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Mexico 1968: Between repression and the fight for democracy

The XIX Olympic Games, held in Mexico from October 12 to 27, 1968, were the first to be hosted by a "developing" country. A long struggle had preceded the awarding of the JJOO to Mexico.

On October 12, 1968, more than 5,500 athletes from 112 countries took part in the opening of the Olympiad. Olympic enthusiasm aside, the atmosphere in the country was one of repression and revolt.

Ten days before the inauguration of the JJOO, the Mexican government used the army to brutally repress student demonstrations.

The demand for democracy

Five years earlier, in October 1963, the world's media announced that the Mexican capital had been chosen from among four contenders (Detroit in the United States, Lyon in France, and the Argentine capital Buenos Aires) to stage the world's most important sporting event.

The country's president at the time, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, declared: "This is worldwide recognition for the Mexican people."

The altitude of the Mexican capital (2,250m above sea level) had been an obstacle for two decades, due to its possible negative effect on the athletes.

Prior to the inauguration of the Olympic Games, Mexico received a great deal of criticism from various countries, as the infrastructure work required for the event was considerably delayed.

Nevertheless, 12 October marked a success for the government.

Arturo Anguiano, a doctor in sociology who was 20 in 1968, recalled: "The government had invested a lot of resources over three years, preparing all the conditions for the Olympiad. It wanted to present a somewhat original initiative.

"On the one hand, by considering it a Peace Olympiad, and on the other, by adding a Mexican touch, which was to create, at the same time as the Olympic feat, a cultural movement, called The Cultural Olympiad.".

Anguiano added: "At the time, Mexico was what Mario Vargas Llosa would later call a perfect dictatorship, and other writers like the Mexican Jose Revueltas, who would later take part in the movement and be imprisoned, considered it to be a dictatorship in disguise."

In the late 1960s, the country was experiencing what is known in Mexico as the "Mexican Miracle", with economic growth rates in excess of 6 percent per year, low inflation and a stable currency, the Mexican peso. Under the total control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), social protests were invariably silenced or repressed.

"The student movement of 1968 was to create a political schism in the country. It was not a movement born of desperation. Mexico had very high growth rates in that year.

It was the golden age of the Mexican economy. University was a process of social advancement. It is an extremely sensitive sector for the rest of society when female students rebel. What it reflected was that people wanted democracy.

"They wanted their point of view to be taken into account," said another participant in the student movement, Sergio Rodriguez, who was studying at the preparatory school linked to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Three months before the start of the Olympic Games, the grenadiers put down a confrontation between students from two high schools.

Students from the UNAM and the National Polytheism Institute (IPN) - the main educational establishments - organized themselves and went out to demonstrate on 30 July 30.

Army soldiers stormed a UNAM school in the heart of Mexico City, using a bazooka to break down the school's door.

It was at this point that the student movement spread to all schools. The 30 July march, led by UNAM rector Javier Barrios Sierra, was the signal for mobilization at all UNAM schools.

1968, a year of global crises

The Mexican student movement seemed to be an echo of the activism and unrest which took place in other countries such as France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, the United States and Italy.

It was also the year of the Tet offensive led by North Vietnamese troops against the American invasion of Vietnam; the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US, where the Black Panther movement in defence of the civil rights of the Afro-descendant population was gaining ground; and also the year of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops under Moscow's command. The student movement develops based on struggle committees and the National Strike Council (CNH).

A month before the protests began, Claude Kiejman, correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, arrived in Mexico and saw first-hand how the government was repressing the students.

"I arrived in June, and little by little this student movement grew stronger with the repression, which started quite quickly, and became very strong.

"I remember some demonstrations where there were people from all social backgrounds, especially the middle class and students," she said.

On 1 August, Sierra, led a demonstration attended by more than 80,000 students to defend university autonomy and denounce government repression.

"In this demonstration it won't just be about defending autonomy. Our banner in this public expression will also be the demand for the freedom of imprisoned students. Without wishing to exaggerate, we can say that it's not just the fate of the university and the polytechnic that is at stake today, but also the most important and cherished causes of the Mexican people", he says.

On 1 September, a month before the Olympic Games, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, in his annual State of the Nation address, declared: "We have been tolerant, we have even criticized excesses. But everything has a limit, and we can no longer allow the legal order to continue to be irretrievably broken, for all to see. That's what happened."

"For the Mexican government, it was unthinkable to allow these student protests to develop," said Thierry Terret, a sports historian specializing in the Olympic Games.

"The Cold War continued to shape the Games, and for the first time Germany was represented by two delegations, but it was above all the racial question that politics then imposed on everyone," he points out.

At a press conference on 2 September, the CNH responded to the President. "All the paragraphs in which the President explicitly and implicitly alludes to the fact that the objectives of the student movement are to sabotage the Olympiad, the CNH wants him to understand that the position of trying to maintain that there are no problems and that what exists are conspiracies, is very old and outdated.

The movement, first student and now popular, which began on July 23 this year, has very concrete objectives and causes that have nothing to do with the Olympic Games".

For the government, such a challenge was unacceptable.

"Everyone thought in mid-September that there might be a major crackdown because they didn't want there to be any demonstrations on October 12, the opening date of the Olympic Games. But we never thought there would be such a crackdown," Anguiano stressed.

Tlatelolco, October 2 1968

In mid-September, the army occupied the University, where it remained until the 27th of the same month. On Wednesday 2 October, a demonstration attended by some 8,000 people in Tlatelolco was savagely repressed by the army.

Keijman said: "What I remember most is the violence.

"I think I wrote in my article that it was a massacre and that there was a warlike atmosphere. In the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, there were men, women and children. And it was like a trap. When a member of the CNH began to speak, we saw a helicopter in the sky, tanks and also men in white gloves making signals."

According to the Mexican press, the crackdown left 29 people dead. The US embassy and its spy agency, the CIA, put the death toll at more than 100.

The student movement aroused worldwide demonstrations of support. At a press conference on 3 October, 1968, CNH members who had escaped arrest gave a few examples.

"Petitions to the Mexican government for amnesty for political prisoners come from virtually all over the world, from student organizations to intellectuals as well-known as Bertrand Russell, John Dee Bernal, Jean Paul Sartre, Mario Vargas Llosa and the entire Latin group in Paris."

On October 12, 1968, the 19th Olympic Games opened amid tight security. Four days later, in the 200-meter final, Americans Tommy Smith and John Carlos took first and third place respectively.

During the awards ceremony, as their country's anthem played, the two athletes raised their right and left fists, respectively gloved in black, a symbol of the Black Panther struggle against racial segregation and for civil rights in the United States. This is the image that history has retained of the Mexico Olympic Games.

Upon their return to the US, both athletes were stripped of their medals and lost their jobs.

Years later, in 2012, when asked if his gesture had been an activist act, Smith replied: "It was an activist act, something had to be done. It was done for a reason, social justice ignored by men, those who didn't believe in human rights, or didn't believe in the need to think about the treatment of those human rights.

"And I think the victory rostrum is very important because it was, you could say, the pinnacle of what I had to do and what people had to see before they could believe that we really understood it."

Anguiano added: "The main symbol of the Olympic Committee was a dove of peace, borrowed from Pablo Picasso.

"What the students did after the repression, and especially after October 2, was that they didn't leave a single dove of peace that didn't have red paint on its chest, symbolizing the blood of the people who had been massacred.