Mexican Massacres: Retrospective on 50 Years of Murder and Impunity


At the one year anniversary of the forced disappearance of 43 normalista students from Ayotzinapa and the murder of 6 others in Iguala, we are publishing a retrospective of massacres in Mexico to understand why the Ayotzinapa protests are still raging. Why are protesters still smashing government offices? Why are families still demanding answers? Why is the government still sticking to their story when reports conducted by independent forensic experts contradict the official version of events?

In reviewing the history of massacres in Mexico, the answers are easy. Familiar patterns of people “caught in crossfire”, coverups of extrajudicial killings, conflicting government accounts, impunity of state officials from prosecution and the criminalization of social protests dating back decades fuel the righteous indignation of Mexican citizens. Ayotzinapa was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

VIDEO: The straw that broke the camel’s back. We are not afraid.

The following is a review of 10 major massacres dating back half a century. They demonstrate eerily similar patterns of excessive force and extrajudicial killings by Mexican security forces, consistent efforts to cover up crimes afterwards and staging of crime scenes, the releasing of confusing and conflicting information to the public regarding the events and a complete lack of prosecution or accountability for crimes committed by state security forces.

1. Tlatelolco – October 2, 1968

Bodycount: 300 to 500 killed by Mexican military & police a few days before Mexico City hosted the 1968 Olympic Games.

In the summer of 1968, students in Mexico began to challenge the country’s authoritarian government. But the movement was short-lived, lasting less than three months. It ended October 2, 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics in Mexico City, when military troops opened fire on a peaceful student demonstration. The shooting lasted over two hours. The next day the government sent in cleaners to wash the blood from the plaza floor. The official announcement was that four students were dead, but eyewitnesses said hundreds were killed. The death toll was not the only thing the government covered up.

30 documents from various US intelligence sources regarding the Tlatelolco massacre were declassified in 1998 for the 30 year anniversary. Although the United States government has declassified dozens of documents on the massacre of Tlatelolco from the secret archives of the CIA, State Department, Pentagon, FBI and White House, certain key records remain classified and inaccessible to the public.

“Reporting out of the Embassy was often confused during the crisis, probably because Embassy officials were closer than those of other U.S. agencies to the Mexican political class and tended to believe its propaganda.”

The newspaper reports from October 3, 1968 gave conflicting reports as to how many people died, how many were arrested and who started firing first. Mass confusion in the media following state sanctioned murders seems to be a tradition that is still carried on to this day.

The Massacre of Tlatelolco has become a defining moment in Mexican history, but for over forty years the truth of that day has remained hidden.

2. Jueves de Corpus – June 10, 1971

Bodycount: 120 killed by paramilitaries working with police

The paramilitary group, Halcones, trained in the United States at the request of the Luis Echeverria Alvarez government, was part of an official strategy to dismantle the student movement in 1971. Unpublished images and declassified documents in the documentary Halcones, produced by Canal Seis de Julio confirm the participation of those closest to the president in the ambush against the march of June 10, where 120 students were killed.

The documentary revealed that Los Halcones, referred to in Mexico as un grupo de choque (a shock group) coordinated with the police in the massacre of students on June 10, 1971.

Documents released by the National Security Archives disclose an immediate coverup to prevent information regarding the US training program and affiliation with Los Halcones to leak to the public.

Yet even as the embassy urged the Mexicans to guard their silence about the U.S. training given to members of the Halcones, Ambassador McBride was lamenting the Mexican government’s unwillingness to disclose its own role in the matter, as he wrote in a telegram on December 22, 1971.

[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that the GOM has no intention of ever issuing a full report and no doubt hopes that the whole matter can be allowed to slide quietly into oblivion. The difficulties of issuing a full report are obvious. No one would believe the report unless it acknowledged some official responsibility for the “Halcones” (Government toughs) who broke up the demonstrations. Such responsibility would be most difficult for the Government to concede. [. . .] Thus, as time goes on, even though the tragedy is occasionally brought into the public forum by leftist groups and has not been forgotten, the Attorney General’s report becomes less and less likely.

