Mexico, October 2, 1968: The Night of Tlatelolco; the Death of the Student Movement
Ernesto Páramo – Tlaxcala
The events of the night of Tlatelolco are still concealed, 40 years later, by a cold, dense fog that obscures the identity of a multitude of secondary actors, who nevertheless played important roles in the tragedy. The main actors who took the decisions and had direct responsibility for the events that led to the slaughter were: the President of the Republic, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz; the Interior Secretary, Luis Echeverría Álvarez, the President’s Chief of Staff, Luis Gutiérrez Oropeza, the commander of the military operation in Tlatelolco, General José Herández Toledo, and the commander of the Olympia Battalion, Colonel Ernesto Gutiérrez Gomes Tagle, among others, along with those who dedicated themselves to sowing confusion as a strategy of disinformation in the days that followed the slaughter. All have remained beyond the reach of law and justice.
However, the blood of the young people and the tears of the adults are still fresh and painful.
The massive marches of more than 700,000 or 800,000 students, workers, housewives, and office workers that took more than three or four hours to arrive at the Zócalo from the Anthropology Museum, are still present and fresh in the memory of those who participated actively and those who formed a silent cordon along their path, to watch them march and lend their support.
It’s true that the National Strike Council was not dissolved until December 4th in a meeting at Zacatenco. However, it’s also true that after the night of October 2nd, and the massacre at Tlatelolco, with hundreds of students and spectators killed, thousands locked up in prisons and military camps or victims of persecution by the state and its repressive forces, the student movement really ceased to exist. Apart from isolated attempts at protest, during the Opening Ceremony of the 19th Olympic Games, which were rapidly and brutally suppressed, the movement practically disappeared.
There are two versions, apparently contradictory, of the events of the night of October 2nd, and they depend principally on the place in which the observers could be found, the time in which they made their reports, and their personal interpretation under circumstances of extreme danger.
A public meeting was held with an announced starting time of 5 p.m., at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in which a great variety of people could be found: fathers with small children, students, workers, laborers. The speakers demanded in an agitated verbal tone that the violent repression exercised by the different police forces cease, when suddenly the sound of automatic weapons could be heard, from an uncertain direction.
People began to run, trying to escape in a blind panic, which left many injured.
During these chaotic moments, snipers situated in the buildings of the Tlatelolco Housing Unit began to shoot against the army units that found themselves there. The time: 6:10 p.m. The battle generally continued that way, with the sound of machine-gun bursts interrupted by long periods of silence, and after the silence, the bursts again.
The majority of the shots against the Army came from the 16 de Septiembre building: the Army responded by using two tanks that shot with their cannons toward the building. This resulted immediately in a fire and an unknown number of victims that must have been very large.
Theatrical re-creation staged in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in Tlatelolco, on October 2nd, 2006, of the tragedy of October 2nd, 1968 – Photo by Roberto García, La Jornada
Very soon, there were a number of telephone calls made to the Red Cross and Green Cross, to attend to the victims and bring them to the clinics and hospitals that might offer medical aid. Ambulances made countless trips throughout the night, carrying the wounded.
In these moments a large number of wounded could be seen, but no dead. The rumor began to circulate that there were two dead soldiers.
Although the battle took place throughout the entire housing unit, at 7:30 p.m. only two burned trucks could be seen.
Many onlookers who found themselves at the scene were wounded by gunfire.
As said previously, there are various versions of the events and how the shooting began. At 7:40 p.m., two of them began to circulate.
The first said that three helicopters were flying over the site, when suddenly one of them dropped a green light, which was assumed to be the signal for the Army to begin its attack.
The second said that a police patrol passed in front of the 16 de Septiembre building, when it was attacked with firearms, and witnesses insisted that members of the mounted police began to shoot against the inhabitants of the building. Immediately afterward, the Army arrived with its tanks, opening fire with its cannons and provoking a fire that spread rapidly.
The speakers made a desperate attempt to control such a violent situation, asking those in attendance not to do anything that would provoke a reaction from the army or the police.
