October 15, 2004

First Person

Remembering One of the Darkest Nights in Mexico’s History

By Benito Ortiz

We arrived at the plaza close to four in the afternoon, several of us, buddies from the Department of Philosophy and Literature. Activists with the National Strike Commission had assigned my three friends and I the task of handing out flyers around Plaza Tres Culturas. The flyers that I was assigned contained an open letter that Genaro Vásquez Rojas (a guerrilla in the sierras of Guerrero State) had sent to Mexico’s students. I had read it and I thought it was buena onda. Today, I still have one of the flyers that I stuck in the back pocket of my pants. Every time I read it, I feel that I am still there, in the plaza teeming with people.

Besides students, there were also members of the general public, men, women and children, as well as those people who never miss a rally: street vendors of every stripe. That’s how it is in the D.F. (Mexico City).

At around five in the afternoon, I was on the corner formed by the sidewalks of Tlatelolco and No-noalco, close to the building housing Mexico’s Foreign Relations Ministry. In that direction, along Nonoalco, towards the east, I noticed the army’s anti-riot tanks advancing toward us, but I didn’t find it strange. I thought that they were simply arriving as a security measure in case students decided to riot, but that was the least likely action we would have taken. We had converged in the plaza only because we planned a march to protest the army’s occupation of the Polytechnic University’s campus.

There wasn’t room for another soul in the plaza, and on the third floor of the Chihuahua Building — which overlooked the entire expanse — there was a stage, with microphones and loudspeakers, which the Strike Commission had installed that morning. Some students from the countryside had begun speaking to the multitudes gathered for the rally.

It was amazing to see the number of people that had gathered, all of them listening attentively to the speeches. When I passed in front of the Santiago Tlatelolco church, which rises to the north of the Foreign Relations ministry, I saw that the large, heavy front door was closed. I had passed in front of that door many times and I had never seen it closed, but I thought nothing of it, thinking that possibly they closed the church on Wednesdays.

Near an ancient pyramid, which is between the church and an esplanade for vendors that cuts through the plaza, I handed out flyers to four young men, who looked like they were prep school age. With them was a chava who drew my attention, she was very attractive and must have been 18 or 19, no more, very, very pretty with a smile that was contagious and a voice so pleasant that it magnified her charm. I kept walking forward, but I was still able to hear how the young men laughed at the girl when they handed the flyer and she asked, “Who is Genaro Vásquez Rojas?”

It was already a little more than six in the evening, and I remember that I was on the southern side of the raised esplanade where the ancient mexicas (Aztecs) held their market days, or tianguis. The esplanade is on the southern side of what used to the vocational school and near the Tlatelolco sidewalk. Suddenly, a helicopter rose above the vocational school, frightening a lot of people with the noise made by its engines and its blades as it swooped low over the crowd.

The helicopter headed in direction of the government ministry, passing above the church, and then it returned immediately to circle above the plaza. A little later, another one appeared and began doing the same. At that point people began to feel alarmed, since helicopters had never appeared at other protests, at least not the ones that I had been to.

I remember that at that moment I was with Sócrates Campos Lemus, who was from the polytechnic and the National Strike Commission. He stopped reading his speech and began to say, almost screaming, “Compañeros, we have news that the army is expecting a provocation, for that reason we won’t do the protest march toward the polytechnic. We’ll finish this rally in an orderly fashion and then head home.”

Immediately, one of the helicopters launched red flares, and people really began to be frightened, without really knowing what to do. “Stay calm, don’t run!” Campos Lemus said. “We don’t believe in the useless shedding of blood, we’ve decided to cancel the march to the polytechnic, please …”

Again, one of the helicopters launched a flare, this time a green one; I was very frightened and began to feel very nervous. “Compañeros, compañeros!”They’re trying to provoke us, stay in your places,” Campos Lemus screamed again, but this time none of us who heard him paid any attention.

I broke out in a freezing sweat, the same kind one gets with a bout of pneumonia; at times I’ve attributed that sweat to a presentiment that something awful was about to happen, and other times, and I think this is more likely, I think that the sweat was due to the fear that began consuming me.

Without warning, the soldiers that had surrounded the plaza began firing on the people running in every direction. Those reached by the bullets began to fall; those of us who ran behind them trampled their fallen bodies without a second thought. There was a look of stark terror on the faces of those running for their lives, and looking at them one knew their expressions mirrored the horror one felt. There were screams of pain, of fear; knots of people and death were the only things visible in the plaza. The soldiers sated themselves pulling their triggers and firing toward the four compass points, aiming at the people trapped in the plaza.

