Sincronía Fall 2009

The Invisible Tyranny of the Mexican Media: Tlatelolco and Beyond

Peter Watt, University of Sheffield

Via political propaganda we can conceive of a world dominated by an Invisible Tyranny which adopts the form of a democratic government’1. Those are the words of an internal document of the Mexican government produced under the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and Secretary of the Interior, Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1964-1970).

This article examines media reactions to the notorious attack against protestors at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco in Mexico City in 1968 and their role during the years of political repression which followed, now known as the guerra sucia, or dirty war. I attempt to explain why the media often dismissed the student movement, which had burgeoned throughout the summer of that year, and minimised the role of the authorities in their attacks against protestors and examine how the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) under Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría managed to manipulate what made it into print.2 An appraisal of the 1968 movement in Mexico should surely look at the role of the media, for without their silence and complicity, it is possible that public outcry over the torture, incarceration, extrajudicial execution and disappearance of political dissidents could have exposed the abuses of Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría’s government. Yet this has been overlooked by those who have researched the topic, despite Diaz Ordaz and Echeverría’s close relationship with the media.3

In the latter half of the sixties control of information and political propaganda became a prime concern of Mexico’s PRI regime and propaganda and manipulation of the media would become a key component of PRI rule. A ‘perfect dictatorship’ was how Mario Vargas Llosa aptly described the Mexican political system.


October 2 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the massacre of peaceful protestors in the Tlatelolco housing project in Mexico City and the beginning of Mexico’s secret Dirty War against the Left. Those campaigning for justice have long regarded Echeverría as the principal living instigator of the attack. Yet in July 2007 he was exonerated by a Mexican tribunal for the charge of genocide.

At the October 2 protest in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, armed government troops (granaderos), paramilitaries (La Brigada Blanca) and police moved into the square. Tanks surrounded the plaza. Helicopters flew overhead. Towards the end of the afternoon, just as the crowd was to break up, two green flares were launched from one of the helicopters, a signal which initiated shots from snipers, granaderos and police. The night of terror, which left hundreds dead in the plaza and thousands more injured and incarcerated, is an infamous date in modern Mexican history. The massacre was the government’s response to a summer of unparalleled popular activism and protest, demanding an end to political repression and the freeing of political prisoners and came just before Mexico was to host the 1968 Olympics. The violent response was unmatched and signalled the beginning of Mexico’s guerra sucia against political opponents.


Why did the mainstream media side with the PRI in 1968? Given that the Mexican media in theory enjoyed freedom of expression, how was it possible to keep the murder and disappearances of political dissidents secret? How did the PRI maintain a compliant press with an apparent absence of formal mechanisms of control? The question of media adherence to a particular doctrine and ideology is not only relevant and important to Mexico; its bearing applies to other countries in which the media claim to be free, but nonetheless frequently side with the powerful. A group of Soviets accustomed to Pravda and state propaganda once posed the question on a visit to the United States; in the free world, they thought, at least the media should be free. They concluded otherwise. ‘In our country’, they noted, ‘to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what’s your secret? How do you do it?’ (Cited Pilger 2004, p. 9).

The ability of the ‘free’ media to determine what is and what is not acceptable political debate accords them a power which helps set the agenda in favour of the powerful, a questionable, alarming and undemocratic practice. It should also teach us something about how the state attempts hegemony in ‘freer’ societies; i.e., those lacking the mechanisms of social control and coercion from which dictatorships benefit.

In the 1960s and 1970s in Mexico there existed structural limitations on media institutions which encouraged and elicited favourable coverage of government in the press. During the Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría regime, these controls contributed to journalistic obedience to political power – direct intervention by the government in papers and in magazines often toned down or censored material and the readership would be unaware of these government induced changes. This was significant, particularly as such processes were invisible to the average reader, who might be forgiven for thinking that the press and writers operated freely in Mexico. These limitations seem to me to be an extraordinarily important aspect of how we understand political propaganda – the ‘invisible tyranny’, to quote the aforementioned Mexican government document – and how it functioned in what was presented to the world as a free society. I examine them in further detail below.

Scholars and observers have frequently overlooked these limitations. Typically, those who have written on the period allude to one or two of these phenomena but fail to present an argument that illustrates the limitations placed on writers who resisted official dogma. Preston and Dillon (2004), for example, both journalists themselves, do not make a structural analysis, but underline wider cultural issues instead in order to explain positive coverage of the PRI. One of the most important and complete books on the topic, Joseph Chappell H. Lawson’s Building the Fourth Estate (2002), frequently alludes to bribes and paper supply as factors engendering ideological discipline but does not claim that these taken together had an overall and lasting effect on the content of the press. It is a view of the Mexican media which generally has been rather marginalised. Journalist José J. Castellanos (1983), in a book limited to a print run of 2000 copies by a minor publisher does make the argument that actual working conditions, the structure of the press and its close ties to the state encouraged an institutionalised journalistic corruption and a tendency to side with the ruling party. More recently, Rossana Fuentes-Berain (2001) has signalled the importance of some of these features and their exploitation by the state, but these are perspectives which only now are beginning to make inroads into mainstream debate on the topic. The success of Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía’s La otra guerra secreta (2007) demonstrates that a fuller and better understanding of how the media operated during the period is vital in understanding how and why state crimes remained immune from exposure to public scrutiny.



A fitting illustration of the entreguismo of the ‘prensa vendida’ immediately followed the Tlatelolco massacre. The television and newspapers told a very different story from those who had witnessed the violence. One report, which clearly showed the authorities attacking peaceful protestors, was broadcast on the evening of October 2 but was subsequently cast into an Orwellian memory hole somewhere in the Televisa building. Noticiero de Excélsior had filmed the attack, but it was never broadcast again. Telesistema Mexicano, now Televisa, showed no pictures of the massacre and news presenter Jacobo Zabludovsky offered a strictly official rendering of events (Preston and Dillon 2004, p. 74).

What those present in the plaza had witnessed was vital in constructing an account of events that countered the official version, which adamantly claimed that the jóvenes had fired the first shots and attacked the military. According to eyewitnesses, this was impossible. And the pictures broadcast on the evening of October 2 clearly showed that the attack began with the soldiers who fired indiscriminately at the crowd, mowing down peaceful unarmed protestors.

Documents found by investigative journalist Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía in the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) clear up some of the mystery. The previous year, Díaz Ordaz had named Telesistema’s director, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, government Consejero en materia de Radio y Televisión. The documents show that Azcárraga was heavily involved in the propaganda campaign to legitimise the role of the authorities and censor the material filmed by Noticiero de Excélsior’s camera operator. They also suggest that he had access to the forbidden material, referred to in a memo written to Echeverría. It is also possible that Telesistema had at its disposal the official footage ordered by Echeverría and filmed by camera operator Cuauhtémoc García Pineda. García Pineda, twenty years after the massacre, claimed that he handed the film directly to Echeverría following the massacre. If so, this means that Televisa has safeguarded the material since 1968, particularly because Noticiero de Excélsior had to broadcast via Telesistema and surely would have kept a record of the footage, especially in light of its political and historical significance.

