The Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico

Ronald L. Ecker

Updated April 1, 2009

It has been called Mexico's Tiananmen Square, Mexico's Kent State. 1 During the presidency of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970), there were several antecedents to the 1968 student confrontations with the Mexican government, but nothing comparable to the Tlatelolco Massacre that occurred on the night of October 2, 1968, in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Almost four decades later, and after years of work by a special prosecutor's office dealing with the case, one person, former President Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-1976), Mexico's Interior Minister in 1968, was charged and arrested for la matanza that occurred at Tlatelolco. After several court rulings and appeals in the case, a Mexican court in March 2009 cleared the 87-year-old Echeverría of charges in the Tlatelolco Massacre.


In 1965 a North American scholar said of the Mexican student community that it has "a streak of radicalism" in it that it tends to lose later in life. 2 Indeed, with the one-party rule of the time, it was the sensible thing careerwise for Mexican student activists eventually to make their peace with the system when their student days were over. 3 But that said, the turmoil of the 1960s in part reflected a widespread dissatisfaction among Mexicans with the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI was aptly described in 1968 as "entrenched, stagnant, and primarily self-serving" in the eyes of many Mexicans. 4 Mexican leftist Jorge Carrión wrote that the PRI's ultra-rightists had come to power with Díaz Ordaz and that the Mexican Revolution was as defunct as a "perro muerto." 5

In fact, the administration of Díaz Ordaz proved to be no less progressive in general than that of his predecessor Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964). But despite the popular appeal of the government's justicia social programs and of the Revolutionary mystique in general, the López Mateos and Díaz Ordaz administrations brought Mexico's main social and economic ills no closer to real solution. 6 The majority of Mexicans still lived in poverty, with their continued toleration of that lot certainly speaking well not only for the mollifying strength of the Revolutionary mystique but also for what Oscar Lewis in 1959 called "the high threshold of suffering of the Mexican people." 7 During the 1960s there were notable cases of regional unrest and violence in Mexico, particularly in the states of Chihuahua, Guerrero, Yucatán, and Sonora. 8 In this context the protracted 1968 student unrest in Mexico could not be simply dismissed as an instance (to quote a U.S. diplomat) of "conventional Latin political effervescence." 9

In early 1966, students went on strike at the University of Sonora, and clashed with police in three days of rioting, over the PRI's nominee for state governor. The protesters claimed that Sonoran gubernatorial candidates should be picked by Sonorans and not by Mexico City. There were massive arrests and a military occupation of the university. 10 At the University of Puebla, violence erupted among students in July 1966 over the conservative policies of a newly elected rector. 11 In his annual Informe to the nation on September 1, 1966, Díaz Ordaz warned Mexico's youth, especially university students, against breaking the law or causing disorder. Mexico, he stated, did not want its young people to be resigned conformists, but neither did it want them to be "irresponsible." 12 A month later, students and teachers at the University of Michoacán went on strike after one student was killed in a popular protest against an increase in bus fares in several cities. They demanded not only expropriation of the privately run bus lines, but "better living and working conditions for the working class and peasants" and liquidation of the latifundia (landed estates). Díaz Ordaz, claiming discovery of a conspiracy of "foreign inspiration," used federal troops to end the Michoacán disorder, with the arrest of 600 students. 13

Gustavo Díaz Ordaz

In 1967, students in the state of Nuevo León allied themselves with striking bus drivers after several of the strikers had been fired. The governor claimed that the student involvement was Communist-inspired, but the student-worker coalition won a raise for the strikers and the rehiring of those drivers who had lost their jobs. 14 In Chihuahua in 1967, striking agricultural students, whom the Secretary of Agriculture claimed were being directed by the Cuban Embassy, won important academic concessions from the government, including establishment of a School of Agronomy at the University of Chihuahua. 15

Trouble at Mexico City's National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) had been brewing ever since 1961 over differences between leftist and rightist students toward the administration of rector Ignacio Chávez. There was a riot in 1964, and in 1966 Chávez was forced to resign by a student mob that sequestered him in his office. 16


The student riots of 1968 in Mexico City were initially touched off not by university political issues but by charges of unusual police brutality in the suppression of a typical brawl between students of two rival high schools. The alleged police brutality took place on July 25. The next day, the offended teenagers took to the streets in protest, at the same time that the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), the leftist National Liberation Movement (MLN), and Communist student groups happened to be in the streets celebrating the 15th anniversary of Castro's July 26 Movement. 17 The demonstrating high-schoolers and Communists "got mixed up, and who infiltrated whom is still being debated." 18 In the street rioting and clashes with police that occurred that night, PCM leader Gerardo Unzueta and other Communists were among the first to be arrested. 19

Initially the rioting students demanded dismissal of Mexico City police chief Luis Cueto and abolishment of the granaderos (riot police). Downtown rampages by thousands of teenage students on July 29 and 30 resulted in at least one death, extensive injuries and property damage, over 1,000 arrests, and the occupation by Army troops of four high schools. 20 Cueto and other officials charged that Communist agitators were stimulating the riots, and on August 3 seven arrested PCM members were arraigned on charges of sedition, illegal association, and damage to property. A PCM manifesto, signed by the famous Mexican painter David Siquieros, stated that the PCM never advocated "anarchical methods," denied any responsibility for the disorders, and claimed that allegedly subversive propaganda documents seized by the police were forgeries. 21

Student unrest in Mexico City, 1968

Despite such charges and countercharges, the early rioting in Mexico City had no apparent political direction, and UNAM students did not become actively involved in the issue until the Army's occupation of UNAM-connected high schools. On August 1, UNAM rector Javier Barros Sierra led a peaceful march of 50,000 students to protest what they saw as a violation of university autonomy. 22 On August 9, university student leaders, backed by most students of both UNAM and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), called a university strike and threatened further action, including mass demonstrations, unless the government met the following demands: dismissal of Cueto and two assistants, investigation of police brutality, reparations for students allegedly killed or injured, release of political prisoners, and abolition of the crime of social dissolution. 23

