Sincronía Summer 2010


Mexico’s Secret Dirty War

Peter Watt

University of Sheffield




            In 1970s Mexico there existed a holy trinity – the President, the army and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Voicing criticism of, questioning and challenging publicly the two former could have serious consequences, potentially landing the unfortunate dissenter, unionist or peasant leader in jail, or worse. For intellectuals and journalists writing at the time, state and military repression constituted a topic of major taboo, which only a few would address in earnest.

In the last two decades, however, the foundations of what Mario Vargas Llosa once termed ‘the perfect dictatorship,’ have begun to weaken, albeit marginally. Indicative of some of the social changes brought about by popular demands for justice, the first of the holy trinity, ex-President Luis Echeverría (1970-1976), architect of Mexico’s secret dirty war, was arrested and accused of ‘genocide’ in 2005.

Political activists, human rights organizations, family members of the ‘disappeared’, a number of journalists and intellectuals, have in the last few years been pressing for the trial of Luis Echeverría Álvarez. Echeverría, with his defense secretary, General Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz, oversaw the most intense years of political violence in Mexico as Secretario de Gobernación (Secretary of State) during the regime of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970) and later as President himself. There have been concerted, yet unsuccessful, efforts to hold the ex-President responsible for the state violence committed against protestors in October 1968 in Tlatelolco, the Jueves de Corpus Cristi (or Halconazo) massacre in June 1971, the brutal repression of guerrilla movements in the countryside and the annihilation of the unofficial political opposition. One of the most notable accusations was the ‘genocide’ charge in 2005.

If the campaign for justice has arrived late in the public arena, then surely, as this paper will argue, those with access to channels of public information bear some responsibility. Political repression in 1970s Mexico, now known as la guerra sucia, avoided exposure in part due to the deliberate avoidance of the topic by intellectuals and journalists or their failure to broach it publicly. While the violence at Tlatelolco in 1968 has been the subject of much debate, the dirty has been afforded much less attention. This article offers some thoughts as to why intellectuals and journalists have privileged Tlatelolco over the systematic obliteration of popular and peasant movements by the state, a curious phenomenon, since 1968 was the preliminary stage in a dirty war to eradicate active opposition.

Noam Chomsky once commented that, ‘It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak truth and to expose lies [….] Intellectuals’, he stated, ‘are in a position to expose lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions’ (1987: 60). For Chomsky, intellectuals and journalists occupy positions of certain privilege, and privilege and power imply responsibility. Here I argue that intellectuals and journalists, as a result of complicity with the regime, failed in their ‘responsibility’ to challenge the government when it was committing its worst human rights abuses. If a history of Mexico’s dirty war has yet to be established, journalists and prominent public intellectuals have played a significant role in its delay.


Some of the reasons for a lack of public awareness vis-à-vis the dirty war surely have to do with the manner in which information was controlled through political propaganda, the co-optation of leading intellectuals, the recruitment of pro-PRI editors, censorship and in some cases the annihilation of a dissident press by – at times – killing everybody involved.[1] Additionally, the political repression of the 1970s was virtually absent from scholarly debate and is still a marginal topic in university curricula.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada’s Los archivos de la violencia (1998) and La charola (2001) are notable exceptions of academic work examining the guerra sucia. Similarly, Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía’s La nóminas secretas de Gobernación (2004) is a powerful exposé of the human rights abuses of the security agency Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) during the 1970s, while his La otra guerra secreta (2007), deals with press complicity with the regime. Work by journalists also has been scant – Carlos Monsiváis’ and Julio Scherer García’s joint contributions (1999; 2003; 2004) have been valuable resources on the topic. Hector Aguilar Camín’s, La guerra de Galio (1991), Carlos Montemayor’s Guerra en el paraíso (1991) and Fritz Glockner’s Cementerio de papel (2004) are rare fictionalized accounts of the state’s war against political opponents. Alberto Ulloa Bornemann’s testimony of torture and imprisonment at the hands of the state and his involvement with Lucio Cabañas’s guerrilla insurgency in Guerrero, Surviving Mexico’s Dirty War (2007), provides a damning account of atrocities committed during the period. 

Scholarship on Mexico has yet to recognize the dirty war as a significant area for investigation in recent history and one finds little mention of the guerra sucia in British and US Mexican studies. And as recently as a decade ago, even in the Mexican media, the notion of a Mexican dirty war had to fight to be accepted and has only begun to be recognized thanks to the persistence of activist groups such as ¡Eureka! and El Comité del ’68 and a handful of investigative journalists and intellectuals writing in progressive publications such as Proceso and La Jornada.

Why the government carried out a dirty war against political opponents and kept it secret for thirty years is a question which has concerned those pursuing truth and justice throughout the last few decades in Mexico, for the brutal ‘counterinsurgency’ techniques employed by the Mexican state from the late 1960s and into the mid-1980s have been long in coming to light. Torture, imprisonment, assassination, the bombing of entire villages, disappearing civilians were all part of a campaign to cleanse the country of subversives, but it is only recently that the policy of ‘genocidio’ (FEMOSPP 2006: 9) against opposition groups has begun to receive anything approaching adequate attention.

Across disciplines, the dirty war has been marginalized, ignored or overlooked to the extent that it merits only passing mention at best. Typically, the dirty war has been represented not as a result of a systematic policy to annihilate popular opposition to PRI rule, but instead as a series of almost unconnected aberrations from the rule of law. Thus, the  massacre of students in Tlatelolco in Mexico City in 1968 bears little connection to the Corpus Cristi massacre on June 10, 1971 and less to the campaign of liquidation against Lucio Cabañas, the Partido de los Pobres and guerrilla fighters in the early 1970s in Guerrero. Yet the recurrence of political violence in Mexico against oppositional movements has been so frequent in the contemporary period that, rather than being a deviation from normal political rule, it suggests instead that it is routine and systematic. One US journalist reporting from Mexico remarks,

Arbitrary detention, systematic use of torture by all levels of police and armed forces, and total impunity for officials. Can such widespread and enduring practices be considered irregularities of the system? No. They are the system. (Gibler 2009: 67)

If violence is and was the system, this article offers some explanations as to why the dirty war was kept safely outside the confines of accepted Mexican history.


In 2002, in an attempt to placate popular pressure for the state to assume responsibility for human rights abuses committed against civilians during the 60s, 70s and 80s, President Fox commissioned the Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past (FEMOSPP), Dr. Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, to draft a report on the dirty war.[2] As the 27 researchers undertook their research in what was intended to be a ‘Libro blanco,’ a ‘White Book,’ a document which effectively would absolve the government of culpability, the group began to take advantage of the Special Prosecutor’s many absences and o oof the resources placed at their disposal, not least the recently declassified official documents. It was not until a draft of the Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana had been completed by the team of researchers that Carrillo Prieto became outraged by the report’s actual conclusions. Far from a ‘Libro blanco,’ the researchers concluded that the state had engaged in a campaign of ‘genocide’ and state terror against leftist political organizations. Identification of those responsible for the crimes documented implicated members of the political elite and high-ranking military generals.

