Fifty years ago Tuesday, a protest by thousands of students in Mexico City ended with military tanks on the streets and hundreds dead. Just in the past few weeks, the Mexican government officially recognized that on the night of Oct. 2, 1968, it ordered the killings of students. For the first time since the massacre, a government official called it a “crime of the state.” That recognition is by no means an apology, but it is a step that may help survivors begin the healing process.
There’s a phrase – a kind of mantra – that René Ortiz Muñiz knows well, because it’s been whispered by survivors of the student massacre since 1968:
“Dos de Octubre, no se olvida. Es de lucha combative!”
Translated into English, it means, “We don’t forget Oct. 2. It’s our fight, it’s our struggle!”
But half a century has gone by, and during all those years, those whispers have never led to an open conversation about the killings.
In 1968, Yolanda Gil Baeza was just 17. Now she’s 67, and she says her friends who protested are now either getting up in years or have already passed away.
The people in government at the time were even older. Most of them are also gone.
That’s why Gil Baeza says it’s insulting that it took so long for the government to get this conversation started.
“Porque a los 50 años ya no se puede castigar a las gentes,” Baeza says. “Because after 50 years, you can’t punish anyone.”
So, this is where things are now. But what was happening then? What led to the killings?
1968, as you may know, and as René Ortiz Muñiz remembers, was a year of drastic changes and unrest.
“Yes, that’s true – there was the war in Vietnam, there were marches against the war, the hippie movement, Bob Dylan, the Black Panthers, the adoption of Asian religions,” Ortiz Muñiz says.
There was also unrest in Paris, Argentina and Japan.
In the U.S., Americans experienced the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
In Mexico, Yolanda Gil Baeza remembers the excitement about the Olympic Games that were about to start on Oct. 12. But she also remembers anxiety on the part of government officials.
“Y si yo te digo como empezó el movimiento …” Gil Baeza says. “If I were to tell you how the unrest started, you wouldn’t believe it.”
She says that a couple of months before the Olympics there was a fight at a high school in Mexico City. Apparently, the fight was over a football game. Teachers intervened to no avail. And the police got involved. Police came in, and things escalated because at the time, the Mexican government was jumpy – keenly aware that the eyes of the world were on it because of the upcoming Olympic Games. Mexican officials knew the FBI was reporting back almost daily to Washington.
One concern for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was Mexico’s friendly relationship with Cuba. The FBI feared Mexican students were embracing Communist ideas. Remember: Che Guevara had recently been killed in Bolivia.
So, when police in Mexico City couldn’t stop the high school fight, the military stepped in. That resulted in the death of some students and the arrest of others.
That was also when students started protesting the government’s heavy hand. Thousands joined in and in a matter of weeks, there was a full-fledged movement. Every protest was met with government aggression.
Gil Baeza says the students crafted a list of demands:
– “Freedom for political prisoners.
– Abolition of Article 145 of the Federal Penal Code.
– Abolition of all paramilitary groups.
– Removal of the top three police chiefs.
– Compensation to the families of those who had been killed or injured during the conflict.
– Firing the government employees responsible for the killings.”
A march had been planned for the evening of Oct. 2. It was meant to be a peaceful demonstration. Reporters from all over the world were in Mexico ahead of the Olympics and students knew they were reporting on their movement. They chose a super-posh neighborhood for the rally. Tlatelolco was a community of high-rise buildings where artists and intellectuals lived. In the middle of the neighborhood was a massive open area. That’s where students gathered, unaware that military tanks and soldiers were surrounding them on the ground and that military snipers sat on the buildings. Reports say a helicopter dropped flares, and that was the signal to start the killings.
When the shooting stopped, hundreds were dead and 19 year old René Ortiz Muñiz and at least 1,000 others were arrested.
“The soldiers grabbed me by the hair and cut it with their bayonets, just to show their power, just to say ‘You are nobody and I can do with you whatever I want,’” Ortiz Muñiz says.
Students were tortured, others killed while in custody.
Gil Baeza can’t forget one image in particular: the bodies of eight girls who were about to be part of the Olympic welcoming committee. She says they looked like broken dolls in their uniforms, covered in blood.
Ortiz Muñiz is about to turn 70; he’s aging but he’s never forgotten. Now, he’s an advisor to newly elected Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO. He’s partly why AMLO’s new government has vowed to create a commission for reconciliation. Calling the 1968 killings a “crime of the state” may be a first step towards that reconciliation.