The Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City where, on the evening of October 2, 1968, some two hundred students, women, and adolescents were shot down by police and soldiers, lies at the end of the long Paseo de la Reforma, in the district of Tlatelolco. True to its name, the Plaza contains aspects of three different cultures. The earliest of the three is to be seen in the Aztec remains that rise out of a grassy area like whales out of the sea. The second takes the form of a Spanish colonial church, some four hundred years old, built, it appears, from the same rough stone as the Aztec remains, at once exotic and forbidding. It has been, at times, not only a church but a school for Indians (closed because it was teaching too successfully) and a prison.
Finally, there is the culture, if one may so call it, of today, the culture of the high-rise workers' apartments which soar above the plaza in shiny, mustard-yellow splendor. The Ministry of Foreign Relations, with its plenitude of glass, stands to one side of the Plaza; on the other side there is a school, occupied, last autumn, by the police.
It was to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas that I went the day I arrived in Mexico City from Buenos Aires to report on the Olympic games for the London Sunday Times. The Sunday Times had asked also for an account of the student disturbances, about which little had yet been published. On the overnight plane to Mexico City I had read in a cramped, ill-printed Buenos Aires newspaper that two people had been killed the day before, and that a protest meeting had been planned for Friday, the day of my arrival, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. I knew too that tanks had recently been used, and I was aware of the possibility of violence, but it seemed remote and unreal, as life in a strange country often tends to seem. At any rate, I thought, nothing was likely to happen.
Nor did it. I reached the Plaza about an hour before the meeting was due to begin, and looked about for students. A little knot of youths was standing by a wall, poorly dressed, the kind who in Rome would be ragazzi di vita, corner boys. Yet when I spoke to them, they responded with an urgency that set them quite apart. After a minute or two, a tiny, dark, intense young man in glasses came up and, with the solemn pomposity of some minor functionary, asked to know who I was. I told him I wrote for an English newspaper. He demanded my identity card, then showed me his; he was a polytechnic student. All of them spoke bitterly.
“Look: Granaderos in the schools, students in the street.”
“We're fighting for the poor people of the country.”
In a conspiracy of whispers, pauses, glances around corners, three of them, led by the young student, took me upstairs into one of the apartment blocks. A thin, amiable young woman opened the front door of one of the apartments and shyly allowed us in. As we sat in the large, bare living room, talking, a mysterious and endless progression of other women passed quietly through, bent on obscure errands.
The students told me how the troubles had begun: not in the university, but in a dispute between two rival polytechnic schools. A third school had intervened to help the first, and had then been occupied, with obscene brutality, by the detested Granaderos, the blue-helmeted riot police. The polytechnic students now found themselves vigorously supported by the university students, though traditionally the two bodies had been antipathetic. The police in turn called in the military, who blew down the door of one of the schools with a bazooka.
Things became more complicated when, on July 26, a student protest march merged, by sheer chance, with an annual Communist demonstration, leading to bloodletting, numerous deaths, and the military occupation of the university.
The young students with whom I was talking spoke continually of agents provocateurs and of the CIA. Agents of the CIA, they alleged, had stirred up the original fighting. But the Olympics, which were due to begin on October 1, would take place without interference. All the students wanted them, they insisted; they knew what efforts and sacrifices Mexicans had made, the prestige involved.
So we went, together, to the demonstration. It was perfectly peaceful. The student leaders, members of the strike council, stood on one of the long balconies. As orators, they were deafeningly inexpert, yelling into microphones as if their audience were on the other side of the immense square. They reiterated that there would be no interference with the Olympiad, they condemned the violence and corruption of the government, they insisted that they would go out proselytizing among the workers and peasants. The crowd, which had about it the simplicity and the spontaneity of the very poor, applauded each peroration. There must have been some four or five thousand people present, and when it began to rain, they took it stoically, continuing to smile and applaud. Among them moved a profusion of journalists, both European and American, some with notebooks, some snapping away with cameras. The only police to be seen were those occupying the school. The evening was altogether interesting but anticlimactic. Taking the smeared, poorly mimeographed pronouncements which were pushed into my hand, I left, vainly seeking a taxi. By the following Wednesday, October 2, my attention had turned largely to the Olympics. I spent countless strange hours at that exotic zoo, the Olympic Village, which lay far out on the perimeter of the city near a wilderness of brightly painted shacks, in the lee of mountains and volcanoes. In that muscular Nirvana, pain was self-induced, time a matter for the stop watch. The city meanwhile appeared plainly to have become quieter. On Monday, there had been a silent parade of protest staged by mothers and sisters of the imprisoned students. Before it began, a busful of students arrived; they were applauded by the marchers, then exhorted by a stern young man who re-emphasized through a megaphone that this was to be a march of silent protest, through the city. The students could walk beside it, but they could not participate. Nor did they try to. The march was dignified and unmolested, and again there was no reason to suspect the violence that was brewing.