 By the time Carrillo Prieto sanitized sections of the report, refused to pay the researchers’ wages and blocked them from entering the building of the Fiscalía, it had been leaked to a handful of journalists, intellectuals and human rights organizations, thus making the document public (Rodríguez Munguía 2006: 38-39). This was ch   aracteristic of the process of constructing a history      state terror in Mexico: revelations about state violence have been conducted against a backdrop of official secrecy, denial and lies, thus problematizing research into the topic.

Now, however, public access to a number of archived official documents, the publication of testimonial accounts, the work of investigative journalists and the tacit recognition in some media of Mexico’s dirty war as a historical phenomenon have allowed for a debate to open on the subject.

Counterinsurgency techniques in Mexico mirrored those employed by Southern Cone military dictatorships in the años de plomo, though this has hardly been public knowledge. The efforts of human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH), civic groups such as the Comité del ’68 and ¡Eureka! and progressive print media outlets such as the weekly Proceso, the daily La Jornada, and, more recently, Eme-equis, have begun to raise consciousness nationally about the dirty war, yet the subject is still marginal and has as yet to enter the canon of accepted history.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, political repression in Mexico increasingly drew on the lexicon of Cold War terminology to discourage criticism of state policy in the national media. The odd journalist or intellectual raising objections to political violence could accordingly be dismissed as an unpatriotic traitor. ‘National security’ validated all manner of horrors, and the crimes committed against ‘subversivos’, ‘anitmexicanos’, ‘terroristas’, ‘comunistas’ were duly relegated to the memory hole of the national press (Ilán Semo Personal interview. Aug. 3 2005;  Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. Personal interview. Aug. 6 2005).

Systematic political violence took off in 1968, two weeks before Mexico was to host the Olympic Games when a massive student movement, which had burgeoned throughout the summer, was cut short by the police and military opening fire indiscriminately and massacring hundreds of peaceful protestors in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco housing complex in Mexico City.


Around 3000 people were disappeared or murdered by the state in Mexico between 1969 and the mid 1980s. According to the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH), perhaps as many as 1000 people went missing, around 800 of them now confirmed as disappeared (CNDH 1998: 752). In the state of Guerrero alone, 600 people are reported as having disappeared. Disappearance involved getting rid of every shred of evidence that the victim ever existed; one of the camps for political prisoners, the Campo Militar Número 1, according to the Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana even had its own crematorium (2006: 635). Alberto Ulloa Bornemann (2007), in his testimonial account of his experience as a political prisoner, notes that some of those tortured in the Campo Militar Número 1 would have their teeth extracted and ground up, their fingers and the soles of their feet removed before being dumped in a ditch and covered with lime. This guaranteed that ‘disappeared’ prisoners, if found, could not be identified by finger prints or dental records. Nearly all political prisoners passed through the Base Militar Pie de la Cuesta in Acapulco or the Campo Militar Número 1 in Mexico City, usually for a minimum of two years, though many died as a result of torture soon after their incarceration.

          In Atoyac, mass graves containing up to 450 cadavers were exhumed recently, a chilling testimony to the brutality of the dirty war in Guerrero (Ramírez Bravo 2008). From 1972, the 27 Zona Militar in Atoyac became a concentration camp where detainees were tortured and then assassinated. Others were forcibly removed to the prison, Base Pie de la Cuesta, in Acapulco or the Campo Militar Número 1 in Mexico City while others were placed in helicopters and thrown live into the ocean. The technique of disappearing subversivos and delincuentes from the face of the Earth by hurling them into the sea from helicopters made so infamous by the Argentine military dictatorship under the rubric of Operation Condor found its precedent in Mexico during the Echeverría years.  These became known as los vuelos de la muerte (‘flights of death’), but they were far from the only means of nullifying the numerous threats to ‘national security’. Some who died as a result of torture, beatings, shootings or illness contracted during imprisonment could be disposed of in the crematorium at the prison camp Campo Militar Número 1, while others were buried or dumped in remote locations (Rodríguez Munguía 2006: 40; Cedillo 2008: 392).

The ways in which the authorities, particularly the military, could obtain the information needed in order to limpiar (‘cleanse’) a certain community were apparently endless. The Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana details a few of the horrors which were systematic during the Echeverría administration. As the authors note, no measure was excessive if its aim was to obtain information on the movements and plans of alleged subversives, all in the interests of ‘national security’. At times this entailed threatening entire communities with violence and torture. By blocking off a village from the outside world, the community was subjected to a kind of psychological warfare and to the impossibilities this represented, particularly in terms of the supply of food, a kind of collective torture. Some members of the community would disappear and be made examples of for the remaining villagers to witness. Additionally, captives were treated to the psychological torment of the constant insinuation that they might be tortured, disappeared or not, depending on the whim of their captors (Rodríguez Munguía 2006: 38). A preferred technique involved taking parents from their children and executing them or threatening to execute them if the subversive in question withheld information. Those who were associated with ‘subversives,’ either biologically or through social ties, were as guilty of insurrection as the ‘terrorists’ themselves and were treated accordingly. Among the seemingly endless avenues available to soldiers to persuade subversives to talk were:

[…] all kinds of torture, including disfigurement of the face, third-degree burns, forcing them to drink gasoline, breaking their bones, cutting or slicing off the soles of their feet, applying electric shocks to various parts of the body, tying up their testicles and hanging them from the ceiling, introducing glass bottles to the vagina and forcing them to perform humiliating acts, placing hosepipes in the anal passage, filling them with water and then beating them.[3]


            These methods were not incidental, but when the deaths of subversivos and terroristas made the press, they were confined to the nota roja, or the crime pages. It was rare for these killings to be presented as anything other than individual assassinations and    no hint was ever made as to their systematic application. These torture techniques were hardly the actions of a few crazed soldiers operating in hostile rural environments. The zona militar was in constant contact with the Secretario del Estado Mayor, Alberto Sánchez López, who, with defense secretary Cuenca Díaz and Echeverría himself, was kept fully informed from the frontline battle with the enemy (Rodríguez Munguía 2006: 39)

            Instructions in torture techniques and methods of liquidating insurgents also came from the top in the event that soldiers on the ground were at a loss as to how to treat subversives. One recommendation, for example, from Luis de la Barreda, then director of the Dirección Federal de seguridad (DFS), explained that any followers or sympathizers of Lucio Cabañas should be made to drink gasoline and then set alight (Rodríguez Munguía 2006: 42).

