well, my name is Marta Acevedo, and I was 28 years old in 1968.

Mr. MIGUEL BRESEDA (Former Student): My name is Miguel Breseda. I was 17.

Mr. SERGIO AGUAYO (Historian): My name is Sergio Aguayo.

Mr. JORGE CASTANEDA (Historian): Jorge Castaneda.

Ms. MARCELA FERNANDEZ VIOLANTE (Former Student): My name is Marcela Fernandez Violante.

Mr. MARIO NUNEZ MARIEL (Former Student): Mario Nunez Mariel. Like that?

Mr. DAVID HUERTA (Former Student): My name is David Huerta. I was just one among many other students in the students' movement.

Mr. PERELLO: To understand Mexico, we are obliged to understand what occurred in '68.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #1: Mexico City, the capital of the Republic of Mexico, is a modern, bustling metropolis with a population of nearly six million.

Mr. CASTANEDA: In 1968, economically speaking, these were very good times for Mexico. Jobs were being created. Opportunities were being generated, mainly in the city, but just about everywhere in the country. So, this was a time of peace and prosperity. Things were going very well.

(Soundbite of vintage Mexican news broadcast in Spanish)

Unidentified Reporter #2: Enclavado en la bella zona residencial al sur de la ciudad, muy cerca de la glorieta Rivera....

Ms. ELISA RAMIREZ (Former Student): We were so civilized, so Americanized, and we had the Olympic Games.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #3: This is downtown Mexico City. The streets are jammed with traffic, sidewalks packed with people. For the government, the Olympics are the opportunity to show the world Mexico is no longer a small and backward nation.

Mr. CASTANEDA: The first time a sporting event like the Olympics is held in an underdeveloped or developing country. This was the debutante ball. This was Mexico's entry onto the world scene.

Mr. ALEJANDRO ALVAREZ BEJAR (Former Student): The government was talking of the Mexican miracle. Even though, in the reality of those days, things were not as happy as they appear.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #4: Mexico's President Diaz Ordaz, one of Mexico's most successful leaders...

Mr. HUERTA: Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was president from 1964 to 1970. He was very authoritarian.

(Soundbite of vintage broadcast)

President GUSTAVO DIAZ ORDAZ (Mexico): Señores miembros del Senado…

Mr. AGUAYO: In the '60s, we were still a country where the government controlled everything. Presidents were the equivalent of monarchs. I mean, it was forbidden to demonstrate in the center of Mexico City, in the heartland of the country. You could not go and express you dissent.

Mr. CASTANEDA: This was a president who wanted at all cost to keep control of things out of principal. He believed that he had to protect the country's stability against everybody, and in particular against longhaired, bearded, mini-skirted, bell-bottom-trousered students who represented everything that he was against.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUERTA: We were urban-middle-class, low-middle-class bunch of young people. Many of us were wearing very long hair and listening to loud music like rock and roll.

Mr. AGUAYO: It was, in a symbolic way, the clash of a new Mexico and an old Mexico.

Mr. ANTONIO AZUELA (Former Student): You have the middle class with eyes closed, and a group of students saying this was not a democracy and this is not working.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FERNANDEZ VIOLANTE: And so we got together, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. We had these big, big meetings at the campus. Crowded, crowded. And people singing, Que Vivan los Estudiantes, ta-ri-ra-ra-ra-ra.

(Soundbite of song "Que Vivan Los Estudiantes")

Ms. MERCEDES SOSA: (Singing) Que vivan los estudiantes, Jardin de nuestra alegría, Son aves que no se asustan de animal ni policia. Y no le asustan las balas ni el ladrar de la jauría, Caramba y zamba la cosa, Que viva la astronomía,

Ms. FERNANDEZ VIOLANTE: We were very young, very naive. But for the first time, you had this notion that this country was going to be changed by the power of our convictions.

Mr. BRESEDA: You would get in a bus and give a speech and inform the people because newspapers wouldn't publish anything. And people would give you money. They would congratulate you. And they would go, we are with you, young people.

