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The Massacre of Tlatelolco - The role of the United States in the incidents of 1968

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 25 Seiten


1. Introduction

The Massacre of Tlatelolco on October the 2nd 1968 on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas is generally acknowledged to have been a watershed for Mexico’s history. Some call it Mexico’s Tiananmen Square to emphasize the political long of the participants for more democracy.[1] However, it can’t be doubted that the massacre was the climax of Mexico’s state repression during the 70s. The incidents of Tlatelolco had deep impact on Mexico’s political life and on the international perception of Mexico.

By these days, Mexico is the biggest Spanish speaking country in Latin America with enormous economic and historical ties to the United States. The Mexican United States common history has often been depicted by mistrust and mutual suspicion. Nevertheless, the relations between the two countries did vary. During the beginning of the 19th century economic cooperation between Porfirio Diaz and the US administration reached a never known efficiency, where as in the 40s during the Lázaro Cardenas administration the expropriation of the Oil industry caused tremendous confrontation.

With the degree of cooperation also varied the degree of America influence on Mexico’s decision-making process and thus on its history. Due to this constant influence, one who researches the incidents of Tlatelolco therefore has to look on Mexican-American-relations to understand in how far the United States could have been involved or what part the United States has played in the massacre of Tlatelolco.

To anticipate some results of this paper one should mention that there is no evidence that the United States have played a direct and active role in the Massacre, although there are many mostly biased facts trying to put the blame on the USA. Facts that show evidence of the US having close ties to the Mexican military and the to former president Diaz Ordaz have been approved but they do not automatically implicate any direct role. This paper is trying to maintain objectivity (one could question if researching the United States involvement and not the German or French is still objective) and will therefore not picture a non-grounded result. This paper will describe the United States’ perception of the Diaz Ordaz regime, the student movement and the Tlatelolco massacre in order to approach to the US role.

Facilitating the grasping of US perception during that time Mexican American relation will be firstly shown in an international context. To understand Mexico’s reality in the 70’s one should also give a brief sketch on the historical development, which also makes it easier to understand the student movement’s goals and the reason for the outbreak of massive demonstrations.

A main part of this paper will focus on sources provided by the American Embassy in Mexico, the Department of defense, the White House and the CIA. The documents have recently been declassified and give a view on the American appraisal of the incidents. The documents are not complete, and there are still many documents that haven’t been made accessible. It should also be mentioned that the document are not displaying the complete imago of the Mexico by the United States, but there are still evidence as the official inputs of policy making in the white house.

One of the major problems writing a paper on this topic is certainly the lack of real and objective information. On one hand the majority of primary sources have been destroyed by the Diaz Ordaz regime right after Tlatelolco, which complicates finding out objective facts about this part of Mexican modern history. On the other hand due to the fact that Tlateloco has become a vivid part of Mexican history that has never been entirely uncovered, secondary literature tends to contain many myths and heroized facts.

2. Framing the historical Circumstances from outside and inside

2.1 Mexico and US relations in the international arena

To grasp the position and the involvement of the US in the massacre of 1968 one has to keep in mind that the history of US-Mexican relation has never been easy and is based on a mutual mistrust. However to understand the exact circumstances in the 70s one has to look at Mexico and the US in the international level. The late 70s were predominated by the polarization of world affairs into a communist and a capitalist bloc. The history of Mexico’s PRI[2] didn’t allow a complete denegation of communistic countries, where as the powerful capitalistic bloc in the north wouldn’t have accepted to share a 2000 mile border with a communist neighbor. So, Mexico’s relations with the US can be depicted as a balancing act between revolutionary heritage and security reasons. The Harvard Professor Jose I. Dominguez describes this relation as a “bargained negligence”. This means that the US wouldn’t directly interfere into internal matters as long as Mexico did not implement communistic practices in their political system or support the Soviet Union. Since that the US in the 70s was seriously occupied in Europe and Asia, their relation with Mexico was embodied by negligence.[3]

