Mexico: The 1968 Student Movement and Tlatelolco Massacre


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI—or Institutional Revolutionary Party—had presided over the country longer than the communist party had ruled the Soviet Union. While claiming to embody the spirit of revolutionary heroes such as Emiliano Zapata, the authoritarian PRI exerted control through a one-party state. So, democracy didn’t flourish in Mexico, but the economy did, in booms and busts.

Students in a burned bus
A relatively simple high school brawl over a football match led to tension rising to the point that a massacre involving several hundred people happened. (Image: Marcel·lí Perelló/Public domain)

It Started with Students

By the 1960s, incomes were on the rise, and a vibrant middle class was sending its sons and daughters to universities in unprecedented numbers. The Vietnam War, the Prague Spring, and global student protests around the world aroused the interests of many young Mexicans, as did domestic issues ranging from concerns about one-party rule, US influence, and indigenous rights. 

Closer to home, the Cuban Revolution and affection for the recently assassinated Che Guevara had given the idea of Latin American revolution a romantic aura while making it also seem possible.

But the initial source of young Mexicans’ challenge to the anti-authoritarianism of their government in the summer of 1968 started with a high school brawl over a football match. When riot police attempted to restore order through the use of force, they unleashed days of confrontations between teenagers and police.

Suppressed Desire for Political Change

On July 26, tensions escalated when army troops moved in and forced their way into a local high school where students were barricaded. Several students were reportedly killed in the skirmish. The government’s disproportionate response prompted outrage from students throughout Mexico City. 

Student groups on campuses throughout the capital quickly coalesced to form a unified movement that advocated for change. The students demanded free speech, the release of jailed students, and an end to state violence. As one New York Times reporter described it, the government’s violent response had unleashed the students’ “suppressed desire for political change”.

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National Strike Council

Students formed themselves into a National Strike Council and called for a demonstration in Mexico City on August 13. Just two weeks after the initial clashes with the police, the student leaders were unsure how successful their march would be. In addition to students, workers and professionals answered the call— 200,000 people marched that day through the streets of Mexico City. 

On August 27, 1968, a second march saw roughly a half-million participants in the Mexican capital, there to demand wider freedoms. The army and police forcibly cleared the central plaza after several hours. But the students considered the massive demonstration a great success, nevertheless.

The Authoritarian PRI Had Other Plans in Mind

People protesting in the street in Mexico City
The streets of Mexico City had dissolved into disorder a very short time before the Summer Olympics, a situation the authoritarian PRI decided to handle forcefully. (Image: Marcel·lí Perelló/Public domain)

Over the next few weeks, students occupied school buildings and engaged in non-violent marches like those in the US Civil Rights Movement. But on September 18, with the Summer Olympics and international delegations converging on the capital, the government decided enough was enough. Security forces stormed the occupied university buildings and ended the protests. The estimates of those arrested range from several hundred to a few thousand.

Refusing to be silenced, Mexican students now redoubled their efforts. The Mexican youths hung posters calling for freedom throughout the city. Street battles between students and police raged. Cars and buses were commandeered and converted into barricades.

As the streets of Mexico City dissolved into disorder, the international media arrived. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz had been looking forward to the prestige of hosting the Summer Olympics, and the capital had been meticulously refurbished and landscaped to show the world that Mexico was a vibrant, modern nation. The student demonstrations, protesting governmental repression and violence, didn’t align with the image that Diaz wanted to portray.

The 1968 Summer Olympics opening with “MEXICO 68” written on the scoreboard
Though there was international outrage on the massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza, no country boycotted the Olympics. (Image: Sergio Rodriguez/Public domain)

A Massacre Before the Olympics

As student committees called for a mass meeting in Tlatelolco Plaza on October 2, the situation was about to reach a crisis. That evening, army helicopters appeared over the square, where some 10,000 people had assembled to hear activist speeches. Searchlights illuminated the plaza. Then shots rang out, and tanks rolled in. A massacre unfolded. 

While the death toll is contested, estimates range from several dozen to several hundred killed. Many more were injured. President Diaz had warned that his government would “no longer allow the legal order to be irrevocably broken”, and he was true to his threat.

In spite of the international outrage, the XIX Olympiad opened 12 days later. And no country boycotted the games.

Common Questions about 1968 Student Movement and Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico

Q: How did political tensions between students and the Mexican government start in the summer of 1968?

After a high school brawl over a football match, riot police used extreme force, leading to tense confrontations between the two parties. The authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had a disproportionate response since the army was sent, and some teenagers were killed in a skirmish.

Q: What did Mexican students demand from the government after the incident on July 26?

The students formed a National Strike Council and demanded free speech, the release of jailed students, and an end to state violence. To protest against the authoritarian PRI, a march was organized in Mexico City, which was surprisingly successful and large in numbers.

Q: How did the 1968 Summer Olympics affect political tensions in Mexico?

Because of the Summer Olympics and the image of Mexico that the authoritarian PRI wanted to show, the government decided to double down on suppression which led to a massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza. Though there was international outrage, no countries boycotted the Summer Olympics, which was held 12 days after the massacre.

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