In which city were demonstrators of democracy massacred?

The long shadows of history

As in many parts of the world, universities in Mexico were places of rebellion against encrusted political structures in those years. The PRI state party has ruled Mexico without interruption since 1929. The country has no political pluralism, a democratic system or free elections. Former student leader Salvador Martinez della Rocca recalls:

We demanded freedom of demonstration, freedom of expression, and freedom to form associations. That you had a constitutional right to it. We called all of this the democratic freedoms. So we fought for democratic freedoms and not for building a proletarian, socialist state in Mexico, as we were supposed to be, no! The only thing we asked for was minimal democratic freedoms - and for that they massacred us.

The government is reacting increasingly repressively to the student protests. Shortly before the Olympic Games, the first in Latin America, she fears for stability in the country and for Mexico's reputation abroad. On the evening of October 2, 1968, ten days before the opening ceremony, shots suddenly rang out in Tlatelolco Square - the peaceful rally turned into a bloodbath. According to current knowledge, it is a special military unit that opens fire on the crowd on behalf of President Díaz Ordaz. The exact number of deaths, given by the newspapers the next day to be less than thirty, is still not known - serious estimates assume several hundred.

June 10, 1971, Corpus Christi. In the Mexican capital, students are taking to the streets again. The country's president is now Luís Echeverría, who was interior minister at the time of the massacre in October 68. When thousands of demonstrators marched in the direction of the Pedagogical University in the late afternoon, they were attacked with clubs and firearms by members of the paramilitary group "Halcones", in German "Falcons". The paramilitaries operate under the protection of the police and army, which are stationed at central points in the city. Some students are armed and fire back. The balance of this day: at least 35 dead and numerous injured.

After the events in Tlatelolco Square in 1968 and on Corpus Christi Day in 1971, the Mexican protest movement began to become radicalized. Many of the young opponents of the regime have lost faith in dialogue. In the 1970s, a number of armed groups are formed ready to enforce their demands by force - including the "Communist League September 23rd" and the "People's Armed Revolutionary Forces". The response of the state to the actions of the guerrillas is ruthless - a "guerra sucia", a "dirty war" begins. More than five hundred Mexicans disappeared without a trace between 1970 and 1982 - their fate has not yet been clarified. The National Human Rights Commission published an official report on the disappeared, the "desaparecidos", for the first time at the end of last year:

We succeeded in documenting that of 532 people, around half fell into the hands of state institutions before they disappeared - according to the chairman of the commission, José Luís Soberanes. In the case of the other half of those who had disappeared, there was also some evidence that authorities had a hand in it.

December 1, 2000. Vicente Fox takes the oath of office in the Mexican parliament. He is the first president in 71 years who is not a member of the state party PRI, the "Institutionalized Revolutionary Party". Fox is a conservative, his party is called PAN, the "Party of National Action". Many hopes are linked to his inauguration, which is not just a change of government, but also the end of an era. The new president wants to tackle what the PRI governments were not interested in: clearing up the crimes of the past - the bloodily suppressed student protests and the disappearance of people - and at the same time advocating that human rights violations no longer occur in Mexico today.

In his first year in office, President Fox does not turn out to be a radical enlightener. Human rights organizations, intellectuals and those affected by previous state repression are disappointed. The Mexican political scientist Sergio Aguayo:

The Vicente Fox administration was very hesitant about coming to terms with the past in its first year in office in 2001. She preferred a policy of appeasing the former rulers to a real commitment to shed light on the past. After the death of human rights activist Digna Ochoa, she was forced to correct her course and take action. Also because of some revelations about the tragedy of the disappeared, in which I myself was involved. But overall, President Fox showed neither determination nor energy to clear up what had happened in the past.

