For decades, the events of October 2 had been virtually unknown in Mexico itself thanks to the regime’s heavy censorship, until the early 1990s, when a “democratic” opening allowed the topic to be discussed publicly. Nevertheless, in much of the world, despite the spread of the internet and social media, these events remain largely unknown.
The massacre of October 2 is a turning point in Mexican history, one that shaped the country’s political landscape ever after, for better or worse. But one thing few people point out is that this all stemmed from an allegedly “anti-fascist” law.
How a “Revolutionary” Capitalist Party Came to Be
In 1910, Mexico experienced a revolutionary upheaval that toppled dictator Porfirio Díaz. Díaz, who had grown up amid a 19th century full of political instability, saw Mexico suffer coups d’état, civil wars between liberals and conservatives, two French invasions, and an invasion by the U.S. that stripped Mexico of half its territory; Díaz was a military veteran who had fought the French in the Battle of Puebla. Because of this, he came to power with the aim of stabilizing the country.
And stabilize and pacify he did, at the expense of the masses, that is. He allowed foreign investments from U.S. and French capitalists, while the vast majority of the population remained illiterate and suffered from capitalist exploitation in the form of haciendas and agricultural exportations. They were also massacred by Díaz’s army — as happened during the Tomochic uprising in Chihuahua and the strikes in Cananea and Río Blanco, where U.S. Arizona rangers helped repress the workers. The growing discontent came to a breaking point when, in 1910, after celebrating the centennial of Mexican independence, Díaz ran for president yet again (adding a total of 30 years to his administration) after jailing his opponent Francisco Ignacio Madero, who ran an anti-reelection campaign promising political reforms.
Madero’s arrest triggered the Mexican Revolution, which began November 20 of that year after Madero gave his rallying call, known as the Plan of San Luis Potosí. Even though Madero had overthrown Díaz and had been elected, Madero could not satisfy the needs of the masses, since his only position was changing the presidency, not the Porfirian (capitalist) structure that Díaz had built. Madero was ousted and killed in a coup organized by the U.S. and carried out by Díaz’s generals: his nephew Felix and Gen. Victoriano Huerta, in an event that came to be known as the Ten Tragic Days (Decena Trágica). Huerta’s men faced troops loyal to Madero both in the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square) and the “Citadel.”
The civil war ensued, and the revolutionary forces rallied to oust Huerta, but they were unable to decide which course the country should take. They were divided between the Conventionalists and Constitutionalists. The Conventionalists, headed by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, were the left wing of the revolution and were composed mostly of rural peasants; they supported the Aguascalientes Convention that had met in that city in 1914. On the other side were the Constitutionalists, who were headed by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón, who were mostly heading a capitalist project that ended up being victorious. They proclaimed the 1917 Constitution, which is still official in Mexico and was celebrated as the first “social” (not socialist) constitution in the world, even inspiring Max Weber when he wrote the Weimar Constitution a few years later.
We explain these events because the Mexican Revolution is one of the reasons for the creation, years later, of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR). The PNR from its beginnings was always a bourgeois nationalist party that used revolutionary rhetoric but maintained capitalist exploitation in no small part thanks to, as historian Adolfo Gilly explains, “interrupting the revolution.”
One of its main ideologues throughout the 20th century, Jesús Reyes Heroles, taught that there was continuity between the Juárez liberalism of the 1860s, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and modern times. But this “continuity” could only be explained by erasing the fact that the modern Mexican state arose thanks to the defeat of the conventionalists as the radical wing of the revolution.
How an Anti-fascist Law Was Used to Attack the Left
In 1934, Lázaro Cárdenas became president, and four years later he restructured the PNR into the Mexican Revolutionary Party (PRM), chaining the trade unions into the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM) as the official PRM worker wing. He also had progressive stances amid international instability: he accepted giving asylum to Leon Trotsky, nationalized the oil industry, created the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) to train engineers for the ensuing oil embargo, and sent support to the Spanish Republic during the civil war. But Mexican capitalism can only tolerate so much, so for the 1940 elections, Cárdenas appointed Gen. Manuel Ávila Camacho, a Catholic conservative, as his successor.
