COLD WAR OVERSEAS - MEXICO CITY MASSACRE - 1968
‘massacre’ in connection with the Olympic Games and commentators
will chime ‘Munich, 1972’. Pressed for detail, they may manage to
headline: ‘Eleven Israeli team members slain’.
The Munich massacre that ended the
hostage-taking on 5 September is remembered thanks to a snapshot of a
balaclaved Palestinian commando, not to mention Zionist and Arab
networks. Hence, it was no surprise that the slayings have become the
subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary, One
Day in September, released here in August.
A massacre associated with a different modern Olympiad has never had the benefit of influential friends. How often in the past thirty years have the media mentioned the 2 October 1968 killings at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City? Although this newspaper made the clash its lead story, there was no stunning image to make the blood letting indelible. I forgot about it until six years later when, as a tourist, I asked which important official lived inside the militarised compound we were passing. ‘That’s the fortress of the ex-Defence Minister, the one who ordered the “Agony of the Three Cultures”. The government says it is protecting him, but in truth he is the peoples’ prisoner’.
Further questioning led into a thicket of
rumours. Estimates of the number of dead clustered around the 300 mark,
a figure which, I later found, coincided with an investigation by the
British newspaper, the Guardian.
Nearly three months of protests from July
1968 had left many people wondering whether the Games could be held at
all. Student leaders denied plans to disrupt the event. The Army
occupied the two largest universities. Killings on both sides followed
throughout the summer before the troops withdrew late in September. On
October 2, students met in the Plaza of the Three Cultures to celebrate
their tactical victory. They were not demonstrating. As they were about
to disperse, the soldiers opened fire with bazookas, killing residents
in a nearby housing estate.
The government denied that the assault had
been ordered to clear the streets for the Olympics due to open ten days
later. The Mexican and Munich massacres shared the Olympic organisers’
determination that their Games must go on, whether the tally of corpses
reached eleven or 300.
Poet, essayist and 1990 Nobel Laureate,
Octavio Paz, resigned as his country’s ambassador to India in protest,
before publishing Critique of the
Pryamid which also condemned the Anthropological Museum, built to
coincide with the Olympics. That institution, he charged, distorted Meso-American
experience by presenting the centralised Aztec empire as legitimation
for the country’s authoritarian clique - the Party of Institutional
Revolution (the PRI) - which had already been in power for forty years.
Like the Aztec priests, the PRI was sacrificing its youth.
The Mexican students had contributed to a
global rebellion, from Paris and Prague to Peking. The spirit, inflamed
by the assassination of Martin Luther King, provoked US runners John
Carlos and Tommie Smith in giving the black power salute on the victory
dais, where Australian Peter Norman received his silver medal - a
photograph few could forget.
Even without vivid footage, the October 1968
shootings offer a documentary maker as rich a field to investigate as
the German authorities’ bungling of the Munich siege. Did student
snipers fire first? Did troops break into hospitals to kill the wounded,
gunning down nurses and doctors who tried to prevent them? Or were those
horror stories a resurfacing of urban myths trotted out after every
The film-maker could also pursue links from
the Plaza of the Three Cultures to the US Army’s School of the
Americas, where Mexican officers had trained since 1953, (www.soaw.org).
In 1984, this graduate academy in torture and mayhem had to move from
Panama to Fort Benning, south-west of Atlanta. ‘The school of
assassins’ kept the US government in contention for the title of world
champion ‘rogue state’.
The victims at the Plaza of the Three
Cultures at least have their memorial. Tens of thousands of Latin
Americans who ‘disappeared’ at the hands of graduates from the
School of the Americas lie in unmarked graves.
Somewhere in between is the fate of the
Guatemala City employees of a franchised bottler for the principal
Olympics sponsor, The Coca-Cola Company. When workers at that plant
struck in 1978, their boss rented the Mobile Military Police to
terrorise them. The Coca-Cola Company accepted no responsibility until
pressured by S-11 type protesters.
By 1980, seven rank-and-file activists had
been murdered and four had been ‘disappeared’. Each new spokesperson
stepped forward knowing that the chances of survival were slim. How many
gold medals would be needed to equal their guts? Just as the Munich
eleven live on in the Olympic mythos, so do those eleven Guatemalans
deserve to be remembered for carrying a torch for human dignity.