Eradication of subversive elements operated on two main fronts: against unionists and urban guerrillas in the cities and against peasant organizations and political parties, such as Genaro Vázquez Rojas’ and Lucio Cabañas’ Party of the Poor, the Partido de los Pobres, in the rural areas such as Guerrero.

In order to quell dissent, the President and his inner circle spied on political opponents in anticipation of political activities potentially damaging to the PRI’s image. When enough information was gathered, political enemies could be discredited publicly either in political speeches or in the oficialista press. If this proved insufficient and the President deemed that popular political activism was threatening the legitimacy of the party, violence would be employed, not only to intimidate opponents, but, as Sergio Aguayo Quezada notes, ‘to educate’ potential adversaries (1998: 31-32).

Military dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 1970s and 1980s met with considerable difficulties in keeping state-backed atrocities from public scrutiny, despite manipulation of the media and strict censorship. The dawn of Mexico’s años de plomo[4] preceded that of its Chilean, Uruguayan and Argentine counterparts. And more remarkable still, secrecy surrounding the Mexican government’s quashing of the left through disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture, spying and intimidation took place within a country which, in theory at least, enjoyed freedom of expression and a free press. How then, did the Mexican dirty war escape entry into the canon of Mexican history and where were the media and public intellectuals writing in the press?


            The most notorious episode of political violence in Mexico’s contemporary history is that of October 2, 1968, when the authorities gunned down hundreds of protestors in Tlatelolco in Mexico City. At a peaceful protest in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco housing complex north of the city centre, 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, in which hundreds lay dead in the plaza, and thousands more were injured and incarcerated according to some reports, is an infamous date in modern Mexican history. The massacre was the government’s response to a summer of unparalleled popular activism and protest and came two weeks before Mexico was to host the 1968 Olympics. The protests of 1968 were unprecedented in Mexico and saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets demanding an end to political repression and the freeing of political prisoners. The violent governmental response also was unmatched and signaled the beginning of Mexico’s dirty war against political opponents.

            Despite four decades of official secrecy and denial, an entire canon of literature has been created around the events of 1968, much of which transcends traditional literary genres and conventional historical accounts. Faced with the absolute intransigence of the state vis-à-vis the massacre (and bolstered by the majority of the national media), writers and historians experimented with new forms of inquiry in order to reconstruct the history of Mexico’s 1968 movement.[5]

‘Parteaguas’ as a term to describe the effect – both culturally and politically – of the massacre has become so commonplace that contemporary history of Mexico is often viewed as pre and post-1968. (Scherer García and Monsiváis 1999: 4) For journalist and writer Carlos Monsiváis, 1968 represents a defining moment, a ‘historical break’ after which the relationship between state and populace entered an altogether new phase of mutual distrust. (1997: 26)

Those writing outside Mexico have also viewed Tlatelolco as the ‘turning point’ in the second half of the twentieth century, invoking it as the beginning of the PRI’s crisis of legitimacy and its decline from power. (Lawson 2002: 66) As Henry C. Schmidt notes, Tlatelolco is regarded by scholars of Mexico as a historical ‘watershed’ in that it provoked an emotional response comparable to the social upheaval of independence or the 1910 revolution. (1982: 81)

            By focusing predominantly on 1968, Mexicanists have tended to overlook the nature of political violence in Mexico. That Tlatelolco has been accorded so much attention has had the effect of minimizing the many other instances of state-sponsored political violence of which there is no shortage of examples.

It is not my intention to dismiss or minimize the important work carried out on Tlatelolco and 1968 but to suggest instead that it was a symptom of a larger and more systematic problem. And because secrecy and falsehood have dominated government rhetoric on the events of that year, there is clearly still much work to be done on establishing an accurate historical record.  Yet Tlatelolco, important and fundamental as it is to understanding relations between the state and oppositional movements, was but one example of state terror. Why then, has the dirty war, of which Tlateloco can be seen as the harbinger of Mexico’s años de plomo, taken so long in coming to light?

            Little more than a year before the Tlatelolco massacre, at a national union meeting of copra workers in Acapulco, police opened fire on workers, killing 80 and injuring hundreds more. In the same year in Ayotac de Álvarez, the scene of so many later violent attacks on citizens by the authorities, the police fired on school teachers and parent protestors in the town square, killing five (Gibler 2009: 45-46). These were far from isolated incidents, even if they have been relegated to the margins of commentary on Mexico’s recent past. Journalist John Gibler remarks on the disparity devoted to Tlatelolco as opposed to other episodes of political violence that,

Perhaps because the victims were urban and in many cases middle class, perhaps because they were all so young, perhaps because the bloodshed took place in the heart of the national capital in the presence of reporters, the Tlatelolco massacre has scarred Mexican history in a way that so many massacres of rural farmers, union workers, and indigenous people do not: yet Tlatleolco was not then, and is not now, an isolated nor entirely unique act of repression. (Gibler 2009: 45)

A common feature of much commentary on Tlatelolco suggests that relations between civil society and the state had been relatively peaceful up until 1968 (Adler Hellman 1978; Newell and Rubio 1984; Schmidt 1991; Aguayo 2001). The ‘parteaguas’ in the wake of the government response to the ‘student’ movement correlates with the breakdown in the consensus of PRI rule. Prior to 1968, goes this line of reasoning, the PRI had enjoyed widespread popular support. Thus, writes Sergio Aguayo Quezada, ‘If the ideal of political rulers is to exercise power without obstacles or interferences, the Mexico of the sixties was paradise’ (1998: 27). Although tensions and ambivalence did exist, he argues, there was also a certain confidence in the future and a sense that the country was going in the right direction. Similarly, historian Brian R. Hamnett sees Tlatelolco as a ‘dividing line’, hinting that PRI rule was relatively calm prior to 1968 (1999: 261). But, as the violent incidents in Acapulco and Ayotac demonstrate, real ‘obstacles’ and ‘interferences’ were becoming more and more common.

Complete hegemony in Mexico was something the PRI had failed to achieve and the success of government propaganda – via the education system and the mass media – was mixed. Popular activism in 1968 was rooted in underlying discontents that had frequently expressed themselves previously in strikes and clashes with the state. Indeed, various sectors of the workforce were frequently on strike, demanding better pay and conditions. Take, for example, the direct action taken by rail workers led by Demetrio Vallejo in the late fifties, and medics’ and teachers’ strikes in the mid-sixties. That the state felt the need to quash successive rebellions with force suggests that political discontent was widespread and that the PRI’s tactic of consent via persuasion had not been altogether successful. 1968, of course, was bigger in scale than previous social movements, particularly as it began to make links with peasant and labor organizations, but instead of being an isolated surge of popular political activity it seems to be the final expression of pent up political frustration and desire for change.

