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  • “La Plaza era una trampa”: Emotional Violence of Tlatelolco 1968 in Luis Spota’s La Plaza
  • Victoria Carpenter

1968 was a year of worldwide turmoil and Mexico was no exception. In preparation for the Olympic Games, the country found itself amidst student protests and strikes by teachers, university professors, doctors and railroad workers (Meyer et al 583–86). Student protests were particularly detrimental to the PRI’s1 plan to present the country as a haven of democracy. Between July and October 1968 there were several serious altercations between students from vocational and preparatory schools and police and army forces in Mexico City; among these was the attack on San Ildefonso School on 26 July 1968. With the police invasion of the city’s schools and university campuses, the scene was set for a major showdown.

On 2 October, 10 days before the Olympic Games opened in Mexico City, CNH (Consejo Nacional de Huelga) organised a demonstration in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the residential district of Tlatelolco. The original plan was for the demonstration to start in the square and continue to Casco Santo Tomás, a campus of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional. However, with the growing presence of police and army around the square, it was decided not to proceed with the second part of the demonstration. The demonstration started around 16:00; by 18:00 the speeches delivered from the third floor of the Chihuahua building were over and the demonstrators were about to leave the square. At this point, a helicopter flew over the square and two flares were set off. This must have been the signal to the Batallón Olímpia, a special forces group who came up to the third floor of the Chihuahua building during the demonstration and, according to most witnesses, opened fire on the police and army troops, thus provoking a retaliatory response.

The response was well coordinated and severe. Armed troops entered the square along with police and opened fire on the demonstrators, bystanders and reporters. In an ensuing chaos many were killed or wounded. Official reports ranged from 20 dead and 75 wounded (3 October), to 30 dead and 53 wounded (4 October); finally, on 5 October the capital’s largest daily newspaper Excelsior reported 33 dead and 62 seriously wounded and these numbers were not amended any further in the press or in official statements. Neither is there a popular consensus on how many died that night; estimates range from 50 dead and 1,000 wounded (Womack 684) to at least 500 dead and several thousand wounded (Hellman 205, n. 24), although the number of 267 dead and 1,200 wounded (reported [End Page 40] by John Rodda, a Guardian sports correspondent—Rodda 18) is accepted as reasonably accurate.

The state discourse delivered the first narratives about the massacre on the morning of 3 October, as most of the capital’s daily newspapers focused on what had happened the night before. A lot of the coverage was written by the journalists who had witnessed the events unfolding in the Plaza; some were attacked by the soldiers, wounded or beaten (see, for example, “Atropello a Excélsior” or “Recio combate” 14A). Then the coverage shifted to the analysis of the massacre, trying to determine who was responsible for opening fire, why the demonstration led to violence, and how the conflict can be resolved. The next stage was an emotional reaction to the massacre: anger at a violent attack on unarmed people, grief for the dead and their families, and hope for quick reconciliation (see Carpenter “2 de octubre”).

As the dust settled and other events came to the fore of the media’s and public attention (such as the opening of the XIX Olympic Games on 12 October), the massacre became the subject of the public discourse.2 On the surface, the two discourses appeared to be at loggerheads in the way they portrayed and analysed the massacre. Díaz Ordaz’s fifth Presidential Address is a prime example of this standoff. Using general terms like “conflicto”, “imperfecciones”, and “crisis” (367–70), the address paints a rather simplistic picture of the government-father telling off...