The last two demands clearly had leftist implications. Once the university students' 200-member National Strike Council (CNH) had been established, two political currents among its members quickly arose. The linea dura (hard line), from the more radical faculties of Political Science, Philosophy and Letters, Economics, and Law, wanted to win the workers and peasants to the students' cause and foment real revolution. By mid-August the hard-liners were sending out so-called brigadas politicas, groups of four or five students each, distributing leaflets to the public, exhorting people to join the movement, and asking for economic assistance. 24 The hard-liners were backed up by a group of university professors organized in August to support the CNH and headed by Heberto Castillo, national coordinator of the leftist MLN, and fellow MLN member Eli de Gortari. 25 In the course of the student strike, however, the hard-liners were generally out-voted by the soft-liners or moderates on the CNH, which is apparently why disagreements later developed between the strike council and the agitating group of professors. 26

By late August an apparent stalemate had been reached between the striking students and the government. The students, launching unprecedented verbal attacks upon the Mexican president, rejected the government's offer of an impartial investigation of the brutality charges, while the rest of the student demands were rejected by the government. 27 In his annual September 1 Informe, Díaz Ordaz threatened to use all force necessary to keep order. He affirmed, however, that he would uphold university autonomy and even seek to extend it to IPN. Regarding the student demands, Díaz Ordaz mentioned only the two most politically oriented ones, those concerning social dissolution and political prisoners. He proposed a congressional study of Penal Code Article 145, upon which the crime of social dissolution was based, and while denying the existence of political prisoners, he suggested that some prisoners might be released if the protesters first ceased their attempts to pressure him. 28

Díaz Ordaz, 1968

The students responded to Díaz Ordaz's speech with defiance, pointing out that he had mentioned only two of their demands, denied that there were any political prisoners, and expressed doubt that social dissolution could be abolished. The strike thus continued with the students threatening to use "all means necessary" to get what they demanded. 29

On September 18, after the CNH had rejected an appeal from rector Barros for a return to normalcy, Army troops occupied the UNAM campus. Interior Minister Luis Echeverría Álvarez stated that such action was necessary because school buildings had been illegally taken over by political elements who were alien to the university's academic function and who were "planning and executing frankly antisocial and possibly criminal acts." 30. Echeverría was referring to the fact that the UNAM campus was being used as the strike headquarters and as the organizing point for the radical brigadas políticas. The government was determined to control the situation and not let student unrest jeopardize the Olympic Games, which were set to begin in Mexico City on October 12.

On September 23, a battle between students and police at the Casco de Santo Tomás campus of IPN reportedly left four people dead and many wounded. In the early morning hours of September 24, the Army moved onto the IPN campuses, finding an arsenal of weapons. 31

Hundreds of students and teachers were arrested on vague charges in the Army takeover of the UNAM and IPN campuses. The government's action brought strong protest from political and intellectual circles, a statement of resignation from Barros, and fierce reaction from the students. Clashes with police increased, vehicles were burned in the streets, and many students now for the first time began using firearms. De Gortari and Marcue Pardiñas were among non-student leftists arrested along with students in the late September turmoil. Tension was eased somewhat when Barros withdrew his resignation, which had been rejected by the UNAM governing board, and called upon the Army to evacuate the campuses. After a few days of calm, the Army moved out of UNAM on September 30, though troops still occupied the IPN campus at Casco de Santo Tomás. 32

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

On October 1, the CNH held two rallies at UNAM. Speakers urged the thousands of students present to attend an October 2 rally at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City, to be followed by a march to Casco de Santo Tomás to demand the withdrawal of authorities from that IPN campus. 33


The Mexican government's planned response to the student rally on the evening of October 2 was called Operation Galeano. The most definitive account of this operation, culminating with the Tlatelolco Massacre, is found in a Mexican special prosecutor's report released in November 2006. According to this report, early on October 2 elements of the military's Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP, the Presidential High Command) were placed in apartments on the upper floors of the Chihuahua apartment building and other apartment buildings surrounding Tlatelolco's Plaza de las Tres Culturas. (One of the apartments taken over by the EMP in the Molina del Rey building was the residence of a sister-in-law of Interior Minister Echeverría.) 34 Once the rally started, the Army, using from 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers (the accounts varying) and more than 300 tanks and other vehicles, would surround the plaza to prevent those attending the rally from fleeing, while armed military men in civilian clothes, members of a unit called the Batallón Olimpia that had been organized to help protect the Olympic Games, would prevent anyone from entering or leaving the Chihuahua apartment building, in which the organizers of the rally were to be arrested. 35

At 6 p.m. on October 2, an estimated 6,000 to 15,000 people were gathered in the plaza, listening to CNH leaders speak from the third-floor balcony of the Chihuahua building. The crowd included non-students, and curious residents and others watched from windows and balconies of the other apartment buildings overlooking the plaza. Between 6:10 and 6:15, two helicopters flew overhead and launched flares, apparently a signal to attack. The Army troops immediately moved in, sniper fire began from the apartments, and a firefight commenced involving the snipers and the Army troops and police. Troops fired at those attending the rally as well as at the buildings. 36 Some of the people trying to flee were trampled, while the armed men of the Batallón Olimpia, wearing white gloves on their left hands and yelling "Batallón Olimpia, no disparen!" ("Olympic Batallion, don't shoot!") entered the Chihuahua building to apprehend the CNH leaders. 37

Woman fleeing during Tlatelolco Massacre

The firefight lasted over an hour, and after a lull it resumed. By midnight the military was in control. The official death toll was put at 32, but it has been claimed that as many as 300 people died in the shooting, with the U.S. State Department estimating 150 to 200 dead, including 40 military personnel. An eight-month review of archival records by Kate Doyle and others in 2006 confirmed the deaths of 44 men and women, 10 of them unidentified. 38 An unknown number of bodies were reportedly dropped into the Gulf of Mexico from military airplanes. More than a thousand persons were arrested. 39