Ávila Camacho won through fraud and by threatening voters with armed gangs, among other things. But the year is key: at that time, the world was already at war with Hitler’s Nazi hordes invading France, Belgium, and Poland. During Cárdenas’s administration, Mexico had created what would be known as the Estrada Doctrine, a new doctrine in international relations that put forth the self-determination of nations and accepting the will of the people even if they overthrow their governments in a revolution. The Estrada Doctrine is also why Mexico was the only nation to protest the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the German Anschluss.
Mexico’s neutrality, however, would end in 1942, when two Mexican oil tankers were sunk by German U-boats. Ávila Camacho declared war on the Axis powers and sent the newly created Mexican Expeditionary Air Force, with its 201st fighter squadron, to fight in the Philippines. The 201st, whose mascot was Disney’s Mexican member of the “Three Caballeros,” Pancho Pistolas, was the first and only time the Mexican Army has fought on foreign soil.
Despite this, the end of neutrality came with a catch: the approval of an anti-fascist law. To stop the spread of fascism in Mexico, represented by the “golden shirts” and the Mexican Synarchist Union, Ávila Camacho approved Articles 145 and 145b of the Mexican Penal Code, which forbid the crime of “social dissolution,” which was defined as anything from foreign origin that could lead to the dissolution of society and the government, sanctioning imprisonment of anyone attending meetings of three or more people deemed to threaten public order. Although initially targeting fascists, this law was quickly used against the Left.
In 1946 the PRM changed its name to its current one: Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This is why that party, which ended up governing Mexico for 70 years straight, has its weird and contradictory name. Its “revolutionary” part stems from the 1910 revolution, but its “institutional” part stems from claiming that no further revolutions were needed, because the party itself would be the changing factor. This nice rhetoric in reality translated to the PRI co-opting every movement and leader that dared to question their regime, even going as far as to murder people. As Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa described it in 1990: the PRI was “the perfect dictatorship.”
“Social Dissolution” as an Excuse to Attack the Workers and Students
Leon Trotsky, discussing the freedom of press, pointed out decades earlier: “Theory, as well as historic experience, testify that any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society, is eventually directed against the proletariat, just as taxes eventually fall on the shoulders of the proletariat.”
From the 1940s to the 1960s, the crime of social dissolution was the Mexican regime’s go-to excuse for repressing discontent both left and right. It was used against workers on the 1952 May Day celebrations, against supporters of candidate Miguel Henríquez that same year, and against striking Polytechnic students in 1956.
But the key movement that would shape the youth of the decade would be the 1958 railroad strike. Headed by members of the Communist Party, Demetrio Vallejo and Valentín Campa, workers went on strike demanding better wages and democracy in their unions (most unions were headed by the PRI).
Thanks to the crime of “social dissolution,” Campa and Vallejo were jailed, like many political prisoners before them, in a high-security prison built during Díaz’s dictatorship: the Lecumberri jail, known popularly as the “Black Palace of Lecumberri.” Slowly but surely, the vanguard began to see the articles that described the crime of “social dissolution,” articles 145 and 145b, as the main enemy.
Through the 1960s, the PRI kept repressing social discontent. They murdered the peasant leader Rubén Jaramillo (who had fought alongside Zapata during the revolution) and his family, repressed civic associations in the state of Guerrero, and targeted the health workers’ strike of 1964.
The 1960s were also marked by three key men who were to become presidents: Adolfo López Mateos (1958–64), Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–70), and his subordinate Luis Echeverría (1970–76). Díaz Ordaz was López Mateos’s secretary of interior and Echeverría became Díaz Ordaz’s when he was elected president. All three ordered these repressions acting as president or secretary of interior. The secretary of the interior, moreover, was the head of the police as well as the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), the secret police, headed by Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, a well-known torturer and murderer of dissidents, personal friend of Fidel Castro, and, like Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría, a CIA agent.