That Wednesday afternoon, I rode up from the Olympic Village in one of the myriad slow buses provided for the press, each driven bumpily the longest possible way round by an eccentric driver, a cowboy of the road. Beside me sat John Rodda, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He was going to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas; there was another meeting. Was I coming, too? No, I said, there seemed no point. It was Wednesday, all had been quiet, and besides, I was working for a Sunday newspaper. So we left each other on the Reforma, outside the Hotel Maria Isabel, with its legions of sports journalists, while he sought a taxi to the meeting. By the following day, he'd be an English celebrity, his nerves in pieces after lying flat on the ground, a pistol barrel thrust to his head. Wednesday turned out to be not at all like Friday.
I missed it all; missed the helicopters with their green flares (which initiated the massacre), missed the press conference held in the middle of the night, the journalists hauled from their beds in the Maria Isabel by a guilty government, to be fed silly lies. I'd intended, next day, to go with a photographer to Acapulco, where the yachts were gathering, but at 7:30 that morning a colleague of mine telephoned from the Maria Isabel: “All hell's broken loose. They killed twenty-five people in the Plaza Tres Culturas last night.” The twenty-five would grow, on investigation, to a hundred, the hundred to two hundred.
My colleague had been to the press conference, had been one of those taken by bus to the Presidential Palace in the Zócalo, where the press attaché smoothly and flippantly announced that the death toll amounted to “seven to date, but without the precision of a sports report.” The Italian journalist, Oriana Fallacci, who had been up on the balcony with the student leaders, was suffering from “a slight bullet scratch.” In fact she'd been hit three times by bullet fragments, dragged down the stairs by her hair, had her watch and money stolen by soldiers, and was refused permission in the hospital to telephone the Italian Embassy because, she was told, she was una detenida: under arrest.
So it was not to Acapulco that I went that morning but back to Tlatelolco, where instead of yachts I saw tanks and a sea of broken glass, instead of sun, the malign scorch of a bazooka shell stretching three stories up to the top of the yellow apartment block. There were more than twenty light tanks in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, God knows how many army trucks, how many Granaderos in their blue helmets. There were two of us, and with us our photographer, who took photographs steadily, without hindrance. Once, a housewife went up coyly to a policeman and asked whether it was permitted to take pictures. “No,” he said, but he did nothing to interfere.
A shot, only one, pinged and echoed across the square, and people ran into the shelter of the great, yellow block, while soldiers called to them, “Stay calm! Don't run!” In the place where I had previously found the polytechnic students, others were now gathered, wry and subdued. There'd been at least a hundred deaths, they said. How did they know? “Because we saw the bodies.”
The students said that the shots had followed the dropping of a green flare by one of the two helicopters (one helicopter was from the police, the other from the army). The first shots, they thought, had also come from the helicopters. Fire, they believed, had been returned from the ground by armed members of the Liberation Front for Latin America—a suggestion which lost credence the further one pursued it.
My colleagues and I left the Plaza and its vast occupying force, enough to crush a real revolution, let alone mop up a sniper or two. In the days following, the picture grew sharply and repellently clearer. We spoke to students, read the absurdly docile press—castrated by the government's total control of newsprint, which must be bought from a single agency—and spoke above all to the editor of ¿Por Qué?, Mario Menendez Rodrigues. ¿Por Qué? is virtually the one journal of opposition in Mexico, a radical weekly of which I had heard, from a taxi driver, within thirty minutes of my arrival in Mexico. The taxi driver had praised its honesty, and said what most people seemed to think: that the government should accept the students' demands for a public dialogue on their moderate program of demands. (Moderate indeed; the release of prisoners, the sacking of the chief of the Granaderos and police, the right of public meeting.)
We found Menendez in his office in the Calle Monterrey. “That's me, boy,” he said, pudgy and massive in his shirt sleeves, walking with a strong man's roll, picking up telephones as though they were dumbbells. When he is not talking a good, sophisticated Spanish, he speaks a kind of agreeably dated American bop talk: “That's bullshit, boy. That's a lot of shit, man.” On the wall of his small office hangs the photograph of a healthy, distinguished gentleman: his grandfather, a crusading newspaper owner from the province of Yucatán, whose life was threatened and whose plant was destroyed on various occasions. Menendez's own life has been similarly threatened, his newsprint was withdrawn on specious grounds for a week after he'd published 300,000 copies of a gruesomely illustrated edition of the massacre, and he has been forced to move from one printing plant to another. Opening the left-hand drawer of his desk, he showed us a pistol, with three spare clips of ammunition: “I told them, ‘If you get me, boys, I've got brothers.’” Recently, he said, they had tried to “get” him with a bus. Someone, as he crossed the street, had shouted a warning, and he had leaped on a Renault, just in time to avoid the hurtling bus which knocked down and killed the two men standing next to him.