October 19, 2001. Human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was found shot dead in her office in Mexico City. To date, the investigative authorities have not clarified the circumstances of her death. Digna Ochoa had worked for a human rights center, she defended, among other things, Indian activists and radical environmentalists. In the past, the 37-year-old had been threatened, kidnapped and physically assaulted several times. "The murder of Ochoa throws us back years," writes the sociologist Roberto Blancarte in the newspaper "Milenio". For Fox, the death of the young lawyer is a major setback - it suddenly makes it clear that the human rights situation in the "new Mexico" that he invokes is not the best either.

In the months that followed, the Mexican government took more decisive steps towards coming to terms with the past. In November 2001, immediately after the report on the disappeared was published by the National Human Rights Commission, it announced the establishment of a special investigation agency. At the beginning of January, special investigator Ignacio Carrillo Prieto took up his work to shed light on what happened in the sixties and seventies. Among other things, archives previously kept secret, which the government has promised to open, should help him. In March of this year, President Fox told the foreign press:

I believe we have provided evidence to the world and the people of Mexico that we are fully committed to human rights. We have made progress that no one would have thought possible 18 months ago. We're opening the archives, we've set up a special investigation agency to investigate the crimes of the 1970s and 1980s, that is, the cases of those who disappeared. We released those prisoners who campaigned for human rights. We have presented 13 human rights treaties to Parliament that Mexico has signed with international organizations and they have already been ratified. So we are really looking into the matter, and not just past cases, we want to be sure that the government will never again violate human rights in Mexico.

June 18, 2002. During a solemn ceremony at Mexico's National Archives, President Fox officially opens the archives of several secret services, the army and government agencies that had been locked up for decades. 60 thousand files and 80 million index cards have been accessible to the public since then. For the scientist Sergio Aguayo, who has dealt with the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 and the "dirty war" of the 1970s in various publications, the archives are of fundamental importance:

They correspond to the Stasi archives of the German Democratic Republic; their opening allows society, scientists and the media to search more thoroughly for information from the secret services. This will make it possible to understand what happened much better. Who the actors were and what the chain of command looked like. That is, what responsibility the president, the defense minister or the interior minister had for what happened. Of course, the archives don't contain the whole truth. They contain information in its raw state that enables contexts and responsibilities to be elucidated, a fundamental requirement for historiography.

Sergio Aguayo sees the main importance of the archives in the fact that they could provide information about the whereabouts of the "desaparecidos", the disappeared. In contrast, the renowned political scientist expects only a few new facts about the course of events on Tlatelolco Square, as this is largely known through research in recent years:

It was a suppression operation, ordered by the then president, in which the army was set up. The research results of the past few years are heading in this direction. And so I don't know what new insights should be gained on the subject of responsibilities. But what we need to know more about is the number and identity of the dead.

The expectations for the opening of the archives are different. Some of those affected make no secret of the fact that they have absolutely no expectations - for example Rosario Ibarra, who has been fighting with her organization Eureka for 25 years to clarify the fate of the disappeared:

I believe they are full of dust and fungus and I don't care at all to look at them. I don't want to see old paper, we want to see the disappeared, we want to know where they are. These archives seem like a gigantic lie designed to betray the Mexican people and to silence our movement. They offered us, the mothers of the disappeared, to see the archives and we did not go. We don't want to see papers, we want our children. That is our response to the Fox Administration.

Many Mexicans wonder whether the steps President Fox has taken to come to terms with the past will one day bring those responsible to justice. At the opening of the archives on June 18, Fox promised that he would not spare the perpetrators from state violence and human rights violations. Juan Manuel Valero, who took part in the protests as a student in 1968 and today moderates a political radio program, wants to give the process that began after the change of government a chance:

For us, this trial leads to the arrest of those responsible for these massacres. Ex-President Díaz Ordaz can no longer be jailed because he is dead. But we are convinced that one of the intellectual creators of the October 2nd massacre in Tlatelolco Square was then Interior Minister Luís Echeverría. His guilt is also confirmed by the fact that he - now as President - was also the intellectual father of the murders on June 10, 71. AND that he acted as one of the most terrible executioners of the guerrilla groups that were imprisoned and eventually disappeared.