Three days after the massacre, a memo to Echeverría updating him on the progress of a film about October 2, explained that:

El guión se basa en el primer anteproyecto elaborado por el General García Barragán4 […] Exhibí al señor General la película […] La vieron también el oficial que hará la explicación en Televicentro y el técnico señalado por Emilio.5

Some of the original footage was apparently considered suitable for the official version of events. The memo indicates that, ‘Algunas escenas armonizan muy bien con el guión: serían las que se utilizarán.’ Others would have to be shot later: ‘Se podría también, agregar escenas filmadas de los soldados heridos, que se encuentran en el hospital militar.’ The memo affirms that, ‘La filmación del videotape será mañana a las 9.00 am para que pueda ser afinado y tenerlo listo para trasmitirlo por la tarde, o el lunes’ (Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 261).

The memo was addressed to Echeverría and suggests he already knew of the new footage to be broadcast. It also seems plausible that Echeverría commissioned the new recording (as the correspondence is addressed to him) with the collaboration of Emilio Azcárraga. These recent revelations vindicate what many involved in the movement have maintained since 1968: the state and the national media collaborated invisibly on an official version of events that suited their own interests and kept the truth strictly confidential.

During the late sixties and early seventies, the PRI seemed to be primarily concerned with the print media. Yet television and radio accrued an ever-greater audience. The Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría administrations saw the potential for the dissemination of political messages via the electronic media. These had the advantage of appealing to a wider audience, particularly the lower classes, than the print media alone. Better still, these media could appeal to the sixteen percent of people over the age of fifteen who were illiterate (Hamnett 2006, p. 242).

The government manual on propaganda cited above had discussed lucidly the potential of inculcating a sense of nationalism and faith in authority through visual images and symbols. Even the media themselves, according to its author, could inspire faith and reliance on an invisible authority:

Las ideas que obtienen mayor eco – repetición de labio a labio – son las que difunden por medio de la radio y la tv. Esto último tiene una explicación psicológica: el desconocimiento general de qué son exactamente un radio y un televisor y cómo se opera el milagro del sonido y la imagen. Esta ignorancia crea en quien oye y ve una noticia, un asombro – un fetiche, pese a lo exagerado del término – subconsciente que mueve la credulidad inmediata.

Those elements least likely to read the press, – niños and amas de casa – the document recommends, should be targeted accordingly:

El público permanente de la televisión lo constituyen los niños y en menor grado las amas de casa. La influencia de estos sectores – con predominio en el primero – en las programaciones es evidente: 70% de los programas les está dedicado. Considerando, pues, la enorme influencia de opinión y comentario que suscitan los niños – este término se emplea por extensión, pero en realidad comprende una población entre ocho y quince años, inminente de acción política – es razonable pensar en la creación de un ‘slogan’, de un ‘leit motiv’ que, repetido por ellos, familiarice, forme hábito y simpatía en la población adulta (Archivo General de la Nación, Galería 2, Box, 2998/A).

The Código de Ética, produced and ratified by representatives of the broadcasting industry in 1967, spelled out clear measures for broadcasters. Programming, it recommended, should prohibit the use of anti-patriotic messages, swearing, representations of violence and suicide, nudity, sexually explicit scenes, amarillista and sensacionalista news stories, etc. Instead, broadcasters should underline the strength of family values and take care not to arouse popular excitement and rage.

Broadcasters generally followed the guidelines – unsurprisingly perhaps, as Emilio Azcárraga, director of Televisa was openly priista and had worked as Consejero en materia de Radio y Televisión for the regime. Similarly, Jacobo Zabludowsky, Televisa’s news presenter, had close relations with Echeverría, with whom he collaborated personally.

One illustrative example of this was Azcárraga’s response to mounting pressure from Gobernación6 due to a chat show in which the discussion revolved around Mexican women and sexuality. Azcárraga wrote back assuring that, in ‘aspectos de programación, continuaremos en la auto vigilancia que nos hemos impuesto, para lograr los propósitos que tan acertadamente ha tenido a bien señalarnos’ (Cited Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 258).

La auto vigilancia que nos hemos impuesto’, unwittingly no doubt, sums up relations between the state and the national media in the late sixties.

Among those who had witnessed the horrors of Tlatelolco or who knew about it second-hand, accusations of ‘prensa vendida’ seemed more than appropriate. El Sol de México announced confidently on October 3: ‘Responden con violencia al cordial llamado del Estado. El gobierno abrió las puertas del diálogo’. Novedades opened with, ‘Balacera entre francotiradores y el ejército, en Ciudad Tlatelolco,’ suggesting that students were armed to defend themselves as ably as the police and military. Similarly, El Heraldo de México depicted the massacre as a battle between forces of equal power, announcing a ‘Sangriento encuentro en Tlatelolco’. El Universal followed with a similar line; ‘Tlatelolco, campo de batalla’. El Día opened with: ‘Muertos y heridos en grave choque con el ejército en Tlatelolco’. Julio Scherer’s Excélsior, later known for its contrary stance towards the PRI, opened with an equally apologetic headline: ‘Recio combate al dispersar el ejército un mitin de huelguistas’. Those who had witnessed the massacre were astonished when Excélsior reported only twenty deaths. The Manchester Guardian reported 325 but nowhere in Mexico did such an account appear. Novedades, following the violent attack in Tlatelolco, urged that, ‘Ha llegado el momento de no callarse, hablar claro y actuar para ayudar a nuestro gobierno a librar a México de esta ofensiva contra sus libertades y su misma existencia’. Later, the paper would publish a book in defense of the authorities entitled, Trampa en Tlatelolco. Síntesis de una felonía contra México, a collection of articles published by Novedades during and after the movement which sought to absolve the authorities of any wrongdoing (Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 101). The episode, according to the selection of articles, was a trampa not for the protestors but the authorities.

Excélsior’s editorial pages, like those of the other papers, continued in the same vein; the attitude of the student movement ‘llegó a la insolencia’ and was ‘propio de adolescentes pueriles y soberbios’ but conceded that, ‘no es matándonos entre nosotros como habremos de edificar el México de todos’. The editors continued:

Pero el Gobierno está formado por adultos, por personas que saben cómo suele cegar el orgullo, cómo suele resentir el amor propio. Esos adultos saben que el ardor y la pasión juveniles llevan a fútiles y peligrosas insolencias. Sin embargo, tal adultez tendrá que funcionar en el futuro – y así los esperamos – en toda su grandeza (Excélsior 3 October 1968).

