Forty-five years ago today, Mexican police and armed forces killed hundreds of unarmed, peaceful protestors.
After more than eight weeks of protests against the PRI’s rule, political exclusion, and police violence, the Mexican army opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, killing several hundred protesters near the Plaza of Three Cultures in Mexico City forty-four years ago today.
While student protests had erupted throughout much of the world in 1968, including in Brazil, the US, France, Japan, Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, Mexico had been relatively unaffected by the global social mobilizations of the first half of 1968. However, that came to a sudden, if initially-inconspicuous, halt on 23 July 1968. The events that would ultimately lead to thousands protesting in the streets and a government crackdown that left hundreds of dead started with a simple street brawl between rival students from two high schools, one a preparatory school that housed wealthier students, and the other a vocational school for working-class students. As the fight, likely fueled by class tensions, escalated, a principal called the police. However, the mayor badly overreacted, sending in Mexico’s granaderos, a paramilitary riot police force that was the subject of almost universal hatred in Mexico, to break up the fight. While social tensions increased, they remained simmering until July 26, when leftist students marched to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The granaderos once again appeared, and this time, a full-blown street riot erupted, with cases of police brutality.
These events in late-July were the match that ignited Mexican student protests; however, the fuel of such protests ran deeper. As Mexico’s middle-class started to witness growth and expansion during the economic “miracle” of the late-1950s and early-1960s, it became increasingly disenchanted with its exclusion from national politics, led by the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party; PRI). On July 29, students from Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) and National Autonomous University of Mexico(UNAM) announced a general strike and issued a series of demands that reflected their growing dissatisfaction with the increasingly authoritarian PRI; demands included the release of all political prisoners (including those in jail from the 1959 railroad workers’ strike), the removal of police officials, the disbanding of the granaderos, and the abolition of Article 145 of the Constitution, which, among other things, allowed the arrest of anybody attending meetings of three or more people under the auspices of “social dissolution.” The movement quickly gained support within Mexico City itself; by August 13, students held their first rally in the Zócalo plaza.
However, they were not alone, as professors, intellectuals, housewives, and workers joined them. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz appealed to students to end the “violence” and blamed “foreign students” for agitation. However, his appeals failed to stem the tide of protests; the student demands had tapped into many of the broader currents of discontent among Mexico City’s urban middle class. By August 27, another rally in the Zócalo united more than 500,000 people protesting directly under Díaz Ordaz’s balcony in the National Palace. In response, Díaz Ordaz ordered tanks to occupy the Zócalo, setting a precedent that would take on more tragic consequences in the coming weeks. In the military and police’s attempts to break up the protests, at least one student was murdered; it marked the first death of a student in protests, but it would not be the last.
With the clear use of militaristic repression against peaceful protesters, other sectors of Mexican society became bolder in their own criticisms of the government. Business leaders questioned the government’s violation of individual rights in newspaper articles, while intellectuals and artists criticized the government for its use of armed force. To try to counter popular unrest, the government ordered bureaucrats to demonstrate; however, its plans backfired, as the civil authorities, feeling coerced into taking a stance they did not necessarily hold, marched through the streets baa-ing like sheep.
October 1968 was supposed to be a showcase for Mexico. For the first time, the Olympic committee had awarded an Olympics to a Latin American country, and Mexico City was set to host the Summer Olympics in mid-October 1968 (and the World Cup in 1970). Fearing the protests might undermine the image of Mexican stability in the international arena as the world prepared to turn its eyes to Mexico, the Díaz Ordaz administration ratcheted up its use of repression. On September 2nd, he pledged he would take any measures necessary to “protect” Mexico. By September 13, 10,000 army troops invaded the campus of UNAM, violating campus autonomy that the government had granted the campus in 1929 in order to arrest 500 students. Furious, the rector resigned, and now the government’s repression was clear to all. Strikes continued throughout September, even as a large meeting was planned for October 2 at the Plaza of Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City.
By all accounts, the protests began peacefully enough around 4PM, with around 5000 people gathering. However, at 6:30PM, pandemonium erupted. Helicopters illuminated the plaza, and shots were heard, leading to chaos. Snipers from the presidential guard occupied the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza, opening fire on the crowd and picking off protesters one by one. Police in the crowd also attacked students; the reflective armbands they wore let snipers know not to shoot them. Thousands tried to flee, many leaving behind their shoes or other items of clothing in the rush. Before the night was over, more than 2000 people had been thrown in prison, and the bodies of many littered the floors of police stations and hospitals.
