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Post Fifty Years after Tlatelolco Massacre: What was the Death Toll? From Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 09/18/18 7:17 AM

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Fifty Years after Tlatelolco Massacre: What was the Death Toll? From Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 09/18/18 7:17 am)

Gary Moore writes:

An intriguing reference by JE, reviving a WAIS post from 2004, has led me into a discovery, a startling one.

The post was by our founder Ronald Hilton, and pointed to Mexico's Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, which "scarred Mexico's memory," as Professor Hilton rightly said.

Many agree. Tlatelolco was a "turning point in Mexican life" (historian Enrique Krauze), a "watershed of the country's political life" (Stratfor intel group). A two-hour urban volcano found troops firing thunderously into thousands of protesting students and others, on the eve of Mexico's big show, just ten days before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As documentation of the massacre fell under deep official secrecy, the trauma was huge.

But, well...how huge? Professor Hilton's mention points into a wonderland of clues, at first glance only slightly confusing:

"Estimates of the death toll ranged from 300 to 400," Google's top search blurb tells us of Tlatelolco, quoting Wikipedia, which in turn cites Washington Post retrospectives in both 1998 ("the slaughter of as many as 300 people ") and 2002 ("most independent estimates put the death toll at between 200 and 300"), as well as the BBC in 2008 ("Human rights groups and foreign journalists have put the number of dead at around 300"), and NPR ("Eyewitnesses report seeing dozens of bodies and prisoners").

A blur of numbers? You may have noticed some riddles. "As many as 300," for instance, doesn't add up to the Wikipedia-Google conclusion of "300 to 400"--and that's only one of the smaller hints, tiptoeing toward a buried enormity, which I think, presumptuously, may never have been confronted in public forums before now.

In short, I'm going to say here that the popular picture of the death toll in Mexico's great modern tipping point, Tlatelolco, is, to put it bluntly, a form of mass delusion--a daunting construct of mass imagination and unconsidered reiteration, even among professional chroniclers.

There was certainly an atrocity at Tlatelolco, and a horrifying one. But to wonder if I'm now trying to insidiously cover it up is to buy into the illusion. This is not about morality; it's about how unreliable our public images can be --not necessarily always, or perhaps even most of the time, but specifically and devastatingly--on certain high-emotion landmarks.

Consider that last-named count, the one from NPR. The phrase "Eyewitnesses report" is only the lesser flag. More telling is the faint appendage: "and prisoners." This count is not even a count of dead bodies. NPR, looking more closely than many at the real evidence, couldn't even find an impressionistic glimpse that said hundreds of dead, but only "dozens"--and that includes live prisoners. Nor is all this the discovery itself, but more pointers along the way.

"Unofficial estimates of the death toll ranged from 150 to 325," The Economist announced in 2008 about Tlatelolco. Those interestingly precise end-points have a history. "The several hundred bodies of those murdered were trucked off...," flatly states the towering giant of Mexican history textbooks in English, The Course of Mexican History, so familiar in classrooms that more than ten editions have churned out, 1979 to 2018, closely shadowed by The Oxford History of Mexico, which repeats: "The several hundred bodies..." True, some deconflictions of these hundreds have tried to peek from the flood over the years, but quickly they're drowned out, as when archivist Kate Doyle looked back on Tlatelolco in 2006: "Somehow the estimate settled on 300. The number appears repeatedly: in books, editorials, articles, memoirs. I have used the number myself in my own writing." Doyle, associated with a Washington NGO invested in the larger image, left the implications dangling, adding only that "without documentation it [the 300 number] is meaningless." But she also gave a cryptic quote, decipherable by the cognoscenti: "It is terrible to have arrived at a number of those killed by consensus" (Sergio Aguayo, Los Archivos de la violencia). The phrase "by consensus," in this context, might be translated as a stunning indictment of mass illusion: seeing the elephant if everyone else does.

Languishing here--in plain sight but obscured by our everyday process of reality construction--is a universal principle, and not one that you might expect, quite out to the side of customary political shouting about morality and thrilling advocacy. Doyle's articulation of the 300-count as a fashion is helpful, but where does that number come from?

Doyle answers, very specifically: "John Rodda, a sports writer for the British newspaper The Guardian, was in Mexico to cover the Olympics when the massacre took place. Based on what he witnessed and the interviews he gathered, Rodda originally reported that 325 people died."

