History has issued a definitive verdict on the events of October 2, 1968, in the capital city of Mexico, at least for its horrendous moral significance.
Although we will never know the exact number of those killed on that afternoon in the Plaza of Tlatelolco (a site—it should be remembered—where human sacrifices were performed in pre-Hispanic Mexico) there is no doubt that what happened was mass murder, a useless and unpardonable sacrifice, an act of state terrorism against a student movement that had launched radical demonstrations but never resorted to the politics of violence. The Mexican political system had been widely praised during the early 1960s, as a supposedly “miraculous” mechanism, combining economic growth with a “very light” variety of political authoritarianism based on patronage and a measure of corruption but nevertheless with authentic social roots. The Tlatelolco Massacre revealed the true face of the system and pointed toward the eventual end of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s long-standing one-party rule. A government that murders its civil dissidents is a dictatorship pure and simple. Though the process would unfold across three decades, the government’s actions in 1968 were the real beginning of the end for the vaunted “Mexican political system.”
Less clear is the complex web of passions, interests, errors, and calculated actions that led to the massacre. The psyche of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz had a decisive influence. His psychological flaws functioned like a cracked magnifying glass, distorting the actual situation. In the dissidence and idealism of the young, he only saw the darkest of communist conspiracies against Mexican society. But many other factors influenced the process and eventual outcome of these events, factors independent of the personality of the president. Certain key questions still await truly definitive answers: the role of the army for instance or the creation and operations of the Batallón Olimpia (a paramilitary group under the command of Díaz Ordaz’s minister of the interior, Luis Echeverría), the possible role (during the height of the cold war) of international provocateurs, agents of both the Soviet Union and the U.S. CIA. Forty years on, we still do not have a complete and reliable picture of what really happened. And we may never have it. Except for Echeverría, who is still alive but largely ostracized, almost all the politicians who had an important role in those events are now dead.
But beyond the political anatomy of ’68 and its cruel lessons, there is an aspect of that student movement that is still relevant for all of us who participated in the upheaval of forty years ago: the democratic legacy of ’68. It is an aspect of special concern to the various left-wing groups who were the real force behind that movement and who, for the last twenty years at least, have exercised a constantly growing influence on Mexican pol...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.