Perhaps the attention attributed to Tlatelolco can be explained, as opposed to other instances of state violence, by its scale. In fact, no one (at least in the public arena) actually knows how many people died. The Manchester Guardian, with a reporter in Mexico City at the time, claimed that the army and police had gunned down 325 victims. The consensus seems to float around the figure of 300 deaths. (Doyle, 2006) However, the dirty war’s victims, admittedly over a more prolonged period, outnumber those massacred in the plaza, so scale alone would not seem to explain the disparity between the amount of literature available on Tlatelolco and on the dirty war.

Of course, the victims in 1968 were not the usual targets of state repression. Unlike the copra workers in Acapulco in 1967, these were largely urban and middle class people and many were university students. As Elena Poniatowska, one of the few public intellectuals to document the dirty war throughout the 1970s, notes, ‘la mayoría de los desaparecidos mexicanos es de extracción campesina o proletaria; el número de estudiantes es pequeño y el de profesionistas, mínimo’ (144). Peasants in the countryside had scant representation in the mass media and urban, bourgeois intellectuals such as Poniatowska, who highlighted state political violence against the most marginalized sectors of the population, were rare indeed.

Furthermore, the Tlatelolco massacre took place in the middle of the capital and, despite manipulation of the media, unlike repression meted out on rural peasants and industrial workers, this was a crime which could not be sidelined easily. Many middle class university graduates previously had some stake and relative representation in the political system and many ended up working in the PRI. Unlike union workers and leaders of peasant movements, there was a perception that the middle classes were immune from political persecution. Thus the break between government and its victims at Tlatelolco seemed all the more radical and shocking to educated and relatively privileged observers.

 International journalists who had arrived in Mexico in the run-up to the Olympic Games had not expected to report a massacre. One journalist, the Italian Oriana Fallaci, had been in the plaza on the evening of October 2, had been shot three times, dragged down stairs by soldiers and left for dead. In hospital, recovering from her wounds, she contacted Corriere della Sera and remarked that in her career as a journalist covering conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East she had not witnessed comparable bloodshed. As an eyewitness, her claims in the international press that soldiers had attacked the protesters, rather than the contrary, were particularly damning. From her hospital bed she recalled, ‘había estado en Vietnam y nunca había visto nada tan horrible […] había podido presenciar a un helicóptero o avión disparando sobre la multitud, y los granaderos o atacar a los estudiantes, con saña.’(Cited in Rodríguez Munguía: 2007, 106)

While the Mexican press initially minimized the number of dead, a number of prominent public intellectuals denounced the government’s role in the massacre. Notable examples were Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos and Octavio Paz.  Paz’s Posdata was one of the first and most influential works of literature written in the aftermath of the massacre. Paz’s denunciation of the government’s role in the massacre contrasted with the PRI compliant press to the extent that President Díaz Ordaz even publicly attacked the work on national television. (Young, 1985: 75) Faced with so much secrecy and self-censorship in the media, a number of writers had begun to break the silence almost out of necessity. Their work was a valuable contribution to opening debate on the events of 1968, placing the massacre firmly in public consciousness.

Yet while some prominent intellectuals had publicly denounced Díaz Ordaz, the mood changed only two years later when his successor, Luis Echeverría assumed the presidency. In the election that brought Echeverría to power, 34% of those registered to vote abstained. 25% of the votes cast were annulled and a further 20% went to other political parties. (Shapira, 1977: 575) Rather than ‘voter apathy’, this probably reflected a lack of options and a general disillusionment with mainstream electoral politics from which Mexico’s political system has yet to redeem itself. With much of the electorate skeptical of mainstream politics and politicians, the PRI leadership realized that in order win back a modicum of legitimacy it would have to do so on two fronts.

The first of these was the Echeverría government’s investment in social programs. Between 1940 and 1980 Mexico’s state sector was the largest in Latin America and investment in social programs increased dramatically under the Echeverría administration (Hamnett 2006: 247). Newel and Rubio, (1984) Adler Hellman (1978) and Hamnett  (2006) have seen this as an attempt to bolster a waning governmental legitimacy in the wake of the authoritarian regime of Díaz Ordaz and the events of 1968. One-party rule often meant that, in order to keep the balance of power in the PRI’s favor, conflicting interests between big business and the population would have to be reconciled or compromised.

Mexico’s ‘perfect dictatorship’ could hang on to power via the legitimacy of holding elections and by furthering social programs in education, land reform, agricultural subsidies and economic protectionism. These were an attempt to inhibit the growth of independent political organizations by catering for the minimal needs of various sectors of the population. Chappell Lawson (2004:16) notes that this was a key feature of PRI rule and democracy in Mexico and that furthermore, by allowing a spectrum of political views within the party, overt challenges could be minimized or avoided.

A second aspect of this PRI initiative was an intensification of public relations propaganda. This was carried out via connections with the media and prominent public intellectuals. Clearly, the disruption of 1968 had taught the state of a need to strengthen its propaganda efforts. Former radicals and leftists would now be counted on to write the right kind of articles. In fact, such was the cozy relationship that, of any sector, excluding foreign diplomats and politicians, intellectuals and journalists made the greatest number of visits to the official presidential residence at Los Pinos (Shapira 1977: 579).

Echeverría’s presidency thus took the state’s relationship with intellectuals to a new level. As part of a public relations strategy to create a progressive and liberal image of government, the state attempted to use intellectuals to its advantage, with Echeverría traveling everywhere with a coterie of trusted writers and journalists. Like other administrations, it tried to co-opt intellectuals by offering them prestigious posts in government. There was nothing particularly new about this – President Cárdenas had done similar things in the 1930s – it was the scale on which it was done which is most remarkable.

Although Carlos Fuentes did a great deal to bolster Echeverría’s legitimacy, he was also one of his most influential – yet courteous – critics. In 1971 he compared the continued imprisonment of José Revueltas to that of Heberto Padilla in Cuba and pressured the President to release him, as he did a few days later (Brewster 2005: 73). Sócrates Amado Campos Lemus, who in 1968 had been a leader of the Comité Nacional de Huelga (CNH) and who had later been imprisoned for his political activities, later became an arch supporter of Echeverría and was appointed to a government post. Daniel Cosío Villegas was granted the Premio Nacional, and UNAM’s Victor Flores Olea, who had written a damning critique of the Tlatelolco massacre in Siempre in 1972, was made ambassador in Moscow. Rick Rockwell points out that, ‘reporters covering the president […] could expect the government to pay for all their expenses incurred during the president’s travels, no matter where the president traveled in the world’ (2002, 113).