Secretary of National Defense Lt. Gen. Marcelino García Barragán announced that student snipers had fired first, using submachine guns. Students firing first remained the official story, until the damning report released by the special prosecutor in 2006. According to the report's chapter on Tlatelolco, military elements, "contravening or misinterpreting the orders of General Marcelino García Barragán, utilized snipers to induce an armed response on the part of the Army," provoking a massacre intended to annihilate the student movement. This "genocide," says the report, was "a decision of the state," the people gathered being considered "the active nucleus of the national group that should be annihilated." 40

The October 2 violence and deaths aroused anger and sympathy for the students, and there was speculation that the student revolt would now be worse than ever, endangering the Olympics. 41 The CNH, however, was left in a shaken, disorganized state, with many of its members in hiding and others either dead, wounded, or in jail. It was announced that the strike would continue and that brigadas politicas would still seek support from the people, but in the wake of the government's stern repressive action further demonstrations were deferred and the students declared that they had no intention of interfering with the Olympics. They also sought to minimize the significance of the radical left in the movement, insisting that the consensus among the striking students had always been to seek only limited aims. Some students shared the view (or what the U.S. Embassy called the "twisted logic"") expressed by former president Lázaro Cárdenas and others that agents of the United States were behind the movement in an attempt to overthrow Mexican institutions. 42

Then came the sensational statement of arrested student leader Sócrates Amado Campos Lemus, who was brought before members of the press and told them of prominent people who had allegedly helped finance or instigate the student movement. He stated that Braulio Maldonado, former governor of Baja California, and Humberto Romero, private secretary of López Mateos, had helped supply the students with money and material aid. Campos Lemus also alleged a meeting that writer Elena Garro, ex-wife of Octavio Paz, had arranged with him, during which she told him that the student movement needed a man with national prestige "like Carlos Madrazo" to lead it. (Madrazo, a former PRI party president and governor of Tabasco, was a political dissident who would later die in a small-plane crash.) Campos Lemus replied, so he said, that the movement should remain in the hands of the students. 43

Campos Lemus also alleged that the hard-line element within the student strike leadership had planned to fire on Army troops and police when they arrived at the plaza on October 2, a charge later supported by an IPN professor also in custody. 44

All the political figures who were implicated in Campos Lemus' highly publicized statement denied any connection with the disorders. The CNH pointedly claimed that some of its arrested members were being tortured to say what the authorities wanted. One strike leader called Campos Lemus a CIA agent, and an internal U.S. State Department memo speculated that the Mexican government had "arranged" Campos Lemus' public charges to try to "shift the blame for its inept handling of the affair to persons that it feels can be destroyed politically fairly easily." 45 The CNH insisted that students did not start the October 2 violence. 46 But Campos Lemus' public statement suggesting behind-the-scenes political intrigue helped to discredit the student movement in the eyes of many, while the unyielding firmness of Díaz Ordaz had already had its effect on the morale of the strikers. On December 4, the three-months-old strike officially ended. 47

White gloves and guns, Chihuahua Apartment Building
(These government photos surfaced in 2001)

There was some resistance among the hard-liners to ending the strike, and the PRI and CTM headquarters were among buildings hit by terrorist bomb attacks. Once the strike was over, however, the government made several conciliatory moves in an effort to ease the prevailing tension. On December 24, Díaz Ordaz ordered the release of 121 persons, mostly students, who had been jailed during the strike. Congressional hearings were begun on the issue of the crime of social dissolution, a bill was approved making it easier to release prisoners on parole (though the government still denied that any prisoners were political), and a bill was introduced to lower the voting age to 18. Also reportedly underway were government preparations for a sweeping reform of the educational system. 48 By the end of the year the situation was still very tense, but classes had once again been resumed and the PRI appeared to have weathered the storm.

Any hopes that the trauma of Tlatocolco might lead to some conciliatory move, some trend toward political reform, with the choice of Díaz Ordaz's successor were dashed when the PRI's choice for the 1970 presidential election turned out to be Luis Echeverría Álvarez. As Díaz Ordaz's interior minister, Echeverría was in charge of internal security at the time of the Tlatocolco Massacre, and was widely suspected of complicity in the killings if not actually ordering them. 49

Luis Echeverría Álvarez (right)


Echeverría was president of Mexico for less than a year when another student massacre occurred in Mexico City. Marching student protesters were attacked on June 10, 1971, by a secret, plain-clothed paramilitary squad called the Halcones (Falcons) trained and paid by the government, using clubs and firearms, resulting in at least 25 deaths 50. Some wounded students were allegedly finished off by the Falcons in their hospital beds 51. This so-called halconazo or Corpus Cristi Massacre (named for the day on the Roman Catholic calendar on which it occurred), the preceding Tlatelolco Massacre, and the killing or disappearances of hundreds of leftist radicals in the 1970s and 1980s, would become collectively known as la guerra sucia ("the dirty war"). 52.

In 1998 Echeverría broke three decades of silence about the Tlatelolco Massacre. He did so in an interview that was part of a new investigation into the events by the Mexican Congress. Denying that he ordered troops to fire on the student demonstrators, he also discounted the official government explanation that the deadly gunfire came from other student radicals. "These kids were not provocateurs," Echeverría said. "The majority were sons and daughters of workers, farmers and unemployed people." Only one person could have ordered the shooting, said Echeverría, and that was Díaz Ordaz (who died in 1979). "There was a hierarchy. The army is obligated to respond to only one man," Echeverría said. "My conscience is clear." 53

While Echeverría sounds almost as if he were out of the loop on the night of the Tlatelolco Massacre, or would not have known of an order by Díaz Ordaz to fire on the students, he was not only the man in charge of Mexico's internal security as previously noted, but headed a committee of high government officials, formed immediately after the violence of July 26, 1968, on how to deal with the student unrest 54. It has been suggested that it was government agents positioned in the Tlaletolco apartment buildings on the night of the massacre who fired the first shots 55, and as to who gave any government order to fire on the crowd in the plaza, Echeverría in 1998 seemed to point the finger of blame conveniently at the deceased Díaz Ordaz.

