In 2004, when Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, Mexico’s special prosecutor for past social and political movements, sought an arrest for ex-president Luis Echeverría Álvarez, many hailed the arrival of Mexico’s “Pinochet moment.”1 During his 1970–76 presidency, Echeverría oversaw a “dirty war” against political dissidents, and before that, as secretary of the interior, directed the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza on October 2, 1968. In bringing Echeverría, his secretary of the interior, Mario Moya Palacios, and many of their subordinates to face charges for their involvement in the massacres of Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi in 1971, a small group called the 1968 Committee for Democratic Liberties (Comité 1968) played a crucial role, having struggled for such an outcome for decades.2 Led mostly by survivors of the era’s political movements, the Comité has fought for human rights for close to 40 years. Despite little recognition in governmental and international agencies’ reports, the Comité is one of the motivating forces behind the modern human rights and democracy movement in Mexico. With the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Mexican student movement, and with the advent of new conflicts since then—particularly in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Atenco—the group’s history of struggle is crucial to understanding contemporary Mexican politics.
In the immediate wake of the 1968 massacre, student activists continued their struggles against impunity despite insurmountable odds. Police beat, detained, and arrested male and female activists with equal vengeance.3 In the years immediately following the massacre, many activists received stiff prison sentences, while others, fearing for their lives, fled into exile. Despite constant threats, activists continued to organize, forming a loose organization on the first anniversary of the movement. As during the summer of 1968, activists recognized the need to take to the streets, the countryside, and the factories to construct spaces for discussion, reflection, and analysis. In the summer of 1969, activists organized groups to visit the political prisoners and continued to push for their initial demands. Much of this activism was dispersed due to the continued police and military presence on university and high school campuses, especially around the time of the October 2 anniversaries in 1969 and the early 1970s. Following Echeverría’s ascent to the presidency, several activists arrested in 1968 and 1969 gained their freedom. But in the summer of 1971, activists were brutally confronted by an organized band of government-sponsored (and allegedly U.S.-trained) thugs called los halcones (the falcons) when they organized to support student protests and workers’ strikes. Using the halcones as shock troops, the government repressed the activists, and a 1971 massacre on the religious holiday of Corpus Christi was followed by a systematic dirty war against young people that predated the horrors of Chile and Argentina.4
Over the following years, members of the National Strike Council (CNH) began to formalize a project that would eventually evolve into the Comité 68, and develop a language of human rights and democratic liberties. For the next 40 years, the Comité continued to mark the massacre with anniversary marches, publications, and conferences. In 1988, the electoral corruption that robbed Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the presidency and installed Carlos Salinas de Gortari galvanized the activists to push for greater transparency and democratic reform. In 1993–94, activists, scholars, and artists formed the Truth Commission, whose efforts would ultimately lead in 2001 to the opening of closed archives that are now housed in the National Archive in Mexico City. Activists were finally able to see their own security reports and gauge the level of government infiltration. In 1998, for the 30th anniversary, the Comité 68-98 was developed as an organizational body. The members included ex-CNH members who were also joined by prominent artists and intellectuals in seeking justice for the crimes committed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.5
By 2002, the Comité had become a civic association whose members had all been instrumental in bringing legal proceeding against Echeverría and other government officials.6 The Comité began documenting the violence in an effort to create a national collective memory. To develop and promote historical memory, the Comité has collected oral histories, writings, and visual evidence to articulate and publicize the memories of the events, people, and places. This work continues to be key in demanding the release of documents and archives from the government, but also from ex-activists. Through this process, the Comité seeks to reaffirm that violent deeds took place and that people were in fact damaged by such deeds. The use and production of these materials demonstrates the authoritarianism and impunity of the state, but more importantly it validates the experiences by rescuing individual and collective identities of those who may have been affected by the violence.
The Comité has left an indelible mark on contemporary Mexican society. It has demanded the inclusion of the massacres in history textbooks and recognition of them in public spaces. Unfortunately, many Mexicans criticize the Comité’s right to memory, portraying the activists as living in the past. Yet the Comité’s struggle is not based on nostalgia, but on a continued analysis of the Mexican state’s often violent behavior, both past and present. Meanwhile, successive Mexican governments have sustained a judicial structure that refuses to punish state agents who have committed violent acts; in some cases, the government has protected them outright. When Mexico ratified the 2002 Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances of Persons, according to Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch, “it included an interpretative declaration stating ‘it shall be understood that the provisions of said Convention shall apply to acts constituting the forced disappearances of persons, ordered, executed, or committed after the entry into force of the Convention.’ ”7
Because of such deliberate examples to protect those in power, the Comité is determined to sustain the right to remember and to know the facts—whether in Mexico or in other parts of the world—to show how those in power construct strategies of impunity, mainly behind closed doors, as they did in 1968 and 1971. Echeverría remains under house arrest for his involvement in the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, but he has never been held accountable for the Tlatelolco massacre.8
Through collecting evidence, activists address, rescue, and recover memories, whether personal, social, or collective, in an analytical process on a continuum from the past to the present. Because of the continuation of state-sponsored violence and anti-democratic practices in Mexico, the Comité seeks to create a political memory of Mexico that connects individuals to such events whether as a member of a family, investigator, or organizational activist.
