Massacre at Tlatelolco

A story about one of the darkest moments in modern Mexican history.

Throughout history there have been many cultures that have witnessed heinous crimes done against their own people. However, few other civilizations can compare to the human sacrifices that were committed by the Aztecs of Mesoamerica. Ancient sites that can be visited today have an eeriness to them that stems from the echo of the prolific bloodshed of the Aztec epoch. Among one of the many sites where such ritualistic practices took place are the temples at Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City. It was here that hundreds—if not thousands—of men, women and children where sacrificed as an offering to appease the ancient gods. It was believed that in exchange for the oblation of human blood, the Gods would ensure an abundant harvest, thus providing plenty of food for the people of the city. While practices like this ceased to exist over 500 years ago, it wasn’t that long ago when the government slaughtered innocent people on this very plaza. In an act that was reminiscent of the slaughters from centuries past, these bloodstained walls continue to remind us that mindless bloodshed never ceases, despite our supposed developments over the centuries.

The Tlatelolco Massacre, otherwise known as the Night of Tlatelolco is undoubtedly one of the darkest moments in modern Mexican history. Even after various investigative efforts over the years that have been conducted to uncover the truth about what actually happened, the conflicting details and inconclusive reports continue to pose a large question mark to this day. What became one of the bloodiest days in Mexico’s history initially arose after much public outrage over the amount of funding that was being poured into the 1968 Olympics, which were to be hosted in Mexico City. The government had invested over $150 million for the Games, which were to include new facilities, as well as housing for guests and participants. Among various other areas of discontent towards the government, many were opposed to the frivolous spending towards the Games, which prompted various groups to come together to voice their opposition. While social unrest was mounting months before the games started, president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz made sure that Mexico City would be presented to the world in a positive light, without protests. In his pursuit to deter any anti-government activism, he suppressed any organized movements done by labor unions and local farmers. There were also numerous student organizations that began to voice their stance by holding large protests in several universities throughout Mexico. While the president dismissed these disturbances as acts of youth rebellion, he was soon faced with a large force and collective student movement that wouldn’t be silenced so easily. 
A few weeks before the grand opening ceremony of the Olympics, over 70 universities in Mexico joined forces in a national strike against the government. Their demands included the stopping of arrests of fellow students, release of political prisoners and dismissal of the chief of police. These demands, however, sparked more aggression from the police and army who consequently began to mount assaults on local universities, arresting a large number of students and killing many in the process. While some students stood their ground by barricading themselves on school campuses, others had no choice when faced with hundreds of soldiers who shot at them indiscriminately and without hesitation. Through these violent clashes with the authorities, the students soon realized that in order to be heard, they would need the public’s support in their fight for justice.  
On October 2nd 1968, about 10,000 people converged in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest the government’s recent assaults on educational institutions. Made up of mostly university and high school students, the demonstration was quite peaceful, with many of the onlookers chanting and listening to various speeches given by local organizers. Because the plaza was located in a residential neighborhood, many of the people who lived there, including children, joined the large gathering. The atmosphere soon began to tense up when some of the students noticed a large mobilization of the army happening outside of the plaza. About 5,000 soldiers and 200 tanks surrounded the plaza, slowly engulfing the people within it. At around 6:00 PM, the peaceful demonstration erupted into havoc after several flares were fired from the helicopters circling overhead, which caused all hell to break loose.

While the accounts of what happened next vary from eyewitness accounts to government investigations, one thing is known for sure—the peaceful gathering at the plaza turned into a chaotic and gruesome scene. Shots rang out from rifles as the military swooped in on the crowd. Bullets started flying in from all directions, hitting protesters, innocent bystanders, and even children. A special police force known as the “Olympia Battalion” started rounding up protesters, telling everyone to strip off their clothes and stand against the wall. Bodies started piling up on top of each other as the hail of gunfire continued into the crowd.  
As night fell, the carnage continued with the military going door-to-door looking for protesters and dragging people from out of their homes. Hundreds of people were arrested and some stripped of their clothes and beaten up. Most of the people who were involved in the round up had nothing to do with the protest and were actually neighbors who lived in the community. Many witnesses report having seen garbage trucks arrive to get rid of the corpses, with countless bodies being scooped up and sent off to unknown locations. There were no doctors or medical staff on hand and people who were still alive were thrown into the trucks with the dead. By morning, the site resembled an eerie battle scene with dozens of military vehicles and soldiers patrolling the blood-soaked plaza. 
The next day newspapers and television reports all downplayed the event citing only a handful of deaths and arrests. The official story of the night before, as told by the government, was that the protesters fired first at the military, which then fired back to protect themselves. For many years this narrative was the standard when recounting the events of October the 2nd, 1968. In 2001, however, a government investigation revealed some shocking truths which some already expected to be true. In the report, it was cited that members of the Presidential Guard were in fact the first ones who fired shots at the military. They were instructed to engage the military to provoke a fight to disrupt the peaceful protest. One of the people who presumably instructed the Presidential Guard to do this was former president, Luis Echeverria. For his actions he was arrested on charges of genocide, but he was soon released after a successful appeal process. 
To this day, there still hasn’t been anyone charged or convicted of the massacre of October 2, 1968. There have been a number of annual investigations conducted in an attempt try to find those responsible for the carnage. However, the military and interior ministry claims that they no longer have such files pertaining to that event. A substantial amount of citizens continue to be unaccounted for and the official death toll continues to allude many, with figures ranging anywhere from 30 to 300, depending on the source of information. Numerous monuments have been erected to commemorate this tragic event and October 2nd is now known as the National Day of Mourning. Nevertheless, these little gestures only go a little way to comfort those who have lost their friends and family members during one of the most horrific nights in Mexico City’s history.  

Words/Photos by: Alejandro Sosa