In 2000, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party (PAN) became the first non-PRI candidate in history to be elected president of Mexico. Fox promised to root out corruption and punish those guilty of human rights abuses. He appointed Ignacio Carrillo Prieto as a special prosecutor (officially the Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasada) to investigate past crimes and the dirty war. Related long-secret files were released, and in December 2001, the magazine Proceso published photographs, which had been taken by a government photographer during the Tlatelolco Massacre and came from an anonymous source, that showed the "white-gloved men" apprehending students at gunpoint in the Chihuahua apartment building 56. In July 2004, Carrillo delivered to court 9,382 pages of dirty-war evidence in 14 volumes, and requested the arrest of the then 82-year-old Echeverría and several other ex-officials on a charge of genocide in the Corpus Cristi Massacre of 1971. 57


It was the first time that a former Mexican president was faced with criminal charges. The Carrillo investigation had angered the PRI, which still held a plurality in the Congress and controlled over half of Mexico's states, and for Fox a formal indictment of Echeverría could be disastrous in terms of political cooperation from the PRI. As the governor of Puebla expressed it, the charges could lead to "a confrontation of unspeakable consequences" 58.

Such a confrontation was avoided when federal judge José César Flores on July 24, 2004 refused to issue the requested warrant for the arrest of Echeverría. Flores ruled that the 30-year statute of limitations on genocide had expired. 59 The decision was appealed to the Mexican Supreme Court, and Carrillo announced in January, 2005, that regardless of the outcome of the Corpus Cristi case, he planned to charge in 2005 as many as 70 people with genocide and other crimes in Mexico's dirty war. This would include indictments for the Tlatelco Massacre, and among those indicted might be Luis Echeverría. 60

The Supreme Court made a partial ruling in the Corpus Cristi case in February, 2005. The court said that an international treaty signed by Mexico in 2002 stating that genocide should have no statute of limitations cannot be applied retroactively 61. This seemed to augur defeat for the special prosecutor. But then on June 15, 2005, came what Carrillo hailed as "a triumph": the court ruled by a 3-2 vote that the 30-year statute of limitations on charges of genocide for President Echeverría's alleged role in the 1971 Corpus Cristi Massacre had not expired, because the clock did not start ticking until Echeverría left office in 1976. Now for Echeverría, said Carrillo in the wake of this ruling, "There is no way out" from a trial for the 1971 massacre. 62

Echeverría in 2002

Carrillo proceeded with plans to file charges of genocide and kidnapping against Echeverría and others for the 1968 matanza at Tlatelolco. 63 Carrillo's certainty of a trial for Echeverría in the Corpus Cristi killings, however, proved premature. The Supreme Court had left it to a lower court to decide whether genocide had in fact occurred in the halconazo, and on July 26, 2005, Judge Herlinda Velasco Villavicencio issued her ruling. She rejected arrest warrants for Echeverría and his former interior minister, 72-year-old Mario Moya Palencia, on charges of genocide in the Corpus Cristi Massacre. Velasco ruled that there was not enough evidence of genocide under Mexican law, as the clash between the Halcones and student protesters was not an attempt to destroy an entire ethnic or national group as the genocide law requires. While the judge said there was evidence that simple homicide occurred, the statute of limitations for filing homicide charges ran out in 1985. 64

Carrillo called the judge's ruling, which could not be appealed, a "clubbing" ("Nos dieron palo"). He said that it was marked by a "grave defect of superficiality" that was "incompatible with the importance and transcendence that the Supreme Court recognized in this matter." Echeverría's attorney Juan Velásquez said of Velasco's ruling, "That's the end of it." 65

On September 19, 2005, Carrillo filed charges of genocide and kidnapping against Echeverría, former Attorney General Julio Sánchez, and six other officials, for the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre and the January 1969 disappearance of Hector Jaramillo, an activist in the 1968 student protests. Carrillo's investigation of the massacre had exonerated the military of responsibility, but the prosecution alleged that the government had posted snipers on the buildings surrounding the plaza and ordered them to fire into the crowd. 66

On September 21, judge Ranulfo Castillo refused to issue the requested arrest warrants, ruling that the 1968 killings did not meet the definition of genocide as previously cited, that there was insufficient evidence against Echeverría and Sánchez in Jaramillo's disappearance, and that the statute of limitations had run out on the other six officials. 67 Carrillo appealed, and on January 11, 2006, the Mexican Supreme Court voted 3-2 not to hear the appeal, ruling that an appeals court should decide the matter. Carrillo issued a statement saying that he "deplores the ruling," but would appeal to a lower court as instructed. 68

In February 2006, a draft report on the dirty war, written by 27 researchers contracted by the special prosecutor's office, appeared on the website of the nonprofit National Security Archive at George Washington University. 69 Carrillo and Fox had received the draft report in December 2005, but refused to make it public without changes. 70 Its authors, fearing the report would be censored, leaked it to some prominent Mexican writers prior to its online appearance. 71 According to Carrillo, the draft report was biased and put too much blame on the military. Rebel groups also committed abuses, Carrillo argued, and the military did not conduct operations alone, it "conducted them in response to orders from civilians above." 72 Carrillo said that an official version of the report would be released on April 15, 2006, and the Attorney General announced that his office was investigating the leak of the draft. 73 When April 15 passed with no report, the Attorney General's office announced that the report would be delayed, with no specific date set for its release. 74 As mentioned earlier, the report, bearing the imprint of the special prosecutor's office, was finally released in November 2006. The report accuses the state of "crimes against humanity" under three Mexican presidents (Díaz Ordaz, Echeverría, and José López Portillo) from the 1960s to the 1980s, including massacres, disappearances, torture, and genocide, intended to "destroy (a) sector of society that it considered its ideological enemy." 75

Vicente Fox Quesada | Ignacio Carrillo Prieto (left)


In May 2006, the international rights group Human Rights Watch released a 150-page report on Mexico's transition to democracy under Fox from a human rights perspective. The report states:

Under President Fox, the country has pursued a course of unprecedented openness and transparency--allowing international scrutiny of its rights practices and public access to information held by government agencies. What Mexico has yet to do, however, is effectively address the human rights problems that this openness and transparency have helped to expose. In particular, the country has yet to establish accountability for past atrocities, or to make serious progress in curbing the abuses that continue to be committed on a regular basis today. President Fox's efforts in these areas, while ambitious on paper, have largely failed to achieve their principal goals. 76

One of Fox's "shortcomings" of major consequence, says the report, was his failure "to ensure that (Carrillo's) office possessed the credibility, technical expertise, and powers it needed" to succeed in the face of stonewalling by the military and other institutions, with Carrillo's efforts subsequently failing to produce a single conviction. 77

Presidential spokesman Rubén Aguilar stated that the government "welcomes the report," which was presented to Fox as well as to several of the July 2 presidential election candidates, but "we don't share" the report's observations about the "dirty war" crimes investigation. Aguilar said, "We believe that we have done the work that we had proposed to do." 78

On June 30, 2006, two days before Mexico's presidential election, appeals court judge José Ángel Mattar Oliva issued a warrant for the house arrest of Echeverría on charges of genocide for the Tlaletlolco Massacre. Mattar ruled that the student protesters were indeed a unified political group as defined under the Mexican genocide law, and that the years Echeverría served as a cabinet member and as president did not count against the 30-year statute of limitations, since Echeverría was immune from prosecution while in office. The warrant was for house arrest due to Echeverría's age and poor health, with a 2004 law allowing judges to keep elderly suspects out of overcrowded jails. 79

A spokesman for Roberto Madrazo, the PRI presidential candidate (and son of Carlos Madrazo), called the arrest warrant a "dirty" and "anti-democratic" campaign trick, designed to help Felipe Calderón, the presidential candidate of Fox's PAN, locked in a virtual two-man race with Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PDR). 80 As Echeverría was formally placed under arrest on June 30, his attorney Juan Velásquez, reiterating his client's innocence, said, "Obviously, this is very convenient for some parties during the election season." 81 But special prosecutor Carrillo called the timing of the judge's decision "a coincidence," and said that the ruling was "a victory for my colleagues, for me, for President Fox." 82


A preliminary count of the votes in the July 2 presidential election showed Calderón defeating López Obrador by one percentage point. After a tense review of the votes amid charges of irregularities, election officials said on July 6 that Calderón was the victor, by a margin of less than one percent. López Obrador, claiming that the election was "fraudulent from beginning to end," went before the seven-judge Federal Electoral Tribunal to demand a vote-by-vote recount. 83 On July 16 and 26, before estimated crowds of over 1 million people in the Zócalo (Mexico City's sprawling central plaza), López Obrador called for peaceful civil resistance in support of his demand, including the setting up of tent cities in Mexico City, which his supporters proceeded to do, choking traffic for weeks in the financial heart of the city. 84

Meanwhile, on July 8, two days after Calderón had been declared the winner by election officials, a federal judge cleared Echeverría of the genocide charges, ruling that the statute of limitations had expired after all. Carrillo appealed the judge's ruling, but Echeverría's attorney Velásquez said he had "no doubt that the appeal is just a formalism for the final failure." 85

On August 5 the electoral tribunal voted unanimously to reject López Obrador's demand for a vote-by-vote recount. Instead a partial recount was ordered in about 9 percent of the 130,000 polling places, where the tribunal said votes may have been miscounted. On August 28 the tribunal rejected López Obrador's charges of vote fraud, and on September 5 unanimously ruled that the the July 2 vote was fair and that Calderón was the victor by about 234,000 votes out of 41 million cast. 86 López Obrador rejected the decision, and on September 16, Mexico's independence day, hundreds of thousands of his supporters gathered in the Zócalo as a "National Democratic Convention," and by a show of hands voted him the "legitimate president" of Mexico. López Obrador, who ordered his supporters to remove their protest camps in the center of the city, made plans to launch a parallel government with its own Cabinet, and on November 20, in a ceremony (or what Reforma columnist Armando Fuentes called "a circus act, a farce") before tens of thousands of supporters in the Zócalo (a smaller crowd consistent with the view that more and more Mexicans were growing tired of the political unrest), López Obrador was sworn in as Mexico's "legitimate" president. 87

Felipe Calderón | López Obrador

Calderón took the official oath of office in the National Congress on December 1, in a quick ceremony amid catcalls and shouting and preceded by fistfights among lawmakers and a three-day sit-in by lawmakers sympathetic to López Obrador who were hoping to prevent Calderón from taking the podium. As the sworn-in Calderón left and Congress adjourned, lawmakers from his party danced and chanted, "He did, he did it!" After Calderón's inauguration, López Obrador led tens of thousands of supporters down Mexico City's Reforma Avenue, with banners saying, "López Obrador is president." 88

In a recent speech in Washington, D.C., former President Fox told of his failed attempt in 2005 to jail López Obrador, then mayor of Mexico City, in a minor land dispute, which would have ruined the mayor's presidential candidacy. "But 18 months later, I had victory," Fox said. "On election day, my candidate won." Leaders of López Obrador's DPR see this as a confession by Fox that he illegally used his office as president to support or oppose a candidate, and have filed suit, accusing Fox of rigging the election. 89


One of the recommendations of the Human Rights Watch report was that the next president of Mexico "promote the creation of a truth commission with the resources, expertise, and independence necessary to advance the investigation begun by the Special Prosecutor's Office," more specifically "to construct an authoritative account of past abuses and, most importantly, reinforce efforts to prosecute them." 90

The long-awaited special prosecutor's report (leaked earlier in draft form) on the dirty war was finally released on November 17, laying responsibility for crimes against humanity at the feet of three former Mexican presidents. Carrillo stated that the report is only the beginning. Those responsible still living must be prosecuted, he said, and the state must also compensate victims' families. 91 But the report's release was notably low key, the report debuting on a website late on a Friday at the start of a three-day holiday. Rosario Ibarra, a senator whose son disappeared in 1975 (the report names 645 people who were "disappeared" in the dirty war), said, "They haven't found one disappeared person. They haven't punished a single person responsible. For us, the report is useless." 92