Indeed, Guardian sportswriter John Rodda's on-site investigation would become an icon, cited and recited down the years. Professor Hilton in 2004 was reviewing a newly published book, Opening Mexico, whose death toll on Tlatelolco had only this elucidation: "....an investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian, indicating that as many as 325 people had been killed...." Meanwhile the big textbook, The Course of Mexican History, evokes "an independent investigation in The Guardian that recorded 325." In 2015, The Guardian itself recapped: "John Rodda, Olympic correspondent for The Guardian, witnessed the event and concluded 350 had been killed."

But wait a minute. Was it 325 or 350? Like Doyle's faint hint, residing in the phrase "originally reported," there are blurrings here that might seem mere background static. But they're not. It's not that Rodda's storied investigation may have been a little inaccurate. Or even a lot inaccurate. It's a bigger elephant than that. It's that there never was such an investigation. At all.

John Rodda of The Guardian did indeed go to Mexico in 1968, and was indeed caught in Tlatelolco's two-hour volcano. And next day he wrote a harrowing, front-page account of how, throughout the shooting, he had fearfully remained face down on a balcony, seeing nothing. Then he rode back to the Hotel Maria Isabel and wrote his story. And that was it.

Six months after its 2015 resurrection of Rodda's "investigation," The Guardian (without ever explaining that a colossal error was being discreetly corrected here) set the record straight obliquely, by placing Rodda's entire 1968 story on the November 11, 2015, front page. In the story, Rodda in 1968 explained how, after lying on the balcony, he rode home in shock in a taxi, with a Mexican journalist who lay next to him on the same balcony, and whose name he was too rattled to ask. Rodda spoke no Spanish, he forthrightly admitted, and apparently his companion spoke little English. But Rodda thought he managed to convey a question, asking the fellow how many people he thought had just been killed. The fellow, as if not trusting the language barrier, then wrote something down on a scrap of paper, and gave the scrap to John. It said, "500."

This was apparently the entire "investigation" later idealized in solemn media repetitions. There was not even any mention of 325. That would squeeze into a growing legend from somewhere else--an astonishing somewhere--as we'll see.

Rodda himself later said his scrawled 500 included wounded. At any rate it was meaningless, a traumatized stab by a fleeting stranger, a wild guess. That such fragments could become so influentially and almost unquestionably enshrined is now coming close to the larger universal. But first: the source of the 325.

The two New York Times reporters who authored Professor Hilton's 2004 review book, Opening Mexico, told, as did authors of many works, where they had learned of The Guardian's 1968 Tlatelolco "investigation." They got it from what has been called the best-selling book in modern Mexico, a 1971 blockbuster that broke through Mexican government silence on Tlatelolco, largely by using oral history interviews. This was La Noche de Tlatelolco, by veteran journalist Elena Poniatowska, born in France to a family from Polish nobility, rising to fame in adopted Mexico, while retaining a slight French accent. Poniatowska, herself an icon, cited an even larger icon when she wrote about John Rodda's impressive investigation. Poniatowska told in her book how she learned of the Rodda investigation from the most laureled intellectual in twentieth-century Mexico.

Octavio Paz, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990 for work admired around the world, was a national treasure in Mexico. Also a longtime member of Mexico's diplomatic corps, Paz was appointed in 1962 as Mexico's ambassador to India. Still there when word came in 1968 of the Tlatelolco horror, Paz resigned his post in anguished protest. His emotions still showed in a 155-page book, Posdata, that he published in 1969-1970. A year later, Poniatowska's best-seller would admiringly name Posdata as its Tlatelolco death-toll source, specifically using the following statement that Paz wrote about Tlatelolco: "How many died? In Mexico, no newspaper has dared to publish the numbers. I will give here what the English newspaper The Guardian, after a careful investigation, considers the most probable: 325 dead." Paz's words "investigación cuidadosa" were so compelling that Poniatowska quoted them verbatim. Who would question a giant?

Who would think that, under the psychological stress of the massacre's grief and concealment, one of the world's premiere thinkers, Octavio Paz, could have...imagined it?

John Rodda's real account of lying face down on the balcony amid gunfire ran in The Guardian on October 4, 1968, while Paz was still in India. In the piece, Rodda was not shy about describing his terror in the moment, as plaster chips flew from ricochets and groans came from the stricken. Rodda was clutching the man lying next to him, soon to be the taxi companion, the one who scrawled cooperatively: "500."

