No truth, no justice 40 years after Mexico City massacre

Forty years ago, the Mexican army opened fire on students peacefully demonstrating in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, on 2 October 1968. Estimates vary on how many people were killed, but the massacre remains one of the worst incidents of mass killing in Mexico’s history.

1968 was a year where students and activists around the world rose up to change their reality and, in many places, they clashed with the authorities.

Students shut down campuses across the USA as riots and anti-war marches spread across the country. 80,000 marched against the Vietnam War in London and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland gained impetus.  In May, students in Paris rose up, followed by a huge public strike. There was widespread popular opposition in Czechoslovakia as Soviet troops suppressed political reforms.

And, in downtown Mexico City, just days before the 1968 Olympics opened, police, military and unidentified armed men surrounded  La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco. The square was full of people demonstrating against police brutality as part of a general student strike that followed the beating of students by the anti-riot police “los granaderos” in July.

At about 6pm, they opened fire, from armoured vehicles using heavy weapons and soldiers on foot carrying bayonet rifles. They fired on the square packed with students and on surrounding residential buildings. Forty-four bodies were eventually released by the government – ten have still not been identified.

And, four decades later, the Mexican government still hasn’t given answers to questions surrounding the massacre that took place in Mexico City, according to Amnesty International. Javier Zúñiga, now a special advisor at Amnesty International, then a lecturer at the National School of Agriculture, had brought his wife and two-year-old daughter to what was expected to be a peaceful event. They witnessed the arrival of government troops from a nearby bridge overlooking the square.

“Forty years on from the Tlatelolco massacre, so many disturbing questions remain unanswered,” said Javier Zúñiga. “Who ordered the massacre? For how long had it been planned? How many were killed? Who are those whose bodies still have not been identified?

“It was getting dark at the time the gunfire started, so it was difficult to see exactly what was happening, but I remember, as clearly now as at the time, that the army moved into the square before the gunfire started and not as a consequence of it, as many government sources have maintained. People panicked and started running in different directions crying ‘the army is coming, the army is coming!’ Before long, it seemed as if the square was full with bodies.

“I went back early the following morning and saw piles of belts and shoes. Pools of blood remained on the ground despite obvious efforts to wash them away. I also saw large bullet holes on concrete pillars at adult head height.”

Despite continuous efforts by victims, relatives and participants in the student movement to establish the truth of what occurred that night, the full facts have never been established and those responsible have not been held to account.

“The failure of the Mexican government to establish the truth of what happened on the night of 2 October 1968 has left a deep scar in Mexican society that can only be healed by full disclosure, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and providing reparations to the victims or their families,” said Kerrie Howard, Deputy Director of the Americas Programme at Amnesty International.   

“President Calderón’s government has been all but silent on this dark chapter in Mexico’s history. We challenge this administration to open all relevant archives and records, establish a new and independent inquiry, and lift the obstacles preventing those responsible for this horrific crime being brought to justice.”

The organization called on Mexican President Felipe Calderón to establish once and for all the truth behind the massacre that took place in La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, Mexico City, just days before the 1968 Olympics opened. It also urged the government to provide justice and reparations for the families of the victims.