Members of the Comité, as the developers of memory, have sought to enlighten, to judge, and to put up for discussion traumatic events, perspectives, and people of recent history. Thus, they take up these perspectives as witnesses to such events and as active subjects who have the right to demand justice. By doing so, they seek to historically support and reconstruct a memory of truth that informs contemporary events. The Comité demands the responsibility of the state to rectify its legal, political, and social debts to those who have suffered, by preserving this memory of the state’s acts of violence and impunity. Moreover, this type of memory politics serves as a real indicator of the “democratic transition” of the state since it must respond, resolve, or ignore such cases of violence. In turn, Mexico must demonstrate in the public realm its commitment to democracy and transparency. This push for a public debate was a key demand of students in the summer of 1968.
The Comité 68, as an agent of democratic change and the guardian of memory, is part of a social movement that continues to recover, preserve, and to diffuse those events that stirred up in the country. This right to recall serves as a connection to similar cases of state-sponsored violence in recent years, against workers, campesinos, teachers, indigenous peoples, women.
By emphasizing this continuity, the Comité’s demands for justice and transparency intersect with those of other movements. At anniversary marches in 2006 and 2007, 1968 activists joined with representatives from the Popular Assembly of Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT) of San Salvador Atenco, teachers’ unions, and student activists to denounce the continued impunity of Echeverría and other government leaders and the continued use of military force to intimate civil society. As Mexico embarks on a path of increased militarization under President Felipe Calderón, the Comité and a number of other groups have formed a new collective to struggle against increasing state-sponsored violence. The National Front Against Repression comprises some 50 labor, student and political organizations including the APPO, FPDT, and the Comité itself.9 The key demands include the release of all political prisoners; the presentation of the disappeared; the abolition of torture and sexual violation of detained women; the cancellation of all prosecutions against social activists; and the decriminalization of social protests. Moreover, the Front demands that all those who have violated human rights while serving in the Fox or Calderón administrations be punished. The struggle against impunity continues, and the Comité 68 is right in the thick of it.
1. Marshall Beck, “Echeverría and Impunity,” NACLA Report on the Americas. (September/October 2004), p. 5.
2. Moya Palacios died in 2006.
3.Ana Ignacia Rodríguez, discussion with Elaine Carey and José Agustín Román Gaspar, November 7, 2007, Mexico City.
4. For more information on Tlatelolco, the Corpus Christi massacre, and the Mexican Dirty War, see the National Security Archive: www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB201/index.htm.
5. The members included Raúl Álvarez Garín, Roberto Escudero, Roberta Avendaño, Félix Hernández Gamondi, Marcia Gutiérrez, Martha Servín, Florencio López Osuna, Enrique Ávila, César Tirado, Rufino Perdomo, David Vega, Gastón Martínez, Emilio Reza, Adriana Corona, and Myrthokleia González Gallardo.
6. Although there is a formal structure in which Álvarez Garín serves as the president, the group runs more as a nonhierarchical collective. The key members of the association are Álvarez Garín, Escudero, Hernández Gamundi, Tirado, Piñeiro Guzman, Vázquez Camarena, and Javier Ramos Rodríguez
7. See Daniel Wilkinson, Justice in Jeopardy: Why Mexico’s First Real Effort to Address Past Abuses Risks Becoming Its Latest Failure (Human Rights Watch, 2003). The treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Mexico on March 23, 1981; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified on January 2, 1986; the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, ratified on June 27, 1986; and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, ratified on April 9, 2002.
8. Press Bulletin, “Comité 68: Pro Libertades Democráticos,” México, D.F., February 7, 2007.
9. For more information on Comité 68, see http://mx.geocities.com/comite68ac/; for member group Comité Eureka, see Senator Rosario Ibarro de Piedra’s blog at http://rosarioibarra.blogspot.com/; for APPO, see www.asambleapopulardeoaxaca.com/appo/; and for FPDT, see www.geocities.com/atencoresiste/.
Elaine Carey teaches at St. John’s University in New York and is the author of Plaza of Sacrifices (University of New Mexico Press, 2005). José Agustín Román Gaspar is a doctoral student at the National School of Anthropology and History, in Mexico City.