Forty Years After The Tlatelolco Massacre, The Mexican Army Attacks Civilians In The Indigenous Town of Xoxocotla

On October 2nd, tens of thousands of people, young and old, took the afternoon off and marched in the streets of Mexico City to the cry of "¡Nunca Más!" - Never again!

On that same day in October, forty years earlier, scores of young people, mostly striking University students, were gathered in Tlatelolco Square for a protest meeting.  Suddenly, and without provocation, Mexican Army troops opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 200 people,wounding countless more, and "disappearing" hundreds more .  The State-controlled media neatly covered up the story, and the Federal government denied that a massacre had taken place.  But forty years later even the Mexican government now admits that it was guilty of the shameless crime of using the armed forces against its own citizens to supress a non-violent protest movement.

Initially, the attacks silenced popular protest.  But very soon after, and up until the present day, Mexicans from both town and country have continued to organize and resist, in a perpetual struggle to make good on the unfulfilled promises of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

In the forty years since that bloody day, Mexican society has undergone profound systemic changes.  Social movements have seen important victories, but also crushing setbacks.  One crucial victory has been public recognition of the Tlatelolco massacre and an increased awareness on the part of the general public that use of the Mexican military to repress social movements is illegal according to the Mexican constitution, and must never be tolerated.  The Mexican army has unfortunately continued to fight against organized social movements in recent decades. But even this counterinsurgency has only been allowed to happen in Mexico's most rural areas, in the shadows, and far from the public eye.

Until now.

On Wednesday, October 8th, Morelos Governor Marco Adame called out more than 1,500 police personnel from the State Police and from the Paramilitary Federal Police force to the indigenous town of Xoxocotla.  Law enforcement agencies were instructed to dismantle a series of road blockades along the Alpuyeca-Jojutla highway.  Residents of Xoxocotla, long known for their effective community organizing and for their willingness to show solidarity with other social movements, had set up the blockades to show solidarity with teachers who have been on strike in Morelos for nearly two months. 

The teachers of Morelos and the townspeople of Xoxocotla are united in a common struggle to stop the rapid privatization of public resources.  Teachers on strike in Morelos are trying to halt a new set of educational reforms they say would open the doors to the participation of private capital in the public education system.  Xoxocotla, on the other hand, is desperately trying to save the aquifer which feeds its municipal water system from being sucked dry from private condominium developers who skirt local zoning laws.

As poorly organized police marched on Xoxocotla, they were quickly outwitted by the highly organized women and men of the town.  When police advanced on the roadblocks, the townspeople removed one of the barricades, allowed a few of them to enter, and then established the withdrawn barricade once again.  These hapless police officers were trapped within the confines of Xoxocotla's barricades.  The officers were effectively penned in for several hours, during which they were unable to dismantle the roadblocks.

Later that night, between 500 and 1000 members of the Mexican Army from the 24th Military Zone barracks in Cuernavaca were given the order from the National Defense Secretary to assist police in their efforts to dislodge protesters in Xoxocotla.  Accompanying these soldiers was a vast mobile arsenal, including humvees, tanks, and helicopters.  It is important to note that such use of force can only take place under authorization from the executive branch of the Federal government.

Representatives of the newly arrived army and the police informed a negotiating team from Xoxocotla that if the police officers trapped in the town were not allowed to leave, that the order would be given "to attack the town."

Just two short years ago, in a nation still grappling with the murderous legacy of Tlatelolco, the use of the army to contain a protest action in central Mexico would have been unheard of.  And in 2008, the people of Xoxocotla couldn't believe what they were witnessing. Shocked by the brazen display of military might, the town let the police officers retreat and removed the road blockades.  In return, they were promised that all security forces would leave.

As dawn approached, the vast majority of state security forces remained in place.  Reports emerged of arbitrary beatings, illegal home searches, and detentions by police.  And in the early afternoon, the women and men of Xoxocotla went back to the highway in protest once again.  At that point, members of the State and Federal police, with the cooperation and participation of the Army, launched an attack of collective punishment on the entire town.

Helicopters flew overhead and shot tear gas into private homes, most of which were filled with small children and whose inhabitants were not involved with the road blockades at all.  This reporter was led into several homes the following day and saw several large spent containers and saw small children still coughing from the gas.

Houses were raided by police and soldiers, and men taken and beaten in front of their families.  There are reports of at least 70 missing persons, of whom only 20 have been officially "arrested."

Yesterday night, I passed 4 checkpoints of armed troops to enter Xoxocotla.  I watched as all men entering the town, returning from work were frisked, insulted, and harrassed by troops armed with submachine guns.  I headed into the center of town.  Hundreds of scared and angry residents emerged from their homes to tell stories of their shock and rage. Many were shcoked at the participation of army troops, tanks, and helicopters.

"Why are they sending the army out against us?" Cried one woman. "We aren't criminals. The President says he is using the army to fight drug traffickers, but he is using it against poor indigenous people."

Demonstrating the short-sighted nature of the government's strategy, another woman whose brother is among the missing echoed a sentiment I heard many times. "Before today many of us didn't even support the teachers' strike.  But now we are all with them."

How is it that even as Mexico remembers the 40th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre that the army has been allowed to turn its weapons against its own citizens once again?

Despite serious allegations of fraud,  Felipe Calderon was sworn in as President of Mexico in December, 2006.  Almost immediately following his inauguration, Calderon gave all members of the armed forces a pay raise.  Soon afterwards Calderon increased the role of the Mexican Armed forces in Mexican society by announcing that the armed forces would be used to conduct a new heightened war against drug traffickers.  Within a few short months, the army was authorized to perform police duties in several Mexican states.  Random, illegal military checkpoints targeting civilian vehicles on federal highways became commonplace.

Nearly two years later, with thousands of people killed in Calderon's drug war, there has been no significant disruption in the flow of drugs to the United States.  From the outset, critics claimed that Calderon never intended the army's presence in the Mexican countryside to serve as an anti-narcotics force, and that his aims were in fact twofold: To leverage his ability to serve out his Presidential term in light of massive calls for his resignation before his inauguration, and to legitimize the use of the armed forces in domestic affairs as a means to repress Mexico's abundant social movements.

The repression in Xoxocotla this week overwhelmingly supports this hypothesis.  Had the citizens of Morelos not seen a gradual increase in the presence of soldiers far from their barracks doing vehicle checks, patrolling the streets, and policing highways, there would surely have been more of a public outcry in this week's use of the army to repress the people of Xoxocotla.

Even more distressing is another clue I witnessed in the ruined home of one woman of Xoxocotla yesterday: a tear gas cannister with English text written on it:

"FOR USE ONLY BY TRAINED INDIVIDUALS"

Apart from the obvious and cynical irony of this "warning label" on a weapon that had been used to terrorize small innocent children, the cartridge proves that the weapons shot from Federal helicopters have been provided by manufacturers from an English speaking country, presumably the United States. Recently,  the U.S. Congress authorized 400 million dollars in funding to provide support for the Mexican military in its "war on drugs" in a package known as "Plan México" or "The Merida Initiative."

Declassified documents from the U.S.' National Security Archive have established evidence of Washington's participation in the Tlatelolco massacre.  In 2008, once more, the U.S. is helping to arm the Mexican military to attack its own citizens.

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About Gregory Berger

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Greg Berger (a.k.a. "Gringoyo") is a New York born filmmaker who lives in Mexico.