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Mexico: The movement of 68 and the massacre of Tlatelolco
Carla Torres Beltrán and Rafael Belman, Izquierda Revolucionaria (CWI in Mexico)
The movement that developed from July to December 1968 was undoubtedly one of the most intense and revolutionary chapters in the history of class struggle in Mexico. Its repercussions extended during the following decades to all areas of public life, and marked the consciousness of an entire generation.
The Mexico of the 1960s benefited from the booming world capitalist economy. The effects on society were remarkable: the population grew at annual rates of 3.4%, pushing a large urban development. Public investment in infrastructure and housing projects increased and boosted job creation. The ruling class breathed in an atmosphere of confidence, publicly symbolized at the opening of the 1968 Olympic Games.
However, behind the showcase events, workers, the poor campesinos (agricultural workers and small farmers), and the youth endured tough exploitation and political repression.
In the 1960s, the situation for millions of peasants was desperate. Agrarian reform was paralysed by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governments which succeeded Cárdenas (a populist president whose political movement succumbed to capitalist control after World War Two). There was renewed concentration of property in the hands of the landowners and giant imperialist agri-companies.
A growing number of campesinos became radicalised and took action with a crucial ally: the teachers. Thousands of teachers from rural areas fanned the flames of the guerrilla struggle in Mexico.
The government repressed protests in the countryside and the city - making independent political organisation impossible and decapitating the movements and organisations. It also maintained the subjugation of the masses through the official corporatist organisations and "charras" (yellow corporate unions).
By 1968, social inequality had increased considerably. The richest 10% of families accounted for half of the national income.
In part due to the needs of developing capitalism for skilled labour, and in part as a way to silence social discontent, the different PRI governments allowed children of working families to access higher education.
The number of students enrolled in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) and the state universities increased exponentially. The university in Mexico acquired a distinctive feature: it became a 'mass' university. But the labour market was unable to absorb this mass of graduating students.
Thousands of the children of workers and peasants went to study. They trained professionally and technically but they also resumed a long tradition of organisation and struggle against social injustice and government repression.
The youth movement that broke out in Mexico City and throughout the country did not fall like a bolt from the sky. In a way, it was the resurgence of the revolutionary consciousness of an entire people.
The international context was also deeply inspiring for Mexican youth: the Cuban Revolution, the assassination of Che Guevara, the French general strike of May 1968, mobilisations against the Vietnam War, the Latin American guerrilla movement, the Black Panthers in the US, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, all provided inspiration.
These movements came together to light up the great explosion of 1968.
It began in July, with a police intervention to 'calm down' a youthful brawl in the centre of Mexico City. The police burst into schools looking for the alleged perpetrators, hitting and shooting, and making indiscriminate arrests. A few days later the student response materialised in a protest march.
It took place on 26 July - reluctantly called by the National Federation of Technical Students (FNET). It had a relatively small number of demonstrators, but coincided with a march commemorating the 1953 assault by Castro on the Moncada barracks in Cuba, promoted by different organisations of the left including the Mexican Communist Party.
Activists from the left marched with young people who were attending a demonstration for the first time, and who came mainly from the National Polytechnic Institute. To the surprise of many, the march was brutally broken up by the police in the city centre. Anyone under 20 who was in the vicinity was persecuted and beaten, including students from UNAM.
The official excuse used to justify the repression was that young 'foreign communists' were trying to organise uprisings with the purpose of getting publicity and destabilising the country just before the start of the Olympic Games.
The police action had very important side effects. It provoked the complete rejection by students of the official student organisation FNET which, until then, had been controlled by the PRI. The students demanded its dissolution and that of other far-right formations. The far right, together with the academic authorities and the police, had been encouraging and financing the 'porriles' - shock groups - which specialised in attacking left-wing youth in schools and sowing terror.
On 29 July, the movement showed its muscle: strikes began and barricades filled the city centre. The government responded harshly. On 30 July, the roar of a bazooka awakened the strikers besieged in the Prepa 1 secondary school. At least 1,000 people were detained and some killed.
The anger unleashed meant the pressure of the movement was felt at the highest levels. The rector of UNAM. Barros Sierra, declared a day of mourning. The student strike spread like wildfire.
The next day - 31 July - a raging demonstration of more than 80,000 students took over the city centre. Sierra led the march. But, despite his attempts at reassurance, the mood was combative.
The demonstrations continued. On 5 August, a massive march, promoted by students of the polytechnic, took over the historic centre. On 8 August, the Coalition of Teachers for Democratic Freedoms was set up. Most importantly, a National Strike Committee (CNH), initially composed of student representatives from all the schools of the UNAM and the IPN, was established.
The movement was growing. The most popular traditions of the workers' movement were resumed. Information 'brigades' were set up to counter the lies of the press, which belonged entirely to the regime.