Courts attempted to arrest former interior minister  and ex-president Luis Echeverría Álvarez for both the ’68 and ’71 student massacres, but he was exonerated citing no sufficient evidence against him and expired statute of limitations. His lawyers said there was no proof that he orchestrated the massacre and insisted that the protesters were killed in the crossfire from “sharpshooters and authorities.”

3. Aguas Blancas – June 28, 1995

Bodycount: 17 killed by state police

On the morning of June 28, 1995, Guerrero state police intercepted members of Southern Sierra Peasant Organization (Organización Campesina de la Sierra Sur, or OCSS) en route to a protest in Atoyac de Alvarez. OCSS gave a ride to several local campesinos as the area had poor transportation and was customary to take other passengers when going into town.

Guerrero state police opened fire on OCSS and the campesinos who were traveling in two trucks. 17 people were killed and and more than 20 others were injured. Witnesses said that the police opened fire without provocation, and that they later planted pistols in the hands of people they killed.

Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos
Humanos or CNDH) investigated the massacre and in August issued a hard-hitting report. The CNDH called for the removal and prosecution of a number of high-level Guerrero state law enforcement officers. It also called for an exhaustive investigation by an independent special prosecutor into the police assault and subsequent attempts to cover it up, as well as a restructuring of Guerrero’s security forces.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch/Americas both denounced the official government in reports on the incident that stated the victims were killed in a fire fight.

Seventeen police agents and four high-ranking government officials, including the former state head of security, were arrested in 1996 and charged with staging and then trying to cover up an ambush. Guerrero governor Ruben Figueroa Alcocer was forced to resign because of the massacre.

4. Acteal – December 22, 1997

Bodycount: 45 killed by paramilitaries

Armed paramilitaries opened fire on an impoverished Indian village in Chiapas State in 1997, killing 45 innocent people, including 21 women and 15 children. The victims were were poor Tzotzil Indians, Roman Catholic advocates from a group called Las Abejas, or The Bees, who sympathized with the Zapatista movement. The killers were members of the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The Mexican government offered multiple versions of the military’s involvement in the conflictive Chiapas zone around Acteal but the accounts the were all incomplete or untrue.

Declassified documents from the US Defense Intelligence Agency contradict the official story told about the massacre and confirm reporting about military support for armed groups carrying out attacks on pro-Zapatista communities.

In a telegram sent to DIA headquarters in Washington on May 4, 1999, the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Mexico points to “direct support” by the Army to armed groups in the highland areas of Chiapas, where the killings took place. The document describes a clandestine network of “human intelligence teams,” created in mid-1994 with approval from then-President Carlos Salinas, working inside Indian communities to gather intelligence information on Zapatista “sympathizers.” In order to promote anti-Zapatista armed groups, the teams provided “training and protection from arrests by law enforcement agencies and military units patrolling the region.”

Although the cable was written in 1999, the attaché took care to point out that Army intelligence officers were overseeing the armed groups in December 1997. The document provides details never mentioned in the many declarations of the Mexican Army following the attack. The human intelligence teams, explains the Defense Attaché Office, “were composed primarily of young officers in the rank of second and first captain, as well as select sergeants who spoke the regional dialects.

Dozens of people were arrested and convicted but the facts surrounding the Acteal massacre have never been fully clear. In 2014, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit alleging human rights abuses by ex-president Ernesto Zedillo, who now resides in Connecticut and serves as a research center director and professor at Yale University.

The suit claimed that Zedillo bore some responsibility for the massacre because he was president at the time. The charges included war crimes, crimes against humanity and cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment. The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case came after a 2012 Department of State suggestion of immunity for Zedillo.

5. Atenco – May 3-4, 2006

Bodycount: 2 killed, 47 women gang-raped & tortured by police

In the morning hours of May 3rd, 2006 state police blocked 60 flower vendors from setting up stands in the public market in Texcoco,just outside of Mexico City. Those who resisted were met with a brutal police repression, beaten and thrown in jail. After the violent confrontation, the vendors called upon the residents of neighboring San Salvador Atenco, and the campesino organization People’s Front in Defense of the Land (Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de las Tierras, or FPDT), for support.

