Friday, July 13, 2007

The Ghosts of 1968

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.


Skylers Dad said...

This is an amazing story JY, one that I was not aware of. The things that I remember about the 68 Olympics was all of the talk about how the altitude would affect the games. I remember Dick Fosbury and his unconventional backwards flip over the bar. Al Oerter won his 4th consecutive gold. I also remember going to Mexico city my senior year in High school in 1975. We toured some of the facilities, which were badly run down. The stadium was still in decent shape, they had a lot of soccer matches there.

Bubs said...

It's always sobering to realize how badly history can be manipulated and erased, even, by those with power.

Excellent post.

Splotchy said...

Wow, great post.

This stuff is news to me.

Anonymous said...

don't forget I was born in 1968. I've been steadily spreading surrealism since.

MacGuffin said...

Statute of limitations on genocide? WTF

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Excellent post. A while back I was researching material for a possible book on the Olympiads that have been held in the Americas, I learned about this tragic event. The '68 games were filled with other interesting things as well.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I had no idea about any of this. This is an outrage. Thanks so much for posting this.

Johnny Yen said...

Skyler's Dad-
I remember the Fosbury Flop!

I have only vague recollections of the Olympics (the first one I remember distinctly was the 1972 Munich Olympics), but I remember reading that there were concerns about the altitude. Some suggested that the thin air would give advantages to long jumpers, etc.

That was one of the themes of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. As they say, history is written by the victors.

Big Orange-
It's good that you found your purpose in life early!

Dr. Monkerstein-
Thanks. 1968 itself was an incredible year-- it began with the Tet offensive.

My family lived in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood from 1964 to April of 1968. It's the uberyuppie neighborhood now, but then it was ethnically mixed and bohemian. When King was assasinated, our teachers had to walk us home-- there was rioting just a few blocks away in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. There was electricity in the air-- even at seven years old, you could feel the vibe.

Thanks. It's amazing that they've been living with this "elephant in the room" for so long in Mexico.

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks-- it's incredible that this stuff has happened. There's a similar situation in Turkey. There was a genocide of Armenian people in the early 20th century. It is illegal in Turkey to refer to it publicly.

I know-- outrageous, isn't it?

GETkristiLOVE said...

I remember that moment during the Olympics but had forgotten all about it. Thanks for posting this. It's always great to read your stuff.

'Bubbles' said...

Outstanding post, JY

It is very cool that you remember talking to someone about this - and giving them benefit of the doubt for speaking about something that didn't seem to make sense.

Better we believe ourselves and our good intuition - no matter what someone says we should believe.

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks! It's funny, because the guys were not especially radical politcally other than that moment.

Thank you!

Some of the best discussions I've ever had were with strangers-- at a bar, in a cab, on buses and airplanes-- all kinds of places. Sometimes you get whackos, with crazy conspiracy theories (a cross-country Greyhound ride I took in 1980 springs to mind) but overally, it's been enriching.