The general message – encapsulated by Excélsior, supposedly Mexico’s most independent and critical mainstream paper – was very clear and was eloquently articulated by a press that was obedient to the interests of the PRI as much on the mainstream left as on the right. Questioning and challenging government policy was symptomatic of a youth culture aroused by futile and naïve passions and could only be restrained by the levelheaded ‘adultos’ in government.

Julio Scherer, although he had been editor of Excélsior at the time, later observed of press complicity during the period that, ‘era tal el entreguismo de la prensa que bien merecía figurar como el cuarto sector del PRI, después, claro, del obrero, el campesino y el popular’ (Scherer and Monsiváis 2003, p. 76). Scherer would later be celebrated for his muckraking journalism as editor of Excélsior and the magazine Proceso after 1976. Yet in his book, Los presidentes, he recalls:

Excélsior había informado con honradez y veracidad acerca de los sucesos en Tlatelolco. Esto era cierto, pero no me engañaba. Habíamos escamoteado a los lectores capítulos enteros de la historia de esos días. Poco sabíamos de la vida pública de los presos políticos, menos aún de su intimidad, y habíamos evitado las entrevistas con ellos. Sabía bien que en nuestras manos había estado la decisión de cumplir o no con ese trabajo, pero también sabía que el Presidente (Gustavo Díaz Ordaz) no había propiciado el mejor clima para el desarrollo de una información irrestricta (Cited Fuentes Berain 2001).

Throughout the summer of 1968, as the movement developed and widened into other sectors of society, Excélsior’s tone towards the protesters grew ever more hostile and unsympathetic. It was not until much later that the paper would seriously criticise those in power. Yet the idea that Excélsior provided an alternative to the obedient press is simply inaccurate, at least in the early years of Scherer’s editorship. The paper accused the protesters of being unpatriotic, particularly when a number of them raised the anarchist red and black flag in the Zócalo in scenes reminiscent of May ’68. It also noted in August that the state ‘estaba obligado a reprimir’.

It was not until September 1968 that Excélsior actually began covering the movement with any attention but it merely underlined the need for conciliation. As tensions grew between the authorities and the movement, Excélsior sided with Díaz Ordaz and the PRI in some articles but began to highlight some of the injustices already meted out by the state. The invasion of the Ciudad Universitaria (CU) reached the front pages, as did photographs of soldiers repressing students at gunpoint. Still, the criticism in editorial columns was mild, and repeatedly stated that the army and police should contain the ‘provocadores’, while students should return to classes. It is possible that Excélsior was subject to external pressures and that journalists and editors were aware of the risks involved in overstepping established limits of criticism. Flak from government, the withdrawal of paper supply, holding a publication to its debts and cessation of government advertising – not to mention intimidation and violence – were all potential outcomes of overly critical coverage. Indeed, the PRI financed Excélsior lavishly and never demanded repayment of loans. It also provided the paper’s reporters with bribes to ensure positive political coverage (Rockwell, 2002, p. 108). The government counted on Excélsior, in the first half of Scherer’s stint (and indeed after he left), as a propaganda arm for the party.

This was important because Excélsior’s audience reached across the political spectrum. It had one of the largest readerships of any paper in the country and was therefore highly influential. More critical publications, such as ¿Por Qué? and Siempre!, had a much smaller circulation and were read by smaller numbers, though they were still important to members of the movement as they offered an alternative to the conformism of Novedades, El Sol de México, El Universal, El Día, and Excélsior. However, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky point out, some tolerance of marginal media makes for ‘a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship’ (1988, p.xiv).

Critical papers could get away with more unfavourable coverage precisely because they had a smaller circulation, since generally greater pressure was applied to larger publications. Many of the ¿Por Qué? and ¡Siempre! readers had already participated in the student movement, so in a sense those papers were already preaching to the converted. By contrast, Excélsior’s largely middle-class urban audience was wider ranging and not necessarily confined to those on the left. As a mainstream newspaper, its reports were also more likely to be picked up by the international media; Scherer and Monsiváis note that in the run-up to the Olympics, Díaz Ordaz had invited journalists and editors to a banquet in order to ensure Mexico’s reputation did not suffer internationally (1999, p. 22).

Tlatelolco was neither the first nor last occasion in which mainstream newspapers – including those such as Excélsior with a reputation for independence – refrained from criticising the Mexican state’s use of violence to stifle dissent, if at all. Below I offer some thoughts as to why an apparently free press was in practice so closely tied to the interests of the state.


1. El chayote and el embute

El chayote or el embute, as they were known, were government bribes awarded to journalists for what they wrote, and very often, what they agreed not to write. Humberto Musacchio has commented that these bribes produced an ‘anticomunismo pagado’ in the press. This practice, he notes, ‘Era la joya del periodismo más representativo del viejo régimen, ese periodismo alimentado por las complicidades con el poder, los aplausos pagados y los silencios igualmente rentables’ (Humberto Musacchio, Excélsior, August 4 2006).

Sometimes, of course, the purpose of giving journalists brown envelopes stuffed with cash was not explicitly stated, but the message to those who received the money was clear. José J. Castellanos, in México engañado. Por qué la prensa no informa sums up this PRI tactic succinctly:

Yo sé bien que no te pagan lo suficiente en el periódico. Esta es una ayuda que tenemos para todos los compañeros, en plan de amigos. No significa que tengas que publicar algo o dejar de hacerlo, es una ayuda de amigos. Por favor, acéptalo (1983, p. 49).

Refusing an embute or chayote meant offending the patron, who also represented a journalist’s principal source, cutting ties with government, which supplied the information necessary to carry out their duties, and could represent professional suicide.

According to Castellanos, this practice was far from exceptional but systematic to the workings of the press in Mexico in the 1960s. Because reporters were poorly paid, the temptation to augment a low salary with a bribe must have been tremendous. Moreover, inexperienced journalists saw that accepting el embute was normal among their seasoned colleagues and moreover that it was established practice.

There is also another reason why many reporters might see nothing wrong with accepting what were essentially bribes. The majority of journalists did not end up in their jobs out of a vocational aspiration to write quality journalism. Many had little or no training at all; those who had studied journalism usually went into different professional jobs once they experienced the poor working conditions and low pay. Additionally, newspaper owners – who, of course, are in the business of increasing profits – were reluctant to hire graduates who had studied journalism as this meant increasing the basic journalist’s salary. As Castellanos notes, few idealists believed they could make a difference and work completely independently of the state. In keeping with the PRI tactic of co-opting political opponents, the fattest envelopes were destined for the most incisive, rebellious and critical journalists. Naturally, the administration was keen to keep its established friends on side and thus while critical journalists would be rewarded highly for diverting their critiques elsewhere, friendly and warm relations had to be maintained financially with those editors and writers already sympathetic to the PRI (1983, p. 37-50). Bribes not only appeared in the form of cash-stuffed envelopes. Journalistic compliance was ensured by a variety of other payments. Rick Rockwell notes that:

The methods of payment are almost too numerous to list but include free, all-expenses paid vacations; free long-distance calls […]; free meals; breaks on importation fees or luxury taxes for expensive items, especially cars; free or discounted gasoline; free cars; gifts of luxury items, like expensive watches or cases of liquor; airline tickets; and prostitutes (2002, p. 113).