A helicopter descended low over the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where the rally was taking place, and dropped a green light. Immediately the gunfire began and the army initiated its operations.
At 7:15 p.m., the violence reached the most ferocious point. The gunfire ran from Manuel González street on the north, to Sol street, which included the entire Tlatelolco Housing Unit.
Groups of infantry spread everywhere, chasing the students and shooting to kill.
At 7:15 p.m., a white Volkswagen sped through Manuel González street at high velocity, slowed for a few moments at Glorieta Peralvillo, shot at the soldiers a number of times, and escaped.
At 7:45 p.m. at the intersection of Prolongación de San Juan de Letrán and Sol streets, around a hundred students gathered, and a speaker exhorted them through a megaphone to remain united and not fear death.
Suddenly a white paneled truck arrived and parked. All the young people dispersed toward the south.
In the streets of Zarco and Nonoalco, a bus from the San Rafael-Aviación line could be seen, destroyed. At Guerrero and Nonoalco another, from the Guerrero-San Lázaro line, in flames. At Lerdo and Nonoalco, one from the Paralvillo-Tlanepantla line, also in ruins.
At 8 p.m., there were harrowing scenes of fathers searching for their children in the vicinity.
At the Foreign Affairs building, a woman carrying a three year old girl could be seen; she took a few steps and fainted.
At 8:19 p.m., the Army entered the Plaza de las Tres Culturas en masse, with various light combat cars and a great number of soldiers. At the same time, approximately 100 students were taken as prisoners to San Juan de Letrán, in 18 military transport vehicles.
For more than 30 years, the Federal Government has denied the existence of the arrested and missing in the Number One Military Camp, however, official documents from the Attorney General of the Republic and the defunct Federal Security Directorate on the repression of October 2, 1968, found in the National General Archive, contradict the versions that have prevailed for more than three decades.
After the Army entered the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a great number of dead could be seen. Some of whom began to pile up, bodies on top of bodies.
At 8:45 p.m., a fire began in the Chihuahua building where the Army concentrated its fire, because it believed that the members of the National Strike Council could be found there.
Someone said that there were 17 dead in the courtyard of the Santiago Church.
The Army had captured and taken prisoner 400 students in the area behind the Foreign Affairs building.
More army reinforcements arrived; infantry and other police forces from the Nonoalco Unit. At the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a military ambulance took away two girls. It is not known if they were seriously wounded.
Between San Juan de Letrán and Tacuba streets a burning tram could be seen. Between San Juan de Letrán and 16 de Septiembre, a sanitation truck was consumed by fire.
A witness recalled the arrival of the Olympia Brigade, made up of special agents, many of them so young that they could easily have been confused with the students and who could only be identified by a white glove on their left hands. These soldiers entered all the apartments in the buildings in search of students, weapons, or witnesses to the atrocities.
It was a Dantesque situation, with many fathers, mothers, siblings and other family members searching for their loved ones. They would go from place to place, asking for and trying to find them. They were filled with panic when they realized that some of the buildings had been riddled by automatic weapons by the Army, or that the infantry had shot students in the back.
The other version of the beginning of the massacre says that the rally was almost over when a group of young men who looked like students could be seen passing by. They went to the Chihuahua building, toward a balcony used by the speakers. This group was part of the Olympia Brigade, a special police unit made up of soldiers, judicial police and others. They wore white gloves on their left hands to identify themselves.
They entered the building and arrived at the balcony where the leaders of the student movement were, tried to arrest them, and were resisted; so the members of the Olympia Brigade began to shoot when they saw the green light launched from the helicopter that had descended so low. From the Chihuahua building they shot in all directions.
In the area behind the Tlatelolco church, there were more than a thousand students arrested by the Army. Near an elevator bank inside the Chihuahua building 60 students found themselves stripped to their underwear, with their faces toward the wall and hands on their neck.
At around midnight, some 1,200 detainees could be seen in the eastern part of the Tlatelolco Church. Among them, students, fathers and mothers, laborers, office workers and even children. On all sides, dreadful scenes. Desperate cries of anguish could be heard and in the darkness, people could be seen searching, frequently in vain, for their missing family members.
