The Resilience of Impunity: NACLA and Mexico, 1968–2008

May 1, 2008

You can’t always blame it on empire. NACLA was formed to investigate the relations between the United States and its “sister republics” of the hemisphere, but try as we might, we don’t find the empire everywhere. Often, the villain of the day is local politics buttressed by impunity: the propensity (and ability) of rulers and contenders alike to place themselves above the law—to exempt themselves from the legal consequences of their behavior.

In the case of Mexico, there is no question that the country has suffered from its subordinate position to the United States—epitomized by the quasi-imperial imposition of free-market, neoliberal policies—and that we can fully grasp the Mexican reality only by placing it in the context of that relationship. But Mexico also continues to suffer from a resilient tradition of internal impunity, one that Mexican reformers and revolutionaries, from Francisco Madero to ­Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, have confronted over the past century. Madero rallied Mexicans in 1910 against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz with the then revolutionary slogan “Valid Suffrage, No Reelection.” Popular revolutionaries Zapata and Villa took up the cause and broadened it to a struggle against the routine impunity of daily life. General Lázaro Cárdenas, in the 1930s, fearing a resilience of personal impunity under the rule of the hegemon that would be the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), enforced the “no reelection” rule and limited the power of individual strongmen within the party.

The student movement of the 1960s and 1970s carried the torch against the impunity of the PRI, but lacking a base of real power, was brutally repressed. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, in the 1980s, led the effort to form the left opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the party that, for a while, carried the hopes of many Mexicans opposed to the politics of impunity. Alas, as the party’s “tribes” vie for power 20 years after its founding, the PRD itself has reverted to the tradition of impunity within its own internal politics.

During the past 40 years, NACLA has done its best to keep track of these key moments of Mexico’s political history, and here we will briefly discuss two, the student movement of 1968 and the implosion of the PRD that transpires as we write. In the process we hope to develop an understanding of the wide range of activities that fall under the heading of impunity. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the massacre at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza—in which troops killed a still unconfirmed number of student activists and bystanders, perhaps as many as 300—it is clear that impunity can take many forms, and that the politics of impunity are quite resilient in Mexico.


On November 1, 1968, just a month after the Tlatelolco massacre, NACLA published a 50-page pamphlet called Mexico 1968: A Study of Domination and Repression. It told the story of the massacre (or at least as much as was then known) and tied the story to a larger analysis of relations of wealth and power in the Americas. Most of NACLA’s authors began by assuming that while the carnage at Tlatelolco resulted from a paranoid regime’s overreaction to fairly moderate and negotiable student demands, the repression unleashed by then president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s government was nevertheless connected, at least indirectly, to the interests of certain branches of the U.S. government and U.S. capital.

“We have prepared this pamphlet in response to the recent events in Mexico,” reads its brief introduction. “We felt that in order to relate to the repression against Mexican students and workers we must first understand our own country’s involvement in that repression.” And further: “We expect similar developments in other Latin American countries.”1 These expectations reflected the tenor of the times, the sensible starting point for any critical analysis of any conflict in the Americas: Look first to “empire,” then to resistance to empire.

In that spirit, Uruguayan journalist Hiber Conteris led his NACLA article with the lines, “France and Germany in Europe; Brazil and Uruguay in Latin America; now the last outbreak of this synchronized student rebellion that is spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere has broken out in Mexico. . . . ” This interpretation of events clearly resonated with NACLA’s avowed anti-imperialist politics: If Washington intended to exercise control of the Americas, it would face rebellion after rebellion.

But in the context of NACLA’s solidarity with the Mexican student movement and its National Strike Council (CNH), it wasn’t strictly accurate to speak of a single global or even regional “synchronized student rebellion.” While groups emerging from student movements around the world were responding to—and felt immersed in—a powerful global moment, Mexican students were, after all, raising Mexican issues. They were on strike against the violation of university autonomy by an intrusive, authoritarian government, and against the closed, corporatist politics of the country’s long-ruling PRI. It was a good bet that most of the U.S. activists reading Mexico 1968 were finding out about the CNH and maybe even the PRI for the first time, while they were taking to the U.S. streets to protest more familiar outrages: Washington’s military interventions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, for example, or regressive public policies on housing, schooling, abortion, jobs, health care, and policing. So where was the synchronicity?

As much as the newly formed NACLA believed in—and hoped for—a global student uprising against the “empire,” the group was committed to covering the Mexico story as it actually happened. It translated and carried a sobering assessment of the situation by a reporter from Le Monde: “The strike committee has been decimated. . . . Since 1914 [the height of violence during the Mexican Revolution] there has not been a massacre like this in the Mexican capital.” NACLA then added its own chronology of events, running from the excessively brutal police intervention in a student street fight on July 23 through the October 2 carnage. Nothing in NACLA’s chronology indicated the workings of “empire.”

