By Javier Zúñiga, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Javier Zúñiga is a special adviser to Amnesty International. The views expressed are his own.
It was starting to get dark as I was staring into the crowd from an avenue overlooking the square.
“The army! The army!” people began to shout from the nearby buildings. Then we saw small armored vehicles and soldiers with rifles moving into the square. I took my little daughter and my wife out of there and we found shelter in a nearby building. As we were leaving, a helicopter flew overhead and shot a flare. Then the gunfire started.
Early the next morning, we returned to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco area, and saw the piles of belts and shoes. Pools of blood remained on the ground and there were bullet holes at eye level on concrete pillars around the square.
A university professor at the time, I had gone there to see my students who were on strike, riding the wave of the protests of ’68. But the aftermath of the protest and the brutal crackdown was to become an education in impunity for all of us.
That’s my experience of what came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre. Although 45 years have passed, that October 2 is a day that I will never forget. It’s also a date that remains a benchmark for ongoing human rights violations in Mexico.
Few cases of impunity are as flagrant and scandalous as the slaughter that took place in the Plaza of the Three Cultures. There are still hundreds of survivors (that’s to say: witnesses). Hundreds of soldiers and security forces who were involved in the massacre are still alive, and the name of their commanders that day are known. Then-President Díaz Ordaz even accepted chain of command responsibility for the events.
Despite all this, not a single person has been tried and convicted for involvement in the massacre – an intolerable injustice.
This October marks 36 years since I began working with Amnesty International combating, together with many others, impunity in America and around the world. Over these 36 years, I’ve seen how, from Guatemala to Peru, as well as Argentina and Chile, the wall of impunity for past human rights violations has started to tumble.
Not in Mexico.
For me, for those who survived and for Mexican society, Tlatelolco will be an open wound until truth, justice and reparation have been secured for the victims of that infamous day 45 years ago. And I firmly believe that impunity for Tlatelolco is fueling today’s impunity.
Why? I’ve asked myself thousands of times. I believe the answer lies in one fundamental and several incidental features of the Mexican political system.
Since independence, this system has been dominated by the figure of the president of the Republic. This dominance became even stronger after the revolution. As a result, in 1968 the president was seen as almighty and untouchable, exercising total power over all state institutions. President Díaz Ordaz, without being a military dictator, had as much or more power than General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s military ruler.
Hundreds of people in Mexico were victims of enforced disappearances and torture because of the counterinsurgency strategy of the Díaz Ordaz administration, which targeted political activists in addition to armed opposition groups operating in several parts of the country. The victims of these grave human rights violations were totally disregarded.
According to an unwritten rule, President Díaz Ordaz could name his successor. Two years after the Tlatelolco massacre, his interior minister, Luis Echeverría – who had been directly implicated in the killings – became president. That decision cemented impunity. An impunity confirmed by subsequent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administrations, which have blocked accountability.
Only with the end of PRI rule in 2000 and the inauguration of President Vicente Fox did the victims and society hold out some hope that a serious investigation into Tlatelolco and other grave abuses of the era would finally take place. Even a special federal prosecutor was appointed to the task. But, at the end of the day, nothing happened. The perpetrators’ immunity continued.
The sense of guaranteed impunity for public officials responsible for grave human rights violations has cast a dark shadow over Mexican life. Today, the disappeared are not left wing guerrillas and political activists. Any person is at risk of being forcibly disappeared or tortured if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In recent years, there has been a rapid rise in reports of enforced disappearances and torture, including cases in Nuevo Laredo in August this year. The evidence points to police and security forces’ responsibility for these grave human rights violations. But no one is ever held to account, while the victims are routinely ignored and their claims disregarded. Sounds familiar?
Human rights violations remain a routine part of public security operations, because the authorities turn a blind eye and refuse to stamp it out. Thus, a direct line can be drawn between the lack of truth and justice for the Tlatelolco massacre and human rights violations committed today.
Mexico has suffered through 45 years of impunity. If the authorities take no action to remedy this, impunity will continue to spread its poison. Enrique Peña Nieto has now the opportunity to choose whether he is another link in the chain of impunity, or the president who breaks it once and for all.