A number of snipers who attacked the army forces from the Tlatelolco buildings perished or suffered serious injuries. At least two were identified as members of the army.
As always in Latin America, when there is any kind of political disaster or social tragedy, the CIA can be found hidden very nearby, in some hole or other, or in Mexico’s case, in the offices of the nation’s highest leaders.
According to documents recently declassified by the United States government, obtained by Jefferson Morley and examined by Kate Doyle at the National Security Archive, in 1956, the CIA began a program to recruit high officials of the Mexican government, and in Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and Luis Echeverría Álvarez, it had two very high value agents.
Díaz Ordaz, Echeverría and Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios were recruited by Winston Scott, who was Chief of Station in Mexico between 1956 and 1969, as part of the program called Litempo, which was so hugely successful that it was considered to be a model for other CIA stations.
However, the program ended up being absorbed by its creator, Morley said in summary, noting that the reports on the 1968 student movement only reflected the point of view that the government of Díaz Ordaz wanted to present and that according to various reports (the CIA sent at least 15 different and contradictory versions of the events at Tlatelolco) the Mexican government was fighting against a communist threat with foreign roots.
At the end of 1968, sources close to the presidency of Díaz Ordaz accepted without reservation that no-one had the least idea how to resolve the problems of the student movement without endangering the Olympic games, and Díaz Ordaz called Winston Scott so frequently during the most difficult moments of the conflict, to ask for advice and assistance, that the Chief of Station left for the United States in order to cut off communication between them.
The Litempo codename was made up of the prefix Li, which identified Mexican operations and Tempo, which identified the program of relations between the CIA and “select high government officials” in Mexico.
Díaz Ordaz was Litempo 2, Echeverría was Litempo 8 and Gutiérrez Barrios was Litempo 4.
Litempo 1 was Emilio Bolaños, a nephew of Díaz Ordaz who was possibly the conduit by which the CIA made contact with the president, while he was Interior Secretary.
The document says that the CIA-Mexico informed the U.S. government that the Mexican government reported that the student movement was led by communists and that it was under foreign influence (coming from the Soviet Union) but that the reports were a bit exaggerated.
Like many Mexicans, the officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City were not prepared to see the strength in the student movement and the violence unleashed by the government of Díaz Ordaz in response. The reports that came out of the Embassy were often confused throughout the crisis, possibly because the CIA officials had much closer relations with Mexican politicians than did members of other agencies and were more inclined to believe their political propaganda. For one thing, the Embassy had a lot of confidence in the hegemony of the regime. For another, U.S. officials never thought that the students would be capable of mounting a serious challenge to the government.
In response to the May student protests in Paris, Washington asked the Embassy to prepare a report on the Mexican studentbody, but they failed to predict the hurricane that was coming. On June 14th, some five weeks before the first confrontation between the students and security forces, the Embassy predicted with total confidence that it was impossible for anything like what had happened in France, to happen in Mexico.
It’s also interesting to note that a box found in Gallery Two of the National General Archive, deposited in the governing fund, contains telegrams sent to the President of the Nation in the days that followed October 2, 1968, by politicians, businessmen and leaders of organizations allied with the regime throughout the country.
In the middle of hundreds of papers one can be found, dated October 23, 1968, from Buenos Aires; its message brief: “Let’s pray that our adhesion to México is achieved.” This message was directed to Luis Echeverría and is signed by José Luis Borges, Manuel Peyrou and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Years later, Borges would confirm beyond any doubt, his fascist vocation and affinities, when he accepted honors for his literary work, bestowed by members of the Pinochet military junta in Chile.
The box of telegrams is preceded by another which contains the agreements that Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría made during the month of October, 1968. However, one can be found that has nothing to do with those. This was sent by Winston Scott, CIA Chief of Station in Mexico, on July 19, 1965, with an invitation to Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios to select two agents from the Federal Security Agency so that on “September 15th” they might travel to the United States to “receive four months of training.”
Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.
Video on YouTube: Testimonies from The Night of Tlatelolco – an Oral History (Spanish)