Part I of the pamphlet, titled “Repression,” chronicled the conflict between Díaz Ordaz’s government and the students of the CNH that had just culminated in the long “night of Tlatelolco.”2 It mixed political analysis with reporting taken and translated from other sources (NACLA had no reporters in the field). Part II, called “Domination,” was a quickly but carefully constructed analysis of the long-term relations of power within Mexico and between it and the United States. Written by the NACLA staff, it consisted of analytic discussions of the transnational dynamics of the Mexican economy and of the role of U.S. corporations in Mexico. These discussions were accompanied by freshly researched lists of foreign direct investors, the country’s wealthiest individuals, recent U.S. ambassadors to Mexico, the Mexican activities of U.S. universities and nonprofit corporations, and finally, Mexican lobbyists in the United States.

Perhaps the most eloquent chronicler of the Mexican events of ’68, Elena Poniatowska, has remarked that the burning issue of the student movement may well have been youth itself. “In Mexico,” she wrote in the 1970s, “there is an age to be idealistic . . . and another to become a priísta [a member of the then ruling PRI]. One becomes a priísta upon attaining maturity.”3 If the student movement was able to destroy the official image of Mexico, it was because the (privileged) young “are the ones who question society; they are the ones who get indignant about the injustices they encounter.” She went on: “Between July and October of 1968, all of Mexico was young, and it lived intensely.”4

But youth in Mexico ran headlong into repressive authority. “In each country the movement had its own conditions and events and consequences,” says Félix Hernández Gamundi, one of the student leaders of the CNH in ’68, now a prominent architect in Mexico City. “The long repression culminating in the massacre of 1968 was key,” he says. And “the repression of 1968–71,” he adds, “had repercussions that have lasted up to our own day, giving birth to a new generation of activists and analysts,” a generation that remains active and concerned with the issues of 40 years ago: openness and citizen participation in government.5

But within these complications, there are indeed some common threads linking the student movements of 1968: the demand for congruence between the state’s discourse and practice; the demand for transparent governance; the demand for truth telling; the demand for inclusion and participation; the demand (a little later) for a new international economic order; and an expressed commitment to democratic, non-authoritarian social relations. To the extent that we can locate a “synchronized student movement,” it was one that identified with those demands and commitments. It was a movement that located itself within the bonds of social solidarity.

Leading up to the Mexican ’68, students and police clashed in 1966 at the University of Michoacán over an increase in bus fares and over the question of police violence itself. A year later a similar confrontation took place at the University of Sonora. In both cases, police entered a Mexican campus to “maintain order,” and in both cases, Díaz Ordaz reacted by speaking resentfully of the tolerance and privilege accorded already privileged university students.6 This spirit of resentment spilled over to those under Díaz Ordaz’s command, intensifying and virtually personalizing the conflict between the students and authority. As so often happens, the main issue of the conflict became the conflict itself: audacious youth against brutal authority.

“It is generally agreed that the movement was ignited on 26 July, 1968,” remembers then student activist (now detective novelist) Paco Ignacio Taibo, “but as always in real history, the igniters did not know at the time what it was they were igniting.”7 On July 26, Taibo marched through the center of Mexico City with a group of student radicals to commemorate the launching of the Cuban Revolution. His group of “reds,” he recalls, soon found itself in the midst of another student march, this one called by Polytechnic Institute students to protest attacks from pro-government groups and youth gangs on their campus. Suddenly, Taibo writes, the combined student marches were set upon and savagely attacked by riot police. “You heard screams and grunts, and blows to the head delivered without mercy, indeed with hatred.”8 This “hatred,” legitimated by the president, was a measure of the class resentment that the police officers and troops felt toward the “privileged” student protesters. It created the conditions for the October massacre.

While the student demonstrators adopted a militant stance, their most important demands—ending the state violence against demonstrators; democratically reforming a closed, corporatist regime; liberalizing political and social life; creating conditions that might allow for “civilized” political debate—were not all that radical. To pursue these demands, in August activists created the CNH, which was to function as the democratic leadership body of the movement, but since it was virtually destroyed on October 2, it had an active political life of only two months. For that short time, tactical and political decisions were made by CNH leaders, by the group’s many “commissions,” and by a Plenary Assembly that had “sovereign decision-making power.”9

“By October 1968,” recalls CNH member Raúl Álvarez Garín, “the students’ courage had begun to inspire support from organized labor and peasants,” but it could not survive the massacre.10 “While the repression of the movement, and especially of its leaders, was a reality that everyone had to take into consideration,” writes the veteran activist, “none of us foresaw the magnitude of the repression that unfolded at Tlatelolco. It is always hard to imagine worse aggression than you know.”11


The outlines of the story were quickly made available to U.S. readers by the publication of NACLA’s Mexico 1968. NACLA had been founded just two years earlier in response to the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. When the invasion took place, the U.S. student movement, having grown accustomed to protesting the latest outrage of the Vietnam War, was able to react immediately and strongly. It was out of that reaction that NACLA was formed. And when news of the Tlatelolco massacre began filtering out of Mexico, NACLA, now accustomed to tracking down political stories, was there to pick it up.

