contributor perspectives

May 21, 2018 | 07:00 GMT

9 mins read

The Legacy of 1968 Continues to Burn in Mexico

Board of Contributors
A massacre of students marred the legacy of the Mexico City Olympic Games held in 1968.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • In the 1960s, Mexico's leaders saw hosting an Olympics as a chance to showcase the country's progress to the world.
  • The athletic competitions were a resounding success, but the military suppression of student protesters just days before the opening ceremonies overshadowed the event.
  • Fifty years later, memories of the massacre continue to haunt Mexico, and the country's violent legacy endures.

In Mexico, drug cartel assassins ushered in the first week of 2018, a key election year, with the murders of at least five political candidates. That spree of violence has continued, and more than 30 candidates have been assassinated to date. Cartel killers have also targeted journalists, especially those working to expose their nefarious activities, murdering a dozen in 2017 and at least four so far in 2018. Upcoming national elections and the promises of politicians advocating a crackdown on drug violence have incited a particularly vicious brand of wrath from the cartels. The death toll this year seems destined to eclipse last year's record-setting number of murders.

No matter who wins the presidential contest in July, Mexico is unlikely to recover from this epidemic of violence anytime soon and seems to have fallen irretrievably into chaos from its peaceful apex of decades ago. It was probably far from any of the killers' minds, but in addition to being an election year, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of two of the most significant events in modern Mexican history: the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City and the massacre of, by some estimates, hundreds of unarmed students in the Plaza of Three Cultures at Tlatelolco Square, a watershed moment permanently seared into Mexico's collective memory. These events, occurring less than two weeks apart in October 1968, put in stark relief the prospect of peace — and the reality of violence — in Mexico. Reflecting on both events, one struggles not to ponder the road not taken by Mexican leadership.

Mexican leaders intended the 1968 Olympics to be the ultimate symbol of Mexico as a thoroughly modern, developed and peaceful nation. Winning the Olympic bid in 1963 marked the zenith of an image-building project in Mexico, which had been decades in the making. Mexican leaders were convinced that staging the greatest Olympics to date would solidify their standing in the global community. Although many Mexicans lived in poverty, the country committed to the massive investment needed to build athletic and support facilities, venues that would had little function beyond the Games themselves. Mexican leaders marketed the Olympics as a festival of peace, and symbols such as the dove and the peace sign were ubiquitous in the country as the Games approached. However, as preparations for the Games carried on through the mid-1960s, the population simmered in discontent, and by the summer of 1968, a host of controversies cast doubts upon the prospects for a peaceful and successful event.

There were concerns that athletes would suffer in the high elevation and thin air. There were debates over the nature of amateurism, especially the differences between Western athletes and those from the Soviet bloc. There was a bitter clash over the admission of South Africa to the Olympics, which sparked a worldwide boycott movement, joined for a time by many high-profile black U.S. athletes.

A Spectacular Competition

Despite the many controversies, the athletic competition went off largely without incident, and the events themselves made for a memorable Olympics, as world records tumbled in the thin air. The competitions themselves are remembered for the momentous long jump of Bob Beamon, the aerial artistry of high jumper Dick Fosbury, the long-distance dominance of Kip Keino, and a cascade of falling world records. A Peruvian news program called the Mexico City Olympics "the most brilliant and astonishing in the history of the sports world."

The 1968 Olympics also set many precedents. A vast international festival called the Cultural Olympics was a great success and would become a mainstay of future Olympic Games. More athletes representing more nations competed in Mexico City than ever before. It was the first Olympics to be transmitted globally on color television, and the Games' official documentary film was nominated for an Academy Award. For the first time, a woman lit the Olympic flame. And, for the first time, the Olympics carried out drug and gender testing.

These Olympics are also remembered, of course, for the raised gloved fists of two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who delivered the Black Power salute from the podium during the medals presentation for the 200-meter sprint. The reaction to their protest was swift: The two were ushered from the stadium, removed from the U.S. team and banned from the athletic village. While a handful of other athletes supported Smith and Carlos by making gestures of their own, on the whole, the protests struck only a glancing blow at the peaceful tone of the Olympics. For a fortnight, Mexico basked in the admiring gaze of the sporting world.