On November 29, two days before Fox's presidency was to end with the inauguration of Calderón, Judge Ricardo Paredes Calderón issued another warrant for the arrest of Echeverría, on charges of genocide in the Tlatelolco Massacre. According to a 920-page court report on which the judge based his decision, the massacre was planned and overseen by then-Interior Minister Echeverría, with troops at the plaza the first to fire shots. Paredes argued that the massacre had "the purpose of completely destroying the national group known as the '1968 student movement'." 93

Since Echeverría under the Constitution had effective immunity from prosecution while a government minister and then president, the judge ruled that the 30-year statute of limitations should apply from December 1, 1976, the date Echeverría left office. Placed under house arrest almost 30 years later to the day, the elderly and ailing ex-president became the only accused person of weight, among all those pursued by special prosecutor Carrillo's now disbanded office, whose case was still open. 94 Attorney Velásquez said that there was no proof that Echeverría had orchestrated the massacre, and that the decision would be appealed. 95

Carrillo stated in February 2007 that the decision in the final days of the Fox administration to close his office was "punishment" for the charges brought against Echeverría, that is, "for having reached the highest level of responsibility for a series of crimes." Officials of the Calderón government say that the special prosecutor's office completed its duties with publication of the report on the dirty war, and that the federal Attorney General's office is continuing to pursue the cases of civil rights violations during la guerra sucia. But Carrillo sees it differently. The decision to close his office (which officially shut down on March 27, 2007) was the fruit, he claims, of "collusions between the authoritarian past and the not-so-democratic present." 96

In April 2007, José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch noted that during its five years of existence, Carrillo's office did not obtain a single conviction, and that "Mexico must still find a way to meet its obligation to investigate and prosecute these cases." Vivanco cited Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay as countries "making real advances" in prosecuting past human rights abuses, while "Mexico remains unwilling to do so." 97

In July 2007, architect Rosa María Alvarado Martínez stated in a legal complaint that in 1981 she and others, while renovating a hospital that was formerly a vocational school next to the plaza at Tlatelolco, found the remains of three or more bodies and a rifle bullet, buried under a cement layer in a garden. She stated that the bodies, possibly of students killed in the 1968 massacre, were reburied in the hospital's foundation after police told her that if she said anything about the discovery she would never see her three-year-old son again. 98

On July 12, 2007, one day after the news of the architect's complaint, the legal pendulum again swung the other way for Echeverría. A federal court ruled that the Tlatelolco Massacre was indeed genocide, but dismissed charges against Echeverría and revoked his house arrest. The massacre was genocide, Judge Jesús Guadalupe Luna told a news conference, "because government authorities at the time jointly conducted a prearranged and coordinated action aimed at exterminating a national group of students from various universities." However, "None, absolutely none of the evidence provided by the attorney general's office," Luna said, "indicates the participation of Luis Echeverría Álvarez in the preparation, conception or execution of the genocide." 99

Federal prosecutors appealed and lost, as a Mexican court in March 2009 upheld the ruling, clearing Echeverría of genocide charges and ordering his release from house arrest. 100

"Nothing has changed for the better," said the liberal senator Rosario Ibarra in 2007, in response to the court ruling that was to be upheld in 2009. "They are doing the same things. There is criminal complicity here in this coddling, let us say, of Echeverría." 101

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's former national security adviser, had from the beginning favored creation of an independent commission rather than pursuit of criminal charges through a special prosecutor with respect to the Tlatelolco massacre and other state crimes. "There was a structure of repression that existed in the country," he said, one that Echeverría and his administration did not create. "That structure of corruption is what we should have investigated so that it can never be repeated again" 102. Historian Lorenzo Meyer has described the Tlatelolco killings less abstractly, in comparing them to the 1989 massacre at China's Tiananmen Square: "A frantic response by bureaucrats who felt the (student) movement was threatening their grip on power." 103


1. Kate Doyle, "The Tlatelolco Massacre: Declassified U.S. Documents on Mexico and the Events of 1968," National Security Archive, George Washington University, Oct. 10, 2003 (

2. Karl M. Schmitt, Communism in Mexico: A Study in Political Frustration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), p. 224.

3. Robert E. Service, "Student Disorders," U.S. Embassy memorandum to Dept. of State, Oct. 22, 1968 (Document 22 in Doyle).

4. Thomas L. Hughes, "Mexico: Current Unrest Springs from Widespread Student Disaffection and Alienation," Intelligence Note to U.S. Secretary of State, Oct. 10, 1968 (Document 39 in Doyle).

5. Jorge Carrión, "Gustavo Díaz Ordaz - 90% mas a derecha," Política, Dec. 1, 1965, p. 13, and "El cadaver de la Revolucion," Politica, Sept. 15, 1965, p. 13.

6. Ronald L. Ecker, "The Mexican Left, 1961-1968: Disunity and the Search for Renewal," M.A. Thesis (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1969), pp. 121-124, 155-156.

7. Oscar Lewis, "Mexico Since Cardenas," Social Research, XXVI (Spring 1959), pp. 18-30.

8. Ecker, p. 129.

9. Maxwell Chaplin, U.S. Dept. of State memorandum to Wallace W. Stuart, U.S. Embassy, Oct. 10, 1968 (Document 40 in Doyle).

10. Ecker, p. 133.

11. Politica, July 15, 1966, p. 18; August 1, p. 35.

12. Ibid., Sept. 1, 1966, p. 5.

13. Ibid., Oct. 1, 1966, pp. 5-12; Oct. 15, pp. 8-10.

14. Ibid., April 1-30, 1967, p. 28.

15. Ibid., July 15-31, 1967, pp. 5-12.

16. Ecker, pp. 139-141.

17. New York Times, August 2, 1968, p. 11.

18. Ibid., August 18, 1968, p. 5.

19. Hispano Americano (Mexico), August 5, 1968, p. 25.

20. "Review of Mexico City Student Disturbances," U.S. Embassy memorandum to Dept. of State, Oct. 20, 1968 (Document 9 in Doyle); Times, July 30, 1968, p. 8; July 31, p. 1.