So pervasive was this system that it was almost impossible to avoid; journalistic corruption, as Monsiváis points out, was institutionalised and a normal part of media operations (2003, p. 156). Of course, the more widespread the corruption, the more it was difficult to counter and expose. One Mexican journalist noted that ‘The reason we cannot expose this system of corruption is that nine out of ten reporters from Mexico have accepted some bribe or compromise at some time in their career’ (Cited Rockwell 2002, p. 113).

2. Official sources and El boletín de prensa

Newspaper owners were not just keen to keep editorial staff wages to a minimum: sending reporters out to investigate in-depth stories was simply too costly. As Chomsky and Herman (1988) and Edwards and Cromwell (2006) have pointed out, newspapers and magazines are in business to increase profit, not necessarily to inform the public. Accordingly, they did not sell news as a product to readers but instead sold advertisers an audience. As a result, it was more cost-effective and more efficient to obtain information from official sources, which gladly provided information to fill the pages of the national press via the government-produced Boletín de prensa (Interview with Elena Poniatowska, Mexico City, 8 August 2005).

With this, notes Gideon Lichfield, ‘La clave consistía en hacer depender a la prensa del gobierno’ (2005, p. 55). Moreover, the print media depended on the state for many things: subsidies, loans, newsprint, government advertising, the goodwill of finance inspectors as well as ‘access’.

In a sense, the boletín benefited the newspaper – as it kept costs to a minimum – and the PRI because it imbued a sense of subservience to political authority among journalists. However, it also filtered the information made available to readers because inevitably the sources were official. In this sense, owing to the structure of news organisations, the preset agenda gave the powerful an important advantage. What politicians said and did became news and their voices were prioritised and the demands of the 1968 movement would likely be sidelined. The more this practice – of relying on official sources and repeating what the powerful stated – was routine, the more the authority of officialdom and politicians became inculcated as valid news and worthy of coverage. This, writes Lichfield, was:

[…] sintoma del aspecto quizá más asombroso de la prensa mexicana: la idea de que las noticias no son lo que hay de nuevo, sino lo que haya dicho alguien importante, aunque esa persona o cualquier otra ya lo hubiera dicho, sin importar, realmente, si es verdad o no (p.54).

Any sense of criticism or objectivity suffered as a result. In practice, Lichfield notes, this ‘parece obedecer a una actitud de deferencia ante la autoridad’ among journalists – exactly what the PRI strove to achieve. Lichfield cites Guillermo Osorno, an ex-Reforma journalist, who comments: ‘El problema es que los directores de las publicaciones ven el periodismo como algo político, donde los únicos protagonistas son los políticos’(p.56).

The media’s minimisation of government abuses in 1968 should be seen this context. One declassified archived document tells us that: ‘La experiencia ha comprobado que las informaciones importantes del Partido tienen que ser “manejadas” y de ninguna manera expuestas al criterio de los redactores “de la fuente”’ (Archivo General de la Nación, Galería 2, Box, 2998/A). The press, alter all, had reduced the hundreds of dead in Tlatelolco to between ten and thirty and blamed the protestors themselves for the attack, messages which closely reflected official discourse.

That Gobernación was the main source for journalists avoided the awkward situation of having journalists carrying out their own investigations and coming to conclusions which deviated from the dominant line. Importantly, this arm of power over the print media was invisible to the public.

Without a complicit and dependent press, the PRI could have been in real trouble and its role in repressing the student movement would have provoked the widespread revulsion it surely deserved. As the political authorities designed the rhetoric and version of history that appeared in the papers, there was often little need for direct censorship. Corruption in the print media was neither unusual nor exceptional; it was institutionalised and systematic and journalists who accepted chayotes or who scribed boletines de prensa were merely performing their jobs, as Monsiváis points out:

[…] no acuso a todo el periodismo mexicano de corrupto, ni sugiero que los corruptos son mayoría. No ocurre así, desde luego, pero sí, y de allí la importancia del éxito de los “plumíferos” y “gacetilleros,” la lógica de los corruptos domina el escenario, inhibe, fomenta la autocensura y propone con fuerza otro sistema de compensaciones salariales. Mientras, la Secretaría de Gobernación ejerce el control minucioso, el gobierno es el primer anunciante y, sin necesidad de ser específico, jerarquiza los anuncios del empresariado (2003, p. 156).

A key advantage of this aspect of the tiranía invisible was that the PRI – while paying for positive coverage or providing the press with grey propaganda – could proclaim publicly that Mexico enjoyed a free press, unlike its counterparts elsewhere in Latin America.

According to journalist and author, Elena Poniatowska, this practice was well established under Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría and was advantageous both professionally and financially to hard-up reporters:

La presidencia de la república tenía un vocero que durante mucho tiempo repartía boletines…es decir hojas con las actividades más importantes y luego había un periodista que cubría lo que se llama ‘la fuente de la presidencia’, que era una fuente muy cotizada. En general los periodistas querían estar allí porque parece que era la fuente donde había más dinero también. (Interview with Elena Poniatowska, Mexico City, 8 August 2005).

Castellanos explains that journalists used the boletines de prensa to the extent that very often the news summary was sent directly to a journalist’s desk every morning. In some papers, he notes, a kind of rota was organised so that one journalist would collect the boletín from Gobernación in order to save colleagues valuable time. Some journalists simply transcribed boletines word for word, while others summarised. In any case, the mutual dependency between the press and the Secretaría de Gobernación helps explain why journalists were reluctant to expose the government, particularly in a moment of crisis like that of 1968.

This process had grave consequences for independent journalism and made a mockery of any notion of objectivity. Castellanos explains, ‘La fuente informativa que debería ser celosa y escrupulosamente investigada, no sólo impone la barrera de la oficina de prensa o el boletín, sino que además, sostiene económicamente a quien debería ser su censor a través de la información’ (1983, p. 48).

Discussing the effects of the embute and the boletín de prensa, Raúl Álvarez Garín, one of the leaders of the 1968 movement, explains that:

Todo eso hacía un sistema de prensa absolutamente artificial. Por ejemplo en esa época se podían encontrar en distintos periódicos el mismo artículo con distinta firma. Porque simplemente se reproducía el boletín de la Presidencia de la República y eran tan desvergonzados que lo presentaban como si hubiera sido propio (Interview with Raúl Álvarez Garín, Mexico City, 04 August 2005).