In 1966 and 1967, students in Michoacán and Sonora occupied their universities demanding democracy in their schools, stopping transport fees and the imposition of PRI politicians. The response by Díaz Ordaz was to send in the army, as he had done against the healthcare workers years earlier, and to order them to occupy the universities. The situation was reaching a breaking point.
How a Soccer Game Unleashed Students’ Anger
On July 22, 1968, students from two schools held a soccer game in the street. At the time the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) had its version of high schools, known as vocational schools, while the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) had its National High School System. That day, students from the IPN’s Vocationals 2 and 5 were playing students from a private high school linked to the UNAM, the Isaac Ochoterena Institute, near the “Citadel,” where the Ten Tragic Days had occurred 55 years earlier. But the match soon became a street fight.
The next day, porros agitated students and called to throw stones at the Ochoterena Institute, while the Ochoterena students decided to face the vocational students in a street fight. The riot cops were called in, however, and instead of simply stopping the quarreling students, they entered Vocationals 2 and 5, beating students and professors alike.
This escalation was seen as inadmissible by the IPN students, who organized a demonstration on July 26, coinciding with the yearly protest in solidarity with Cuba by the Communist Party. Both demonstrations joined and soon decided to try and reach the Zócalo, which was at the time considered only for pro-government demonstrations. Provocateurs threw stones at the police, and riot cops gassed and attacked students and passerby alike, even attacking students of the nearby Highschool 1 of the UNAM.
The constant attacks by police were met with anger by larger sections of the youth. The students of Highschool 1, on their part, had to barricade themselves inside the colonial building of the old San Ildefonso College. By July 30, the clashes with police became too much, and Díaz Ordaz once again called on the army, which decided to blast the ancient 18th-century door with a bazooka strike, likely killing students who were blocking the other side.
The “bazooka strike” against Highschool 1 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Soon, schools went on strike in Mexico City and across the country against police brutality, in support of the freedom of political prisoners (not only Vallejo, Campa, and the railroad leaders, but also every jailed student and teacher from July 23 onward), and demanding the army’s exit from the schools.
The UNAM president, Javier Barros Sierra, headed a massive demonstration of students protesting freedom for their jailed colleagues. These events marked a turning point: for most of their history, the IPN and UNAM had a strong rivalry, especially during sports matches. In these events, the aforementioned porros, through their cheer squads (hence their nickname), instigated violence among the students and were used by the government to spy on left-wing activists and repress them if needed.
The UNAM-IPN demonstration of August 1st, with Barros Sierra at the head, was the first time many university and Polytechnic students marched side by side. The porro-induced rivalry was forever to be broken within the student movement. At the same time, the government was in a race against time to try to keep a low profile for the upcoming Olympic Games; Díaz Ordaz had a tight schedule in order to inaugurate the Sports Palace, the Olympic Village, the Olympic Pool and Gym, the Velodrome, the canoeing water canal, etc.
For much of August 1968, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful and an expression of youth creativity, artistic freedom, and true color parades. On August 2, the National Strike Council (CNH), the main organ of the movement, was formed. It demanded the following:
Repeal of Articles 145 and 145b of the Penal Code.
The abolition of granaderos (riot police corps).
Freedom for political prisoners.
The identification of officials responsible for previous bloodshed (including July and August rallies).
Payments to those injured in protests and to families of deceased students.
The dismissal of the two most important police officials in Mexico City: the chief of police, Gen. Luis Cueto; his deputy, Gen. Raúl Mendiolea; and the riot police commander, Col. Armando Frías
On August 13, students finally reached the Zócalo, something that just months earlier would have been unthinkable, and the attendees publicly insulted the president, shouting “Sal al balcón hocicón” (Come out to the [presidential] balcony, you bigmouthed bastard,” a reference to Díaz Ordaz’s misshapen mouth). Days later, the CNH organized music festivals and peaceful rallies. It also had lots of “brigades” with students making “lighting rallies” in markets and popular squares to explain to the population why they were protesting, especially since the government had unleashed a slander campaign, falsely accusing the youth of being communist and backed by China, Cuba, and the USSR. They also took to the streets without asking for permits, since previous movements had done so only for the government to cancel their permits minutes before the actions were to take place, hence the phrase of the time, “winning the streets.”