The Bitter Memories

For Mexican citizens, October 1968 brings to mind different images, those of college students, clothes in tatters, faces and bodies bloodied, lined up against a wall for interrogation by soldiers and police officers. There are images of shoes — shaken from the feet of terrified students as they fled the violence — of purses, papers, and other belongings scattered throughout the plaza, dropped in a desperate flight for survival. There are images of bodies — the exact number still uncertain — slain by gunfire rained down on unarmed protesters from military weapons. For those recalling such images, the Summer Olympics and its peaceful messages are an afterthought; the lasting legacy of 1968 is the Tlatelolco Massacre.

Globally, that year was one of the most tumultuous in modern history, with protest movements springing up all over. As student protest gripped many nations, most notably the United States and France, Mexican students soon caught the fever. In July, a simple street fight between rival student factions — squelched violently by club-wielding riot police — sparked a movement that swelled to frightening proportions as the summer wore on. Students, who began the movement in protest of the police brutality used to suppress the initial clash, soon escalated their protest to include government repression of all kinds, the lack of true democracy in Mexican governance — and the upcoming Olympics.

By October, with the opening ceremonies only 10 days away and with the global media already descending on Mexico City, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and his advisers felt great pressure to resolve the "student problem" once and for all. On the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1968, about 10,000 students gathered at the Plaza of Three Cultures. Local police and the military hovered at the fringes of the crowd, but the students had grown accustomed to their presence after months of similar protests. The hum of helicopters, too, seemed little cause for concern.

Gunfire Erupts

Suddenly, at about 6:20 p.m., two helicopters swooped low over the square. A few moments later, thousands of army troops, who had quietly observed the protest for most of the afternoon, moved to seal off all exits from the square. A third military group, the Olympia Battalion, which had been raised and trained as a security force for the upcoming Olympics, opened fire on the crowd from a number of balconies that lined the square. The crowd was helpless. The unarmed students formed a panicked human wave, rushing from one end of the square to the other, seeking desperately for some escape. From every side the students met death. Those not killed were arrested and sent through a gantlet of soldiers and police, beaten and groped as they were pushed toward the trucks awaiting them.

It is unlikely that we will ever know precisely how many students died in the plaza. The official figure was 38 dead, including four soldiers. Observers insist that the total was much higher, some estimating as many as 3,000 killed. Most recent studies identify the number as somewhere between 300 and 500. Several thousand student leaders were taken into custody. Many were tortured, enduring beatings, electric shocks, mental duress, food deprivation and even simulated castration. It would be years before most of the students could consider public protest again, and many were too scarred emotionally to participate in any protests after that night.

Oct. 2, 1968, is a landmark date in Mexican history. On that night, Mexico, which had been lauded internationally as the paragon of stability and progress in Latin America, revealed grievous flaws, while the world's media watched. The Olympic motto, "Ante los Ojos del Mundo" — "Before the Eyes of the World" — reminded Mexicans that this tragedy unfolded before millions of viewers. The government had hoped that the Olympics would signal to the world that Mexico was a peaceful nation. Instead, the student massacre revealed a nation rife with social problems and dissatisfied citizens.

A Legacy of Sorrow

Every year, Mexicans mark Oct. 2 with solemn ceremonies, and thousands of people from all over the country make the pilgrimage to Tlatelolco to pay their respects to the slain students. Occasionally, these memorials themselves have been marked with violence, a distressing trend grown worse in recent years. Most troubling, on Sept. 26, 2014, 43 students in Guerrero state disappeared while trying to travel to Mexico City to attend the annual ceremonies. Reports suggest that a network of local police, government officials, military and drug cartel figures coordinated their (presumed) murders.

Those living in Mexico want to believe there has been progress since 1968, yet events like this — and the pervasiveness of drug-related violence — suggest that the peace and progress promised by Olympic organizers is now just a distant memory. One Mexican political analyst noted: "We're a more democratic nation than in 1968, but we're the epicenter of some of the world's most powerful organized criminal groups. The government lost its monopoly on violence."

There is a long history of Olympic host nations "cleaning up" in preparation to host an event that will draw international scrutiny. For Mexico in 1968, however, the pressure to stage a peaceful, organized and impressive event compelled Mexican leaders to carry out the worst atrocity in Olympic history, the massacre of their own citizens. Their decision to resolve difficult issues with violence continues to haunt the nation today.

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