The next day, the government tried to cover up the massacre, blaming terrorists for opening fire on police and claiming only eight people had died; it later revised those numbers upward, first to 18, then to 43. However, based on eyewitness accounts, and the reports of those whose family members never returned, some estimates place the number of those whom the Mexican state murdered that night to be more than 700. In spite of efforts to downplay the violence, foreign reporters had already begun arriving in Mexico City, and the next day, the massacre made headlines worldwide, with images smuggled out of the country by foreign journalists. The situation was severe enough that the Olympic Committee called an emergency meeting to decide whether to withdraw from Mexico; ultimately, they decided the Olympic Games would proceed, but the vote in favor of holding the games won by only a slim margin.
Although the Olympics took place, the Tlatelolco Massacre would have long-term ramifications. The arrests and murders devastated the student movement, and brought an effective end to the protests and rallies that had taken place throughout August and September. Many woman students who felt their voices had not been fairly represented by the male-dominated leadership went on to apply their politics to feminist struggles in the 1970s. Meanwhile, though the PRI would remain in power until 2000, the Mexican public increasingly saw the 1968 massacre as a turning point, revealing the PRI’s dictatorial and authoritarian hold on politics. As for the political leaders responsible for the massacre, they never faced charges; Díaz Ordaz died in 1979 (ironically, at the age of 68), and although Secretary of the Interior (and later, president from 1970-1976) Luís Echeverría was ordered to stand trial for his role in the massacre in 2006, a judge ruled in 2007 that there was not enough evidence to try Echeverría, who was responsible for the armed forces under Díaz Ordaz and who would oversee what came to be known as Mexico’s “Dirty War” in the early-1970s.
As for the games themselves, though the massacre could not prevent them from continuing, the most enduring image from the 1968 Olympics would cause its own controversy, as American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith held up their fists in the Black Power salute, acknowledging racial inequalities in the US. While critics blasted Carlos and Smith for “politicizing” the Olympics, the fact was that, from October 2 onward, the Olympics were already political.
As I was absent from blogging the past several days, a lot of worthwhile news came out of Latin America, so today will have two posts on news from around the region (the second will come later today).
-Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who governed the country from 1981-1982 and who was already on trial for genocide for the murder of over 1700 indigenous people during his rule, is now facing a second genocide charge after a judge ruled he could be tried for his role in the Dos Erres massacre.
-In what is an ongoing crisis, journalists suffered another difficult week last week, as a Mexican journalist was kidnapped and killed.
-Although Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate from the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party; PRI), has extended his lead in the polls heading into July’s election, not all Mexicans are thrilled with his rhetoric, policies, and party. Thousands of Mexican students took to the streets to protest against the return of the PRI, which governed the country under one moniker or another from 1928 until 2000 in what has come to be known as the “institutional dictatorship.”
-Amnesty International has called on Jamaica to investigate the possible violations of human rights for the armed forces’ actions during May 2010, when the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke.
-Last week, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Vice President Amado Boudou were out of the country, leaving the country with its first ever Jewish president for two days. Provisional president of the Senate Beatriz Rojkes assumed the office of president from Wednesday to Thursday.
-Activists in Guyana are mobilizing in order to pressure the government to repeal anti-sodomy and anti-cross-dressing laws in the Caribbean country.
-Back in 1997, while Alberto Fujimori was president, leftist guerrillas occupied the Japanese embassy and held hostages before Peruvian forces attacked and ended the situation. While the forces were lauded for their efforts at the time, new evidence suggests that the troops summarily executed some of the leftists, including a 17-year-old girl, after they had surrendered.
-As I’ve discussed before, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was a member of a leftist group that opposed the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, suffered torture under the regime. Now Rousseff, along with other victims of torture, has received an apology and will be provided with compensation for her suffering at the hands of the Brazilian military government in the 1970s, even while the recently-appointed Truth Commission begins its work on investigating the crimes of the past and the fates of victims.
-Former members of Haiti’s army and their supporters took to the streets last week to protest against the Haitian government’s orders that they disband. Forty-six people were arrested, including two US citizens who aided the military members.
-Is Argentina’s strengthening currency fueling the growth of the black market?
-The Brazilian Congress has passed a freedom of information act that may become an important step in governmental and bureaucratic transparency in a state that has often been opaque to legal activists, citizens, and scholars alike.
-Finally, Guatemala’s Volcán del Fuego began spewing ash and lava, leading to an increased alert level for those living near the 12,000+ foot tall volcano.
