For a generation of Mexicans, the events of 2 October 1968 – ten days before the inauguration of the 19th Olympic games – remain an open wound. On that day dozens of students and their supporters were gunned down in the Tlatelolco district in the heart of Mexico City.
For almost 40 years the Mexican state claimed the killings were triggered when student militants opened fire on soldiers at a rally. Now the truth has finally emerged – and the man responsible for the massacre, then interior minister Luis Echeverria, has been ordered to face trial for his role in the killings.
The facts surrounding the Tlatelolco massacre were uncovered by an official investigation into Mexico’s “dirty war” against left wingers, waged between 1960 until 1980. Investigators trawled through recently declassified security documents and found evidence of “massacres, forced disappearance, systematic torture and genocide”.
The report uncovers a trail of documents that prove this war was sanctioned at the highest levels of the Mexican regime. One section is dedicated to the events of 1968.
Investigators confirmed what human rights activists and witnesses have been saying for years – that the 1968 massacre was organised by plainclothes policemen under the orders of government ministers and military leaders in order to destroy a movement that had been challenging Mexico’s dictatorship.
This movement had been building since that summer with a strike by students in major universities. With the Olympics looming, the government decided to suppress the strike and sent troops to occupy campuses. Student leaders responded by calling a rally in the Tlatelolco district of the capital.
At 7am that morning – a few hours before negotiations with student leaders – a high level meeting took place between military officers, intelligence officials and the presidential office. The meeting was convened to put the final touches to “Operation Galeana”.
Documents show that a special company of the Olympia Battalion – set up to guard the Olympics – had gained access to several apartments in the Chihuahua building overlooking the square. The flats were in the same building student leaders were using to address the rally.
Other units were placed on the roof of a church, government offices and nearby buildings. The key task of the Olympia Battalion would be to seize student leaders. They would be identified only by a single white glove on their left hand.
The battalion had another, more sinister, task. Armed with machine guns and pistols, they would, on signal, open fire on the soldiers surrounding the square.
According to army documents, up to 10,000 troops supported by 300 tanks were deployed at key points in the area. Military officers were warned to expect “trouble” from radical students – including snipers.
The gunmen were in place at 11am. An hour later students and their supporters – including trade unionists and peasants’ groups – started to gather in the square.
The rally would be an important event for the democracy movement. The student struggle was at a crossroads. Would they be able to spread their strike, or was it time for negotiations and compromise? There was concern that their struggle was losing momentum.
At 3pm student leaders gathered on the balcony of the Chihuahua building to supervise installation of the sound equipment. Student leader Pablo Gomez noticed that several odd characters had appeared around the platform.
He thought they could be plainclothes policemen. Mexico was a police state, and it was not unusual for authorities to keep a close eye on the opposition. Nevertheless the students agreed to cut the speeches short and disperse as quickly as possible.
At 6.10pm, as student leader Florencio Lopez Osuna began to address the rally, two helicopters appeared above the square and fired two flares. It was the signal for the army to advance, and for the Olympia Battalion to open fire.
A burst of machine gunfire was directed at the troops from one of the apartments. Then one of the characters hanging around the speakers’ platform approached the balcony. Calmly he pointed his gun at the crowd below and began firing.
Other men stormed onto the platform and began dragging the student leaders away. They were lined up, stripped and beaten. In the square the firing continued, with many soldiers falling wounded. The troops then opened fire on the crowd, believing they were being attacked by the students.
One army commander spotted snipers in the Chihuahua building and ordered his men to storm it. As they reached the entrance they were greeted by plainclothes police shouting, “Olympia Battalion – don’t shoot.” The soldiers were prevented from entering the building despite repeated gunfire pouring on their comrades, and the crowd below.
Over the next hour and half soldiers and gunmen fired into the crowd. Hundreds of bodies littered the square. Some were dead, others wounded.
That night the bodies were dumped in the back of trucks and carted away.
The Olympic games went ahead despite calls around the world for teams to be withdrawn in protest. The event would be remembered for another protest – two black US sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, giving the Black Power salute wearing single black gloves. The symbolism of this act of defiance was not lost on the Mexican opposition.
Many of the facts surrounding the massacre remain unclear. There is still no official toll of the dead – one investigation put the number at 44, though some eyewitnesses counted over 100 bodies.
The massacre was covered up and the student struggle crushed. But Mexico’s dictators found it impossible to entirely bury the memory of the massacre. In 2001 a set of photographs were sent anonymously to a Mexican magazine.
They showed student leaders being beaten by men in plain clothes – each wearing one white glove.
The pictures destroyed the government’s denials over their role in the massacre, paving the way for the latest official investigation that has confirmed the terrible facts behind the events on 2 October 1968.
The full report is available in Spanish at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB209/