3. Disappearances as Nota roja

Journalists employed by newspapers most often shared a similar ideology to that of the corporation’s owners. And because newspaper owners were often natural allies of the PRI – because they shared a similar outlook or because they knew it was in their interests to be allied with the regime – it follows that journalists and editors also, in the words of Ilán Semo, ‘mienten por convicción’. Few dared expose the government. Thus, reports of disappearances and deaths in the wake of the student movement were separated from their systematic nature. The murder of political activists and opponents were hardly ordinary crimes, but they were reported as such. There was rarely any hint that such killings were state sanctioned and part of a programme to eliminate political opposition.

Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, whose son Jesús, along with hundreds of other young men and women, was disappeared during Echeverría’s presidency, found it practically impossible to get the media to address the subject of political violence in the early 1970s. During Echeverría’s term in office, she explains:

Los medios callaban. Muchas cosas no las publicaban y si publicaban era una cosa espantosa porque publicaban, “cayó otro terrorista”, “Fue detenido otro subversivo,” “Un grupo de subversivos desarmado, encarcelado”. Era como hacer eco a las palabras gubernamentales. Muchos lo hacían porque había la compra a base de dinero y por otro lado era el temor, el temor a enfrentar un poder terrible […]Era un miedo que se hacía manifiesto en todos los lugares. (Interview with Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, Mexico City, 6 August 2005).

When news of the disappearances or murders carried out by the authorities did appear on the pages of the papers, they were confined to the Nota roja, or crime pages. Though journalists might cover a story in which a ‘terrorista’ or a ‘subversivo’ was shot dead, it was invariably presented as something exceptional, rather than suggestive of a systematic campaign of state violence (Interview with Adela Cedillo, Mexico City, LIMAC, 5 August 2005).

Indeed, Echeverría and Díaz Ordaz had made it official policy for the press to employ certain terms which disparaged victims of state violence. Thus in 1968, newspapers were ordered not to use ‘estudiantes’ and ‘conflicto estudiantil’. Since 1968, among some of the terms in the lexicon for enemies of the state were ‘conjurados’, ‘terroristas’, ‘guerrilleros’, ‘agitadores’, ‘anarquistas’, ‘apátridas’, ‘mercenarios’, ‘traidores’, ‘facinerosos.’ (Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 69). This framed any debate about disappearances within a very rigid framework (Interview Álvarez Garín, 4 August 2006). The kind of language used – ‘terrorista’, ‘subversivo’, etc – robbed the victims of any legitimacy, thus rationalising and justifying the violence meted out against them.

There was also, among journalists, a certain indifference to the plight of political opponents. Discussing the role of the press in covering the Dirty War, Poniatowska comments that, ‘Se murmuraba pero había una enorme indiferencia. Se murmuraba que había cárceles clandestinas, se murmuraba que se torturaba a la gente pero no se sabía de cierto. Una ignorancia, una indiferencia…’ (Interview with Elena Poniatowska, Mexico City, 8 August 2005). Although some journalists lied or covered up the truth ‘out of conviction’, others certainly were afraid of the consequences of exposing government corruption and human rights abuses. Poniatowska continues:

Había presión para guardar silencio. Creo que será la tónica en aquellos años, que la gente no hablaba, que sabía que había cárceles clandestinas pero no se hablaba de ello. Se sabía que Nazar Haro había torturado en los separos de la Procuraduría a los muchachos o a las personas que se oponían al gobierno o incluso a los delincuentes. Se sabía que se practicaba la tortura (Ibid).

4. PIPSA and debts

Some publications owed money to the government through debts incurred with the government-owned paper importing and producing company, the Productora e Importadora de Papel SA (PIPSA), but the PRI was quite willing to subsidise media organisations. Just as subsidies could be awarded, they could also be withdrawn. As one manual on propaganda from the archives illustrates, this gave PIPSA and the government supreme control over the press. Loans given by the Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social (IMSS) could also be reclaimed. These channels of control were employed consciously by the PRI in order to avoid too much criticism in the press:

El PRI, en uso de esta posibilidad que le concesionaría el Gobierno, podría controlar tiránicamente la prensa nacional. Las deudas económicas que ésta tiene con el IMSS, son sumamente importantes. (Archivo General de la Nación, Galería 2, Box, 2998/A).

As the archived transcribed conversations of Política’s desperate editor, Manuel Marcué Pardiñas, in his search for a paper supplier illustrate, those who had offended government would suffer harsh consequences for ideological insubordination. Again, the PRI exploited these means intentionally for one end: ideological discipline. According to the same government manual on propaganda, the use of PIPSA and debt repayment was of prime importance to the relationship between the state and the print media:

Así, ante la circunstancia inevitable, conviene anticiparse a tales solicitudes y concederles el intercambio – dentro de los porcentajes que convengan – sojuzgándolos no sólo en cuanto a moral editorial sino personal. Este punto es de vital importancia para el control de la prensa (Ibid).

Most importantly, the monopoly over the supply of newsprint and the use of debt repayment as a bargaining tool engendered, as the author of the document correctly points out, an ‘editorial’ both ‘moral’ and ‘personal.’ Those who deviated from the ideological line, like Marcué Pardiñas, would suffer the consequences of such disobedience. Without having to censor or use violence – unlike its Southern Cone counterparts – the PRI could achieve a near consensus in the dominant print media. Power, it seemed, was invisible.

While PIPSA provided newspapers and magazines with state-subsidised paper, paper from private suppliers was prohibitively expensive. The PRI thus maintained a stranglehold over the print media: offending publications could be shut down overnight if the supply were withheld.7 Government could also close down a newspaper or magazine by demanding debt repayment. The Mexican print media, whether they wished it or not, were thus entangled with the interests of the state. According to Álvarez Garín:

Eso podía llegar a volúmenes tremendamente significativos que si se reclamaba el pago ponía en riesgo la empresa de manera que de tiempo a tiempo había una modificación al nivel del endeudamiento y eso lo mantenían totalmente controlado (Interview Álvarez Garín, 4 August 2005).

For the most loyal scribes though, such measures were rarely necessary. Such were the subsidies and handouts given to the most pliant print media that when the PRI eventually lost the elections, their most devoted papers closed down for lack of funds. This was the fate of Novedades and El Heraldo, both of which went into liquidation soon after Vicente Fox took power.

In the late sixties, the daily El Universal was in serious financial trouble. The paper had maintained a clear line throughout the political unrest in 1968 and had sided with the PRI. In case there was any doubt as to the editorial board’s position vis-à-vis the student movement and the government’s role in repressing it, days after the massacre in Tlatelolco, director Juan Francisco Ealy-Ortiz wrote to Echeverría asking for financial aid in the form of government advertising and reiterated his support for the regime.

