Fifty Years of Mexican October

Photo Source U.S. Department of State | CC BY 2.0

In understanding contemporary Mexican politics and society, the careful observer might well draw a line before and after October 2, 1968.

That was the day when Mexican soldiers killed, wounded and detained hundreds of students and civilians who had peacefully assembled in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City to demand a more democratic government and socially just nation.

Fifty years later, the first days of October in Mexico were dedicated to the golden anniversary of an event that shaped — and continues shaping — the course of the nation.

Across the country this past week, tens of thousands of students, teachers and people from all walks of life organized forums and staged commemorative marches. News outlets were filled with stories dissecting the events surrounding Oct. 2. Pundits debated the facts and meaning of a fateful day so many years ago and its relevance today. President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador used the occasion to announce a planned transformation of the armed forces into an “army of peace,” and a commitment to never use force against civil society.

The Tlatelolco massacre occurred not only during a year when watershed events including the Paris uprising, the Tet offensive in Vietnam and numerous others shook the world, but came at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and old Soviet Union, a global conflict that conservative governments south of the border used to justify crushing opposition forces.


“The government of the United States imposed its power and security concept on Mexico and Latin America. All the opposition social movements were seen as ‘red’ communist threats of Soviet interference, which should be wiped out,” Mexican journalist Laura Castellanos was quoted as saying in a report by Aristegui Noticias on a Mexico City forum dedicated to Oct. 2.

Peering back through the lens of history, however, Oct. 2, 1968 was really the culmination of a decade or more of grassroots social struggles that challenged the one party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and demanded reforms that would fulfill the uncompleted promises of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Pre-1968 movements that also suffered state repression included the small farmer movement led by Zapatista military veteran Ruben Jaramillo in the state of Morelos, student movements in Guerrero and Michoacán, peasant mobilizations in Chihuahua, and the independent gubernatorial candidacy of Dr. Salvador Nava in San Luis Potosi, to name just a few. During those years the small but intellectually influential Mexican Communist Party was outlawed.

By the summer of 1968, the student movement in Mexico City was expanding and coalescing in the National Strike Council, an organization that united students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), Chapingo agricultural college and other schools, according to a report in El Diario de Juárez on an Oct. 2-themed forum where veteran activist and professor emeritus Victor Orozco and others reminisced about and analyzed tumultuous times.

Compared with previous movements, perhaps what really threatened the PRI government of then President Díaz Ordaz wasn’t the alleged communist manipulation of the movement, but the increased participation in anti-government protests by the sons and daughters of the small but strategic middle class, a sector of society that had grown due to the economic expansion called the “Mexican Miracle” after the 1940s.

For an authoritarian government, it was one thing to confront angry campesinos in the countryside but quite another to suddenly be seriously questioned by potential future leaders of the nation in the power structure’s nerve center.

“We see plurality for the first time, the existence of other Mexicans who thought differently,” Gerardo Estrada, ex-director of National Institute of Fine Arts, told Proceso magazine. “There had been other movements, like those undertaken by workers educators’ unions and doctors, as well as guerrilla focos, but for the first time, in a massive way, the middle classes were protesting in eminently political causes.”

Estrada insisted that changes have occurred since 1968: “Now we can see television programs that question the role of the army in the forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students, which 40 years ago was impossible. All these are legacies of ’68 that make us freer and better citizens. In this sense, the movement is alive because we are seeing changes that it provoked.”


The bloody crackdown on Oct. 2, only days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where U.S. Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos flashed the Black Power salute, ushered in another period of Mexican political history.

To highlight a complex and evolving history outlined by Castellanos and others, the years after 1968 encompass the emergence of urban and rural guerrilla movements that were countered in an even bloodier bout of government repression commonly known as the Dirty War, the legalization of the Mexican Communist Party, a split in the PRI and the insurgent presidential candidacy of left nationalist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1988, the indigenous Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas in 1994, fresh rounds of repression against dissident forces, alternating periods of governance between the PRI and conservative National Action Party, and the 2018 victory of left-leaning López Obrador.

In the 21st Century, horrific violence surrounding the drug war has left more than 200,000 Mexicans murdered or disappeared and hundreds of thousands of others displaced from their homes, according to various reports. As in 1968, impunity reigns in the new violence.

Press and political freedoms exhibit dual faces. For instance, while Mexican media outlets regularly engage in coverage and commentary that would have been unthinkable back in 1968, the murders and disappearances of more than 130 journalists since 2000, according to the National Human Rights Commission, has earned Mexico a spot on the list of the most dangerous places in the world to practice the news profession.

