In 1968, as the Red Scare was in full swing and Mexico was preparing to host the Summer Olympics. The nation was mired in protests against the US-supported regime of Diaz Ordaz. On October 2nd, 10,000 students organized in La Plaza de Tres Culturas, a square in Districto Tlatelolco, in Mexico D.F. (Mexico City). Police in full assault gear quickly surrounded the square in a Tienanmen-like show of force. What happened next is absent from nearly every American history textbook and ignored in the cultural narrative of the 20th century. However, the consequences are as significant and disturbing as the massacres at Tienanmen Square or Mai Lai.
(AN: The following narrative and images are both extremely graphic and sobering, but I strongly encourage anyone unfamiliar with the events to read on if they believe that they can. This piece may be triggering to anyone with post-traumatic stress stemming from an incident with gun violence. police brutality, or terrorism.)
Late that afternon, shots rang out and panic ensued. When the smoke cleared, anywhere from forty to three hundred and fifty students, most between the ages of 18 and 22 were dead and almost 1,500 were thrown in government prisons with no due process or guarantee of human rights. It is for the survivors of these events that I want to bring what happened at Tlateloco into the light.
Following the massacre, the government blamed their political opponents for the violence, stating that the protests were in fact violent and the shooting was started by militant student groups firing on the police officers.
In fact, the Diaz Ordaz government employed mercenary snipers and stationed them in buildings surrounding the Plaza. Evidence has shown that they set up military fire teams on all sides of the plaza, even installing a machine gun nest in one apartment. Video evidence shows that, once the police, miltary, and special guard were in position, a helicopter fired two flares, one red and one green. When this order was given, the men began firing indiscriminately. Following orders, the police too discharged their weapons into the crowd, killing an unknown number of people and wounding thousands more.
The students were trapped on all sides by men in uniforms and with no cover or means of defending themselves, were as helpless as their own government knowingly and deliberately executed them in a nightmarish scene the likes of which are unfathomable to any North American college student today.
When the police and snipers had ran out of ammunition, they charged the square, beating and arresting the young men and women that survived the attack. They were ordered to strip down to their underwear, beaten savagely and were thrown into jails with no records, accountability, or right to due process. Human rights activists in Mexico believe that scores of these students died of disease, heat stroke, malnutrition, or physical and sexual violence in these gulags and an unknown number of survivors may still be imprisoned today, 45 years later.
The police and soldiers then rounded up 3,000 bystanders and held them in a convent overnight, sending in plainclothes officers to give out water in exchange for the location of students. They continued search and destroy operations throughout the night, entering homes in search of students. Anyone believed to be a student or a protester were beaten & arrested or summarily executed and left.
Neither the true death toll nor the fate of the thousands of imprisoned students is known, as the Mexico D.F police and military either destroyed records of October 2, 1968, or did not record a list of casualties. At the time, the students were condemned by the media as radicals, terrorists, and enemy combatants in an alarmingly familiar justification.
Witnesses state that when ambulances finally arrived, they were only there to serve as corpse wagons along with military vehicles and even garbage trucks. Soldiers piled the bodies of the dead and wounded together without any concern for who was dead or alive and disposed of them all, likely in a mass grave but certainly in a location unknown to the victims' families and human rights investigators.
It is very likely that the total human cost of the Tlateloco massacre is greater than 1,000 young men and women, the average age of which was likely no older than 19. Many weere likely under the age of eighteen. All were well-educated and had bright futures ahead of them. Why is it, then, that this unfathomable outrage is largely unknown to the majority of the public outside of Mexico?
Just ten days after the massacre of an entire university population came the 1968 Olympic games. At this time, the events at Tlateloco were little more than an old news story; the government-controlled media reported the massacre as a victory by security forces over members of an armed leftist radical student group. The reported death tolls were 22 or 26.
In fact, the forces responsible for organizing and carrying out the mass execution were a special forces group organized by the Ordaz administration with the explicit purpose of providing security for the Olympic Games. They were known as the Brigada Olympica, Spanish for Olympic Brigade. The snipers too, were part of the Presidential Guard, the Mexican equivalent of the United States Secret Service.