In any case, assistant director of the paper, Francisco Lanz Duret, had assured Echeverría in the early days of the movement that:

[…] desde el principio estuve de acuerdo con las autoridades […] Me parece que las medidas que usted, conjuntamente con otras autoridades ha tomado, son verdaderamente acertadas, y espero que la paz y el orden se restablezca rápidamente […]

That was July 1968. One might have thought that the violent summer and its tragic end on October 2 would have moderated Lanz Duret’s praise for Echeverría. In November he wrote to Echeverría and praised him for his role during the student movement:

Todo lo que ha estado a su alcance lo ha ofrecido; comprensión, amistad e interés no han faltado; por eso nos extraña mucho la actitud de los jóvenes […] Como siempre estamos a sus órdenes y aprovecho la oportunidad para decirle que lo felicito, por la preocupación que usted tiene de los problemas nacionales.

The following week, Lanz Duret wrote again to Echeverría, assuring him of El Universal’s political harmony with the regime, but lamented that a few media had not fulfilled their duty in praising the government:

[…] desgraciadamente muchos medios de difusión falseaban su espíritu de servicio para entregarse deslealmente a intereses creados multiplicando así la confusión y el desconcierto general.

Echeverría surely agreed with Lanz Duret’s suggestion that the state and the private sector should collaborate to safeguard freedom of expression in Mexico. In the same letter the latter had commented that, ‘Pienso que las autoridades y la iniciativa privada, así como dirigentes de otro tipo deben coadyuvar con todos los medios de difusión, para crear un verdadero mensaje educativo y cultural.’ (Cited Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 96-97).

Evidently, El Universal could be counted on to provide positive coverage of the regime in the wake of the 1968 movement and by 1969 the paper’s financial crisis seemed to be waning considerably. Though it had been on the brink of bankruptcy, it was saved by the state bank, Nacional Financiera, and could thus continue functioning. El Universal’s rescue from the brink of collapse illustrated that the PRI, particularly with Echeverría in charge of media affairs, was willing to invest heavily in papers it saw as ideological allies. Which papers were saved and which were allowed to fail was in the hands of the state but was a largely invisible process to those on the outside.

5. Political columns and government advertising – Gacetillas

In other cases officials in various offices in Gobernación simply wrote stories or opinion pieces and passed them on to the press, where they would appear to the reader as standard journalism. Álvarez Garín, commenting on the consequences of state intervention in the content of articles, explains:

[Es] un aparato que ahora se llamaría como una oficina de guerra sicológica, de elaboración de interpretación y análisis político – las muy famosas en México, las columnas políticas que están alimentadas de información policíaca. Todo eso iba generando un clima de interpretación de lo que iba a suceder o lo que estaba sucediendo en función de los intereses de la Secretaría de Gobernación directamente. De ahí esta caracterización de “prensa vendida” porque era absolutamente parcial, sin ninguna objectividad y todo muy encaminado a legitimar acciones de violencia en contra de los opositores. (Interview with Álvarez Garín, 4 August 2006)

Between 1968 and 1975, the newspaper La Prensa published a column: ‘Política en las rocas’, later renamed ‘El Granero Político’. According to Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía:

Esas columnas eran diseñadas y hechas en GobernaciónSe pensaba el tema […] Se elabora para ese tema una columna y la elaboran desde varias áreas de Gobernación la Dirección Federal de Seguridad aporta lo suyo, la dirección de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales aporta lo suyo; varios departamentos de Gobernación van haciendo su propio texto sobre el tema. Después juntan esos y una persona elabora un sólo documento. Y ése se publica en La Prensa (Interview with Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía, LIMAC, Mexico City, 10 August 2005).

In his thorough examination of archived documents in the AGN, Rodríguez Munguía discovered the following letter from Mario Moya Palencia (then Subsecretario de Gobernación) to Echeverría informing him that the column he had ordered was now ready to be sent off to the press:

El proyecto de GRANERO POLÍTICO fue hecho según sus instrucciones, y aprovechando ideas y hasta varias páginas completas de los artículos antes preparados, aunque todo el material se pulió y orientó en función del nuevo propósito (2007, p. 161).

Clearly, a certain amount of press control was managed from the uppermost circles of the PRI but this would be hidden from the reader and presented as legitimate political comment. Nonetheless, the aggressive and scolding tone of these columns must have aroused some suspicions among readers as to the origins of such pieces. Only a few days after the massacre in Tlatelolco, Echeverría ordered a column sent off to La Prensa which was little more than a veiled threat to protestors:

Esto deben metérselo bien en la cabeza, no tan solo los instigadores del disturbio y la sedición, sino también todos los agoreros tendenciosos, incluso algunos que usan la irrestricta libertad de expresión que gozamos para inventar versiones calumniosas y ridículas que desorientan la opinión pública y ofenden el prestigio y la ejecutoria sin mancha de nuestras fuerzas armadas (Ibid. p. 163).

One assumes that no irony was intended in the claim that Mexicans enjoyed an ‘irrestricta libertad de expresión’. That aside, the column ended with one, final, and what must have seemed in the days following the massacre, an intimidating threat: ‘¿Está claro?’

Rodríguez Munguía comments:

¿Cuál era el objetivo? El discurso de La Prensa, de esa columna es el mismo de algún modo que manejaba Echeverría contra sus críticos o más duro. Hay un discurso de miedo, de terror. Es como el papá regañando…¿Cuál era el efecto? Yo creo que el efecto fue buenísimo porque La prensa la lee la clase social baja, los pobres, y es el periódico que más se vende. Para los años de Echeverría los críticos, los intelectuales estaban de su lado. Los había seducido; tenía a Carlos Fuentes, a Octavio Paz – lo vieron como el salvador. Con la clase baja lo que necesitaba era tenerlos controlados (Interview with Rodríguez Munguía, 10 August 2005).

La Prensa had an important role in the government’s attempts to imbue a sense of political hegemony in the face of so much popular opposition. That La Prensa circulated around 70,000 copies daily made it one of the most important papers in the country. Excélsior, for example, never achieved such a high circulation and was limited to around 20,000. Perhaps because of its important role in aiding state power, La Prensa was never forced to pay its massive debts to PIPSA – that fate was reserved for less subservient publications.

Perhaps it was also La Prensa’s audience that Echeverría considered most important. One report presented to Echeverría was a profile of the paper’s readers. It noted that, ‘No debe olvidarse que su público se encuentra entre los sectores más humildes y menos preparados y que, naturalmente, son más fácilmente influenciables a una determinada corriente de opinión’ (Cited Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 150). Political messages, it recommends, should be simple and clear for the supposedly unsophisticated readers of the popular press:

Deben plantearse en forma ágil, sencilla, clara y precisa a efecto de que en unas cuantas líneas se consiga el fin presupuesto: que el gobierno demuestra con hechos que se atiende no solo a las necesidades del momento, sino que se está creando para el futuro.

