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Massacre still haunts Mexicans

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"Tlatelolco" is an Aztec word. It's the historic name of the "Plaza of Three Cultures" in Mexico City, a place where Aztec ruins, colonial buildings and modern offices bump shoulders. Foreigners find the word hard to say.

But then since 1968, Mexicans have found the word hard to say, as well.

For many Mexican nationals and immigrants, any mention of the Olympics — including the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — triggers flashbacks to the Tlatelolco Massacre, the night when the Mexican army slaughtered hundreds of student protesters in a panicked attempt to squelch dissent before the 1968 Summer Games.

"After 33 years, Tlatelolco is still an open wound in Mexico," says Joel Hancock, professor of Latin American literature at the University of Utah. "One of the things that came up during the recent campaign of Mexican President Vicente Fox was that the entire truth and justice of Tlatelolco had never been brought to light. He said he would pursue it. I thought that was interesting."

Everyone agrees that a tragedy occurred the night of Oct. 2, 1968, when 10,000 students gathered at Tlatelolco for a rally. After that, the facts grow murky. The government claims communist snipers were to blame. Surviving protesters and journalists continue to lay the blame at the feet of Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. They say the fuse was lit on Aug. 27 when students marched on the presidential palace chanting "Sal al balcon, chango ocicon! (Come out on the balcony, you big-snouted monkey!) Diaz Ordaz, paranoid about his homeliness, flew into a tirade. And on Oct. 2, as students gathered at Tlatelolco, he allegedly ordered the army, the police and the Olympic paramilitary guard to open fire on them.

Today, the smoke clouding Tlatelolco that night continues to cloud the truth. Was future president Luis Echeverria involved? Were Marxist terrorists afoot? Why were helicopters called in to strafe the crowd? How many students died?

No one knows for sure. Compared to today, the '60s were the Dark Ages of communication — no FAX machines, Internet or video cameras. And reports at the time were contaminated by government lies, bad reporting and gossip.

American sprinter John Carlos — he of the famous black glove "salute" — was a member of the U.S. team.

"I remember hearing something about it at the time," he said during a recent visit to Utah. "They were saying that 50 students were killed. Then 100. Then 400. But I don't think those numbers are even close."

The day after the slaughter, the Mexican government claimed eight students had died. The United States, torn by political concerns, refused to condemn the killings. The International Olympic Committee voted to proceed. The motto of the Games was brutally ironic that year: "Everything's possible with peace."

Because no one was ever held accountable, the massacre still smolders in Mexican hearts. Novelist Gustavo Sainz claims Mexican literature can now be divided into two groups — pre-Tlatelolco literature and post-Tlatelolco literature. Nobel novelist Octavio Paz resigned his ambassadorship to India in protest after the massacre and lived the rest of his life haunted by it.

"I really doubt any Mexican can look at the Olympic Games today without thinking of 1968 and Tlatelolco," says Lissette Ruiz, a scholar and resident of Davis County who has written about the massacre. "One Italian journalist who was there says the attack 'froze my soul.' And though many, many years may go by, eventually we will know the truth. It's not possible to hide the truth forever."

Since Tlatelolco, other student uprisings have burned much brighter in our minds. One reason is they produced unforgettable images. No one can forget the desperate expression on the face of the Kent State student as she knelt next to a fallen comrade, for instance, or the rigid, unbending courage of the Chinese student as he faced down a column of tanks on Tiananmen Square. But all that's left of Tlatlelolco are a few black-and-white stills, a cannister of film footage a former government minister refuses to share and a blizzard of denials. The international community never really got involved. No wonder, then, that 10 years after the slaughter, Mexican journalist Luis Spota would write a book called "Why Are We Forgetting Tlatelolco?"

Spota, of course, knew the answer.

The world is forgetting Tlatelolco because those at fault have never allowed its horror to be imprinted in our memory.

E-MAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com