But what was occurring in the magnificent mind of Octavio Paz as he either read those printed words from Rodda or heard about them? What caused such a fantastic leap into such certainty of memory on things that had never really occurred, down to that crisp-sounding number, 325--a number that John Rodda himself, in or out of "investigation," seems never to have uttered?

Below the radar and outside the shouting, in 2002 British scholar Claire Brewster was strategically placed, at the University of Manchester, to go through every issue of the (Manchester) Guardian between October 1968, when Tlatelolco occurred, and December 1969, when Paz's book came off the press. Brewster, too, had seen the clues, though she, too, would consign her findings to a footnote, not directly confronting a very large consensus. Referring to Poniatowska, Paz and the litany of repetitions citing The Guardian's elusive investigation, Brewster wrote: "None of them provided a precise reference." And the fallback procedure, going to Guardian archives and slogging through every issue, "reveals no such report."

Kate Doyle in 2006, also determined, spent eight months in the depths of Mexican government archives that new politics were opening, and her credentials showed little likelihood of favoring the Mexican government. When she reported what all evidence seemed to establish as Tlatelolco's real death toll, or very close to it, she seemed to feel obliged to couch it in elliptical, conciliatory language. The documentable number, she revealed cautiously, was "surprisingly low."

That number, Doyle said, is 44. Thirty-four of those dead are named. Ten are "unknowns." And even this is a trompe-l'oeil of sorts--for in fact it was no big revelation. Something very like that number, 44 dead, had been around for a long time, but it was shunned in a storm of media shouting that demanded to use the Paz-Rodda-Poniatowska sensation. Even the student strike committee that was fired upon at Tlatelolco, making an official statement days later, claimed only that 150 civilians were killed (plus an interesting boast claiming 40 killed soldiers). Even this exhalation from the victims was apparently too low for the mental phantom in later thinking--a collective phantom, which, because of the starkness of the evidence here, can be named below.

Such a phantom also suggests itself in descriptions of the Tlatelolco massacre's tactics. Certainly, secretive government maneuvering was present, and may have been heinous and decisive. But over the years, continuing into the present, passion has peered at archival fragments and announced that they prove monstrosity--that government provocateurs were actually assigned to fire on the government's own troops, thus goading them into deniable massacre. And this may have happened, too. But the proofs repeatedly announced keep turning out not to be proofs at all, but confusing implications, quickly endorsed by the faithful--from whom this assertion may bring indignant objections.

But what is that phantom? What is the process that keeps turning all of this, including Tlatelolco's death toll, into bizarre--and bizarrely unquestioned--mass fantasy?

Two other cases shed light: Mexico's Iguala massacre a half-century after Tlatelolco in 2014, and a very different case a half-century earlier than Tlatelolco, and a long 1,200 miles away. WAIS participants know, perhaps wearily, of my access to that second case because I was the investigator who traced its elderly survivors. It is Florida's 1923 racial cleansing atrocity at a wilderness community called Rosewood. Comparing the underlying evidence on these three disparate atrocities--one committed by troops and their allies (Tlatelolco), one by local police in macabre cooperation with a drug gang (Iguala), and one by a Lynching Era mob in the United States--presents similar patterns in the distance between fact and published myth, patterns not quite as developed in the twilight case of Iguala in 2014, but at Tlatelolco and Rosewood flagrantly complete.

At Iguala it was not the death toll that entered mythic distortion--everyone knew how many Iguala victims had disappeared--but the provocation that led to their tragedy. Radical students were involved here, too, but in a remote part of Mexico where they had assumed startlingly arrogant prerogatives, making known each new round of demands by kidnapping passenger buses, unloading hapless passengers, abducting drivers and sometimes holding the buses for weeks. This finally led to a mysterious blowup in which rocks were thrown at pursuing local police, then police began shooting, and, in a sequel internationally investigated but never satisfactorily explained, 43 students from abducted buses disappeared, while in police custody, never to be seen again. Eerily, public portrayals of Iguala, in understandable anguish at the loss, have either deleted the preliminary bus-stealing from a growing narrative or have couched it as a harmless or even noble expression of ideals. To varying degrees, the murderous local police are promoted to being completely inexplicable monsters, who fell upon angelic defenders of truth and justice. The deep grief attending an enormity becomes a disowned rationale for rearranging the facts.