La Prensa was not standard fare for intellectuals and critics. They were more likely to look to Excélsior or Siempre! for political comment. Given the tone of Granero Político, Echeverría, Mario Moya Palencia and other officials in Gobernación understood that it would be easier to control the population through the manipulation of fear.

The state and most newspaper editors considered this practice, which continues to the present, perfectly legitimate. These were not bribes: officially, they were advertisements legitimately paid for by the patron, in this case, the state. Of course, the average newspaper reader had little idea that the ‘article’ he or she was reading was in fact government propaganda. Journalist and editor Ilán Semo comments that:

Por un lado golpean mucho […] en una guerra totalmente ilegal, una masacre, y simultáneamente abren espacios donde el control se modifica – no es que se quite el control, es que se modifique. El control se hace a través de la publicidad. No hay que olvidar que el estado mexicano funciona como estas instituciones de propaganda fascista, donde el estado hace su propia propaganda a través de periódicos, de televisión…Pero es una lealtad en negociación. A través de corrupción y violencia, periodistas son asesinados cuando abandonan la norma. (Interview with Ilán Semo, Mexico City, 7 August 2005)

Government advertising, if withdrawn, was enough to close down a newspaper. Periodicals and newspapers were utterly dependent on these revenues and those working within those organisations were well aware of the risks involved in exposing government, a dynamic which surely affected tone and content.

6. Censorship via circulation

In addition to other limitations on journalistic freedom, censorship also existed in the obstruction of circulation. Because Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría were keen to present Mexico as a modern democracy promoting free speech, banning newspapers and books outright would have a huge political cost. Though direct censorship and banning of some material did indeed exist, preventing the circulation and distribution of subversive material was more common. ‘Censorship in Mexico in those years occurs in distribution, not in production,’ comments Ilán Semo. He continues:

No es como el Samidzat soviético que vienen la policía y toma la imprenta. Aquí se puede imprimir. El problema es cuando circula. Hay un monopolio de la circulación dirigido por el sindicato del distribuidor de periódicos. Eso es la censura. Tú eres libre de ir a una imprenta, a pagar. La llevas y te dice, “Sí, sí, lo vamos a distribuir” y no aparece. Y controla toda la circulación. La verdadera censura…hay libertad de expresión, puedes publicar pero no puedes circular. Es controlado por el sindicato y por la Secretaría de Gobernaciónla Secretaría de Gobernación controla los sindicatos – es un sindicato corrupto. (Ibid.)

Such was the fate of one book, though there were many others. CIA defector and whistleblower, Philip Agee, published CIA Diary. Inside the Company in the United States. In the book, Agee revealed that both ex-President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría were on the CIA payroll and were CIA informants. When Gobernación learned of the imminent publication of the Spanish translation of the book, officials contacted the publishing house, Grijalbo, and ordered offending paragraphs be removed. However, Excélsior had already run a story on the book’s revelations. After some negotiation with the editors, and having agreed not to contact Agee to inform him of the changes, the book was released in Mexico. Spanish-speaking readers would find that the information about Echeverría they had seen previously in Excélsior, strangely, did not appear in the book. In any case, few had the chance to read it as it was never properly circulated. This may have seemed an odd way to go about censoring politically explosive material but it allowed Echeverría and the PRI to maintain a guise of democracy. As political opponents disappeared into the cells of the notorious Campo Militar Número 1 or were thrown out to sea, Echeverría could boast of his liberal commitments to freedom of expression – even books like Agee’s CIA Diary got published in liberal Mexico.

7. Media fragmentation

In order to offset the danger that one single media organisation might pose a threat to the established political order, Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría’s government made sure it broke any paper or magazine before such an eventuality presented itself. Thus, two or more smaller papers would emerge in the aftermath of the break-up. This involved the fragmentation of the media so that no one publication could serve as a point of reference. In Mexico, as soon as a newspaper or magazine was perceived to be against the regime, it was broken up into smaller parts. This disempowered media institutions and meant that potentially they were less threatening. In Mexico there are now around 250 daily newspapers, although each of those, thanks to fragmentation, has a relatively small audience. Each state can have as many as six daily papers. During the Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría regimes, and indeed up to the present, not one paper achieved a circulation over 100,000.

Newspapers could fragment for a variety of reasons, yet often it was government-induced. Rick Rockwell notes that, ‘Any media outlet that mattered to the central government came under pressure to sell out or was offered some sort of political accommodation or both’ (2002, p. 111). These break-ups were presented to the readership as disputes between factions of journalists, but they were often government provoked and orchestrated. Presented in this way, the government could always claim that the rift originated internally and maintain a public discourse about the virtues of free expression (Chappell Lawson 2002, p. 27, Interview with Ilán Semo, Mexico City, 7 August 2005).

In 1965, a number of people had been expelled from the Excélsior cooperative. They included the paper’s most conservative and reactionary elements. Four years later, they formed a new, strongly pro-government paper. This group was funded by one of the state banks and by the Secretaría de Gobernación. Echeverría was personally involved in giving the group everything they needed. Jorge Velasco, who was a member of this group, recounted later in an interview with Julio Scherer that:

Gobernación cubriría la renta, el sueldo de la secretaria, el teléfono, la papelería, el alcohol cuando hiciera falta […] Todo proveería Gobernación: percepciones, vacaciones, gratificaciones trimestrales, licencias por enfermedad, la recompensa de fin de año […] Teníamos recursos o nos sobraba el dinero (Scherer and Monsiváis 2003, p. 37-38).

Journalists may have claimed they acted independently of the state, yet such relationships allowed the government to hold substantial influence over a publication, unbeknownst to the readership.

In 1976, nearing the end of Echeverría’s presidential term, the notorious debacle at Excélsior was another example of fragmentation, ending with armed troops entering the newspaper offices and forcing editor Julio Scherer and his supporters to leave. Towards the end of Echeverría’s term in office Excélsior had grown increasingly critical.

Nonetheless, in the early years of his editorship Scherer maintained close ties with Gobernación, as telephone conversations transcribed by DFS officials demonstrate. Excélsior had reported favourably on a presidential report on progress made since Díaz Ordaz had taken office. The presidential press secretary, Francisco Galindo Ochoa, telephoned Scherer to congratulate him on the paper’s performance:

Galindo Ochoa: Salió extraordinario; lo dedican todo con inteligencia y cariño hacia el señor Presidente; lo han hecho como nunca. Comprendo que no podían ignorar esto y que a güevo lo tenían que presentar, pero podían haberlo presentado en una forma o en otra, y lo han presentado en una forma extraordinariamente bien.

Julio Scherer García: Estoy muy contento de oír esto, pues creo que comparado con los otros periódicos, nos los comimos, pero ello se debió a que nos envió el informe con oportunidad (Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 127).