Furthermore, the American CIA not only knew the extent of the massacre, but had been publishing reports about left-leaning dissident student groups and were absolutely aware of the operation being planned to counter the protests on October 2nd. A CIA inquiry on September 26th, 1968 regarding the possibility of conflict was responded to by the head of DFS, assuring U.S. agents that "the situation will be under complete control very shortly".
Most condemning of all, not only were the CIA aware of the likelihood of these groups being dispatched with violence, but FOIA documents show that the U.S. government in fact provided weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies to forces in Mexico City with the explicit purpose of creating and maintaining a secure environment during the 1968 Olympic Games
Anyone that is familiar with these events today still seems to be blissfully unaware that most of the world gave the Mexican regime their tacit approval by still participating in 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the athletes, ambassadors of the developed world, strode proudly down the streets that were still stained with the blood of young men and women who were little more than boys and girls who stood up for what they believed in.
There was no real justice done. Little is known about the survivors or casualties of the Tlatelolco massacre, nor has anyone been successfully convicted of human rights violations because of it. In 2002, former president Luis Echeverría, Ordaz's successor, was charged with genocide in relation to the events and called to testify, but the case was almost immediately dismissed due to a shocking, but not surprising, lack of evidence. To this day, not a single man has been charged with any crime stemming from the deliberate murder of hundreds of teenage students in 1968.
We let so much fucked up shit happen in Latin America with a pat on the backs of fascists, all in the name of fighting communism. Now we call it a "human rights violation" but still shrug off the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents and manage to sleep like babes.
If Mexico was a Communist state would the massacre be taught in American schools? If there was an iconic photo of a man standing in front of a tank, instead of pictures of white-gloved soldiers and adolescent corpses, would this be the cautionary tale about the militarization of our peace officers we need to hear? If U.S soldiers committed the massacre instead of just arming the men who did, would there have been a court martial? If these students were American, would we as a people actually care or learn from the past?
Imagine a rally filling the main quad on your college campus. Think of the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, or the pro-choice and women's rights rallies in Austin, Texas.
Now imagine if you can stomach it, that the police arrive in full SWAT and riot gear with the automatic AR-15 rifles that are standard issue for most police officers in the US today.
Imagine the chaos when the shots ring out. Imagine the split second of hope you have when you see the men in Army fatigues and how that hope is crushed when you realize that they too are firing indiscriminately at the unarmed crowd of college kids, everyone you know in your class, your dorm, that girl you had a crush on but hadn't had the courage to ask out.
Finally, you collapse. You aren't sure if you have been shot or if your body has just given out. As you crumple to the ground you lock eyes with a close female friend from high school. She is pleading for this to not be real, that she's okay, that you're okay, just turn back time ten minutes that's all she needs, she swears. You may have been shot, you may just be getting blurry from the shock. You start to hope that it is the former.
Imagine laying as still as you can, in shock and paralyzed like you are just dreaming, under the hot, soaking wet lifeless bodies of the girls that sat in the back of the class, always gossiping about boys.
Imagine what could possibly be going through the mind of the squinting man who kicks those bodies off of you as he raises his sidearm and puts you down like some kind of farm animal. Or perhaps he knocks you unconscious, only for you to wake up on the floor a filthy 8x10 room. This floor is where you will eat, shit, and think about what happened that day, to all the people you knew, to that girl you had a crush on, to the people that knowingly ordered all of this upon you and your peers.
This room is where you will spend the rest of your life.
This is what actually happened at Tlatelolco in 1968. That nightmare was and in some cases still is reality for hundreds of men and women.
But then, two weeks later, the Americans and people from all over the world, some from countries you've never even heard of, come and celebrate and play games with the same government that did this to you- smiling, laughing, incredibly jovial men and women from all over the globe. And they play their games and hang laurels around each others neck and congratulate your murderers for hosting these games, and the rest of the world watches and cheers and pretends nothing happened.
I apologize to anyone that was offended by the graphic imagery but the events of 1968 stir something in me that is frightening, powerful and desperate, that makes me feel immeasurably small in the face of the cannibal Titans of governments that are very much still capable of such incalculable horrors.