Those intellectuals who had publicly criticized Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría in the wake of Tlatelolco now turned their attentions elsewhere. Despite the fact that Echeverría had been second in command to Díaz Ordaz in 1968, his presidency managed to regain the faith of influential intellectuals. In his book, Memorias, Cosío Villegas recalls that during the Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría administrations, he wrote editorial columns in the newspaper Excélsior under a pseudonym. It is significant that one of Mexico’s most important and influential intellectuals, the founder of the Colegio de México and Mexico’s permanent ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), felt the need to disguise his words behind a false name. In Memorias, he highlights Echeverría’s growing discomfort with independent and critical journalism, claiming that the President went to great efforts to co-opt him personally.

For Adela Cedillo, because intellectuals generally depended on the state for their own economic and social status, their attitude towards politicians was one of, ‘te critico pero te respeto’. Cosío Villegas, summed up this kind of relationship well, no doubt in an attempt to refute a fairly evident conflict of interests, when he commented of his friendship with Echeverría:

desde que entramos en relaciones, ambos nos empeñamos en trazar una clara distinción entre las relaciones personales, de modo que él puede considerarme un buen amigo, pero un mal escritor, y yo a mi vez, puedo estimarlo más como amigo que como gobernante. (Cosío Villegas, 1974,  13).

Rosario Castellanos, who lamented the state violence of 1968 in her poem, ‘Memorial de Tlatelolco’, was later made ambassador to Israel by Echeverría. Carlos Fuentes became Mexico’s ambassador in Paris and Octavio Paz – the only public official to resign in outrage in 1968[6] – enjoyed an ever closer relationship with political power and Echeverría. While Echeverría’s presidency waged a dirty war against peasants in Guerrero, disappearing, torturing and throwing ‘subversives’ from helicopters and airplanes into the ocean during what became known as los vuelos de la muerte, Mexico’s most influential intellectuals came out in support of the new regime.

A change of rhetoric and style, backed up by relatively radical economic reforms, had a number of important consequences regarding the writings produced by journalists and prominent intellectuals. What they wrote and said very often contributed to the government’s return to legitimacy. Carlos Fuentes, who had been highly critical of the PRI in 1968, was now convinced of the Echeverría administration’s benign intentions when he wrote that, ‘Echeverría lifted the veil of fear thrown over the body of Mexico by Díaz Ordaz. Many Mexicans felt free to express themselves, to organize without fear from repression’. (Cited in Adler Hellman 1978: 151)

When intellectuals such as Fuentes did criticize the regime, it was within the parameters of acceptable mainstream debate which accepted the basic legitimacy and benevolence of the Echeverría presidency. Certain policies and tactics would be discussed and criticized, but the basic premise that Echeverría’s government was essentially benign was beyond question. So long as the holy trinity – the basic benevolence of the president, the army and the virgin of Guadalupe – remained immune from criticism, intellectual political debate would thrive.

Fuentes’ exposé of the continued incarceration of writer and activist José Revueltas (accused by the government of being the ‘autor intelectual’ of the 1968 movement) was one example of this. While he criticized what he saw as the unjust imprisonment of a dissident writer, he did not condemn the political regime as a whole, nor did he mention the ongoing repression of peasants in Guerrero and elsewhere. Rather, the repression meted out against Revueltas represented a glitch in an otherwise even-handed regime and was corrected by Echeverría as soon as Fuentes went public in his criticism. As such, Fuentes was what dirty war researcher Adela Cedillo calls a crítico permitido because he failed to question the system’s fundamental legitimacy nor did he highlight the systematic nature of political violence in Mexico (Interview with Adela Cedillo, Mexico City, 5 August 2005). When Echeverría agreed to release Revueltas, Fuentes was effusive in his praise:

Echeverría heard complaints and saw misery. The students and intellectuals imprisoned in 1968 were freed. A new climate of intellectual criticism, debate in the press, and a national dialogue was substituted for the politics of silence…Self-congratulation was replaced by self-criticism, the existence of Mexico’s problems, old and new, was admitted. (Cited in Brewster 2005: 73-74).

This turnaround is perhaps less surprising than it may at first appear. After all, many were taken in by Echeverría’s leftist rhetoric and new social programs. The newly-invigorated discourse presented Echeverría’s sexenio as a beacon of liberalism – the egregious violations of human rights that characterized the height of the dirty war under his presidency failed to capture the attention of or were considered unimportant by the same intellectuals who had been so horrified by Tlatelolco.

The dirty war did not fit well with the face of the democratic opening that Echeverría purportedly spearheaded. Because in Mexico utmost political authority was invested in the President, on the surface each sexenio had a different character from its predecessor and the PRI managed to hold power so long precisely because it was able to change and adapt to new circumstances. Echeverría’s presidency represented a refreshing turnaround to many intellectuals and journalists dissatisfied with the paternalism of the Díaz-Ordaz administration. Octavio Paz’s Postdata, published in 1970, for example, had rejected Díaz Ordaz’s authoritarianism although two years later Paz argued that intellectual criticism should play a marginal and independent role in its relation to the state. ‘El escritor no representa a nadie’ he wrote, arguing that intellectual art and criticism sacrificed themselves whenever they adopted or adhered to an ideology. Paz increasingly distanced himself from leftist dogma and Marxist ideology, yet, at the same time, as the country’s most prominent poet, he was frequently entangled with the interests of the PRI and came out as a key supporter of Echeverría’s populism (Paz 1993: 550). In a sense, intellectuals of Paz’s standing allied themselves with the regime by the very fact that any political criticism they did make never strayed into the uncharted territory of the Dirty War.

According to journalist and author Elena Poniatowska, the silence of intellectuals had little to do with ignorance of disappearances and torture. Intellectuals and journalists, she insists, were well aware that the state was disappearing and torturing political opponents but kept this from public knowledge, owing to an ‘enorme indiferencia’ towards the suffering of political dissidents at the hands of the state (Elena Poniatowska. Personal interview, Aug. 8 2005). Criticism of the regime was healthy and so long as intellectuals and journalists were indifferent to the plight of the Dirty War’s victims they could write as they pleased.