“Everything Has Its Limit”: Díaz Ordaz Sends in the Army
Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, the students were galvanizing broader sectors of the population. Leon Trotsky, in 1930, wrote a letter to the magazine Against the Current in Spain, in which he correctly pointed out that
when the bourgeoisie consciously and stubbornly refuses to take upon itself the solution of the tasks flowing from the crisis in bourgeois society; when the proletariat appears to be still unprepared to undertake the solution of these tasks itself, then the proscenium is often occupied by the students.
The Mexican students occupied the proscenium by using radical democratic demands to ally themselves with sectors of the working class. Not only their teachers but peasants, healthcare workers (mostly veterans of the 1964 movement), oil, telephone and electricity workers.
On August 27, hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and workers gathered outside the Anthropology Museum and marched to the Zócalo. It was nightfall when the square was filled, yet witnesses claim that there were still contingents gathering outside the museum. In their speeches, students called for a public dialogue with the government to prevent backroom deals, as the PRI had done years earlier to co-opt student movements. Although this was a just demand, it was used to call the masses that day to have a sit-in until the presidential state of the union address to hold the public dialogue.
This was seen as intolerable by the government, and in the early morning, they evacuated the Zócalo with tankettes and army troops. Some students, however, had put a red-and-black strike banner on the Zócalo’s flagpole. This angered the government, which called on its bureaucracy, including the trade unions, to hold a rally the next day to “amend” the offense to the “national flagpole.” Yet the celebration was not to last: rank-and-file workers, sick of their union bureaucrats, booed and threw their thick silver peso coins at the speakers; at the same time, student contingents arrived to show solidarity, turning the pro-government act against them.
This angered Díaz Ordaz, who ordered the army to evacuate the Zócalo yet again with riot police and army tankettes. Pictures of that day still circulate to this day, falsely associating the massacre that would unfold a month later with the evacuation of the Zócalo. Likewise, provocateurs and government snipers atop the Supreme Court building fired at the crowds.
On September 1, Díaz Ordaz held his presidential state of the union address. At the time, that day was regarded as “Day of the President,” and a parade was held in honor of every president to accompany them to the Congress to deliver their speech.
That day, Díaz Ordaz took a firm stance against the students:
The dilemma is, therefore, irreducible: Should the police intervene or not? We have reached libertarianism in the use of all means of expression or dissemination; we have enjoyed very broad freedoms and guarantees to hold demonstrations, ordered in certain aspects, but contrary to the express text of Article 9 of the Constitution. We have been tolerant up to criticized excesses, but everything has a limit and we can no longer —
At this point, Díaz Ordaz was interrupted by a round of applause by the Congress, monopolized by the PRI. He continued:
We can no longer allow the legal order to continue to be irredeemably broken, as in the eyes of the world has been happening. Having exhausted the means that good judgment and experience advise, I shall exercise, whenever strictly necessary, the power contained in Article 89, section VI of the Constitution.
With these words, Díaz Ordaz meant that, since the student protests became too “unruly,” he would not hesitate to use the army. From that point onward, it was common to see heavy police and army units through the streets of Mexico. Schools were systematically attacked and fired on by government provocateurs from the secret police, the DFS.
A week later, students gathered at the Tlatelolco Housing Unit to answer the president. Tlatelolco, where 400 years earlier the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc had his last stand, was now a modern housing unit with green areas, fountains, schools, small shops and tall apartment buildings, as well as the offices of the Foreign Relations Secretariat, where the Treaty of Tlatelolco, banning the use of nuclear weapons in Latin America, was signed the previous year; while not exactly the “jewel of the crown” to be presented to the international community in the Olympic Games, Tlatelolco was nonetheless a modern neighborhood in Mexico’s mid-20th century vision of development. The Aztec ruins, combined with the nearby church of Santiago, give the square its name: the Plaza of the Three Cultures, due to the coexistence of the Aztec, Spanish colonial, and modern Mexican cultures and buildings. Next to it sat the IPN’s Vocational 7.