The Atencans responded by setting up a blockade in the highway between Atenco and Texcoco. As swarms of riot police repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to lift the blockade, the repression quickly turned to violence as the police, in full body armor and armed with tear gas, batons and firearms, confronted the Atencans, who with machetes in hands, resisted with rocks and molotov cocktails. After the police were expelled from Atenco, residents awoke the next morning to between 3 and 6 thousand state and federal riot police raiding the town, beating and arresting anybody in sight, and conducting violent house to house raids in search of the alleged leaders.

A 14 year old boy was shot in the chest by state police officers. A university student, Alexis Benhumea, sustained a broken skull in 2 places from a tear gas canister that left his brain exposed. Alexis fell into a coma and died days later. More than 200 people were arrested.

47 of those arrested were women who were raped, sexually assaulted, beaten, or tortured on the ground in Atenco, in the police bus on the way to prison, or at the area prison where the detainees were held.

In 2010, 12 political prisoners, members of FPDT who had been detained since 2006 in the state’s violent crackdown in Atenco were finally released from prison. The Mexican Supreme Court concluded that false or insufficient evidence was utilized in the case against the the protesters. Judge Juan Silva Mesa said that the charges appeared to be a backhanded way of criminalizing social protest.

Dozens of police officers were identified by prosecutors as presumed perpetrators of the violence against the women, only three people have been tried. One was given a sentence of time served, and a small fine, which was overturned on appeal. Two cases are ongoing.

Ranking officers and political authorities at the highest levels of government, those ultimately responsible for the human rights violations on their watch, remain untouched. The Atenco movement continues to demand justice for what happened in 2006.

6. Guarderia ABC – June 5, 2009

Bodycount: 49 children killed in a fire

Friday, June 5, 2009 a fire ripped through a daycare killing 30 children that afternoon. Days after the fire, the death toll rose to 49 as children succumbed to injuries. Initial reports stated that the fire began in a tire warehouse next door and spread to the day care. Further investigation revealed the fire began in a different warehouse that was operated by the state government.

An investigation ensued that determined an air conditioning unit caused the fire but later reports from forensic experts indicated the fire was intentional. Witnesses came forward and testified that an order was given to burn papers of the Ministry of Finance that were kept in the warehouse adjacent to the nursery and that order came from the Government Palace in Sonora during the administration of Eduardo Bours.

In August of 2014, about 22 arrest warrants were issued against teachers, custodial staff and the director of the day care. Gabriel Alvarado, attorney for Manos Unidas, a group which advocates for victims of the fire said the arrest orders were wrong because they were not proceeding against individual officials who were responsible for the tragedy. Parents of the children who died also rejected the arrest warrants issued for day care workers noting that some of those indicted are considered heroes who were injured during the fire while rescuing children.

The representative of the family considered that the resolution of the federal authorities “diverts attention and does not address what matters most which is to establish the real causes of the fire and who was responsible” in the case.

7. Tlatlaya – June 30, 2014

Bodycount: 22 killed by Mexican military, attempted coverup & staged crime scene

The official story of events said the soldiers had been patrolling the area, when they came under attack by alleged kidnappers, causing a shootout that left 22 dead on June 30, 2014. However, forensic analyses showed that many of the victims were executed, corroborating eyewitness testimony. A report released July 2, 2015 by Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Center Prodh) demonstrated that 22 people were victims of extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Mexican military.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) later concluded that at least 12 of the individuals killed were executed and that soldiers had altered the scene of the crime to make it look like a confrontation. The Mexican government has since pressed charges against seven soldiers for the killing of eight of the victims.

“The Mexican government first painted this as a confrontation, then as an isolated incident.” said Maureen Meyer, Senior Associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas.