Mr. HUERTA: There was a sense of excitement and adventure. And the program was growing steadily, day after day. It sort of entered into the fabric of Mexico City. What we were seeing was a waking society.

Ms. ACEVEDO: Then the 27th of August came. And I think it was the highest moment of the movement.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Protestor: Viva el movimiento estuanditil.

Mr. AGUAYO: Never before in the history of Mexico, half a million people went out to the street to protest, to challenge the authority of the president. And numbers in history and politics matter. I mean, if 10 people protest, well, that's dissent. When half a million people protest, then that's the beginning of social revolution.

(Soundbite of protest)

Mr. PERELLO: We were asking for the president to go out and to speak to us.

Mr. PERELLO: (Singing) En donde esta, pom pom, el ocicon, pom pom. Que no lo vemos, pom pom, en el balcon, pom pom.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRESEDA: The Zocalo, the main square, was lit with burning tires. They were dancing, guitars, a little bottle of tequila there and over there.

Mr. PERELLO: It was unforgettable. We were dreamers. And we were very happy.

Mr. BRESEDA: So we are there, and the doors of the palace opened. And the soldiers come out, and they stand in front of us and said "Senores se les ha permitido hacer su manifestacion y se les solicita que abandonen la plaza." "You have been allowed to make your demonstration, now you have to leave." And I remember the whistles and yelling and all of that. And "We are not leaving," holding arms all of us and saying, "We're not moving." And they take out their bayonets and put them in their rifles. And they start walking towards us.

Mr. MARIEL: And you can hear when the army walks with the bayonet, it's a noise that you will never forget. These steps, you know, wass, wass, wass.

Mr. HUERTA: I remember that some of the students decided that we had weapons in our pockets, big 20 cents coins that were made of copper, very huge coins and heavy. Some of the students threw those coins against the soldiers. And you know what happened? The soldiers stopped to pick up those coins. It was not really that much money, 20 cents. But for them, it was. I mean, the soldiers, our enemies, were the same age as us. If you take the uniform out of a soldier, what you discover behind is a poor, young peasant. In a way, weren't we fighting for them? Sort of an eye-opener.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #5: Good evening. In Mexico City today, the agitation among the students against what they choose to call government repression is far from over.

Ms. ACEVEDO: We felt that there should be a dialogue and that the president had to come to terms with the things that were happening.

Mr. HUERTA: We didn't want to overthrow the government. We want some changes. It was really reasonable. It was nothing to be afraid of. After this huge demonstration, we felt sure that they cannot say no to our demands. And the answer on the part of the government was the presidential speech on September the 1st.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

President GUSTAVO DIAZ ORDAZ: Hemos sido tolerantes hasta excesos criticables, pero todo tiene un límite.

President DIAZ ORDAZ: (Through Translator) We have been tolerant, but everything has a limit. And we can no longer allow the law to be broken, as it has been in the eyes of the world.

Mr. HUERTA: After that, in September things became really messy.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #6: Mexico City resembles an armed camp tonight with thousands of troops and police on guard against rebellious students.

Mr. HUERTA: It was like the occupation of a country, of a students' country.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Mr. KENNETH GALE (Reporter): You hear the tear gas guns going off. Thousands of students scattering now as the police fire tear gas at them.

Mr. CASTANEDA: It's no big deal to get - have tear gas shot at you once it's happened. But the first time, it's terrible. You see these guys, you know, shooting these things at you. Then they explode and you can't breathe, and you cough and you start crying. It's terrible. Second time, it's not so terrible anymore.

Mr. PERELLO: The confrontation with the police and with the army scared us, of course. But it was a kind of game.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Mr. GALE: And it's all over, in about a minute. That whole crowd of nearly 2,000 students and other people dispersed. This is Kenneth Gale in Mexico City.

Ms. RAMIREZ: By that time, they had the jails so full up with everybody. I mean, there were dozens of people a day in jail.

