March 28, 2003


Memories of Mexico City massacre resurface 35 years later

By: Yolanda Chávez Leyvá

A massacre 35 years ago still haunts Mexico, and is testing the country’s tolerance of free inquiry. On Oct. 2, 1968, 15,000 student protesters marched peacefully through the streets of Mexico City to the Plaza de Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco. They assembled in the hopes of calling attention to issues ranging from poverty to the lack of democratic process.

At the time, Mexico was preparing to host the Olympics – the first time a Latin American nation would host the competition. With the world’s eyes on Mexico, students believed the timing was right to air their grievances.

But by the end of that evening, hundreds of students were dead, killed by the Mexican army and police forces. Many others were injured or disappeared.

The Tlatelolco massacre, as it would later be known as, would open a wound in the country’s national consciousness that still has not healed. It marked the beginning of a “dirty war” intended to rid the nation of subversives. For at least two decades following the massacre, the Mexican government carried on a campaign of surveillance, persecution and disappearances. Human-rights activists contend that hundreds of Mexican citizens were killed in the 1970s and 1980s. Some groups, including Amnesty International, argue that these activities continue today.

In recently, a university professor’s new textbook that deals with the massacre has created controversy.

Claudia Sierra Campuzano, a history professor at the National School of Anthropology and History in Cuernavaca, wrote a middle-school textbook, “History of Mexico: an Analytical Approach.”

At the center of the debate is Campuzano’s description of the Tlatelolco massacre. The New York Times quotes the textbook as saying, “The army surrounded the square and fired from every angle on thousands of youths.” Her description is consistent with witness reports, documents and photographic evidence. It depicts what many historians have come to believe: Military and law-enforcement officials surrounded the unarmed students, trapping them, and then shot into the crowd, killing hundreds.

In the three decades since the massacre, most history textbooks in Mexico, which are under government scrutiny, have barely mentioned the Tlatelolco massacre. When they have, they have often blamed the students for instigating the violence.

Even though the government approved Campuzano’s book, it was ordered taken off the shelves by Secretary of Education Reyes Tamez on Feb. 3. Tamez then reversed his decision two days later, saying experts would review and evaluate the book for its objectivity. Campuzano called the actions “a crack in the face of democracy in this country.”

Despite governmental efforts to make the massacre at Tlatelolco invisible – to diminish its significance, to obliterate its memory – the Mexican people have not forgotten. Each year, relatives of the dead and disappeared, former university students and others gather to commemorate Tlatelolco. An estimated 20,000 to 45,000 marchers gathered at last year’s commemoration.

In the past two years, the Mexican government has taken steps to heal the painful wounds of recent decades. President Vicente Fox’s administration released 80 million pages of secret intelligence files covering 1952 through 1985, which, according to the most recent Human Rights Watch World Report, confirmed the arrests, torture and murders of at least 275 missing people.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission also identified 74 former government officials responsible for these crimes. Last year the Mexican Supreme Court ordered an investigation of the Tlatelolco massacre and named a special prosecutor.

Despite these moves forward, the case of the controversial middle-school textbook should remind us that trying to bury the truth of history comes with a high price. Truth and justice work hand-in-hand, and the healing of a nation cannot begin until the truth of history is brought to light.

Yolanda Chávez Leyvá is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas. She can be reached at

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