Inevitably, comparisons between state repression now and state repression then flowed during this year’s commemoration of Oct. 2. On a polemical note, La Jornada columnist Claudio Lomnitz questioned the historical accuracy of likening contemporary state violence with that of five decades ago.

Alluding to the erosion of the old PRI centralized state of Díaz Ordaz and other strongman rulers, and its partial replacement by neo-feudal shadow governments controlled by organized crime, Lomnitz considered the case of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college forcibly disappeared in 2014, when in a still-unclarified incident in Iguala, Guerrero, three students and three other civilians were also murdered outright.

Unlike the chain of command operative on Oct. 2, “The massacre of the Ayotzinapa students wasn’t ordered by the President of the Republic or by the Minister of the Interior. Nor did it concern an order processed by the Secretary of Defense. This wasn’t done in an attempt to protect the image of the State or of the country, not even the delirious dreams of some president,” Lomnitz contended.

“On the contrary (Ayotzinapa) was a local matter just like the majority of massacres that have happened daily in Mexico during the past dozen years and whose scale is much, much greater than Tlatelolco,” Lomnitz wrote.

Challenging the hope and reality behind the popular slogan “Never again!” that is repeated every Oct. 2, Lomnitz cited the recent and ongoing scandal of hundreds of bodies piled up in two trucks maintained by Jalisco state authorities. “Never again? Seriously?” questioned Lomnitz. “We don’t even know how many dead are in the two trucks. We do not know who killed them and why.”

Universities on the move again

Contemporary parallels to 1968 were evident in the weeks preceding the 50th anniversary commemoration of Oct. 2 at UNAM, one of the principal centers of the old movement.

Mexico’s largest public university, UNAM likewise witnessed important student movements and strikes in 1986-87 and 1999-2000. In 2014, students from both the IPN and UNAM joined in the national protests against the Ayotzinapa atrocity. Mexico City’s newly elected chief executive, Claudia Sheinbaum, hails from the eighties’ generation of UNAM student activists.

In recent years, UNAM has been the scene of new controversies and conflicts over university governance, sexual harassment, drug dealing on campus, educational quality, and the presence of 1960s-style porros, or goon squads, employed to intimidate protesters.

After a porro viciously attacked UNAM students early last month, a mass movement arose to demand the final dismantlement of the goon squad and other changes. An estimated 30,000 UNAM students and staff, joined by supporters from the IPN, staged a peaceful demonstration Sept. 5 in support of their demands.

Talk of forming a national student movement is in the air and representatives of 35 institutions of higher learning issued a preliminary, 10-point reform agenda late last month, the Reforma’s news agency reported.

Besides eradicating goon squads once and for all, the chief points include addressing gender violence, instituting the “democratic election of university authorities,” guaranteeing free education at all levels, discarding the outgoing Peña Nieto administration’s education reform law, and respecting free expression.

A huge difference between 1968 and now is that today’s student activists have a new Mexican Congress and president-elect that are sympathetic to their demands and have expressed their intentions to implement corresponding reforms.

Moreover, López Obrador’s vow to build 100 new public institutions of higher learning portends expanded educational and political space for a new generation.

A snapshot of the possible future was taken last week in Cuernavaca, Morelos, where López Obrador addressed hundreds of welcoming but anxious students at the Autonomous University of Morelos State (UAEM) who have been without classes for two weeks because of a staff strike called by workers over back pay owed them.

According to La Jornada, the university is among 10 public institutions throughout Mexico that are submerged in serious budget crises. The president-elected promised to bail out the financially strapped institutions, but with the condition of ending corruption.

“Yes, we are going to rescue the universities, but we need accountability,” López Obrador was quoted as saying by La Jornada during his Morelos visit. “And I ask you all because at the end of the day I am your employee, of the citizens. Do we deliver support without asking for accountability?”

It remains to be seen whether an emerging dynamic between the incoming federal government and academia will result in genuine changes and the greater empowerment of students, staff and faculty, or if López Obrador’s promises fall short amid rising expectations, set the stage for new protest movements that would likely be national in scope.

In any case, as the 50th anniversary of Oct. 2 evidenced, a new generation of Mexico’s youth is increasingly conscious of their history and its ramifications.

Posting on, Pablo Opinari quoted a slogan invented by students that captured the spirit of the recent anti-porro protests: “We are the grandchildren of ‘68, the children of ‘99 and the brothers and sisters of the 43.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.