Mr. HUERTA: The confrontation in the streets was getting worse and worse. Of course, there was a deadline. In 10 more days, the Olympic Games were about to begin.

Mr. AGUAYO: And the tragedy was in the making because the students didn't retreat, and the government was not going to surrender an inch.

Mr. HUERTA: We didn't know exactly what the state was capable of. And then on October 2nd, it became awfully clear.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #7: Students in Mexico City began a new protest march this afternoon. They are demanding the immediate release of other students jailed after rioting earlier this year.

Mr. HUERTA: On the morning of October 2nd, 1968, there was this gathering in the afternoon at Tlatelolco Square. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people. Nothing like the crowds in August.

Mr. BRESEDA: The movement was dwindling a little bit. And people were starting to talk about let's go back to school. It had been too long already, you know, a long, long movement.

Mr. GUILLERMO PALACIOS (Former Student): I was in the middle of the plaza. And suddenly, we hear somebody saying the army is coming in. And we look back, and there was all these infantry troops.

Mr. HUERTA: They started to advance towards the crowd. And at some point, we heard some shots. We didn't know where they came from. And seconds later - how do you say in English? All hell broke loose.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. HUERTA: Somebody said they were not real bullets. These are only blanks. Don't be scared, don't be scared, be calm. But they were not blanks.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Mr. BERT QUINT (Reporter, CBS News): The troops have moved in. It started off as a peaceful demonstration. The army was circling this plaza call The Plaza of the Three Cultures. They were holding a peaceful rally. But now the troops have come in. You can hear what it sounds like.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. QUINT: The army is here, and they're firing. They're letting go with just about everything they have. The other troops have swept across the plaza.

Mr. HUERTA: I have never heard anything like that in my life.

Mr. PALACIOS: The shooting was so strong that we had to stop and just lay down on the floor.

Mr. HUERTA: I saw at least two or three people fall, and blood.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Mr. QUINT: Here they come now, here comes the tank. It's an armored assault carrier coming right toward us. It's moving into position, aiming its guns toward the plaza right now.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Ms. MARGARITA SUZAN (Former Student): I couldn't believe what was happening.

Mr. ROLANDO CORDERA (Former Student): Shooting after shooting. And then suddenly the shooting stopped.

Ms. SUZAN: I stepped over blood, and then I start to run.

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Mr. QUINT: It's night now in Mexico City. And these are the sounds of night in Mexico. Bert Quint, CBS News, Mexico City.

Mr. BEJAR: People were really scared, terrified. And nobody wanted to speak about that. So if you had someone who died there, just keep it silent and don't say anything.

Ms. RAMIREZ: I never went back to the university. I never went back to that group. And I completely cut from everything from then on.

(Soundbite of Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, 1968)

President DIAZ ORDAZ: De mil novecientos sesenta y ocho, declaro inaugurados los Juegos Olimpicos de Mexico.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #8: The Mexican president officially declares open the games of 1968.

Mr. HUERTA: The thing was, the population in Mexico, they wanted to look the other way. And in a sense, that was what happened to Mexican society.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUERTA: It was like trying to erase history. For many, many years, 34 years, we didn't know exactly what happened, what they did to us. There was a movement. There was a massacre. And there was a 40-year search for truth. And after some years, well, the truth started to appear.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of vintage news broadcast)

Unidentified Reporter #9: July 3rd, 2000. This morning's Mexican newspaper headlines proclaim simply "Fox wins." A day many Mexicans thought they would never see. The ruling party, the PRI, toppled from power.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Unidentified Reporter #9: Mexicans have high expectations for their new president. And now his biggest challenge is how not to let them down.

Professor DENISE DRESSER (Political Science, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico): Well, when Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in the year 2000, one of his campaign promises had to do with a real in-depth investigation of crimes of the past. My name is Denise Dresser, and I was a member of the committee that helped to investigate what had happened during the student massacre of 1968. And that's when we discovered, you know, kilometers and kilometers of files.

