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What was the Tlatelolco Student Massacre of 1968 and what were its long-term political consequences?

On October 2, 1968, in the wake of student protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and other public institutions (against the occupation of a vocational high school by police and also of UNAM by the army, violating the principle of university autonomy), thousands of students gathered at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City for a peaceful demonstration against the government. The army was sent in to maintain order. Shots were fired from nearby apartment buildings, setting off a violent response from the troops. Hundreds of students and bystanders were killed and wounded by the army, and in the aftermath hundreds of students, intellectuals, and professors were imprisoned by the government. Many years later it was revealed that President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz purposely provoked the violent response by sending snipers dressed in civilian clothes from his own presidential guard battalion to fire on army troops. Many analysts believe he pursued such a repressive strategy in part because the government had invested millions of dollars to sponsor the Olympic Games, scheduled to begin just ten days after the protest.

It is generally agreed that the events of 1968 were the most important catalyst of a crisis of legitimacy for the Mexican government and the political model that had long been pursued by the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Not only did the government repression shock Mexicans from all social classes, it also tarnished its image abroad, especially in the United States. Most important, it set in motion numerous political forces that ultimately contributed to a democratic transition in the 1980s and 1990s and to the subsequent defeat of the PRI in the presidential election of 2000.

The short- to medium-term consequence of the student massacre was the radicalization of a generation of students who became political activists. Some of these individuals joined small leftist organizations. A number of these organizations eventually contributed to the expansion of the electoral Left, serving as a partial basis of support for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas's presidential campaign in 1988, and the establishment of the Party of the Democratic Revolution in 1989. Other individuals joined peasant groups in protests against the government, and some became involved with indigenous groups, including what became the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994. Many Mexican intellectuals reacted strongly to the repression, encouraging some people to become more critical and independent of the state, and others to join or form opposition parties. Finally, in broad terms, the student repression encouraged the growth of civic organizations from all sectors of society, representing business people, women, priests and nuns who were advocates of liberation theology, intellectuals, and others.

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