21. Times, August 1, 1968, p. 4; August 5, p. 3.

22. Ibid., August 2, 1968, p. 11.

23. Ibid., August 10, 1968, p. 5; Sept. 4, p. 95.

24. Ibid., Sept. 9, p. 1; Hisp. Am., August 19, p. 21; Oct. 14, p. 6.

25. Hisp. Am., August 19, 1968, p. 20; Oct. 14, p. 6; Siempre, Sept. 6, 1967, p. 6; "Once More with Violence," Time, Oct. 4, 1968, p. 34; Politica, Sept. 15, 1961, p. xviii.

26. Times, Sept. 9, 1968, p. 1; Hisp. Am. August 26, 1968, p. 16; Oct 14., p. 11.

27. Times, August 14, 1968, p. 14; August 15, p. 11.

28. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, IV Informe, Sept. 1, 1968, in Hisp. Am, Sept. 9, 1968, pp. 37-38.

29. Times, Sept. 4, 1968, p. 95.

30. Ibid., Sept. 20, 1968; Hisp. Am., Sept 23, 1968, p. 33.

31. U.S. Dept. of Defense Intelligence Information Report, "Army Participation in Student Situation, Mexico City," Oct. 18, 1968 (Document 88 in Doyle).

32. U.S. Dept. of Defense; Times, Sept. 28, 1968, p. 9; Oct. 1, p 13.

33. U.S. Dept. of Defense.

34. "Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana - 2006," Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasada, November 2006, pp. 122-123.

35. Ibid., pp. 123, 130.

36. Ibid., pp. 126-127.

37. Ibid., pp. 128-129.

38. Hughes; Kate Doyle, "The Dead of Tlatelolco," IRC Americas Program (Silver City, NM: International Relations Center), October 13, 2006.

39. "Informe," pp. 139-140.

40. Ibid., pp. 121, 139.

41. "La Noche Triste," Time, Oct. 11, 1968, p. 33.

42. "Student Unrest: Comments on Enclosures CA-10592," U.S. Embassy memorandum to Dept. of State, November 3, 1968 (Document 24 in Doyle); Times, Oct. 5, 1968, p. 14; Oct. 7, p. 13; Oct. 14, p. 12.

43. "El disloque," Vision, Oct. 25, 1968, pp. 14-15; Hisp. Am. Oct. 14, 1968, pp. 5-10.

44. U.S. Dept. of Defense.

45. Times, Oct. 7, 1968, p. 13; Hisp. Am. Oct. 14, 1968, p. 9; "Review"; Hughes.

46. U.S. Dept. of Defense.

47. "La amenaza estudiantil," Vision, Jan. 31, 1969, p. 25; Times, Dec. 5, 1968, p. 52.

48. Times, Dec. 25, 1968, p. 14.

49. Michael O'Boyle, "Indictment of Ex-President Sparks Debate," El Universal, July 24, 2004; CNN.

50. Kevin Sullivan, "Ex-Leader of Mexico May Be Prosecuted," Washington Post, July 15, 2004; Ginger Thompson and Tim Weiner, "A Former President of Mexico Charged with 1971 Killings," New York Times, July 24, 2004.

51. Ioan Grillo, "Ex-Mexican President Formally Charged with Genocide," Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2004. Many details regarding the Halcones came to light in documents released by the government in February 2005. See note 59 below.

52. "Ex-President Quizzed on Mexico's 'Dirty War'", BBC News, July 2, 2002; Grillo.

53. CNN.

54. Hughes; Doyle.

55. Doyle.

56. Jana Schroeder, "The Truth about Tlatelolco, 1968," World Press Review,, March, 2002.

57. "Mexican Prosecutor Wants Former President Arrested," Associated Press, July 23, 2004; John Rice, "Judge Rejects Arrest of Ex-Mexican Leader," Associated Press, July 24, 2004. Mexico's federal penal code defines genocide as an effort to "destroy totally or partially, one or more national groups, and other groups of ethnic, racial or religious character." Prosecutors argued that students fall within the legal definition of "national group" (Ginger Thompson, "Mexico Opens Files Related to '71 Killings," New York Times, February 13, 2005).

58. Thompson and Weiner.

59. Kevin Sullivan, "Mexican Ex-Ruler Avoids Charges," Washington Post, July 25, 2004. In February 2005, as a result of legal action by the Mexican freedom of information group LIMAC, the attorney general's office was ordered to release the 9,382-page Echeverría indictment. Prosecutors released only 691 heavily redacted pages (Thompson, "Mexico Opens Files"; Brian Winter, "Mexico 'Dirty War' Files Show Death Squad's Deeds," Reuters, February 12, 2005).

60. Kevin Sullivan, "Mexico to Seek Genocide Charges against Officials in 1968 Massacre," Washington Post, January 14, 2005; Ginger Thompson, "Mexico Vows to Indict Ex-Leaders in '68 Massacre," New York Times, January 14, 2005; "Tlatelolco Massacre Charges Lined Up," El Universal, January 14, 2005; Dane Schiller, "Prosecutor Vows Dirty War Cleanup to Continue," San Antonio Express-News, January 14, 2005.

61. Kevin Sullivan, "Mexican Court Rejects Part of Genocide Appeal." Washington Post, February 24.

62. "Carrillo: Ex-President to Stand Trial," El Universal, June 16, 2005; Reed Johnson, "Mexican Court Allows Genocide Charge against Ex-President," Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2005.

63. "Carrillo: Ex-President to Stand Trial."

64. James C. McKinley Jr., "Mexican Judge Throws Out Genocide Charge," New York Times, July 27, 2005; E. Eduardo Castillo, "Mexico's Ex-Leader Won't Be Arrested," Associated Press, July 27.

65. Jorge Alejandro Medellín, "Difiere Fiscal Sobre Fallo de Magistrada en Halconazo," El Universal, July 26, 2005; Castillo.