I ran where everyone else ran, when suddenly near the pyramid, I tripped over something — I think it was a body. As I fell, I rapidly dragged myself out of the reach of those running behind me, shielding myself against the base of the pyramid to prevent myself from being trampled. I stayed there a while gasping for air – my shortness of breath was more due to fear than to any exertion. The gunfire began to sound farther and farther away, it seemed that the bullets were chasing those attempting to flee. That realization made me think that if I stayed put where I was, it could save my life. But that thought did not comfort me in the least.

Even through my fear, I realized that the refuge was only temporary, and I realized that I needed to do something, but what? I was backed up against one of the sides of the pyramid. Then on the other side of the structure, I heard the voice of a woman who was crying out in pain.

I immediately recognized her voice. It was the pretty girl that I had seen earlier with the prep school kids that I handed flyers to. With fear, but overcome with curiosity, I gradually made my way around the pyramid, staying as pressed against it as I could to avoid any bullets ricocheting around the plaza. I saw two students laying on the ground, they looked dead, and she was wounded, crying and dragging herself toward one of them, obviously her boyfriend. At that moment rain began to fall, I don’t know still if it was a good or bad thing, but the truth is that it began to rain. I got near the girl to help her reach her boyfriend, and since she was face down I gently tried to help her right herself, and that was when I saw the wound she had in her chest. Every time she exhaled, blood bubbled in her wound, and I realized she was near death. I was about to faint, because seeing a lot of blood has always had that effect on me. I don’t know how, but I managed to stay conscious. She looked at me, her expression very sad, trying to say something to me. She was making a great deal of effort but her mouth produced no sound. The hemorrhage became more intense and her face began growing pale as her body lost blood. She produced a weak whimper as blood trickled from one of the corners of her beautiful lips, and at that moment, suddenly, she died with her eyes staring into mine. I closed her eyelids and softly pushed her close to her dead boyfriend. I don’t cry easily, but at that moment I began to sob.

I was in shock, crying and seated on the floor next to the dead students. I wasn’t thinking. The screams, the bullets and the stampeded of people, they all sounded very distant, as if it wasn’t happening immediately around me.

This happened 36 years ago, and to this day I still haven’t been able to determine what happened next. Sometimes I think that I fainted, or I think that I slept, defeated by fear and weariness, but whatever happened, I know God was with me at that moment and that it wasn’t yet my time.

When I came to, I felt that only minutes had passed, but in reality almost three hours had gone by. There were vague noises coming from the side of the church, and those woke me up. I opened my eyes without moving, trying to situate myself, to figure out where I was. I was still half asleep and couldn’t think clearly. Soon, the cold and cruel reality of what had happened came to me.

I began to distinguish voices and the sound of a truck engine; it must have been near 11 or midnight, there were no lights on anywhere but the moonlight enabled me to see my immediate surroundings.

I straightened up, with some fear of being uncovered. At that moment I realized that my right side was wet with something, although there was no rain. I knew it was blood. Alarmed, worried and scared, I thought I had been shot. I was on my knees, and quickly passed my hands over my body, looking for the wound, but fortunately I was fine; I couldn’t determine the origin of the blood. It wasn’t until I turned to my left, and saw near me the dead bodies of the girl and the two students that were with her, that I realized what the source of the blood on my shirt was.

I lifted my eyes to see exactly in what part of the plaza I was. Two meters to my right I saw the pyramid and I dragged myself in that direction, keeping pressed to the ground so that the men with the truck wouldn’t spot me. I pushed myself against the pyramid, sidestepping until I was on the opposite side from where the truck was. I was sure that where I was I could no longer be seen, but still being very careful, I peeked to see in the direction of the only noises in the plaza that night. What I saw was chilling: here and there around the plaza there were many bodies of men, women and children, riddled with bullets, and dead, of course. There were four men dressed in military uniform; two in the truck that advanced very slowly in reverse and the other two on the ground picking up the corpses while one of the men in the back of the truck stacked the bodies. “This one’s alive!” I heard one of them say. The answer came from the truck: “Even so, throw them in.”

They seemed very rushed and concentrated on what they were doing, but just in case, I took my precautions. I decided to abandon the plaza as soon as possible. In front of me, looking north a few meters, I could see the esplanade. I crawled in the direction to push myself against a raised part of the esplanade, which provided a shadow, out of the moonlight. Only a few meters away was Tlatelolco. If I could only reach it, I thought, I’d be safe.

When I jumped toward the sidewalk they saw me. “Stop, fool!” they yelled and fired some shots. I don’t know if they were shooting at me or at the wind. With the speed granted to me by the fear coursing through my body, I ran north along the side of the vocational school, and I continued going in that direction until I felt they couldn’t see me any longer; then I turned east and I lost myself in a maze of residential buildings

In the midst of the shadows of that tragic and bloody night, while I ran, I prayed to God, giving him thanks for having saved me.

Reprinted from Noticiero Semanal Spanish-language weekly in Porterville, Calif. Translated by Marcelo Ballvé.

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