But it was not only the U.S. activists who yearned for a more meaningful solidarity with their counterparts in the hemisphere. Álvarez Garín, then and now a mathematician and theoretical physicist at the IPN, remembers that before 1968, Mexico’s small Marxist student left had gone out of its way to forge links with student, academic, and Mexican American groups on the U.S. left. “In the 1960s,” he says, “before the massive student movement and the formation of the CNH, we had an informal, international grouping of radical mathematicians. We had close connections with academics at the University of California at Berkeley. Among other things, in 1964 and 1965 we participated in solidarity meetings in California with the Free Speech Movement, the Brown Berets, and César Chávez’s United Farm Workers Union.”12

The influence of the global moment—particularly the moment defined by the Vietnam War—is further captured by Taibo: “We lived in thrall to the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnamese resistance,” he writes. “We read Howard Fast and Julius Fucik, Julio Cortázar and Mario Benedetti, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury and Jesús Díaz. . . . We listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary—the music of the anti–Vietnam War generation.”13

And in a passage that could have been written about the U.S. movement’s uncertainty of time and place, Taibo continues: “We were strangers, too, in history. We did not come from the national past. We didn’t know why, but for us the past was an international realm that produced novels and revolutions, not a local realm belonging to the people.” And he remembers the constant reference to something called “the movement,” something that had shown signs of its existence, but whose existence would be confirmed “only if they—the invisible enemy—believed in it too.”

“The May events in France had made headlines in all the papers,” he continued, “as had the Prague Spring, the student movement in Brazil, the occupation of Columbia University in New York, and the Córdoba uprising in Argentina. All we knew was that there was a movement and that it had to be defended.”14

But “the movement” had a concrete presence as well. It was present in the self-identifying concern with direct democracy, the self-identifying motivation of opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, and the anger and resentment at the demagogic rhetoric of the governments (and dominant ideologies) of all the major global powers. If there was a core belief among the movements of ’68, it was in something called “participatory democracy.” If there was a common radicalizing factor—at least apart from the student movements within the Soviet Bloc—it was the war in Vietnam.

It is too bad, Taibo laments, that the memory of ’68 in Mexico has become the memory of repression alone, the memory of Tlatelolco and nothing more. But the movement itself played an important role in the slow, ongoing transformation of Mexico. “When all is said and done, it was nothing but a student movement lasting 123 days, no more and no less. Yet it gave us—a whole generation of students—a past and a country, a ground beneath our feet.” It sent sizable numbers of activists into neighborhood organizations “that for years offered a model of popular resistance.”15

Álvarez Garín agrees. The movement, he writes, created a new vision of politics as normal, moral, and outside the purview of the PRI.16 “One of the great virtues of 1968 was the reclassification of politics as something necessary and respectable that could be taken up even if you weren’t a member of the PRI, which made it possible to legitimately challenge priísmo.” And perhaps of greater transcendence: “Thousands of participants in the movement of ’68 were affected in such a way that the concept of struggle, in its broadest philosophical and social senses, became a part of their being.”17


In 1988, 20 years after the slaughter at Tlatelolco Plaza, “popular resistance” and the democratic challenge to priísmo gave birth to the hopeful presidential candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and the subsequent founding of the leftist PRD. But now, another 20 years down the road, the party has shown that it has not been immune to the contagion of impunity. Indeed, the internal elections for PRD leadership on March 16 revealed a party not only in disharmony, but unable to agree on how to resolve that disharmony, and contested by would-be strongmen determined to have their own way, the rules be damned. By all accounts, the election was marked by vote buying, ballot box stealing, the burning of ballots, the appearance (in the words of leftist critic Carlos Monsiváis) of “a pigsty [cochinero] of magical votes,” physical violence, the alteration of voting lists, and a general lack of transparency.18 Disquietingly, even beyond the struggle for perquisites and privileges, the intra-party conflict has not been, by and large, over programs and ideas, but over attachment to the “tribal” leaders who enjoy impunity within their own fiefdoms.

The PRD has always had many factions, known in the party—only half in jest—as “tribes.” This is actually a pretty good word because, unlike “factions,” it implies that the component parts existed before the whole. The PRD’s sometimes-warring groups, after coming together first to support Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’ successful but stolen run for the presidency in 1988, formed the party itself in 1989.