66. Reuters 9/20/05; BBC News 9/22/05.

67. Associated Press and Reuters, 9/22/05.

68. William Weissert, "Mexican Court Rejects 'Dirty War' Appeal," Associated Press, January 12, 2006.

69. The final report, released in November 2006, can now be found at the National Security Archive website:

70. Ginger Thompson, "Report on Mexican 'Dirty War' Details Abuse by Military," New York Times, February 27, 2006.

71. Antonio Betancourt, "Mexico: Inquiry into Leak of 'Dirty War' Report," New York Times, March 2, 2006.

72. Thompson, "Report on Mexican 'Dirty War'."

73. Betancourt.

74. "Final 'Dirty War' Report Deadline Missed," El Universal, April 16, 2006.

75. "Informe," p. 6.

76. Human Rights Watch, "Lost in Transition: Bold Ambitions, Limited Results for Human Rights Under Fox," May 17, 2006 ( One of the current human rights problems in Mexico cited by the HRW report is the hundreds of cases of murdered and "disappeared" women over the past decade in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, with innocent people being "coerced into confessing to the killings of women, allowing the true criminals to remain at large." Another is the fact that, under current pretrial detention law, "more than 40 percent of prisoners in Mexico have not been convicted of the crimes for which they are being held, many of them locked up for months on end with convicted criminals" (Ibid.) With respect to this problem, and underscoring the failure of Carrillo's office to gain any "dirty war" convictions, two former top Mexican police officials accused of kidnapping leftist rebel Jesús Piedra Ibarra in 1975 were released from prison on May 21, 2006, four days after the HRW report was made public. One had been held for five months, the other for a year and a half. It was not clear if either had been convicted of any crime (Lisa J. Adams, "2 Accused in Mexico 'Dirty War' Are Freed," Associated Press, May 22, 1006).

77. HRW, "Lost in Transition"; HRW, "Fox's Ambitious Rights Agenda Falls Short," May 17, 2006.

78. E. Eduardo Castillo, "Human Rights Watch: Mexico More Open," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 17, 2006; HRW, "Fox's Ambitious Rights Agenda Falls Short."

79. James C. McKinley, Jr., "Mexico Charges Ex-President in '68 Massacre," New York Times, July 1, 2006; E. Eduardo Castillo, "Echeverría Placed under House Arrest," El Universal, July 1, 2006.

80. Hugh Dellios, "Former Mexican President Named in Arrest Warrant," Chicago Tribune, June 30, 2006.

81. E. Eduardo Castillo, "Echeverría Placed under House Arrest," El Universal, July 1, 2006.

82. McKinley, "Mexico Charges."

83. James C. McKinley, Jr., and Ginger Thompson, "Conservative Wins in Mexico in Final Tally," New York Times, July 6, 2006; Richard Boudreaux, "Mexico's Election May Rest on 7 Votes," Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2006; "Si Hay Conteo, Ya No Convocará AMLO a Movilizaciones," El Universal, July 14, 2006.

84. Manuel Roig-Franzia, "López Obrador Urges Civil Resistance," Washington Post, July 17, 2006; "Mexican Leftist Says He Is President, Vows Protests," Reuters, July 26, 2006; Mark Stevenson, "Challenger's Supporters Choke Mexico City," Associated Press, August 1, 2006.

85. "Ex-Mexico Leader Cleared of Genocide," Reuters, July 8, 2006.

86. Alistair Bell and Catherine Bremer, "Calderon Wins Mexico Presidency," Reuters, September 5, 2006.

87. Colin McMahon, "Mexico's Opposition Won't Fold Its Tent," Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2006; "Lopez Obrador's Support May Have Peaked,", September 19, 2006; Mark Stevenson, "Unelected Mexican Leftist Claims Office," Associated Press, November 20, 2006.

88. Ioan Grillo, "Calderon Takes Oath as Mexico President," Associated Press, December 1, 2006.

89. Marion Lloyd, "Vow of Silence Didn't Last Long for Fox," Houston Chronicle, March 27, 2007.

90. HRW, "Lost in Transition."

91. Julie Watson, "Mexican Ex-Presidents Blasted in Report," Associated Press, November 18, 2006; "Official Report Released on Mexico's 'Dirty War'," National Security Archive,; for the full report, click here.

92. Juan Forero, "Details of Mexico's Dirty Wars from 1960s to 1980s Released," Washington Post, November 22, 2006.

93. "New Warrant for Ex-Mexico Leader," BBC News, November 29, 2006; "Report: Ex-pres. Planned Attack," El Universal, December 19, 2006; Diego Cevallos, "Rights-Mexico: Ex-President Spoke Softly and Wielded a Big Stick," Inter Press Service News Agency, December 28, 2006.

94. "New Warrant," BBC News; Cevallos.

95. Cevallos; E. Eduardo Castillo, "Report Cites Former Mexico President," Washington Post, December 19.

96. "Carrillo Insists Collusion Ended 'Dirty War' Probe," El Universal, February 11, 2007; "Mexican Office that Investigated Past Political Crimes Shuts down," Associated Press, March 28, 2007.

97. "Mexico: Impunity for Past Rights Abuses Continues," Human Rights Watch, April 5, 2007.

98. James C. McKinley, Jr., "Bodies Found in Mexico City May Be Victims of 1968 Massacre," New York Times, July 11, 2007; "Mexico: Bodies From 1968 Maybe Found," Associated Press, July 11, 2007.

99. E. Eduardo Castillo, "Mexican Court Exonerates Former President in 1968 Student Massacre," San Diego Union-Tribune, July 12, 2007.

100. Carlos Avilés, "Exoneran a Echeverría de matanza del 68," El Universal, March 27, 2009

101. James C. McKinley, Jr., "Federal Judge Overturns Ruling Against Mexico's Former President in 1968 Student Killings," New York Times, July 13, 2007.

102. O'Boyle. Mexico City political scientist Federico Estevez has also stated that Mexico needed a truth commission about the crimes that Carrillo has been investigating. "They would have cleared the air of it, and all the dirty business would be out," Estevez says, "and you would have a cloud of shame hanging over these people regardless of whether they could be charged, convicted and jailed" (Schiller).

103. CNN.

Copyright 2004-2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

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