Ms. KATE DOYLE (Senior Analyst, National Security Archive): My name is Kate Doyle, and I'm a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington. And I've been researching the events on October 2nd, 1968, in Mexico City for more than a decade.

Here are dozens of file cabinets with declassified intelligence reports, Mexican documents, CIA cables. We know a lot, but there's so much that we still don't know. But let's pull out...

(Soundbite of filing cabinet being slammed shut)

Ms. DOYLE: one of the key chronicles of what happened is footage that was apparently shot by the military and retained secretly for many years of the day of the massacre and how it unfolded.

(Soundbite of vintage film footage)

Ms. DOYLE: OK, so we're looking at thousands of students gathered, the tanks pulling up and around the plaza. This is one of the apartment buildings overlooking the plaza. And woop, you just saw a flash there, the flash of the gunfire. There it was again. This film helps show the flash of the gun from the apartment window and the soldiers reacting. Those early shots are what set off the massacre.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. AGUAYO: The official truth was there was a skirmish between students and the police. The students fired. The police and the army responded. And a few people were killed, period. That was the official history.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Now, what happened? We know that when the shooting begins, the first fellow who was shot was General Hernandez Toledo who was leading the army troops that entered the square. He was the first guy to, quote, unquote, "fall." So we know that the first shots were not fired by the army against the students, but by somebody against the leader of the army troops. That we know. And we know that the bullet trajectory was an up-to-down trajectory.

Ms. DOYLE: There were security and intelligence agents dressed in civilian clothing posted in those buildings, each wearing a white glove on his left hand.

Mr. CASTANEDA: They were officers from a different part of the army. They were identified by wearing a white glove on their left hand, and that's how they knew who they were. They were instructed to shoot down at the troops that were posted around the square. Why? To have the troops think that there were student snipers shooting at the troops, and so the troops shot back at the students.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. AGUAYO: That was the logic. I mean, they were going to simulate an attack on the part of the students. And therefore the government would have the perfect excuse to crack down. And from that moment onward, everything will be normal.

Ms. DOYLE: We still have no idea how many people died that day and who they were. In the hours after the shootout, once the bodies had been removed, groups of cleaning people were sent into the square with brooms and buckets of water, literally to sweep the evidence away. The blood was very quickly washed off of the plaza floor. And so you had these wildly varying accounts that anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people had died at Tlatelolco. And that gives you a sense of the dimensions of this mystery.

Professor DRESSER: Forty years after 1968, there has never been a truth commission. The perpetrators have never really been called into account. Former presidents have refused to speak. So there's been this non-spoken pact to leave things as they were. There will come a point at which people like me will move on to other things. And people who lost family members that day will die. And perhaps we will never know the truth.

Mr. AGUAYO: And that's why we are still fighting the same battles of 1968. It is one of those rare moments that went beyond a group of students challenging a paranoid president. What was being fought was something more fundamental, the power to control the truth.

(Soundbite of song "Que Vivan Los Estudiantes")

Ms. MERCEDES SOSA: (Singing) Que vivan los estudiantes, Jardin de nuestra alegría, Son aves que no se asustan de animal ni policia. Y no le asustan las balas ni el ladrar de la jauría, Caramba y zamba la cosa, Que viva la astronomía,

SIEGEL: This is one of the anthems of the Mexican student movement and student movements throughout Latin America. It's by the Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra, and sung by Mercedes Sosa. The lyrics say, long live the students, gardens of joy. Birds that don't frighten because of animals or police. Not scared of bullets or packs of barking dogs.

(Soundbite of song "Que Vivan Los Estudiantes")

Ms. MERCEDES SOSA: (Singing) Me gustan los estudiantes, Porque levantan el pecho, Cuando les dicen harina, Sabiendose que es afrecho.

SIEGEL: Our audio history of Mexico in 1968 was produced by Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries with help from Eric Pierce-Chaves(ph). The editor was Deborah George. At our Web site, you can see photographs of the student movement and find secret government footage and declassified documents about the massacre. That's at

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