At the end of the 70 the bilateral relationship was about to be destabilized due to various reasons. Firstly, the drug consumption in the US increased tremendously and Mexico became target of various attempts by the DEA[4] to stop the drug trafficking undermining Mexico’s sovereignty. Second the relation shifted because of different political positions towards incidents in Central America and Cuba.[5] The most critical and conflictual point was the relation between Mexico and Cuba. Mexico officially criticize Cuba’s growing ties with the Soviet Union[6] but even during the Cuban missile crisis 1962 the Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos said “our relation with Cuba continues to be perfectly normal based on the principle of nonintervention.”[7] The reasons for this relations to Cuba are quick to explain. Political ties to Cuba were useful to inhibit Fidel Castro to support leftist movements in Mexico. Also worth mentioning that Cuba would always be used to balance[8] against the United States and for rhetoric purposes when nationalistic public opinion did blame decision makers to be pro US.[9] Another argument investigated through latest publication revealed the Cuba Mexican relation even as an instrument for the US to gain access to the Island, since that Mexico used to be the only Latin American country having an embassy in Havana.[10]

In regard to the impact of the student protests in Mexico City it has to be mentioned that these typical pattern of Mexican relations with Cuba and the US relations with Mexico became reversed. The United States suddenly evolved from negligence to a major interest in this movement, and Mexico became for a short time a foreign priority, whereas the Mexican president Díaz Ordaz was close to express his dislike of Fidel Castro and his leftist elocution that allegedly might have provoked many young students to rebel aboveground against the political system of Mexico.[11]

2.2 Mexico historical development until the massacre of 68

Before the massacre on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas took place, Mexico was internationally seen as the only Latin American country that had achieved to install a stable democratic government. This perception also led to the decision of the Olympic Committee to choose Mexico as the venue for 1968. For Mexico this was an even better opportunity to portray its economic development and success in social justice.[12] But the international perception was wrong as the brutal intervention by the states during in the demonstration revealed. Erstwhile, the state had already shown that it would suppress unwished movements by any means. An attitude that later would be called la “Guerra Sucia”. From 58 to 59 railway workers were striking for higher salaries. The tie-up kept on growing until it reached 100.000 people. The state invited the strike leaders for a negotiation on a round table. The friendly offer turned out to be an entrapment in which the strike leader Demetrio Vallejo was arrested. While being captured, repression and persecution started until all cells of the strike had vanished.[13] In 1962 the peasant leader Rúben Jaramillo had been found dead together with his wife. Jaramillo was an adherent of Emiliano Zapata whom he had already fought with in the Mexican Revolution. Jaramillo did not stop to ask for more social justice and labor rights for the peasants until he was assassinated.[14] Although participation in these movements was numerous, repression never became public and the white and unsoiled image of Mexico internationally kept increasing.


[1] Kate Doye is a senior analyst and the director of the Mexico Project at the National Security Archieve in Washington DC. Sorces from the US institutions described in this paper have been published by this non-profitable organization.

[2] The PRI absorbed all the leaders from the Mexican Revolution to unify the people. Revolutionary leaders like Zapata and Pancho Villa rather gained their popularity by promoting social reforms and independence from the US.

[3] Jorge Dominguez and Rafael Fernandez de Castro, The United States and Mexico, Between Partnership and Conflict, (London: Routledge, 2001), p.10.

[4] Drug Enforcement Agency

[5] Jorge Dominguez and Rafael Fernandez de Castro, (2001), p.36.

[6] At the OAS meeting at Punta del Este in Uruguay the Mexican representative condemned the ties to Cuba

[7] Revista Bohemia 54, no. 38, september 21, 1962.

[8] Balancing means build up power against.

[9] Hal Klepak, From Reasonable Steadiness to „from crisis to crisis“: Mexico Cuba Relations in the Post Cold War Era, in: Foreign Policy toward Cuba, Isolation or Engagement?, Michele Zebich-Knos and Hether N. Nicol, edts. (Lexington Books, 2005), pp.87-107.

[10] For more details on Cuban-Mexican double dealing:

[11] Hal Klepak, (2005), p. 91.

[12] Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, Opening Mexico, the Making of a Democracy, (New York, 2004), p.68.

[13] Donald Hodges and Ross Gandy, Mexico under Siege, Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism, (New York 2002), p. 79.

[14] Elena Pontiatowska, The Student Movement of 1968, in: The Mexican Reader, History, Culture, Politic, Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson edts. (Duke University Press 2002) pp. 555-70.


ISBN (eBook)
632 KB
Institution / Hochschule
San Diego State University – History Department
Massacre Tlatelolco United States Modern Mexico



Titel: The Massacre of Tlatelolco - The role of the United States in the incidents of 1968