At Rosewood in 1923, white lynchers and rioters were as guilty as the backwoods police at Iguala, but modern presentations have seemed to find that guilt insufficient, and have created an enormous but imaginary 1923 apocalypse, in which the heavily verified real death toll at Rosewood--six African Americans killed and two attacking whites--is replaced by carnage of up to 150 imaginary dead or more, combined with other plot adjustments. If one knows the primary evidence in this case--chiefly the testimony of the African American survivors--it leaves the exaggerations in media repetitions, and the frequent failure to question them, as seeming almost awe-inspiring in size, like wonders of nature. No less a voice than the New York Times online declared at one point: "In reality, between 70 and 250 people were killed in Rosewood"--and this stratospheric fantasy was said in the Times to have been confirmed by "interviews" conducted by "the reporter who stumbled across the old story"--meaning me--though the writer of those words had never talked to me, and neither I nor any interviewed survivors ever used numbers even remotely like those in the published fantasy, as mountains of evidence confirm.

That mental leap, taken by a writer apparently shocked by thoughts of atrocity, almost suggests the stature of a petit mal absence or seizure--and pairs with the leap apparently taken by a mind of genius, Octavio Paz, when he found the non-existent Tlatelolco 325. Did someone tell him that, whereupon he used it without checking, in a fever of excitement that the subject seemed to demand? Or were there only fragments in his thoughts, slamming together suddenly in the heat of creative composition, so fervently that it seemed they must be true? Can the specter of atrocity win a second victory, not only over direct victims but also plunging inquirers at a distance into waking dreams?

The convergence of these cases, with their profound differences but a mythic commonality, begins giving the mental phantom a name. The myths suggest a desire to blot out knowledge of certain deep flaws that may be shared across a culture, by using the mechanism of blame. Perhaps in Mexico the flaw is violence, which no one in 1968 at Tlatelolco guessed would burst far beyond police brutality by 2018, with perhaps 150,000 dead in the unforeseen "drug war" post-2006, and its gangland carnage. But perhaps in the United States, epidemic violence there notwithstanding, another unnerving cultural dilemma takes precedence, the slow-motion horror of contemplating the possibility of permanence in a trapped ethnic underclass. In both cultures, focus on the intolerable but inescapable can be shifted by blame, by envisioning a demon when the real menace won't go away.

And as targets there are the authorities, whose periodic real guilt doesn't change the fact that, for distraction, they can become scapegoats for things they never did, or couldn't have changed.

Thus we meet the phantom: the urge to obscure inescapable flaws of culture by transferring blame. And the easiest demon to focus upon is transient authority.

The process--call it the Tlatelolco-Rosewood-Iguala process--would seem to have two basic operations: 1) Amid chaos or violence, when there is all-too-real official error, malfeasance, or crime, the offense is enormously exaggerated, so that its very size imputes the demonic, an automatically delegitimizing factor, saying that the despised authorities should abdicate immediately in favor of the much more reasonable players who are doing the accusing; and 2) Any provocation that might help explain an official lapse or transgression is minimized into invisibility, so that responsibility in such chaos is not shared, but becomes sole, clean, single, producing a witch to hunt.

But of course, this delusional process doesn't form in a vacuum. It can flatter itself as society's defense against an opposite form of delusion, so that two extremes wind up supporting one another in the casting of stones. The opposite phantom is authoritarian apologetics, huffing and puffing that no malfeasance occurred at all. The frustration of a bystander--or a concerned citizen in a democracy--at having to comb through not one but two forms of illusion may help explain why both forms can lead such robust lives.

There was a single word in Professor Hilton's 2004 retrospective on Tlatelolco, a word that led me into this mythic maze in the first place, demanding a closer look. The word seemed astonishing, inexplicable--as with Octavio Paz's leap of faith, though in the opposite direction. Professor Hilton, emphasizing that communist agitators were bound to have been among those fired upon at Tlatelolco, said that the number killed was "several."

JE comments:  The Tlatelolco massacre is just two weeks shy of the half-century mark:  October 2nd, 1968.  Gary Moore like no one else can put such tragedies in perspective, ultimately reaching profound conclusions about "the urge to obscure inescapable flaws of culture by transferring blame."  Brilliantly put, Gary.

WAISers:  in the run-up to the anniversary, let's ensure that Gary's essay gets wide distribution.

One tangential detail:  I met and lunched with Elena Poniatowska in 1993 (at a conference in St Louis, Missouri).  I never detected a French accent, unlike the Belgian-born Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (I didn't meet him), who allegedly never rid himself of the guttural R.

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