One story of the 1968 Mexico Olympics is well known. US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute—an iconic symbol of defiance.
A less well-known story is the massacre that took place in Mexico City two weeks earlier.
A movement that had swept universities in the summer of 1968 came to a head on 2 October. Thousands marched on the capital. The army mobilised too, took up position and then opened fire.
The result was “hundreds of deaths, thousands of wounded, and hundreds of political prisoners,” said former student leader Felix Hernandez.
Up to 400 people were killed.
One witness recalled, “there was blood on the walls of the buildings, that the elevators were perforated with machine?gun bullets, that the glass windows of the shops were destroyed, that tanks were inside the plaza, that there was blood on the staircases of the buildings, that they could hear people shouting, moaning, and crying.”
The government of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz had spent some £115 million in preparation for the summer Games in the city.
Although it had plenty of money for this pet project, millions of Mexicans still lived in dire poverty. And they were cut out from any semblance of democratic control by the one-party system set up by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The summer of 1968 saw a huge student movement in response to increased state repression on university campuses. The National Strike Council was the movement’s organising body, with delegates from 70 universities and schools across Mexico.
After police attacked a school, beating students and teachers, the movement began mobilising larger numbers.
Around 50,000 demonstrated at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Police eventually took over the university, which in turn led more students to join the movement.
Students and their supporters planned a demonstration to demand freedom for political prisoners, an end to repressive laws and the withdrawal of cops from universities.
The government did not want the student movement to grow or to make further, deeper links with the working class. Nor was it prepared to look foolish in front of the world’s television cameras, which were soon to arrive for the Games.
It planned meticulously for the 2 October protest, deploying at least 5,000 troops. Some 4,000 people marched in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City. The army opened fire with live ammunition as the demonstration passed through the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
They had chosen the square carefully—it was a bottleneck and difficult to escape from.
By the time they stopped firing, according to some estimates, as many as 400 people were dead. Thousands more were injured.
Immediately after the attack, government sources blamed the death on students who, they said, were shooting to provoke the army into a response.
The same misinformation was reported at the time by The Times newspaper’s correspondent in Mexico City.
But 50 years on from the event, Jaime Rochin, head of the government’s Executive Commission for Attention to Victims, said this was a lie.
The Ordaz administration had ordered the use of “snipers who fired to create chaos, terror and an official narrative to criminalise the protest,” he said.
The massacre represents “an historical chapter in which the Mexican state showed its most authoritarian face by silencing the voices of the citizen’s movement,” he added.
It was the first time a government official has admitted the army’s role in the massacre.
Over 1,000 people were arrested after the march. Some of the student leaders were detained for two years. Prison guards encouraged other inmates to beat them with pipes and bats after they held a six-week hunger strike.
To understand what drove the student revolt, you have to grasp the huge changes that had shaken Mexican society.
Between 1940 and 2000 the country underwent a dramatic transformation—millions flocked to urban centres to find work. This led to the rapid enlargement of the working class, which now included many who had recently been peasants.
The new workers were frequently enraged by their conditions and the way they were exploited. They were volatile and often seemed close to exploding with anger.
This period also saw a huge growth in the student population—in 1970 there were 49 percent more students than there had been in 1964.
This was part of the context for a revolt that seemed to come out of a period of relative social peace.
Another vital element was the global uprising of students and workers in 1968.
In Vietnam a peasant army was fighting US imperialism and winning some victories. In the US itself a huge anti-war movement and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were shaking the state.
In France millions struck and showed workers’ power could bring society grinding to a halt.
Student movements were key to sparking bigger revolts among workers the world over and students in Mexico were inspired.
Though the student movement ultimately went down to defeat, their resistance was soon to find an echo beyond their ranks.
“A new labour militancy emerged, guerrilla fighters appeared, and the government, aided by US imperialism, carried out its ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s,” noted the Marxist writer James D Cockcroft.
Tragically, the student movement had been dealt a hammer blow just as it was beginning to make links with the working class and the peasantry.
“We now have the petrol workers, the telephonists, and the electricity workers’ unions supporting us,” a student leader had told a journalist on the day of the massacre.Although one-party rule lasted until 1988, the events of 1968 marked the start of a process that would see the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s iron grip on the state begin to loosen.
The legacy of the massacre lives on today. Every year on the anniversary thousands of students travel to Mexico City to commemorate those who were killed in 1968.
In 2014 a group of student teachers began their journey to attend the protest. Some 43 of them simply disappeared.
The government presented a flimsy narrative, suggesting the students had been caught up in a drug cartel exchange.
It downplayed the suggestion that the army was involved.
Now, newly elected president Manuel Lopez Obrador has promised a full investigation into the disappearances. Despite this, the government continues to block a commission to investigate what happened to the group of 43.
No one has been charged for the killings of 1968, nor for the disappearances of 2014.
Each outrage is a reminder of the need for fundamental change to prevent yet more repeats of the crimes of the powerful.
Rulers tried to pacify the poor
Mexico had been subject to one-party rule by the bosses’ Institutional Revolutionary Party since the 1940s.
Its precursors, the National Revolutionary Party, formed in 1929, and the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM), formed in 1938, all talked of the need for “national unity”.
The social force behind these formations was the emerging national bourgeoisie which could trace its roots back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1917.
This new class drew its confidence from its defeat of the peasant armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
But in the process, the bourgeoisie had been badly damaged, and could not sustain an outright class war against the peasantry and working class.
Instead it presented itself as the defender of the Revolution. Since then the ruling class strategy has been to undermine the power of differing sections of society by co-opting them. President Lazaro Cardenas formalised the relationship when he created the PRM in 1938.
He proposed an arm of the state to represent each section of society—workers, capitalists, peasants.
This was all couched in a patriotic and populist nationalism.
Crucially, he was well liked among the poor, while at the same time proving to the bosses that he was capable of putting down workers’ struggle.