-Cuba’s Communist Party met this weekend, and in the closing speech, Raul Castro announced he will limit political terms, including his, to ten years.
-Miguel Nazar Haro, who headed Mexico’s spy agency during the “dirty war” that tortured, murdered, and “disappeared” Mexican leftists in the 1970s and 1980s, died at the age of 87 last week. Nazar Haro had been placed under house arrest in 2004 while authorities investigated Nazar Haro’s role in the “disappearance” of six farmers, but in 2006, a judge threw out all charges, putting a significant dent in then-president Vicente Fox’s efforts to investigate human rights abuses committed during the “institutional dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governed Mexico in one guise or another from 1929 to 2000 while often paying only perfunctory lip-service to democratic processes.
-A fire broke out at a Peruvian rehabilitation center, leaving at least twenty-seven people dead. The Christ Is Love treatment center was apparently not an authorized rehabilitation center, and early reports are that the doors of many of the rooms were locked from the outside, perhaps contributing to the number of fatalities.
-Uruguay’s government has agreed to pay US$513,000 to a woman who had been kidnapped and illegally adopted after her parents were tortured and killed during the military dictatorship. Uruguayan state agents murdered Macarena Gelman’s father in Argentina before kidnapping her mother (who was pregnant with Macarena), who was tortured and disappeared, shortly after giving birth. The kidnappings and murders took place under Operation Condor, a program in which South American dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil cooperated in torturing and murdering “subversives” from each other’s countries (with support from the U.S.). Like so many of her generation in Argentina, Gelman has only recently learned the true nature of her past and the fate of her parents.
-One of Brazil’s most-wanted drug lords was captured this weekend. Authorities arrested Fabiano Atanasio da Silva, who ran a drug gang in Rio de Janeiro and who had remained on the loose since his escape from prison in 2002, while he was vacationing in São Paulo state.
-The recently-excavated ruins of an Aztec school are now on exhibition in Mexico City. The school, which was built between the 1480s and 1500s, was found while workers were renovating another building. The Mexica (Aztec) empire had a complex school system that boys and girls attended, with one school system for nobles and another for commoners. Priests trained children of nobles to prepare them for the Nahua priesthood or to assume a high role in Mexica state, while at the commoners’ schools, laypersons trained children in practical subjects. The end result was an abundance of well-bred nobles, intellectuals, and others whose social role was considered vital for well-being of the kingdoms and peoples of the Mexica Empire in the 1400s-1500s.
-A Chilean police officer received a suspended sentence for his 2008 assault on a journalist. Cpl. Ivar Barria Alvarez had been found guilty of hitting a journalist who was covering a protest with a metal riding crop, leaving the journalyst partially blind.
-The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay turns 10 years old today, with no sign of closing or of the detainees receiving trial anytime soon.
-Mexican ex-president Ernesto Zedillo is facing charges of crimes against humanity for the murder of 45 unarmed indigenous people in southern Mexico in 1997. The charges argue that, as president of the country, Zedillo was responsible for the armed forces that armed paramilitary groups that indiscriminately targeted indigenous peoples in the state of Chiapas during attempts to violently quash the Zapatista movement in the 1990s Zedillo, the last president from the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), claims that he is immune from charges due to his status as a former president of a sovereign country.
-Speaking of the Zapatistas, the Christian Science Monitor has this interesting article providing a summary and initial analysis of possible reasons how the Zapatista movement has managed to avoid the sway of organized crime in Mexico.
-A day after Timochenko, one of the leaders of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla movement, proposed resuming peace talks with the government, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos rejected the offer, saying that the government would not talk with the movement until the rebels demonstrated an interest in “true” peace by releasing hostages and an ending violent acts.
-U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner was in South America this week, where he visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. However, Boehner betrayed a fatally-flawed understanding of the security issues facing favela residents (and poor reasoning) when he praised the militarization of the favelas as a model to integrate the marginalized into society more broadly on more equal footing. Greg put it best (and most succinctly) in explaining the problem:
He [Boehner] has it exactly backwards. The reason the Rousseff government, like Lula before, has to send troops into neighborhoods is because the inhabitants still are not being treated equally. I hope ”pacification” leads to equality of opportunity, but they are not synonymous. Let’s see after the Olympics and World Cup are over, and it’s no longer necessary to worry quite so much about what foreigners think.
-Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega was inaugurated to his third term (and second consecutive term) as president yesterday.