Yoram Shapira has argued that Echeverría’s coaxing of the intellectual class was especially important in the absence of support from key social and political groupings. In this context, it was important to court intellectuals and the print media – they could exert influence over public opinion and set the limits of orthodox political debate. (1977: 579)

An additional aspect and significant factor which contributed to the dirty war’s absence from recent history was the structural limitations on media institutions which encouraged and elicited favorable coverage of government in the press. During the Echeverría regime, concealed 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. 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. PIPSA, the state controlled paper company, could withdraw the subsidized paper supply of a publication when the regime considered its content adverse. Additionally, newspapers and journals could be held to account by having to pay back loans and subsidies to government if coverage was considered unfavorable to the interests of the state. Editors and journalists were aware of the risks and either had internalized the limits of acceptable criticism or consciously avoided dangerous stories. The state also had a supreme advantage when it came to the distribution of books. It was not difficult to print politically explosive material in Mexico; the problem lay in circulation as the print union was essentially controlled by government, which could inhibit distribution as required. Similarly, the Mexican postal system, the Administración de Correos, could be intercepted and offending publications mysteriously would never reach their destination. This was censorship, but it was indirect and kept away from public scrutiny. Alternatively, government agents sometimes bought up every single copy of a book as soon as it reached the shelves; to the ordinary reader, such a practice left them with the impression that the chosen publication was merely ‘agotado’.

As regards newspapers, El boletín de prensa, a document produced daily for journalists by the Secretaria de Gobernación, represented one of the most effective propaganda tools of political power. Because the information was free and easily accessible, it benefited journalists, newspapers and government. Journalists were aware that offending the patron with critical coverage potentially meant cutting the lifeline – government access – that kept them in the job. In addition, government advertising – that is, newspaper columns and articles produced by officials in Gobernación but published in the media as standard journalism – also played an important role in disseminating official ideology. Private advertisers, along with government-funded publications, could withdraw financial support whenever they deemed a publication too hostile to business interests.

There was also the process of fragmentation in the media. The break-up of journal and newspaper organizations, while internal in origin, was frequently exacerbated by the state. This meant that no one publication could ever become highly influential, because it would almost certainly be divided into factions that would subsequently form smaller magazines and newspapers.

Those were some limitations over which intellectuals, journalists and editors had little control but which were surely highly 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 were an extraordinarily important aspect of how an issue such as state violence never seriously entered into intellectual culture, what one Mexican government document termed an ‘invisible tyranny’. (Cited in Rodríguez Munguía, 2007: 35)

Mutual agreements between the government and the press contributed to an atmosphere of journalistic and intellectual subservience to power.  At times Gobernación simply wrote stories or opinion pieces and sent them to the press, where they would appear to the reader as standard journalism. Raúl 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 columnas políticas que están alimentadas de información policiaca. 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 objetividad y todo muy encaminado a legitimar acciones de violencia en contra de los opositores (Raúl Álvarez Garín. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

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…’ (Elena Poniatowska. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

            Although some journalists lied or covered up the truth ‘by conviction’, others certainly were afraid of the consequences of exposing government corruption and human rights abuses (Semo, Ilán.  Personal interview. Aug. 2005). 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 [se] 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 (Elena Poniatowska. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

What was the effect of this in hampering public awareness about state-backed atrocities? 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 the Dirty War in the 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 gobernamentales. 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 que era el poder de Echeverría que era un poder omnímodo, omnipresente. Era un miedo que se hacía manifiesto en todos los lugares (Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. Personal interview. Aug. 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. Thus, 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). There was nothing unusual about this. After all, Echeverría and Díaz Ordaz had made it official policy since the sixties 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: 69). This framed any debate about disappearances within a very rigid framework. The kind of language used – ‘terrorista’, ‘subversivo’, etc – helped to rationalize state violence against dissidents.

Journalistic compliance, coupled with intellectual co-optation, meant that repression in Mexico remained a marginal and taboo topic in public debate and that the reality of the PRI dirty war against dissidents, peasants, guerrillas and subversives was sidelined from the public arena. As Adela Cedillo indicates, aside from a minority of radical dissidents, intellectuals had little interest in exposing the crimes of which Echeverría has been more recently accused:

[…] nunca han sido gente marginal – siempre han sido la élite cultural del país. Siempre     han gozado de todos los beneficios, de instituciones dependencias académicas. Yo pienso             que se debe a la esquizofrenia del sistema mexicano. Por un lado viven en la realidad   paralela de que son un gobierno democrático y que respetan las libertades ciudadanas.             Muestran un botón y sacan a Monsiváis, a Poniatowska, hasta Revueltas en un             determinado momento […] Entonces hay esa doble imagen de esquizofrenia pura. Es una             cuestión de aparencias (Adela Cedillo. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

Similarly, as Roderic Ai Camp notes, ‘To perpetuate Mexico’s political system, its leadership believes in avoiding conflict, especially in the public arena’ (1984: 178). So long as the Dirty War could be sidelined from political debate by ensuring that criticism was marginalized or that critics were co-opted, there would be no need to repress and directly censor critical intellectuals and journalists. Given that Mexicans arguably enjoyed more freedoms than their neighbors in other Latin American republics, it was paramount to influence what and how they thought. The governments that used outright repression in the Argentine and Chilean Dirty Wars and the Guatemalan genocide were less preoccupied with what people thought but more with maintaining control via force and coercion. In Mexico, however, promoting democracy as an enshrined value of the revolution and the constitution meant at least appearing to live up to those values, even if the reality was quite different.

One of the few journalists and public intellectuals actively involved in documenting political repression in Mexico throughout the 1970s was Elena Poniatowska. Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, founder of the Comité Eureka and steadfast human rights campaigner, notes that Poniatowska was alone in her support for victims of state repression post-1968:

La que siempre estuvo con nosotros, que nos apoyó en la huelga de hambre fue Elena Poniatowska. Ella desde un principio…Hablé con ella en una manifestación y escribió Fuerte es el silencio y sacó todo lo que tenía que decir. Después estuvo con nosotros en la huelga de hambre – pero fue la única. Octavio Paz – hablé con él – me dijo, palabras de él, las tengo grabadas porque me clavaron como puñaladas, ‘Ay, Usted es la señora esa de la que habla Elenita. Yo creía que eran novelerías.’ Terrible. Ninguno – la única fue Elena. Uno que estuvo solidario con nosotros pero no al grado de Elena fue Carlos Monsiváis. Pero en el principio Elena Poniatowska fue la única. Y todavía sigue (Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

Ibarra continues:

Los intelectuales no se meten mucho. No se comprometen…De vez en cuando les preguntan, dicen cualquier cosita, escriben alguna cosa, pero no el compromiso así de ir a nuestros actos, de estar con nosotros (Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. Personal interview. Aug. 2005).

