THE TLATELOLCO VERDICT
An official crime - half a century later
October 2018 - The Mexican Army officer who escorted me
out of Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City fifty years ago this month became emotional
while he explained again and again that his soldiers only retaliated in kind once
student snipers had shot at them from the windows of the residential high rises that
surround the iconic Square.
This month, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre, a senior
government official, Jaime Rochin, finally admitted for the first time that
‘official snipers’ (allegedly drawn from the presidential guard) and not
students had fired from those windows into units of soldiers surrounding the
Square and at the ten thousand protesters gathered on the Square to hear the
complaints of the student leaders.
Not surprisingly the shooting created headless panic and chaos.
The officer had escorted me from the bloodbath while bodies still sprawled
like mole hills on the Square, the injured, moaning, were still being
stretchered into ambulances and the odd shot still rang out somewhere. He admitted
his soldiers had no idea from where the shooting came and so they fired back at
invisible targets obeying the standing order issued before their deployment: “Fire only if
Today I am still convinced my escort really believed the story of the
student snipers, a story peddled to the public, the soldiers and the media for decades
afterwards to justify the fatal shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters on the
Square, the maiming of over a thousand and the massive arrests of dissidents and
activists that followed in subsequent weeks.
To myself and many others Tlatelolco soon became symbolic
of how easily governments hoodwink a complacent media a
nd the public by justifying their felonies and their wars. The trick is to label
‘the others’ as ‘terrorists’ and blame them for atrocities like the attack on th
e twin towers of New York which was wrongly blamed on Iraq.
At the time, in 1968, I was working for Reuters News agency and the army
officer, a thin, moustachioed type, was ordered by a general to escort me ‘safely’ out of
the Square through the clusters of soldiers still present. The General was
anxious I had the right version of the facts and would convey them to the international
public. His fairy-tale of the student snipers, hardly credible to me even then, was
swallowed hook-line-and-sinker by the subservient Mexican media and most
international news organizations. A few cries to cancel the Olympic Games in Mexico
City fell on deaf ears.
Ten days after fire-fighting units had taken hours to flush away blood
from the Square the Olympic torch was lit in a spectacular ceremony at the Aztec
Stadium eight miles away.
As for my own agency? It preferred to run with the government
version of self- defence and dilute my report of mayhem, death and wild firing
by troops, plus the fatal shooting of a girl student next to me, to a few
insignificant paragraphs tacked to the bottom of a story which a desk editor
had cobbled together from official statements. After all I was a rookie,
untrained in the ways of the world yet, surely excessively impressed by this
fatal gunfight between students and soldiers. Besides, it was safer to believe the
government version and so safeguard official goodwill and lucrative contracts
with the local media.
The Tlatelolco Massacre has haunted me all my life, nesting in a corner of my
conscience the way a dental nerve now and then sends out pangs of pain.
I wrote two books with Tlatelolco as their central theme. The books, a
biography entitled ‘Times of Terror’ and a novel with the title ‘The Honorary Hack’
are both available on Amazon.
For at least three decades the rumour of ‘chaos created by military
snipers’ has been circulated by anonymous sources and picked up by people like
myself who had good contacts and had been convinced from the very beginning the
massacre had been brutally planned at official level. Why else mobilize thousands of
troops and armoured vehicles to surround a square filled with unarmed students and
civilians, why else plant military snipers in civvies on residential balconies, the high
floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Square and the roof of a church above
During half a century no one was indicted or arrested for Tlatelolco, just as no
one in Mexico was ever charged or arrested for another official concoction - the
kidnapping and murder of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa Teachers College
in 2014. According to the official version the students were stopped by ‘corrupt’ police
officials, probably ‘porros’ (the ubiquitous paramilitary groups) and handed over to a
drug cartel. The students were then murdered and the corpses incinerated on a
garbage dump. Why the ‘porros’ would hand over the 43 to a drug cartel which then
exterminated them remains a mystery.
The horrid fate of the student-teachers was strangely connected to Tlatelolco. The
group was on their way to Mexico City to participate in the anniversary of the massacre
which has become an annual anti-government demonstration demanding
that the culprits (those still alive) be brought to trial.
Hopefully the Night of Tlatololco will not just remain one more stain on
Mexicos’ bloody history but may provide the spark one day to light the fire that will
turn into ashes a corrupt and arrogant political and military system that has clung to
power with immunity for nearly a century.
Uli Schmetzer was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. During his long
career he covered Latin America for Reuters and Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the Chicago Tribune.
Since retiring he has written six books, a biography, a documentary, novels and short stories mostly based on
his experiences as a foreign correspondent.
All are available on Amazon and Kindle.