8. Ayotzinapa – September 26, 2014

Bodycount: 6 killed, 43 disappeared by municipal police in collusion with organized crime. Federal police & military also implicated.

On the night of September 26 three separate attacks against two groups of young people riding in buses occurred within hours of each other in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. A flurry of confusing and conflicting media reports followed in the days after the attack. From September 28 through October 2, five of Mexico’s main news sources published a total of 139 reports focusing on events that transpired in Guerrero.

The official government version of events has since been roundly discredited. A study carried out with the support of the Investigative Reporting Program of UC Berkeley showed that the Federal Police were actively and directly involved in the attack despite the PGR’s story that only municipal police participated in collusion with organized crime.

Independent experts from EAAF published a report exposing glaring errors in the PGR’s investigation.

The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (“GIEI” Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) published their report earlier this month which drove a freight train through the government’s version of events.

No one believes the official version yet the PGR still maintains their story as the “historical truth.”

9. Apatzingán – January 6, 2015

Bodycount: 16 killed by federal police; attempted cover up & staged crime scene

In the official version of events originally reported on January 6, federal police had evicted armed criminals that had taken over the Apatzingán City Hall. One person was allegedly run over during the eviction and 8 people were allegedly killed by “friendly fire”.

After a blockbuster investigation published in April 2015 it was revealed that the balance of the two attacks were 16 extrajudicial killings, some of them at point blank range. The real death toll is unknown. The victims were civilians and members of an autodefensas group who were deputized to fight the local drug cartel.

“They were screaming. There was a man, his wife, a daughter and others in the truck. They screamed. ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We’re unarmed!’ and they cried and screamed. They all got out on the sidewalk and there on the corner they got them. They were alive there, protecting each other, they came and massacred them. They turned them into pieces.” – witness testimony

Images published along with the April investigation showed the crime scene had been altered. Guns were planted around the victims’ bodies by federal police. The PGR had said they will investigate the use of excessive force by federal police in Apatzingán, but so far Mexican officials insist that federal agents acted in “legitimate defense.”

10. Ecuandureo – May 18, 2015

Bodycount: 42 killed by federal police & Mexican army; evidence of attempted coverup & staged crime scene

True to form, initial reports that surfaced regarding the massacre in Ecuandureo were confusing and conflicting. The actual location was mistakenly reported as Tanhuato and later corrected to have occurred in Ecuandureo. The balance of a massively disproportionate shootout left 42 bodies at a ranch in Michoacan. One police officer was also killed. The 42 victims were allegedly linked to organized crime. The one-sided number of casualties is unusual for police forces engaging in a gunfight with a large group of cartel members.

Images from the massacre show signs that weapons were haphazardly planted around the victims’ bodies. The number of weapons seized after didn’t match the number of dead and detained. The crime scene was not preserved, security forces walked through evidence instead of waiting for investigators from the PGR’s office to examine the scene. Police even set part of the crime scene on fire claiming they were “cleaning up trash.”

Several witnesses claimed the 42 dead were unarmed civilians. More troubling, witnesses recall the police arrived in a helicopter: “The police machine-gunned everyone from the helicopter,” said a resident of Ecuandureo to journalist Omar Sánchez from Animal Politico.

Perhaps one day we will learn what happened at Tlatelolco, Jueves de Corpus, Aguas Blancas, Acteal, Atenco, Guarderia ABC, Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, Apatzingan and Ecuandureo. Maybe we will never know the truth. Meanwhile the families of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa will keep looking for their missing loved ones and continue to demand justice.

Radio Diaries
National Security Archives – Tlatelolco
ADN Politico
La Jornada
National Security Archives – Jueves de Corpus
New York Times
LA Times
Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights – Aguas Blancas report
NYT – Aguas Blancas
Yale Daily News
National Security Archive – Acteal
La Jornada
Reporte Indigo
CBS News
CNN Mexico
Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Center Prodh)
La Nueva Republica
Borderland Beat

About Author

Erin Gallagher is a multimedia artist, translator and writer for Revolution News.