The guns in the shooting gallery

Mexico has never healed from the state violence that meets student revolts, dating back to 1968.

Mexican army troops guard a group of young protesters in Mexico City on Oct. 3, 1968. (AP Photo)

Mexico’s current situation is no secret. News have spread fast as protests continue to grow and inconformity pushes demonstrators to make visible, in any way possible, the causes of their indignation. Thus, the 43 students from Iguala have become an open wound for the nation. They were, on September 26th, detained for protesting, and were, allegedly, given by the mayor José Luis Abarca to local narcos known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). Despite recent testimonies regarding their possible murder and the obscurity surrounding the whole ordeal (with questions about their possible incineration), families of the students as well as their supporters refuse to accept their death. People demand a response from the Government and they still wait for the students’ return, or for a definitive proof of the impossibility of such a thing.

But this is not the first time that Mexico goes through something like this. In 1968, with the Olympics to be held in the country’s capital coming closer, youth groups which were part of the student movement organized various demonstrations criticizing the way in which the country was hiding its social and political situation. The government sought to present a friendlier, distorted image to foreign visitors, so locals took the streets. The official position was to try to silence every dissatisfied voice that protested for a true change and against the setting up of this façade.

Mexican author Elena Poniatowska gathers, in her book “La noche de Tlatelolco” (The Night of Tlatelolco), various testimonies about the atmosphere before and after the repression against the 1968 protests. Poniatowska opens her book with a literary description of the mood just before the events that would take place on Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures). She describes the enthusiasm of the students who were crying for change and taking advantage of a moment they saw fit to ask for it: “They are many. They come down Melchor Ocampo, Reforma, Juárez, Cinco de Mayo, laughing, boys and girls, students walking arm in arm, in as festive a mood as if they were going to a street fair; carefree boys and girls who do not know that tomorrow, and the day after, their dead bodies will be lying swollen in the rain, after a fair where the guns in the shooting gallery are aimed at them, children-targets, wonderstruck-children”.

Poniatowska includes, besides fragments of some of those who participated in the protests, chants from the demonstrations, transcriptions of signs, bits of what newspapers published right after the shooting at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Protesters reached there on October 2nd and a combat against the army ensued. The events that triggered that reaction are still pretty unclear (and the body count goes anywhere from 30 to 300), though the non-official version goes that it was the Government’s fault, that it ordered to open fire on the people gathered in Tlatelolco.

The testimonies in Poniatowska’s book are a historical echo of the current protests of the student community in Mexico. Many have come together to protest against violence, a kind of violence of which Iguala is just another example. The response to what happened to the Ayotzinapa students, as well as the protests that ended up becoming the night of Tlatelolco, are the result of the dissatisfaction of the country with its government. The protesters demand explanations about the “future of the country” and about the repression they faced for demonstrating (which became another catalyst for the uneasiness).

In one of the testimonies of the book, Margarita Isabel, an actress, says: “I think the strength and the importance of the student movement came from its repression. More than a political discourse, repression was what politicized people and managed to get a majority involved actively in the assemblies”. That is the same repression that local media, such as Televisa, have exercised. It is not a mystery that media is controlled by the Mexican government. Mexicans talk openly about how the State filters TV news and it is a common notion that entertainment should be produced to distract the population from the crude circumstances of the country. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s success in the latest elections had to do with just that. The image that was built of him was modeled on soap opera’s romances, the kind appreciated by Mexican housewives. The return of Peña Nieto’s party, PRI, to power, secured many votes with this media strategy. But the President has struggled to keep his fabricated charm as inconformity grows.

News about what happened to the Ayotzinapa students, though, have thrived online. Internet is the prefered medium to communicate what is going on and to make it visible outside of Mexico. The hashtags #YaMeCansé (#IAmTired), for example, or #AyotzinapaSomosTodos (#WeAreAllAyotzinapa) have become staples when discussing the protest. Furthermore, protesters have filmed and documented the manifestations caused by the events surrounding the Ayotzinapa 43. This is how citizens from all over the country have responded to the premise “el dolor nos iguala” (“pain makes us equal”, a pun in Spanish referring to the city where the students were abducted), by protesting.

Just like the protests from ‘68, this time people all over Mexico (and students in particular) have identified with the demonstrations. But this has triggered negative reactions from the Government. In the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), students have gathered in assemblies to discuss how can they contribute. They have done so peacefully. Yet, last week four individuals went into UNAM’s campus (known as “Ciudad Universitaria”, or “CU”) and followed a few students. Shots were fired into the air and some students were injured. About this and about the fear now instilled in the school’s population, Hugo Márquez, a student from the English Literature department, said to me: “I felt I was intouchable inside of CU, because of what October 2nd [of 1968] had brought forth, but this is not the case anymore”.

The memory of Tlatelolco should suffice to ensure that such atrocities won’t ever happen again. But Tlatelolco is currently a warning of what is happening right now, of what already happened and of what might happen in the future. In an interview, Elena Poniatowska put it like this: “after the killings of Tlatelolco I was convinced that there wouldn’t be another massacre, but of course it is very easy in my country, because death is always nearby”. She also compared Ayotzinapa with Auschwitz: “It reminds us of World War II, of the elimination of human beings. (…) The fact that 43 young people were murdered like that, not just murdered, but burnt in a dump, like trash, like they were shit, is a big embarrassment, personally, and for the country. How can our country face the world after this?”.

That final question rubs salt in a wound that has never truly healed. It might be valid also to ask how is the country going to face itself, how is it going to face the repetition of its past, so this time there is not as much pain or spilled blood, so this time there is not oblivion.

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