Some of these “tribes” were small leftist parties, social movements, or grassroots organizations that had long existed on the margins of Mexico’s electoral politics. Others were composed of center-left politicians who had followed Cárdenas out of the PRI—or who some years later followed Andrés Manuel López Obrador out of the PRI—some out of personal loyalty, some because their careers were going nowhere in the PRI, and some because they saw in this new party the chance to create a democratic and progressive alternative to the long authoritarian rule of Mexico’s only governing party.

For many voters and activists, the attraction of the PRD has been less its leftist policy positions (many in the PRI, after all, have similar positions on social and labor issues) and more its presence as a “democratic current” within Mexican politics: its declared dedication to anti-corruption struggles and its claims of transparency and honesty. For many, the argument that the PRD’s scandals over the past few years have been no big deal—because “impunity and corruption are everywhere”—has helped undermine the party’s very reason to exist.

This loss of credibility is reflected in a poll taken the week after the disputed internal election. Registered voters were asked which party’s candidates they would vote for if a congressional election were held today. The results, less than two years after the party garnered more than a third of the presidential vote: PAN: 25%, PRI: 21%, PRD: 10%.19

Some PRDistas, angry that the PRD is being fought over by private interests, have called for drastic rule changes and the virtual re-creation of the party at its next scheduled national conference, following the 2009 mid-term elections. Others feel the party cannot wait that long and survive. “Since reality has surpassed the imagination,” comments PRD adviser emeritus Rosa Albina Garavito, “the magnitude of the disaster does not allow us to wait until 2009. The party belongs to the democratic movement that gave it life. Will those democrats remain committed when the party is privatized?”20

As an example of the tyranny that accompanies impunity, of course, the “privatization” of the PRD pales alongside the massacre at Tlatelolco, the wholesale PRI-orchestrated killings in southern Mexico, or the official disregard for the serial murders in Ciudad Juárez. Resistance to those other horrors has deservedly attracted much more international attention and solidarity, and U.S. activists have taken genuine risks in attempting to create awareness around those events—reflected by the death of independent U.S. filmmaker Brad Will in Oaxaca in October 2006.

But the PRD tragedy is this: All the PRD state and local governments, but especially those of Mexico City, have been closely watched by both friends and enemies. They have been watched by friends for signs of what a progressive, participatory project might look like in a region of the world where the poor grow more numerous and more marginalized every day. If the PRD can govern Mexico City, the conventional wisdom has held, it might be able to offer the electorate a credible alternative to the conservative (and/or corrupt) administrations that have governed the country in the past few decades. Now, for reasons having little to do with the PRD’s able governance of the hemisphere’s second-biggest city, that newfound legitimacy may be crumbling.

The culture of impunity is obviously hard to root out. We may be tempted to look to Washington to figure out how the U.S. is destabilizing yet another regional left, but in the case of the PRD, the left seems to need no extra help. While it pains us to report on this state of affairs, especially since the successes of the Mexican left could be instructive to the broader Latin American left, the temptations of personal rule must be recognized for what they are and confronted head-on. From the standpoint of solidarity, NACLA hasn’t always found what it has looked for, but it has always reported what it has found.

1. North American Congress on Latin America, Mexico 1968: A Study of Domination and Repression (NACLA, 1968), p. 3.

2. Elena Poniatowska, La noche de Tlatelolco (Ediciones Era, 1971).

3. Ibid., p. 35.

4. Poniatowska, “El movimiento estudiantil de 1968,” Fuerte es el silencio (Ediciones Era, 1980), p. 48.

5. Félix Hernández Gamundi, author’s interview, Mexico City, June 7, 2007.

6. Enrique Krauze, Mexico: Biography of Power (HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 688–731.

7. Paco Ignacio Taibo II, ’68 (Seven Stories Press, 2004), pp. 24–26.

8. Ibid., p. 26.

9. Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado (Special Prosecutor for Past Social and Political Movements), Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana – 2006 (Mexico City, 2006), p. 98.

10. Raúl Álvarez Garín, La estela de Tlatelolco (Editorial Grijalbo, 1998), p. 123.

11. Ibid., p. 170.

12. Álvarez Garín, author’s interview, Mexico City, June 7, 2007.

13. Taibo, ’68, pp. 16–17.

14. Ibid, pp. 22–35.

15. Ibid, p.119.

16. Álvarez Garín, La estela de Tlatelolco, pp. 141–47.

17. Ibid., p. 172.

18. Carlos Monsiváis, “¿Qué es el ‘costo político’?” El Universal, March 30, 2008.

19. Francisco Valdés Ugalde, “PRD: el derrumbe,” El Universal, March 30, 2008.

20. Rosa Albina Garavito, “La privatización del PRD,” El Universal, March 29, 2008.

Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst.

Tags: Mexico, NACLA history, impunity, student movements, 1968 massacre, PRI

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