Mexico: The Storm Before the Storm
Mexico: The Storm Before the Storm

By Elizabeth Mart¡nez

     Like handwriting on the wall, a hidden story of Mexican
Army repression 25 years ago emerged shortly before
rebelling indigenous people in Chiapas met equally bloody
army repression last month.
     Mexico's past and present have thus been linked once
again. As I write these words an unspeakable massacre
appears to be underway. Shall the future be different?
     Back in 1968, at the height of a vibrant mass movement,
hundreds of unarmed Mexican students and working class
people were shot or bayonetted by state forces when they
gathered for a rally in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres
Culturas of Tlatelolco. No official investigation of the
October 2, 1968 bloodbath took place, no accountability for
the massacre was ever established. But many rejected the
government's claims about students with weapons, outside
agitators and a "Communist conspiracy."
     Nor did people forget the atrocities. Last December a
privately established Truth Commission composed of
internationally respected Mexican writers and scholars
released a report on what it had been able to establish
about October 2. It traced the growth of the Student
Movement and the government's repression, which had
escalated as the students won massive grassroots support.
Complete with mass arrests, violence, infiltrators and
agents, "a veritable State operation, fully coordinated,"
was in operation.
     Came the October 2 rally at the Tlatelolco apartment
complex. Among up to 15,000 army and police personnel on
hand, with 300 tanks, jeeps and other vehicles, was an
irregular unit known as the Olimpia Battalion. At a signal,
soldiers moved to close their circle around the crowd and
the Olimpia Battalion opened fire on men, women and children
trying to flee. Battalion members were dressed in civilian
clothes, in total violation of internationally recognized
military norms. Many participants recalled hearing men
dressed like civilians call out to soldiers "Olimpia
Battalion -- hold your fire."
     It had been impossible for the Truth Commission to
establish many basic facts such as the exact number of
people killed that night (over 300 is a widely accepted
estimate) because no access to official archives had been
allowed them. Therefore it recommended an addition to
Article 8 of the Mexican Constitution that would guarantee
citizens free access to state archives except where they
concerned matters of national security; these would remain
closed for no more than 25 years.
     A week later, December 20, such an addition was
formally proposed by a member of the Chamber of Deputies who
had been a student leader in 1968 and active on the left
ever since. Ra£l Alvarez Garin spoke on behalf of deputies


from the Partido Revolucionario Democr tico (PRD) headed by
Cuauht‚moc C rdenas. He accused the Olimpia Battalion of
having initiated the October 2 genocide and gave a list of
93 Battalion members present that night, with their
addresses. (They include two men who later rose to the rank
of general, one of them having become Chief of Staff to
President Miguel de la Madrid.) The unconstitutional
practice of using the army to deal with domestic political
conflict had to end; Alvarez Garin also argued for
establishment of the Nuremberg principle that being ordered
to carry out a certain act was no defense when the act
itself is a crime against an individual or humanity.
     In response to the charges, Secretary of Defense Gen.
Antonio Riviello Bazan invited reporters to a "breakfast"
where he denied any army wrongdoing. He claimed that
soldiers were just following orders on October 2. That the
Army today is not the same as the Army in 1968; it was
unfair to blame troops who hadn't even been born yet. As for
the list of Olimpia Battalion members, he wanted to see "the
list of people who contributed financially to the 1968
movement, who planted the bombs, who want another system of
government." (But he never denied the Battalion list.)
     With his rimless glasses, and self-assured air,
Riviello could have been a Pentagon general as he offered to
screen for reporters a film of October 2 that had supposedly
been sent in by civilians. It was a 9-minute video of short
clips showing civilians firing on the crowd and other images
to refute claims of Army responsibility for the massacre.
The video also showed a soldier with a lost child,
protecting the boy from gunfire with his own body.
     Still, history was made at that so-called breakfast:
for the first time in 25 years the Army spoke publicly about
1968. That this could happen, Alvarez Garin commented to me,
has to do with the contemporary rebellions by impoverished
campesinos which have continued over the years. Today, with
TV showing  villages bombed by an out-of-control army and
rebels whose hands had clearly been tied when they were shot
in the head; with witnesses reporting on how retreating
rebels were machine-gunned from army helicopters...perhaps
such crimes will not be hidden for 25 years this time.
     President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's promises of a
more democratic Mexico -- part of his neoliberal sales pitch
to foreigners -- have offered progressives a better chance
than usual to capitalize on ruling class contradictions. At
the same time we still hear echoes of 1968 when the media
and other observers charge that "outside agitators" inspired
the Chiapas rebellion. Here in the U.S. we can try to help
tilt the balance toward an end to army impunity by pressing
the Salinas regime in human rights terms. We can demonstrate
at Mexican consulates, watch-dog NAFTA operations, learn
more about the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and their
struggles. We certainly must expose and denounce our mass
media's coverage of Chiapas, with its classic imperialist
perspective and language. Adelante!


     Elizabeth Martinez, who was in Mexico in December, is a
writer, activist, women's studies instructor and an editor
of CrossRoads. Her most recent book is 500 A¤os del Pueblo
Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.