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The 1971 Student Massacre That Mexico Would Rather Forget

A march will commemorate the June 10, 1971 massacre, when government-trained paramilitaries attacked a protest march.
Photo by Tim Smyth

Scores of students and leftist protesters on Tuesday marched in Mexico City in memory of the victims of the Halconazo, or Mexico’s Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 — an annual protest that has become a somber tradition to prevent the collective memory loss of the state’s past crimes against its citizens.

The march commemorates the June 10, 1971 massacre, when government-trained paramilitaries — the Halcones, or "Falcons" — attacked a protest march outside the Santo Tomás campus of the National Polytechnical Institute.


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The Halcones’ first wave used bamboo canes and knives to attack demonstrators. The second wave emptied firearms into the protesters.

Halcones followed the injured to hospitals to finish them off in front of terrified doctors and medical staff — putting the Halconazo incident on par with the infamous 1968 Tlatelolco massacre — where hundreds were reportedly killed after military troops shot into a crowds of unarmed students, despite the official government death toll of only few dozen victims.

But unlike the Tlatelolco massacre, the Halconazo has never been acknowledged formally by Mexico’s government, and 43 years later, survivors said the factors that led students to take to the streets then are similar to the factors that compel students in Mexico to protest Tuesday.

“The parallels between then and now are obvious to me,” said Leopoldo Ayala, a leader of the 1968 Memorial Committee, which headed up Tuesday’s march. “We have the same hijacking of public space and public opinion. The best we can do is stop history from repeating itself. And I see the same energy, the same will to remember, in the young people here today as I do in my generation.”

No official death toll has ever been released since the incident near the Santo Tomás campus, northwest of downtown Mexico City.

Mexican riot police did nothing to intervene as the Halcones attacked, and instead corralled the students between an overpass and the school. The nearest subway station outside the campus was closed in order cut off any avenue of escape.


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No one has ever been convicted in connection to either the Halconazo of ’71 or the Tlatelolco massacre of ’68, the darkest points in a period in which Mexico’s single-party government systematically sought to squash and eliminate dissent.

Survivors of the period march every year through the core of Mexico City on June 10 and October 2, but as time passes, the numbers of gray-haired marchers is dwindling.

A New Generation of Protesters
Today, generations of students born much later gather and march as their predecessors did in memory of the victims.

The dates are tense in Mexico City year after year, as the demonstrations frequently end in confrontations between riot police and masked individuals identified as anarchists.

Like the Oct. 2 Tlatelolco commemorations, Tuesday’s march was a focal point for a range of grievances.

Students wearing #YoSoy132 t-shirts — recalling the grassroots student movement against then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 — were joined by farmworkers from San Salvador Atenco, marked by their knack for carrying machetes to big marches.

The blades of their tools are painted with the phrase "TIERRA SI AVIONES NO," or Lands yes, Planes no, signaling their disagreement with federal plans to rezone land in San Salvador Atenco to build a replacement for Mexico City’s congested Benito Juarez international terminal.


VICE News asked one demonstrator from Atenco when crews were going to start work out there.

“They’re not,” the man replied, lifting his machete.

Protesters from the community of San Bartolo, site of bloody confrontations with riot police over the past month, were also present with banners that read "OUR WATER IS NOT FOR SALE."

The community has depended on a volcanic spring for its water in a city where one third of residents don’t have access to running water; now the city government is trying to siphon off the spring to spread around its water source to more affluent areas.

Sofia Silva, a human rights observer, said in an interview that the police in Mexico City behave with growing levels of repression against demonstrations on the main streets.

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“The government have strengthened measures against protests,” Silva said. “We’ve had changes in protocols since last year, allowing for heavier police presence.”

She cites the dissident National Education Workers’ Union (CNTE) strike that paralyzed the capital for most of last summer and autumn.

Their movement was abruptly deflated when police used tear-gas and water-cannons to flush protesters off the main Zócalo square in time for the Independence Day celebrations.

Last year’s June 10 protest turned nasty.

Nine people aligned with the anarchist group Bloque Negro (Black Bloc) were detained by police for hurling rocks at police and Mexico City officials.


Last year’s Tlatelolco commemoration turned nasty, too, with 32 police injured and 102 protesters detained.

Masked, black-clad youths — encapuchados, as they are called here — smashed windows and bus stops. Some were held in excess of 30 days by police. One national university history student was sentenced to five years in jail for “disturbing the peace.”

On Tuesday, some 2,000 police officers and a helicopter were set to be deployed to monitor the protest.

The most significant violence, though, came from a group of encapuchados who petrol-bombed a branch of a Mexican bank and attempt to storm the headquarters of the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).

Others attacked photojournalists who rushed to document their actions.

VICE News observed masked protesters surround a photographer for the right-of-center Reforma newspaper and beat him with part of a bench.

Three others were injured when they went to his aid. Marco Ugarte, a freelance photographer with Associated Press, remained hospitalized Wednesday for injuries sustained when he was attacked by encapuchados during the march.

For Alaya, this is another parallel between the past and the present.

“The government paid Halcones to attack students in 1971; this time they pay porros [provocateurs],” he said, reflecting a widespread but difficult to prove belief that some masked protesters are actually government agents.

“You can call it a softer repression if you want, but it’s still repression,” he said.

All photos by Tim Smyth