20 years ago, I was on a CTA bus on the way home from my job in Rogers Park, when I struck up a conversation with another guy on the bus, a latino guy who was about my age-- mid twenties. It turned out he was from Mexico.
I know you'll be surprised that our conversation turned to politics-- I hardly ever talk about politics ("nudge, nudge, wink, wink"). He started telling me about a massacre of hundreds of college students in Mexico City in 1968. I was a little wary-- I had both a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Political Science, and minored in History. I read history voraciously. And I'd never heard about this. Still, he was obviously very bright and well-educated, and I never forgot that conversation.
A few years ago, word started seeping out in the mainstream news outlets about what has come to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.
1968 was a tumultuous year. There were protests in Chicago that turned bloody when the police attacked. Democratic reform, the "Prague Spring" in East Bloc Czechoslovakia was brutally crushed by a Soviet invasion. France teetered on the edge of a revolution. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There were student protests all over the world.
Mexico was no exception. In 1968 the summer Olympics were to be held in Mexico City. In the days before the start of the Olympics, students protested en masse for democratic reforms in Mexico. This threatened to become a huge embarassment for the Mexican government, which had long been totally controlled by the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish acronym "PRI," sent out soldiers, who machine-gunned the massed students.
The official story was that there were 25 deaths. This was, of course, laughable. Estimates are that about 350 students were murdered.
The first non-PRI president in decades, Vincente Fox (2000-2006) appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the massacre and the general "dirty war" against leftists in Mexico. Luis Echeverria, who was interior minister in 1968 (and became president two years later), was indicted for the murders, and charged with genocide. Last year, the genocide charge was thrown out because the statute of limitations had lapsed. Echeverria remained under house arrest for the massacre.
One of the mysteries, though, has been where are the bodies? The bodies of the hundreds of massacre victims were never found.
A few days ago, architect Rosa María Alvarado Martínez came forth and revealed something she'd discovered in 1981. While supervising a construction crew in the renovation of a hospital that had been a vocational school near the massacre site, and had been a site of clashes between students and soldiers, she discovered a tangle of skeletons and at least one bullet that came from a military rifle.
When she had gone to the authorities with her discovery, several men came to her, claiming to be policemen, and told her that if she went public with her discovery they would kidnap and murder her then three-year-old son. Here's the New York Times story:
Ms. Alvarado had the courage to come forward because recently, she stated, because her son was grown now, and living overseas. She is afraid still for her own safety, but her discovery had weighed on her conscience.
Yesterday, a Mexican federal magistrate ruled that former President Echeverria could no longer be held on charges of ordering the massacre, because while there was clearly a massacre, prosecutors had failed to present evidence that Echeverria himself was involved.
Do you think the magistrate was a PRI nominee?
The case will be appealed to a panel of three magistrates, but it is considered a severe blow to the prosecution. Echeverria is in poor health. I imagine that it will be like Chile's Pinochet-- he will die of old age while prosecutors futilely try to convict him.
A lot of people have drawn parallels between the Tlatelolco Massacre and Tiananmen Square Massacre-- a government embarassed by mass student protests--in China's case, it was fear of embarassment during an impending visit by Soviet President Gorbachev that motivated the killings.
It's ironic that what most people remember about the Mexico Olympics (besides Bob Beamon shattering the world's long-jump record) was the protest by United States atheletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. During the ceremony for the awarding of their gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200 meter dash, they gave the "black power" salute in support of human rights. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, showed his solidarity by wearing a badge for the "Olympics Project For Human Rights," which Smith and Carlos were members of.
They were, of course, lambasted for their act. Olympic director Avery Brundage deemed their protest inappropriate and suspended them from the games. At home, they were subjected to death threats against themselves and their families.
Norman and Carlos undoubtedly had no knowledge at of the Tlatelolco Massacre at the time, but it seems that the zeitgeist of 1968 was flowing past the Olympic medal stand as they protested for human rights. And the symbolism of a building built, literally, on a foundation of the bodies of what could have been future leaders of Mexico, as its people continue to struggle with the grinding poverty and blatant corruption that the brutal regime that killed the students has brought them, is as haunting an image as any ghost story I've ever read has conjured.