            In the wake of 1968, sectors of the left had fragmented. As well as disabling the student movement, some leftist opposition moved to the right. The Partido Popular Socialista (PPS), for example, defended the government’s role in the Tlatelolco massacre, while the Mexican Communist Party adhered to a strict pro-Soviet ideology. Mexico was now without a serious left opposition – and therefore an organized and coherent intellectual opposition – to fill the void in the wake of the student movement (Hodges and Gandy 1983: 110). As a result, attention to the plight of the dirty war’s victims did not enter the mainstream, and was relegated to the margins of contemporary commentary where only a small number of radical and minor organizations investigated state violence.

Compounding the situation further, the Cuban revolution had not been the success many leftist intellectuals had anticipated. The US economic embargo had forced Castro into an increasing rapprochement with the USSR, which promised aid, trade and military support. Attempting to accommodate the ideals of the revolution with the socio-economic pressures of the emerging new society had meant compromising the ideals of the past, particularly in the context of the island’s economic lifeline having been cut off by the blockade. Discarding old political models in favor of Echeverría’s populism seemed a viable alternative for many intellectuals and journalists who subsequently succumbed to Echeverría’s new style (Morton 2003: 27-28).

Some intellectuals did change their tone in the latter half of Echeverría’s presidency and many of the same writers began openly criticizing the President, but these were criticisms of certain political tactics and policies rather than attacks on presidential authority and as such were permitted. Particularly in the first half of the Echeverría sexenio, as Samuel Dillon and Julia Preston point out, ‘as a result of its adaptability, the authoritarian system was able to maintain strong ties with the country’s intellectuals, a unique situation among Latin American nations’ (2004: 407). ‘The PRI system,’ Dillon and Preston explain, ‘was not totalitarian…But it did have its dogma, and as its hegemony advanced, its ideas became part of the fabric of life’ (406).

In the context of the Cold War, the PRI used the Soviet model as an example and symbol of everything that Mexico was not. Creating a bipolar realm of debate in which everything could be contrasted with communism and fascism – both of which had been sufficiently discredited – the only legitimate option left was democracy (albeit with its imperfections). Critics had a role within this doctrinal system which, according to Monsiváis, was to ‘persuadir y disuadir hasta cierto punto la Opinión Pública, neutralizar sus “inclinaciones heterodoxas,” parodiar las expresiones de la conciencia libre y convencer de la inexistencia de opciones’ (Scherer and Monsiváis 2003: 163).

Criticism of the regime then, within the boundaries of an ideological system in which the fundamental authority of the political system was a given, was beneficial, necessary even. If intellectuals and journalists accepted the tacit ruling that in essence Mexican democracy was the only alternative to communism and fascism, then certain critiques of policy, etc. were quite acceptable. Critics writing in the media who adopted those core values – like Paz and Fuentes – would be allowed to write and debate freely because they never addressed the regime’s fundamental legitimacy and could be trusted never to expose its darkest crimes.

So if indeed the Echeverría regime was brutal, the fact that its brutality was sidelined from history for thirty years owes itself in part to this. The administration presented itself as a singular phenomenon in Latin America and the third world: the Mexican state invested in important and wide-ranging social programs unparalleled elsewhere in the continent. This was backed up by a rhetoric which incessantly invoked the imagery and ideals of the Mexican revolution. In 1971, Echeverría released a number of journalists who had been imprisoned for their critical stance against the PRI regime. Mexico, according to Echeverría, was the leader of third-world nationalism. Attempting to include all political colors into mainstream debate, he said, echoing the rhetoric of Fidel Castro, ‘there is no such thing as ideas which are exotic or alien to the Revolution’ (Cited in Adler Hellman 1978: 151). Indeed, in the early days of his presidency, Echeverría made speeches about third world independence, of which he saw Mexico as a leader, and was a vocal supporter of Cuban sovereignty (Landau 2003).

Similarly, Echeverría publicly supported Salvador Allende in Chile and opposed US expansionism in Latin America. Mexico boycotted the General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1973 over human rights abuses committed by Pinochet’s newly-installed fascist dictatorship. And although Pinochet had been supported and funded by the US government and the CIA, Echeverría broke diplomatic ties with Chile and another US ally, South Africa, because of its system of racial apartheid and human rights abuses. Indeed, Echeverría was highly critical of US imperialism in Latin America for having overthrown democratically-elected governments and installing brutal military dictatorships. Echeverría also vocally supported the plight of Palestinians and criticized Israel’s illegal land grabs in following the 1967 war and allowed the PLO to open an office in Mexico City.

It was therefore crucial to the credibility of its government that Mexico should appear to champion third-world independence and resist yanqui imperialism. The Mexican regime under Echeverría publicly defined itself as everything the dictatorships and military regimes in Chile, Guatemala and Brazil were not. The appearance that freedom of speech and democratic institutions (represented by the media) were vigorous and dynamic in Mexico was not only a valuable image to sell domestically, but also internationally. Popular political activity in the late sixties and early seventies – with student movements throughout Latin America, May 1968 in France, anti-Vietnam war and civil rights protests in the US and anti-colonial struggles in Africa – had strengthened not only a distrust of state politics but also a belief that revolutionary popular movements could influence and take political power. The Echeverría administration’s insistence that it was a leader of the North-South dialogue and its portrayal of itself as a leader of third-world interests were a significant departure from Mexican foreign policy prior to 1968, an intellectual position which appealed to former critics of the PRI. The symbolism of this was no doubt a public relations strategy which attempted to gain political support during a time in which the Mexican state recognized that it faced a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Echeverría’s ‘apertura democrática’ was in large part a response to international events whereby the regime could gain credibility by appealing to the domestic and international left.

Despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, both Echeverría and his predecessor were on the CIA payroll (Agee 1975). In 1972, Echeverría met with US President Richard Nixon where he discussed his preoccupations with the influence of communism in the hemisphere and the repercussions of domestic dissent. Both presidents were obsessed with the Communist ‘threat’ as well as with controlling dissent domestically. Recordings of the conversation obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University demonstrate that Echeverría’s stance in private was diametrically opposed to his public statements. According to this conversation, he clearly saw Allende’s victory in Chile, as well as the continuing influence of the Cuban revolution, as a threat to ‘stability’ throughout the region. Referring to leadership of the third world, he told Nixon, ‘If I don’t take this flag in Latin America, Castro will’, adding that, ‘I sensed this also when I was in Chile and it can be felt in Central America, and among young people, among intellectuals – that Cuba is a Soviet base in every sense of the word, both militarily and ideologically, and that this is going on right under our noses’. In a reversal of his public comments, Echeverría told the US President that he saw Cuba as an instrument of Soviet penetration into the United States and Mexico.

