Mexico City's Tlatelolco Massacre

A Gruesome Turning Point in Mexican History

The Tlatalolco Protest
The Tlatelolco protest in Mexico City in October 1968.

One of the ugliest and most tragic incidents in the modern history of Latin America took place on Oct. 2, 1968, when hundreds of unarmed Mexicans, most of them student protesters, were gunned down by government police and Mexican army forces in a gruesome bloodbath that still haunts Mexicans.

Background

For months preceding the incident, protesters, again most of them students, had been taking to the streets to bring the attention of the world to Mexico's repressive government, led by President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

The protesters were demanding autonomy for universities, the firing of the police chief and the release of political prisoners. Díaz Ordaz, in an effort to stop the protests, had ordered the occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country's largest university, in Mexico City. Student protesters saw the upcoming 1968 Summer Olympics, to be held in Mexico City, as the perfect way to bring their issues to a worldwide audience.

The Tlatelolco Massacre 

On the day of Oct.2, thousands of students marched throughout the capital, and around nightfall, about 5,000 of them congregated at La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in the district of Tlatelolco for what was expected to be another peaceful rally. But armored cars and tanks quickly surrounded the plaza, and the police began firing into the crowd. Estimates of casualties vary from the official line of four dead and 20 wounded into the thousands, although most historians place the number of casualties somewhere between 200 and 300.

Some of the protesters managed to get away, while others took refuge in homes and apartments surrounding the square. A door-to-door search by authorities yielded some of these protesters. Not all of the victims of the Tlatelolco Massacre were protesters; many were simply passing through and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Mexican government immediately claimed that security forces had been fired upon first and that they were only shooting in self-defense. Whether the security forces fired first or the protesters incited the violence is a question that remains unanswered decades later.

Lingering Effects

In recent years, however, changes in government have made it possible for a closer look into the reality of the massacre. The then-minister of the interior, Luís Echeverría Alvarez, was indicted on genocide charges in 2005 in connection with the incident, but the case was later thrown out. Movies and books about the incident have come out, and interest is high in "Mexico's Tiananmen Square." Today, it's still a powerful subject in Mexican life and politics, and many Mexicans see it as the beginning of the end for the dominant political party, PRI, and also the day the Mexican people stopped trusting their government.