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The Declassified Record on the Tlatelolco Massacre that Preceded the ’68 Olympic Games

January 28, 2014
Mexican soldiers leading away protestors after the Tlatlelolco Massacre. AP Photo.

Mexican soldiers leading away protesters after the Tlatlelolco Massacre. AP Photo.

The US has joined the international community in expressing security concerns for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, even sending law enforcement to help secure the games. Threats of violence at the international event are not new, as evidenced by the kidnapping and killing of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and the bombing of the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City stand out from other tragedies because the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) used the international attention of the Olympic games to justify intimidating student opposition groups, and — as declassified evidence proves likely– framing them for attacking police officers to initiate the crackdown. Investigative work by Archivist Kate Doyle and others has helped preserve the declassified record on the events of ’68, and the documents highlighted in today’s post, originally published in Doyle’s 2003 Electronic Briefing Book, provide both a fascinating glimpse at US security concerns in Mexico City surrounding the ’68 Games and US-Mexican relations.

Mexican students and police square off. Photo: El Heraldo

Mexican students and police square off. Photo: El Heraldo

Along with investing $150 million towards preparations for the 1968 Olympics, the Mexican government attempted to quell growing domestic unrest before the international event by stifling independent labor unions and other forms of political expression. The government’s hardening stance in the lead-up to the Olympics became a rallying point for Mexico’s nascent student movement (CNH), which intended to use the Olympics as a platform for their protests demanding a more democratic Mexico. Mexican President Diaz Ordaz became increasingly concerned about the effect the protests would have on the games, and declassified documents reveal his concerns prompted the Pentagon to send military radios, weapons, ammunition and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the protests.

A secret September 27, 1968, telegram sent from the US Embassy in Mexico a week before the massacre described how the upcoming games were effecting the Mexican government’s response to the student protests, stating that the “Govt has been committed to forceful showdown with students since army took over Unam. [. . .] Govt at moment not seeking compromise solution with students but rather seeking to put end to all organized student actions before Olympics. Secretary of Government has informed Emb. Officer that CNH itself does not want settlement. Aim of Govt believed to be to round up extremists elements and detain them until after Olympics. Thus Govt believes detention extremists offers better prospect for peaceful Olympics than would compromise settlement leaving extremists free.” 

A September 27, 1968, secret State Department telegram

A September 27, 1968, secret State Department telegram

On the night of October 2, 1968, ten days before the beginning of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexican officials shot and killed an unknown number of student and civilian protesters in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City. According to Doyle, even though “months of nation-wide student strikes had prompted an increasingly hard-line response from the Diaz Ordaz regime,” the bloodshed was astonishing. Eye-witnesses “described the bodies of hundreds of young people being trucked away” after the shooting and pointed the blame at the President’s security forces, while the Mexican government insisted they were provoked by the protesters, “claiming that extremists and Communist agitators had initiated the violence,” and counted the initial death toll at four. Declassified documents and the investigative work by Doyle and others have shed some light on the incidents of Tlatelolco, but with no formal investigation into the killings undertaken until after the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, the official death toll is still unknown.

One of the government’s tactics to infiltrate the student protests was the Olympic Brigade, which was comprised of Mexican law enforcement and ordered to disrupt and arrest student leaders. Declassified documents indicate the day of the massacre “that snipers posted by the military fired on fellow troops, provoking them to open fire on the students.” As Doyle says, “[t]housands of students gathered in the square and, as you say, the government version is that the students opened fire. Well, there’s been pretty clear evidence now that there was a unit that was called the Brigada Olympica, or the Olympic Brigade, that was made up of special forces of the presidential guard, who opened fire from the buildings that surrounded the square, and that that was the thing that provoked the massacre.”

confidential October 3, 1968, telegram sent from the US Embassy in Mexico the day after the massacre addressed the use of snipers in the event, stating the “situation clearly more serious than anything previous in current student unrest.” At this point the Embassy still accepted the Mexican government’s explanation of the massacre, saying an “[i]nteresting question upon which Emb lacks info is whether occupants apartment houses voluntarily cooperated with students in positioning snipers or whether they did so under duress. [. . .] Fact that snipers had prepared positions (and apparently ambushed soldiers) should be obvious even to opponents of government and should dilute standard counterargument that government provoked matters.”

Excerpt from an October 3, 1968, confidential telegram on the Tlatelolco Massacre.

Excerpt from an October 3, 1968, confidential telegram on the Tlatelolco Massacre.

However, as Doyle notes, “[r]eporting out of the Embassy was often confused during the crisis, probably because Embassy officials were closer than those of other U.S. agencies to the Mexican political class and tended to believe its propaganda.”

A confidential October 18, 1968, intelligence report from the Defense Intelligence Agency compiled over two weeks after the Massacre provided a summary of military involvement in the student crisis and underscored the “intense concern among almost all Mexicans that the student situation would either prevent or hamper the Olympics. It is believed that this feeling has had an effect on government and Army actions, which on several occasions could possibly be called ‘over-reactions,’ caused primarily by the desire to settle or at least arrest the problem, by force if necessary, to avoid effect on the Olympics.”

According to Doyle, while the US stood by the Diaz regime, on October 10, 1968, the State Department assessed that it seemed “unlikely that the PRI can bring about a fundamental solution to the problem without changing the widespread conviction that it is entrenched, stagnant, and primarily self-serving. The students have to be convinced that, despite the enormous graft and dishonesty which have become hallmarks of the PRI, the party is still, or will become again, a vital force for political and social change, as well as economic growth. The present leadership does not appear to be disposed to comprehend the magnitude of the problem of student alienation and to accept it as a serious warning that the party is not responding to the legitimate needs of an increasingly vocal segment of Mexican society.”

For a more in-depth look at the Tlatelolco Massacre, the 1968 Olympics, and the extraordinary declassified record behind them, please visit the National Security Archive.

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