Truth Obscured: 41st Anniversary of Mexico’s Corpus Christi Massacre
By Ashley Miller, Mexico Documentation Project Intern
Forty one years ago yesterday, more than 30 student demonstrators were slain by plainclothes muscles hired by the local Federal District government while the Mexico City police stood idly by. The June 10, 1971 event, known as the Corpus Christi Massacre raised serious red flags for the US – not because the Mexican government was violently repressing its own people, but because the US might be blamed for training the men who carried out the attack. Despite the fact that decades have passed, the families of the victims still lack information about what occurred that day and what happened to their loved ones. Not even the number of dead is known for sure. In recent years, the massacre has been reexamined as part of an initiative put forth by former President Fox to reduce impunity and improve government transparency, but it continues to be a dark and somewhat mysterious chapter of Mexican history. Likewise, the US government has not released any new information in the last ten years despite FOIA requests filed by the Archive. The truth remains obscured.
The Corpus Christi Massacre
The events leading up to the Corpus Christi tragedy began several weeks earlier in the city of Monterrey, Nuevo León. The governor there had passed a law that severely curtailed the autonomy of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon. When students protested the action, he sent in police to occupy the campus. President Luis Echeverría Alvarez annulled the law, but students in Mexico City had already planned to march in solidarity. Despite the fact that the issue had been resolved, they forged on in their demonstration as scheduled, hoping it might reignite the student movement which had been effectively crippled due to brutal government repression in 1968. That is how they found themselves marching from the National Polytechnic Institute, down the Avenida San Cosme, and directly into an oncoming melee.
The massacre occurred in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, the infamous site of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. As an estimated 10,000 students approached the plaza, men streamed from buses and pickup trucks, heavily armed but dressed in civilian clothes. Though their actions were funded by the government, they were not officially employed by the police or military. Around 5pm, the shooting began. Reports conflict regarding who started the fighting, and no government has made a concerted effort to sort out the details. Neither the police nor the military intervened, though both were on alert since this was the largest student demonstration since Tlatelolco. At the end of the chaos at least thirty students lay dead and dozens more fled, wounded. Who were these men who attacked the protestors?
They were called the Halcones (the Falcons). They were the same age as the protestors, but they were armed with wooden poles, chains, and the government’s support. Founded in September 1968, the Halcones were the sons of locals friendly to the PRI (Mexico’s ruling party) and officials close to Echeverría, recruited to help repress the student movement. They were themselves university students, but exercised violence against leftist students in exchange for a paid education and connections in the PRI. The Federal District police trained and armed them to subdue leftist demonstrations.
In the days following Corpus Christi, the government blamed student infighting for the violence. The Halcones were never mentioned in any official reports. Students began handing out leaflets in a campaign to share the truth, but the official story did not change. The federal government took no responsibility. Instead, Mexico City mayor Martínez Domínguez was forced to take the fall, resigning from office on June 15. Although he was a driving force behind the Halcones, and possibly even in direct control of the group, his resignation was less likely an indication of a wider crackdown on violent paramilitaries and more likely a means for Echeverría to consolidate his own power. No one was ever tried or convicted through the justice system in conjunction with the massacre. To the victims and their families, it would seem those in power tacitly approved of the massacre, or at the very least valued their own careers over seeking truth and justice.
The US Connection
Almost immediately upon learning the news of the massacre, the US embassy in Mexico City recalled a military training program that might implicate the US in the Corpus Christi tragedy. Early in Echeverría’s presidency, which began in December 1970, the administration approached US Ambassador Robert McBride to request police training for a group of Mexican security forces. The goal was to help them learn about “crowd control, dealing with student demonstrations, and riots.”
One of the leaders of the groups seeking training, Colonel Manuel Díaz Escobar Figueroa, was in charge of the Halcones. This fact, combined with the ages and backgrounds of the men they proposed to send for training, prompted the State Department to raise concerns that they might return to Mexico as leaders of the Halcones, using “politically unpopular” tactics to subdue student demonstrators. (But why was this voice of reason outweighed by a desire to work with the new Echeverria administration? And why was the Embassy’s concern confined to the popularity of the tactics rather than highlighting the target, students demonstrating for the democratization of education? Could the US have done more to prevent the atrocities exercised by the Halcones?)
Nevertheless, the training occurred. The first batch of trainees left March 8 and were scheduled to return July 9. This date is exactly one day before the Corpus Christi Massacre. Coincidence? Well, yes, since the students didn’t plan their march until a week prior, but the implications remain. The first batch of trainees did not return to Mexico as scheduled and thus were not involved in the Corpus Christi Massacre. Likewise, the trainees were certified to be police officials; only Díaz Escobar’s involvement suggested any connection to the Halcones, and news of his role with them was obtained by the US clandestinely. Regardless, embassy staff and officials in Washington scrambled to prepare delicately worded statements in the event any questions were asked about the training program, careful to distance themselves from the events.
Why is it worth reexamining the Corpus Christi Massacre today? Of course, it is important to remember those who died fighting for student’s rights on the anniversary of this event. It is also an opportunity to strive for human rights accountability. As recently as five years ago, President Echeverría was charged in connection to the massacre as part of a wider effort to reduce impunity and serve justice.
President Vincente Fox appointed a special prosecutor in 2001 to address grave human rights abuses during Mexico’s dirty war. One of the highest profile cases was brought against Echeverría regarding Corpus Christi. Previous charges were thrown out in 1995 for insufficient evidence. In 2004, the special prosecutor leveled charges of genocide against Echeverría and his interior minister, citing 45 to 80 deaths, even more than the 25 to 30 that are more often cited. The statute of limitations on homicide expired in 1985, but the court allowed the prosecution to seek charges of genocide, which has a statute of limitations of thirty years as outlined by domestic Mexican law. The countdown began at the end of Echeverría’s presidential term in 1976, when he lost his legal immunity from prosecution.
Under both Mexican and international law, genocide is defined as an attempt to “destroy totally or partially, one or more national groups, and other groups of ethnic, racial or religious character.” The prosecutor argued that the student movement was a national group, which it was, but many human rights groups questioned whether it was too large a charge for the crime. In 2005, the judge rejected charges of genocide for that very reason, and Echeverría was never officially tried for any crimes.
The prosecution sought to show that the Halcones had been orchestrated at the highest levels of government, even though the evidence was not necessarily cut and dry. Despite not landing a conviction, using a special prosecutor to try high-level officials for human rights abuses was a very important step towards human rights accountability. It returned the Corpus Christi Massacre to the public consciousness and represented a significant effort towards reducing impunity and exercising justice for dirty war crimes.
Many of the witnesses and perpetrators of the attacks on that fateful day have died by now, but the family members of the slain live on. Justice through trial seems to be a lost cause, though the special prosecutor fought valiantly in pursuit of it. So, as Mexico continues to increase transparency and face the dark past of the dirty war, we can only hope the families and society at large will be comforted by the truth.