On the square, thousands of students, parents, workers, Tlatelolco neighbors and teachers listened to the CNH’s reply to the government; the CNH would hold its speakers on the third floor balcony of the Chihuahua building overlooking the plaza. High school student Consuelo Hernández Méndez read the document: “Colleagues, students, teachers, people in general, Mr. President.” At that moment she was interrupted by disapproving whistles from the crowd.
We have been slandered for more than a month, being blamed for events we had nothing to do with. […] We heard the fourth state of the union on September 1, a state of the union lacking political willingness to listen to us, slandering us and proposing crumbs thinking we would fall in their trap. They tried to tangle us in sensationalist and cheap arguments. We have never intended to interrupt the Olympic Games. If they were to be canceled, the blame would fall not on the CNH, but entirely on the government for being unwilling to resolve the issue. […] The people are offended, but not because of us as students, our demands, or our just struggle. […] Answering the president’s question in whether the police should intervene or not, it is clear that police agencies must disappear, since everyone has seen every demonstration has been peaceful until the police come. […] Let us make a deal: you give us half of the mass media, including radio, press, and TV, and we shall exchange it for our speakers, microphones, and mimeographs.
On September 13, another demonstration was held. That day commemorates the Mexican American war and the “Niños Héroes” (child heroes), teenage cadets who defended the Chapultepec Castle from the onslaught of U.S. troops invading Mexico. The government used the opportunity to appeal to the youth to “be like the Niños Héroes” and cease their unruliness. On the other hand, the students marched from the Anthropology Museum to the Zócalo once more, but this time quietly. Inspired by an action in Catalonia in 1964, student leader Marcelino Perelló Vals, son of Spanish republican Marcelino Perelló Domingo, proposed a “silent march” to prove that students were not unruly, but disciplined and open to dialogue. Thousands marched, some even with their mouths gagged with tape.
On September 15, the students held an independent “student cry” in the UNAM campus, as opposed to the official “independence cry” (grito de independencia) held by Díaz Ordaz in the Zócalo. But three days later, the UNAM campus was occupied by the army; the usual late arrival from the student leaders is what saved most of them from being arrested by the army. Some days later still, on September 23, after violent clashes in which dozens of students were killed, the army and riot police occupied the Polytechnic schools. Hundreds of youth were arrested in both events.
The Night of Tlatelolco
One of the key actors in the military occupations of the UNAM and Polytechnic campuses was the so-called Olympia Battalion. This was an elite group of soldiers from several military fields specially selected to protect the Olympic Games, but in the heat of the student protests, their role was changed by the government to become a shock group to infiltrate the students and act as provocateurs and spies, and to assist soldiers and police with identifying the leaders. Their members wore white gloves or white handkerchiefs tied to their left hands.
On October 2, a rally was scheduled once again on the Tlatelolco Housing Unit; initially it would be a march from Tlatelolco to the IPN campuses to demand the army’s exit, but the students refrained because it was so dangerous. They decided instead to simply hold a meeting. At the same time, the government staged a false flag operation. Agents from the Olympia Battalion and from the DFS dressed in plain clothes fired on the crowd while the army tried to disperse the protesters. This would make it seem as if the CNH was firing at the soldiers and justify their mass detention.
At around 6 p.m., the rally was interrupted when two helicopters shot green (and later) red flares. The students gawked at the lights in confusion, but Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was present, warned the students, “Look! Flares! This means an attack is imminent.” The students replied, “Gee, you look at everything as if you’re still in Vietnam,” but as soon as these words were uttered, shots were fired at the crowd.
