A reflection on the Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968

By Salvador Zarco

(Salvador Zarco is the former General Secretary of Section 15 of the Mexican Railroad Workers [STFRM]. The following interview was conducted in Mexico City by MLNA staff member Don Sherman.}

In 1968, I was a philosophy student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and like many others in my generation, I was involved in student politics. There was group of us, both students and faculty members, that initially joined together to protest the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. [In April 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republican by a force which eventually reached 25,000 U.S. Marines.-ed.] Though our University group was concerned about the economic and physical threats to Latin America from the United States, we also involved ourselves in a number of protests against injustice in our own society as well.

For most of 1968 there were other active student and social movements and protests throughout Mexico City. The focus for these demonstrations and activities especially in the summer of 1968 was almost always directed against the Mexican government's repression of the growing student and social movements. In late July of that year in response to these mostly student demonstrations, Mexican military and police units invaded the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. In this invasion hundreds of students were seriously injured and dozens were killed.

The government justified its actions by declaring that the social and student movements in the city were part of some "communist" conspiracy. However, this massacre only intensified the protests and demonstrations in the city. Progressive and student organizations began to call for the end of repression, for democracy and respect for the Mexican Constitution. Instead of responding with an attempt at a dialogue, the Mexican government reacted with just more and more repression. Students were arbitrarily arrested, and by September 1968 my university was occupied by government troops.

This cycle of violence and repression by the Mexican government against the students provoked anger against the government from many workers in the city. From my perspective, as the involvement of workers against government repression grew, the government became more aware of the possibility of the student and social movements uniting with workers to force democratic changes in Mexican society. Consequently, government reprisals against students and progressive social leaders increased.

There are a number of examples of worker participation in the movement against government repression. At the annual assembly of the Mexican Electrical Workers union (SME), there was a vote taken sometime in September 1968 to fully support the students. Hundreds of railroad workers in the city actively began to back and encourage the students. Of course at that time, the directors of the union were aligned with the PRI, the governing party and they did everything they could to discourage railroad workers from participating in the continuing demonstrations against the government. I can also recall that at some point workers from the PEMEX refinery at Azcapotzalco battled against government repression, and set a number of military vehicles on fire.

Since the Mexican press never accurately reported the events of the summer and fall of 1968, it was easy for the government to hide the increasing involvement of Mexican workers in the struggle. But it did occur, and if the union movement as a whole had been more democratic and not closely tied to the government, there would have been much more worker support for the students.

This is the background and events that led to the massacre at Tlatelolco or the Plaza of Three Cultures on the night of October 2, 1968. That night, as I understood, there was supposed to be a meeting at the Plaza between the students and representatives of the Mexican government to start the process of resolving the conflict. There was a Mexican government promise of peace, but the result, of course, of this promise was a massacre where I believe 300 to 500 students and workers were killed through this act of government treachery. This type of treachery is not unusual in Mexican history. Zapata was lured to his death by government trickery, so I am not surprised that the EZLN and Marcos are wary and have some fears about entering any new dialog with the Mexican government.

I was not present at the Plaza on October 2, 1968 since I had another obligation for that evening. Certainly, I did not expect another government attack on the students and workers.

From where I was that night near the center of the city, though, I could hear distinctly the shots from the Plaza. Later, not knowing the full implications of what happened I went to work as a proof reader at EL DIA, one of among many newspapers in the city. On my way to work, I saw dozens of burned out busses and trolley cars. It was evident to me then that there had been a tremendous confrontation in the city between government forces and the students and workers.

After work the next morning, I went from apartment to apartment looking for my friends. No one seemed to be home at the first two apartments that I went to, on the third, however I was greeted by members of the Mexican secret police. Whether they were looking for me or not, I was immediately arrested and taken to a police station. I was put into a cold empty room, blindfolded, beaten and given electric shocks the entire day. It was an experience of horror. They wanted me to admit to a number of crimes against the State, which I never did.

I found out later that the government arrested around 2,000 of us during that week. We were imprisoned without trial at three different cites in Mexico City. In December 1968, most of those who were detained were released. However, I along with 80 others remained in prison without ever having a trail until December, 1971. Then, mysteriously, all of our charges were dropped and we were freed as if the government had just decided that it suddenly had made a mistake in arresting us.

What this experience did for me was to make me even more committed to social action. In 1974 I found a job as a railroad worker. I had admired the history of the railroad union in Mexico as well as Demetrio Vallejo, the progressive union leader of the Mexican railroad workers. I became active in the union, and eventually became the General Secretary of Section 15 of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union up until it was disbanded in July, 1997 after the government had sold to a private company the railroad line I worked on for so many years.

As I remain committed to the union and social struggles in Mexico, I decided to attend the recent demonstration to mark the 30th anniversary of the October 2, 1968 massacre. What I found remarkable in this year's demonstration was that two generations of Mexicans marched side by side in a joint struggle to show that history does have a meaning. There were thousands of demonstrators from all the universities in Mexico City. These countless thousands far outnumbered their counterparts thirty years ago in the Plaza of Three Cultures. However, at this year's rally there was a lack of union participation. Since most Mexican unions are still aligned with the government that was not unexpected. Still, a speaker from the National Assembly of Workers [ANT] addressed the marchers showing that it is still possible for the student and union movements in Mexico to work together.

The struggle against the repression of our student movements in 1968 has brought some lasting and positive changes in Mexico. For one, before 1968 it was almost impossible to have a demonstration in Mexico. Now thirty years later, people with grievances and issues can freely take the streets and demand action and accountability from their government. And this recent October 2nd march showed that Mexican students have not been fooled by the years of government lies and misinformation about the events in 1968. That alone gives me hope for the future of Mexico.

Source: http://www.ainfos.ca/
October 16, 1998 Vol. III, No. 18 Part II

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