July 2, 2002, early in the morning. Former Mexican President Luís Echeverría appears before Special Counsel Ignacio Carrillo Prieto. It is the first time in Mexico's history that a former incumbent has been summoned by the judiciary to speak up on allegations of unlawful conduct. Former members of the student movement have filed several complaints against Echeverría - because of his alleged responsibility or co-responsibility for the events of 1968 and 71. They see him as the founder of the paramilitary group "Halcones", which bloody dissolved the demonstration on Corpus Christi day. A week later, on July 9th, after another summons, Echeverría asked journalists to hold a press conference. The ex-president explains that he has a clear conscience, has no regrets and rejects responsibility for the massacre. In the meantime, the former governor of Mexico City, Alfonso Martínez Dominguez, has also been summoned. Like Echeverría, he simply leaves a detailed catalog of questions from the special investigator unanswered. Instead, he affirmed his innocence in the events of Corpus Christi Day in 1971 in a written declaration.

Recent developments raise the question of whether Mexico's impunity will end soon. It would be high time for that, says political scientist Sergio Aguayo:

Impunity is one of the most serious problems in Mexico. As we fight impunity, we can build a country where the rule of law prevails. As a scientist, my goal has always been to draw attention to previously unknown aspects of Mexican reality and to shed light on them. But as a citizen, I also want justice to come into play.

Many victims of state repression do not believe in this justice. You have no confidence in the Mexican justice system. And they are convinced that the former state party PRI, the authorities and the army are ultimately still inviolable.

The PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for seven decades - the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once called the apparently democratic regime the "perfect dictatorship" - still has great influence in the country. It has a majority in parliament and governs in many states. PRI politicians never tire of verbally supporting coming to terms with the past, which they of course never tackled themselves. The PRI Senator Manuel Bartlett emphasizes that the special investigator should do his job, but of course his party as a whole cannot be held accountable:

The PRI is a party that millions of Mexicans belong to: peasants, workers, middle-class people. The PRI is not responsible for anything. If there are those responsible for anything, it is individuals, not the PRI as a whole. You can't blame an entire party - the peasants in Morelos State are not responsible for anything that an individual has done in public office. You have to bring individuals to justice. Let the special investigator do it. The PRI has obviously already paid for its mistakes. She got the political receipt in the last election.

Coming to terms with the past, yes, I can hear from PRI representatives again and again, but of course a complete picture has to be created. After all, the actions of state institutions against opponents of the regime, known as the "dirty war", were only a reaction to their equally violent actions. Former student leader Salvador Martinez della Rocca is outraged by this argument:

I have no doubt that some guerrilla groups have committed a lot of atrocities, but that's not the point. What it is about is the illegality with which the state proceeded, which is actually supposed to watch over compliance with the rules. And he broke all the rules! Rules that he made himself! It's all about this. And that is why there is talk of the "dirty war". Because they played a dirty game with a lot of young people. They tortured, killed, tortured, injured - whatever they wanted to do.

Amnesty International issued a report last December pointing out that human rights defenders in Mexico are at risk of intimidation, threats and attacks. Torture is a widespread method among security forces and judicial authorities, as documented by various NGOs and the National Human Rights Commission. Two years after Vicente Fox was elected, human rights are still being violated and people continue to disappear. The Eureka Association has counted more than a dozen "desaparecidos" since Fox ‘took office. Political scientist Sergio Aguayo believes the government needs to take a more decisive stand on both of the issues it has set itself up for: the defense of human rights in Mexico today, and the confrontation with the state repression of the past:

Our democracy will not mature, our society will not grow, if we are not able to recognize the black, the snake egg that for many decades has nested on the fringes of social life in Mexico, to the extinction of thousands of citizens has led. We have to recognize it and confront it.