-Last month, reports came out that the U.S. had laundered millions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels. Documents released on Monday show that those reports were true, as DEA agents who had infiltrated drug cartels in Mexico allegedly attempted to learn how cartels were operating and to trace the international flow of drugs and money in the drug trade.
-Brazil has become the first country to use clean energy in the Antarctic, fueling a scientific research station with a generator that runs on ethanol,
-A video of a wealthy Mexican attacking a doorman in his apartment has further increased already-extant anger over class-based discrimination.
-The Guatemala Times has an excellent editorial that assesses the presidency of Álvaro Colom as he prepares to leave office and right-wing ex-general Otto Perez Molina prepares to be inaugurated. It’s a particularly remarkable editorial because it calls out the wealthy Guatemalan elites of the country for holding power in such a way that democracy in many ways is a facade and for dividing the country in a useless and outdated Cold War-style “us or them” mentality. Mike over at Central American Politics does a great job explaining just why this is a remarkable (and remarkably courageous) stand from the newspaper.
-For the first time in its history, Brazilian census data has found that a majority of Brazilians define themselves as black or mixed race. To be clear, this isn’t the first time Afro-descendants are the majority in Brazil’s history; they regularly outnumbered the Portuguese in the early colonial period as slavery took hold in the Northeast. And certainly, census data has its own problems in terms of how categories are created and defined, how people identify (or are identified), and other issues. Still, this is a big story if for no other reason than this marks the first time that a majority of Brazilians have been comfortable acknowledging their own status as at least partly Afro-Brazilian at the personal level.
-Lillie has an excellent roundup on the immediate impact of Uruguay’s recent decision to revoke the amnesty law from it’s military dictatorship of 1975-1983. Reports and cases have already been filed for hundreds of victims, hopefully allowing them to begin proceedings against their torturers and against those who murdered their loved ones and ultimately bringing at least some small degree of closure to those who suffered for decades.
-This blog has focused heavily on the 20th-century military dictatorships of countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Peru, but they were not the only countries who violated human rights. Mexico [whose Institutional Revolutionary Party scholars now consider a "party dictatorship"] had its own share of repressive violence, most notably in the 1968 Massacre in Tlatelolco. That was not the only example of state-sponsored violence and tactics common to Latin American dictatorships, however, as many opponents to the government also were “disappeared” in this period, including folk singer Rosendo Radilla, who sympathized with guerrilla movements. Radilla was last seen at an army checkpoint in 1974, and his fate remains unknown to this day. This week, the Mexican government apologized for his disappearance.
-Speaking of violence in Mexico, Human Rights Watch has issued its findings on human rights abuses in Mexico’s drug wars. Suffice to say, the results are not good; among other things, formal abuse complaints increased from 691 between 2003-2006 to 4803 between 2007-2010.
-Brazilian officials are defending themselves against accusations that their recent invasion of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, was a media spectacle and little else. Meanwhile, the always-outstanding Rio Real has excellent photos and a write-up on the invasion itself, its execution, and implications for what it means going forward.
-Peru’s Vice President, Omar Chehade, has stepped down over allegations of corruption.
-Students in Colombia have ended their month-long strike over educational reforms after Congress withdrew the educational reform legislation that had spurred the protests.
-Also in Colombia, the government continues its efforts to completely and finally dismantle the FARC by launching an ad campaign designed to target child-soldiers in the FARC (as well as those thinking of joining the guerrilla movement).
-Brazil has granted residency to a Brazilian citizen’s spouse. While this happens on a daily basis, this particular event is notable in that it is the first time it has granted residency to a same-sex couple, making Brazil one of the most open and accepting countries in the Western hemisphere in terms of legal rights for same-sex couples.
-Facing economic turmoil at home and throughout Europe, some Spaniards are again migrating to Argentina. Although nowhere near the size of the immigration wave to Argentina that took place in the late-19th and early-20th century, over 24,000 Spaniards migrated to Argentina in 2010 alone.
-Outgoing Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom has authorized the extradition of former president Alfonso Portillo to the United States over charges of money-laundering. Portillo, who served from 2000-2004, is accused of laundering over $70 million during his time in office, charges he denies. Colom is leaving office after the recent election of conservative ex-general Otto Perez Molina.
-A São Paulo man can now add ”getting drunk and then invading the pen of spider monkeys” to the list of things that aren’t a good idea.
-Finally, it is no secret that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of the seminal band Sonic Youth are separating, throwing the future of the band (in its thirtieth year) into doubt, and they may have played their last show in São Paulo. You can watch the show in its entirety here.