Echeverría concluded that investment in social programs and public spending would prove vital in swaying Mexican leftists away from the example of Cuba and Chile and would be crucial in countering dissent and rebellion.[7] On the one hand, Echeverría denounced US imperialism and sided with Castro and Allende, promoting himself as a leader of third world independence. On the other hand, he allied himself closely with the United States and waged a secret dirty war against leftist rebel groups. Clearly, Echeverría and his advisors understood that a duplication of the Díaz Ordaz regime would alienate swathes of the population. In order to repair its shattered image, the PRI would have to appeal to progressive intellectuals and journalists by changing political rhetoric.

Hidden behind the guise of democratic social spending and revolutionary rhetoric was a campaign of violence to crush political opponents, as 1968 activist Raúl Álvarez Garín comments:

Repression in Mexico is hidden in part because of the prestige of the revolutionary process which has included important political and economic changes. It’s a nationalist regime with laws and which pays attention to social problems with quite extensive and revolutionary methods. The redistribution of land, the nationalization of petroleum and labor laws and social security and a range of other things presented it as a unique alternative model in the Third World.[8]

In Latin America, the Mexican political system was unique in the way in which it maintained legitimacy. In the words of one political activist: ‘Es un estado hipócrita que te muestra una cara pero que tiene la habilidad de mantener ese lado oscuro no solo en la vida cotidiana sino en la cabeza de las personas. Eso ha sido finalmente su éxito’ (Heriberto Paredes Coronel. Personal interview. Aug. 2005)

Public intellectuals, then, tended to avoid exposing the regime and its role in repression of peasants and dissidents in the 1970s and Tlatelolco is treated as an exception rather than the rule. In some senses this is true, given the class background of many of the victims, some of whom were intellectuals themselves. But a cursory glance at the history of contemporary Mexico reveals something much more chilling. State violence has been systematic in the wake of Tlatelolco and since the dawn of the dirty war, though its victims have often been ignored by those who have some influence in the public arena.

Many leftist intellectuals had been disillusioned by the consequences of 1968 for the left and Cuba’s alignment with Soviet communism. In what they saw as the absence of alternatives and a weakened left, many were seduced by the fresh face of the populist politics and new social programmes of Echeverría and retreated from engaged political activism. And the massive public relations efforts, leftist rhetoric and courting of intellectuals did seem, on the surface at least, to represent something altogether new. Echeverría’s coaxing of the intellectual class was especially important in the absence of support from key social and political groupings as they in turn could influence public opinion and set the limits of orthodox political debate. (Shapira, 1977: 579)

This was compounded by a combination of the complicity and tight control of the mainstream media, whose overall tone and message generally reflected elite opinion. Political violence against elements of society’s most marginalized in places like Guerrero was thus met with what Poniatowska referred to as an ‘enorme indiferencia’ on the part of journalists and intellectuals.

Echoing her comments about Mexican intellectuals attempting to justify their complicity with political power, investigative journalist Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía discusses the press and prominent intellectuals writing in the media during the same period: ‘Uno de los sectores que debe render cuentas, que debe explicar a la sociedad – qué hizo o qué no hizo – es la prensa. Tenemos un vacío inmenso.’ Adela Cedillo has commented that, ‘los intelectuales fueron cómplices del poder…todo el mundo fue metido en la guerra sucia. Eso fue una complicidad tan grande que nadie sale libre de culpa’. On the renewed faith of post-1968 intellectuals and journalists in the PRI and their failure to expose Echeverría’s human rights abuses, she comments: ‘Ellos se justifican diciendo que, “no sabíamos, ¿A qué hora los torturaron, a qué hora los desaparecieron? Es que nadie nos dijo. No sabíamos”. No soportan hablar de la guerra sucia. Es un tema tan incómodo, tan marginalizado, el tema más marginal que puedas estudiar.’

It has taken thirty years for Mexico’s dirty war to be recognized as a topic of national and international concern. Despite repeated attempts at prosecution of those individuals responsible, one distinguishing trait remains: impunity. Yet the recognition that there was a Mexican dirty war at all and attempts to salvage it  from the memory hole of history have in large part been down to the relentless struggles of civic and human rights organizations and a handful of independent investigative journalists exposing the crimes of the past. It is hoped that the urgency of further research on the state’s war against political dissidents, oppositionary movements and civil society will lead to increasing pressure on government in order that present and future abuses become more difficult to obscure from public knowledge. Given the recent and ongoing abuses committed by the police and military throughout the country – San Salvador Atenco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Ciudad Juárez – could there be a more pressing task for researchers of recent Mexican history to undertake?


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[1]               Those who wrote in and who distributed the publication of the Liga 23 de septiembre, Madera, were evidently perceived as a threat to established political power. Whether or not the threat from them was real is another matter: arguably, they represented little danger to the state, given that their support base was marginal, but this did not prevent the PRI from later disappearing practically everyone involved in Madera’s publication and circulation, annihilating both the periodical and the Liga.  La Jornada. March 4, 2004.

[2]               Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado.

[3]               Author’s translation: ‘[…] todo tipo de tortura, incluyendo, desfiguraciones en el rostro, quemaduras de tercer grado, darles de tomar gasolina, romperles los huesos del cuerpo, cortarles o rebanarles la planta de los pies, darles toques eléctricos en diferentes partes del cuerpo, amarrarlos por los testículos y colgarlos, introducir botellas de vidrio en la vagina de las mujeres y someterlas a vejación, introducir mangueras por el ano para llenarlos de agua y luego golpearlos.’Informe Histórico a la Sociedad Mexicana, pp. 612.

[4]               Años de plomo, ‘Years of Lead,’ referring to the bullets used by the authorities against dissidents. The term also has been used to refer to dirty wars in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, indicating periods of intense political repression and suspension of the norms of judicical practice.

[5]               See, for example, Carlos Monsiváis, Días de guardar, Luis González de Alba, Los días y los años, Elena Poniatowska, La noche de Tlatelolco, Octavio Paz, Posdata.

[6]               Paz had been Mexico’s ambassador to India.

[7]               Kate Doyle, ‘The Nixon Tapes: Secret Recordings from the Nixon White House on Luis Echeverría and Much Much More’,                      

[8]              Raúl Álvarez Garín. Personal interview. Aug. 2006. ‘La represión en México está muy oculta en una parte por el prestigio del proceso de la revolución mexicana que tiene cambios políticos y económicos muy fuertes. Es un régimen nacionalista viguroso con una legislación y una atención a problemas sociales con métodos bastante revolucionarios y muy extensos. Lo del reparto agrario y la expropiación petrolera y las leyes de defensa del trabajo y las instituciones de seguridad social y una cantidad de elementos que lo presentaban como una alternativa tercermundista muy singular.’