We looked, too, at the Colegio de Mejico, an institution of higher learning, situated not far from ¿Por Qué?, whose windows were dotted with bullet holes. Very early one September morning, gunmen, obviously professional, had raked the place with crossfire. using dumdum bullets. The Colegio regarded it as a warning, which makes sense.
The more questions we asked, the more the horror grew. There had been snipers on the balcony, but they had almost certainly been government agents, responding to the green flare and giving an excuse for the troops, already surrounding the Plaza, to march in, shooting and bayoneting. Other agents, wearing white gloves on their left hands for identification, were interspersed among the crowd. A number of these invaded the balcony where the student leaders stood, arresting those who, like Oriana Fallacci, had not already been shot down.
When the count of bodies had reached almost seventy, each of them recovered by the Red and Green Cross ambulance, an order was issued by the head of the security forces to remove them from the square. From that point, the bodies were taken away by the military and allegedly burned, either at the little town of Cuernavaca or at Campo Militar Number One.
The reason—if reason is the correct word—for the massacre seemed to lie in the vindictive character of President Diaz Ordaz. In the past, when dealing with the striking doctors, or again with the mayor of Mexico city, Ordaz had displayed a similar implacability. The defiance of the students, we heard, was something he had taken bitterly to heart, and the events of October 2 were meant to be seen as his revenge. A second explanation, that the country was on the brink of a military coup, that the generals had called the tune, turned out to have no basis, though it was probable that the generals were by no means averse to the massacre, and there are students who fear a coup when the President's four-year term of office expires.
We duly sent our report to the Sunday Times, sent it cautiously via New York, in the hands of our photographer. The following week, an attempt to fly out photographs of the massacre resulted only in blank film arriving in London. Meanwhile, the three of us wondered anxiously what would happen when the article appeared. Stories were circulating of foreign correspondents being beaten up in the streets, of whisky being forced down their throats to make them appear drunk and disorderly; of others who were set upon in bars. So we skulked apprehensively around corners, flung open doors, and succumbed in general to the Bond syndrome, until it grew clear that all the government would do was squeal paranoically. Mexico, its spokesmen said, had been subjected to a worldwide campaign of calumny (Mexicol). And how unsporting it was of sports journalists, licensed to report on the Olympics, to concern themselves in the country's internal affairs.
In the following week came the confessions. One student in particular, hitherto known as the most aggressive of all the leaders and suspected as an agent provocateur, sang loudly. He accused several members of ex-President Lopez Mateos's group, including a former provincial governor, as well as Mateos's private secretary, of supporting and fomenting the trouble. In time it was heard that he, like the other students who confessed, had been beaten and tortured. Some had been placed in baths charged with electric current; one was allegedly tied four times to a post, blindfolded, and told he was going to be shot.
What distinguished and, at the same time, invalidated these confessions was—like the government's own pronouncements—their ingenuous silliness, their obvious smack of vendetta. But they presaged, once the Olympiad was over, the blowing of a cold wind, at the prospect of which many artists and intellectuals began to shiver.
As for the Olympics themselves, there was of course some talk of putting them off, talk of danger to the athletes, but it was predictable they would go on, as they did. The executive of an American television company was heard to say that what worried him was his huge investment, that he thought the Mexican government would go to a thousand dead to preserve the games. In the Olympic Village, the athletes, who, some misguided humanitarians had feared, might actually identify with their slaughtered contemporaries, were sublimely and predictably indifferent. “You say it was a massacre,” said a dour New Zealand field hockey player, “other people may say something else.” An American oarsman lamented that the Establishment always got the blame. An English girl runner said, “Speaking on behalf of your ignorant athletes, I know sweet nothing about it.”
Meanwhile, all over Mexico City, doves flew with bland irony across giant posters, shop windows, even on the uniforms of the police. Todo es posible en la paz, the billboards proclaimed, with a significance which had never been intended. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the creaking, swollen, obsolete, dictatorial party, no longer able to cope with the problems raised by the very progress of Mexico, had been left to brood, with malign unease, over a scene it could no longer understand, nor control by any means except the force of the frightened.