The student leaders tried to calm the protesters saying they were firing blanks, but soon it became evident that it was live ammunition. The Tlatelolco neighbors opened up their apartments to shelter the fleeing protesters; at the same time, the Olympia Battalion emerged from occupied apartments in the third floor of the Chihuahua building (where the speakers were set) and held the student leaders at gunpoint while firing at protesters and soldiers alike.
Members of the Olympia Battalion, with white gloves on their left hands, hold the CNH members at gunpoint on the third-floor balcony of the Chihuahua building, October 2, 1968.
The ensuing shoot-out lasted for about an hour with hundreds killed or wounded. Later still in the night, a second shoot-out unfolded. Once calm was reestablished, the army moved into the surrounding buildings of the Plaza and arrested every student or sheltered worker and neighbor suspected of firing at the soldiers. Over 1,000 people were arrested; students were beaten and stripped, ordered to put their hands up against the Chihuahua’s elevator shaft. Journalists, on the other hand, were detained in separate apartments and had their film, audio tapes, and picture reels confiscated; photographers like Charles Courière, Fernand Choisel, and John Rodda all testify the same; Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was shot in the back and taken to a nearby hospital, while her translator, an opera student from the National Conservatory, was taken to the Military Field along with thousands of his colleagues and forced to sign a false confession blaming Fallaci as a provocateur.
Thousands of students, workers, peasants, and teachers were sent to several jails in Mexico City; some were taken to the infamous Black Palace of Lecumberri, while others were sent to Military Field no. 1. They endured physical and psychological torture at the hands of the DFS and Gutiérrez Barrios’s thugs; they were beaten or forced to listen to recordings of women wailing (being told it was their mothers or girlfriends). The torture techniques that were to be used by the Latin American dictatorships during Operation Condor were first tested in Mexico. Infiltrated agents denounced the leaders as part of a communist plot and identified fake weapon stashes as “evidence” of that.
Left: Detained students were frisked and stripped on the Chihuahua’s elevator shaft; right: student leader Florencio López Osuna “Skinny Osuna” after being beat by the army, October 2, 1968
The Tlatelolco Massacre was the final blow to the student movement. Ten days later, Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the Olympic Games, cynically dubbed the “Peace Olympics.” The CNH, lacking its most radical members, had as their only free leaders the members of the Communist Party (Stalinists all), who promptly began to pressure the assemblies into voting to end the strike. In Lecumberri, radical members of the Communist Party, seeing this treason, signed an open letter calling on their comrades to abandon its ranks. The strike would be finally lifted in December 1968, with the remaining students having low morale due to the October 2 massacre.
It is unknown how many people died that day. According to British journalist John Rodda, the number could be as high as 270; the Mexican government for years claimed it was about 20. Díaz Ordaz assumed responsibility for the slaughter, but by the end of his administration, he decided to repeal the controversial Articles 145 and 145b of the Penal Code. For all the duration of the student protests, Díaz Ordaz was convinced that there was a communist plot against Mexico and urged the CIA to help him, but the men in Washington, having found no evidence for his paranoid ramblings, saw there was little they could do; his successor, Luis Echeverría, carried on his legacy of repression. During his government, another massacre unfolded just six months after taking office. If you watched the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuarón on Netflix, you might have seen a re-creation of this massacre, the Corpus Christi Massacre. The perpetrators of both massacres, material and intellectual, were never charged with a crime.
Díaz Ordaz died of colon cancer in 1978; Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, head of the DFS, died in 2002 after being governor of Veracruz, senator, and secretary of interior; Fidel Castro attended his funeral and called him an “exemplary Mexican”; Echeverría died only recently, unfortunately living for 100 years and being the oldest Mexican president ever. The student leaders, for their part, have insisted on their innocence for decades and blame the government. Today, the truth is out, and it is easy to see that indeed Díaz Ordaz and his regime were responsible for this. Pictures and on-site films dug from archives keep appearing to this day proving the students were right all along.
The legacy of the 1968 movement lives on in the Mexican youth. The scar of Tlatelolco will forever remind the students of the importance of organizing against repression and police brutality. Its lessons can inspire many around the world into learning from the Mexican experiences.