On 2 October 1968, 10 days before the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, government forces opened fire on a student protest in the capital’s Tlatelolco plaza. Official sources stated that the number of dead was in the dozens, but students claimed hundreds died in what has become known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
John Rodda, one of the Guardian’s sports reporters due to cover the Games, was sent to Mexico ahead of the normal time to cover the student riots and investigate the background of the country’s political upheaval.
On the evening of 2 October he went to the Square of the Three Cultures to another rally which turned into the bloodiest battle since the trouble began. Rodda was trapped in the middle of it at gunpoint and was under fire on a balcony for three hours. His report, bordering on the hallucinatory, was the only firsthand account to appear in a British newspaper.
Mexico City, October 3
The meeting was held in the Square of the Three Cultures. The student speakers were in a balcony on a block of flats about three floors up. They looked out on to a vast square which on the one side has a church and the building of the Foreign Ministry, which must be about twenty storeys high, and on the right a block of buildings and the Polytechnic, which has been occupied by the police during the present disturbances.
The meeting was due to begin at five o’clock. I got there at that time, but they were late starting. The meeting differed from last Friday’s in that there were many banners and placards being held by the students. As the crowd filed into the square through its main thoroughfare there were armed police on the balcony of the Polytechnic. They were getting a lot of abuse from the students but they took it with a smile and when the students screwed up their pamphlets and tossed them up to the police, the policemen read them.
I then moved among the crowds, going towards the block of flats and through a back staircase. I made my way to the balcony where the speakers were. The balcony, about the length of a cricket pitch and about four yards wide, had entrances on each side. You had to present your press card to a chap at a rope to get in. I moved over to the left of the balcony and got into conversation with one of the girl students who could speak a little English. I speak no Spanish.
She asked for my estimate of the crowd. I said it was 5,000, which I think now was on the conservative side. There was suddenly a burst of loud applause as a group began to walk into the square with a large banner. I asked her what this was all about and she said that was the union of railway workers “who are supporting us.” “We now have the petrol workers, the telephonists, and the electricity workers’ unions supporting us.”
A few minutes later, after the speaking had been going on for between 30 to 45 minutes during which time two helicopters had circled overhead “one from the police, one from the military,” my student told me, there were suddenly two green Very lights which shot up from behind the church. There was a buzz in the crowd. Some began to move from the edges, my student contact grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the balcony saying “Military” – and then another two green Very lights went up.
At that moment I turned to move instinctively to the stairs and suddenly there appeared three, four, five, or six men with revolvers with more following, indicating to us to get on the floor. My first thought was that this is it. They’re just going to shoot us down. I kept shouting, “Prensa, Prensa,” without getting down, but one of them moved forward to use his gun butt on me so I got down, flat on my face, with my feet about three or four feet from the wall and my head a good deal farther away.
Hardly had I reached the floor than the air was filled with gunfire, the staccato of machine-guns and rifles. It was horrifying. Bullets began to ping over the walls, bedding into the opposite side of the balcony. The wall near which I was lying was about 3ft. 6in. high. I managed to squirm closer to it because I was not sure whether the bullets were coming up from the crowd, in which case I would have been OK or that there were people on the top of the Foreign Ministry building who could have picked off anyone who was lying on the floor, I should think up to about five or six feet from the front wall.
At this point I thought that the men with guns who had came up the staircase were student supporters, for they were all in civilian clothing and I believed that we were under siege from the military. These were my horrifying thoughts: that someone would toss a couple of hand grenades or a tear-gas bomb into our area or that the military would come up the stairs and just brush out all these bodies lying prone on the floor.
But then I thought they must be students holding the bottom of the staircase, but for how long could they hold out? I took a couple of peeks up and kept saying the word “prensa,” but there was only one man around me who could speak English and I couldn’t move very much – and he had only a few words but he turned out to be a Mexican journalist. There was a tremendous amount of shouting up and down the stairs, periods of quiet, and then periods of fierce gunfire all round the square, with bullets bedding themselves into the walls and ceiling.