AGN documents relating to Excélsior are revealing in this respect and show that Scherer, generally considered one of Mexico’s most critical journalists, also fell victim to the convenience of allying the paper with PRI power. As with Tlatelolco in 1968, following the assassination of guerrilla leader Genaro Vásquez in 1972, the paper’s editorial line was mild and apologetic. Similarly, when the authorities finally murdered Partido de los Pobres leader Lucio Cabañas in 1974, Scherer’s editorial, in which Cabañas was represented as a ‘delincuente’, did little to offend the powerful. ‘El ejército’, he concluded ‘cumplió estrictamente con su deber’.

Still, the paper was generally more critical than the other larger newspapers and in the mid-seventies increasingly challenged the official version of events surrounding the political repression and the developing Dirty War. In any case, it was critical enough to merit unfavourable attention from the authorities.

Excélsior was in large part financed by government subsidies and loans; as such, the PRI surely assumed this was enough to garner favourable support among its editors and reporters. (Rockwell 2002). Because Excélsior played a key role as one of the country’s most widely circulated papers and because it received so much government money, it was expected to comply ideologically with the regime. Echeverría’s response was much harsher and fiercer with Excélsior than with other more critical publications. Aside from the much smaller Siempre!, the blatant and aggressive assault on freedom of expression in 1976 was met with silence in the major national papers.

In order to debilitate and fracture Exclélsior’s influence, various avenues were open to Gobernación. One was to exploit, heighten and encourage the existing tensions in the newspaper. A group of anti-Scherer journalists and workers had formed and campaigned to have him removed as editor. The state security agency, the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), kept a record of every communiqué written by the anti-Scherer faction. In this way, Gobernación had a clear idea of the planned editorial direction and disputes at the paper and would be able to intervene at the moment it deemed most appropriate.

Even though the paper’s criticism of the regime was mild, it was nonetheless considered independent and potentially threatening not long after Scherer took over as editor. As early as 1969, Mario Moya Palencia and Echeverría had planned a campaign in the press attacking Scherer. Moya Palencia suggested to Echeverría that they publish an ‘inserción pagada’ written by Martín Luis Guzmán in El Día or El Nacional in order to discredit Excélsior (Rodríguez Munguía 2007, p. 144). Recently-released official documents show the government even hatched a plan to kidnap Scherer in 1975 (Scherer and Monsiváis 2004, p. 39-41).

In a similar fashion, Alejandro Junco de la Vega, after taking over El Norte, provoked intervention from Echeverría who used PIPSA to block the paper’s supply of newsprint. The paper then had to import more expensive paper from the US and survive without government aid, something that would eventually lead to the paper’s break-up. Subsidies and loans were awarded to El Norte’s competitors, which meant that some of them could print in colour, quite an advantage in those days. Fragmentation of the media benefited the state because critical voices could be seen to publish but never reached an audience wide enough to make them politically threatening. Rockwell notes that:

The PRI often used this tactic to marginalise strong critical voices. By supporting friendly newspapers, or creating newspapers friendly to its views, the PRI was able to fragment readership in various regions and cities as a means of guaranteeing that the influence of one newspaper would not grow too strong (Rockwell 2002, p. 115).


Government advertising and positive media coverage of the President and the party were a prime factor in maintaining the authority PRI throughout its seventy-year rule, making it the longest-reigning political party in the world.

Pressures from government and structural limitations of the media rewarded self-censorship: certain stories, particularly those about the Tlatelolco massacre, the Dirty War and government corruption, rarely made it into the papers, in Orwell’s words, ‘not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact.’ In Mexico, as Raúl Ávarez Garín points out, such tacit agreements confined and framed political debate in the press: ‘Se suponía que había tres entidades intocables – la presidencia de la república, el ejército y la virgen de Guadalupe. ¡Todo lo demás era más o menos libre!’ (Interview with Álvarez Garín, 4 August 2005).

There is clearly further work to be done beyond the scope of this research. Future research into the role of television, radio, film and the visual arts under the PRI might offer similar conclusions. In light of the state’s efforts to control the flow of information through the print media, it seems reasonable to suppose that the Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría regimes made similar attempts to influence other media of cultural production and communication. My experience in the national archive in Mexico certainly supports this view. While searching the boxes and files in Gallery 2 of the AGN, I came across several references to Televisa, radio broadcasters and popular musicians. It is possible that the government Departamento de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (IPS) and the DFS monitored all these forms of communication.

Manipulation of forms of mass communication by the hidden hand of an ‘invisible tyranny’ meant that in this case, the powerful could all but wipe out oppositionary movements through coercion and violence without the mainstream media posing awkward questions. Part of the PRI’s success and ability cling on to power had to do with its relationship with the mass media. Because the ‘tyranny’ was largely ‘invisible,’ its existence was always hard to prove and the subject of conjecture and speculation. The analysis offered here puts forward a structural analysis of the media in Mexico which explains at least in part why the media consistently complied with the regime, even in moments of severe crisis and state violence in which abuses committed by the PRI government could hardly be more apparent. The case of Mexico is noteworthy, particularly because of the PRI’s pretensions at democracy, and should hint at similar ways of looking at relations between the state and the media and the creation of political propaganda in ‘free’ societies.


. Author’s translation from the Spanish: Por la acción de la propaganda política podemos concebir un mundo dominado por una Tiranía Invisible que adopta la forma de un gobierno democrático” [my emphasis] Archivo General de la Nación, Galería 2, Box, 2998/A.

2Journalists who wrote in the national newspapers and magazines were spied upon by DFS agents who reported back to the President on developments in the press and on who was deemed threatening to PRI legitimacy as well on those considered to be friendly. Perhaps the most striking though far from the only example is journalist and Proceso editor Julio García Scherer, whose every move was monitored from the late fifties onwards. Under Echeverría, spying on Scherer was stepped up, his movements and telephone conversations monitored closely as well as a plan to have him kidnapped.

3Sergio Aguayo Quezada (1998) discusses the control of information in Los archivos de la violencia. Julio Scherer García and Carlos Monsiváis (2003 and 2004) also examine limits on press freedom in Los patriotas and Prensa y poder en México. Also see Clare Brewster’s (2005) study of intellectuals and their relation to the state, Responding to Crisis in Contemporary Mexico. Joseph Chappell Lawson’s (2002) study, while providing an excellent and illuminating account of the media opening in Mexico does not however examine the complicity of the media in Echeverría’s Dirty War.

4General García Barragán was at the time Secretario de Defensa Nacional and led the attack in Tlatelolco.

5Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, director of Telesistema, later Televisa.

6Mexican equivalent of The Home Office.

7PIPSA has since been privatised and the state can no longer intervene in the supply of paper.


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Sincronía Fall 2009