The need for an indefinite student strike arose, which quickly spread to all the schools of the IPN and the UNAM, The brigades became pickets that encouraged the strike, and soon the schools became centres of discussion and organisation in the battle against the regime.
The strike itself became a school. It transformed consciousness quickly: talking about what was happening in the world became normal. Young women also placed their aspirations at the centre of the discussion. Along with demands for democratic rights, they called for the right to access the contraceptive pill. Sexism was actively and consciously combated.
At this point, the movement had a clear main objective: democracy. But the democracy that the youth demanded - with social justice and without repression - was incompatible with the Mexican state and the PRI regime. The struggle for democratic liberties became inseparable from a broader struggle to transform society.
The strength of the student movement was increasing and found a great ally in the workers' movement. On 27 August, half a million people joined a march. This caused panic in the ranks of the government. It was no longer just the young people "causing chaos". Workers and the oppressed took up the cause of youth.
Backing for the students grew. On 28 August, doctors and oil workers organised a strike in solidarity with the student movement. Many other unions and workers expressed support.
But there was a need to unify the struggle of youth throughout the country and to firmly and decisively link it with the working class. The government control of the trade union movement was very powerful, and it posed a serious obstacle.
On 1 September, the presidential report was delivered. President Ordaz argued that the movement was a 'communist plot' against Mexico. The implied objective was to cause the Olympic Games to flop. His speech fuelled outrage.
The regime's decision to deepen the repression became clear on 10 September, when the Senate approved the use of the army. But threats and intimidation did not stop the movement.
On 13 September, the famous "march of silence" was called. More than 300,000 young people paraded silently. The march was a new setback for Ordaz.
Five days later, with the poems of León Felipe rumbling through the loudspeakers of Ciudad Universitaria (University District - CU), 10,000 army personnel were deployed to take control of the district. They arrested over 600 students and teachers. The objective was to dismantle and behead the movement.
A new wave of clashes broke out between the students and the Granaderos (riot police). In Tlatelolco, the students staged a first confrontation with army units on 21 September.
The army withdrew from the schools that had been taken on 30 September. On 2 October, a meeting of leaders of the CNH strike committee was organised in order to transform the march called for that day into a brief meeting. They felt that the appearance of calm was needed to facilitate negotiation.
But the intentions of Ordaz and the government were very different. On the morning of 2 October, state security agents arrived in Tlatelolco and, without raising too many suspicions, proceeded to cut the telephone lines and light in the area.
Snipers were located in strategic places. Government agents infiltrated the crowd and took key locations within some buildings. The square was surrounded by tanks and military units. The government turned the place into a deadly trap with only one exit.
At six in the afternoon, when 10,000 people were in the Plaza of the Three Cultures listening to the rally, a flare thrown from a helicopter gave the signal. Snipers and stationed troops began firing. Some soldiers pointed to the crowd, others, who hadn't known the nature of the operation, attempted to protect it.
Later, independent reports indicated that the fatalities totalled around 400, while the official media spoke of 30. All were young people aged 18-20. Thousands more were detained and wounded.
Investigations indicate that the vast majority of the corpses were taken from the plaza and thrown into the Gulf of Mexico from helicopters, a sinister foreshadowing of the extermination methods used by Operation Condor in Chile and Argentina.
On 12 October, the Olympic Games were inaugurated.
The criminal history of the Mexican state was not limited to the regime of Díaz Ordaz, although this was one of its most barbarous acts.
The government feared that all the solidarity that the students had awakened with their action could be transformed into a revolutionary uprising. The agitation of the brigades in the industrial zones, the unity with the teachers, oil workers, landless peasants, and so on, all reminded the government of the unfulfilled demands of the Mexican revolution. It reaffirmed that the PRI did not represent the ideals of the revolution of 1910 as it claimed.
Despite the impact of the massacre, and after the truce imposed by the Olympics, the strike lasted for two more months. It demanded the unconditional release of political prisoners, the return of the schools that were still in the hands of the army and the cessation of the repression.
But the student movement had reached its limit. It had two possible paths to follow: to promote a broader revolutionary movement, which implied a true rebellion of the workers against the straitjacket of the trade union structures co-opted by the government; or return to winter studies. No organisation on the left had the capacity or political orientation to follow the first path.
The tiredness, fear, and lack of perspective imposed themselves. On 4 December, the strike was lifted and the CNH disbanded.
After the great massacre, the legitimacy of the army before the people was shattered, although in return it obtained all kinds of privileges and corruption. PRI was weakened, never again could it speak as a representative of the 1910 revolution.
In 1971, the same year in which the student movement was brutally repressed again, then-President, Luis Echeverría, was forced to release the majority of political prisoners, including railway worker leaders, adopted as standard bearers by the movement. He was also forced to repeal article 145 - a law used to repress political dissent - one of the main demands of the movement.
The heroic struggle of youth changed Mexico in 1968, and that example of revolution and courage survives in the collective memory of all the people.
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