The worst moment came when someone with a machine gun high up was spraying bullets down, and the firing line was catching the edge of the walls and sending up sparks and sprinkling the corner where I was covered in cement and concrete chips. A girl student wearing slacks was hurt, but whether she got a direct hit or was caught from a ricochet I cannot say.
Then someone else was hit and there was some terrible groaning. The girl was slumped across the floor and I saw blood which appeared to be at the side of her temple. I prayed, I put my arm round the Mexican journalist next to me. I kept asking him what was going on, and I still had it firmly confirmed in my mind that I was with the students who were fighting against the militia.
After about an hour and a half (it was dark by now and I couldn’t see my watch) there was a long period of quiet. No firing but a lot of shouting up and down the staircase. I looked up and got another shock: a lot of people were missing. I saw my Mexican friend wave his hand to indicate that it was all right. At least that is what I thought he meant, and down the staircase I heard the word “prensa” mentioned several times. When I say it was quiet there was always the background noise of water gushing from the floors above on to our balcony and down the staircase because the tank at the top had been punctured.
The Mexican journalist then indicated that I was to move downstairs. I was told to crawl across on my belly, but a chap pointed a revolver at my forehead and I pulled out my press card. At first he insisted I was a German but after a while he prodded me on and I moved on a few more feet snakewise before being told to turn and move over to the staircase through the vulnerable side wide open to any sniper who might have been on the Foreign Ministry roof.
I got to the staircase and was directed down by men with revolvers. I had to go twice under the drenching water before I found the safety of a closed-in balcony. The men about me, I now realised, were not students. They were mostly too old and their dress if it was ragged was not the raggedness of students.
Shot in back
On this little balcony were other journalists, including a man named Dancey, of NBC. I discovered that his interpreter was one of those shot in the back. They got him across the floor and down the stairs to an ambulance.
We were herded into a kitchen where there were two Germans, one of whom had a tape-recorder. A man with a gun made him play the tape. There was nothing on it, for as the German indicated, when the shooting started he flung himself on the floor and forgot to turn the tape on.
I now realised that these men were military and probably wanted to take the tape away. Yet there were several cameramen in our group of 19 but there was no attempt to take their films. We were then ushered into another room of the flat where I saw several bullet holes in the window and marks on the ceiling and walls. By now it was about 8 30 and the shooting was only sporadic. We occasionally heard a vehicle driven up and the whine of the ambulances.
We sat around on the floor in the darkness for an hour, while the man who lived in the flat was trying to keep the water (which was still pouring from above) off his polished wood floor. All this time these men with pistols and submachine guns kept moving in and out, with shouting going on up and down the stairs. Eventually we got a bit bold and moved to the door. It was then that we heard we were going to leave.
Full of troops
Dancey and I had a few words and I said: “It’s a good thing there are a lot of us here because they can’t get us all run over by cars.” Although I did add that a press bus accident in which the vehicle overturned and caught fire might be their way out. Finally we were told that we were going, and honestly I didn’t know what to expect. When we reached the bottom of the staircase the surrounding area was full of troops who stood around shivering.
After some discussion they took our names and Mexican addresses and led us to the corner. There were shots from the ground floor. Someone was trying to clear up and I went to speak to him, but was called back by the military. Standing there I realised how many military or secret service men there were about. For all wore on their left hand a white glove for identification.
Dancey of NBC asked the chap looking after us how many had been killed. He shrugged his shoulders and said that there were many on both sides. Then we moved on to the corner of the building and saw four ambulances at one of the entrances to the square and a tank. We were left on our own to get home as best we could.
Dancey, the Mexican journalist, and I took a cab. The Mexican said that he had been taken by police to another room. “What did you find out, how many had been killed,” I asked. He said 500 and wrote the figure down in case we misunderstood. We could not believe it, although if the guns were directed at that crowd this must have been the sort of result to be expected. But on the other hand they might have been firing in the air.