Tlatelolco 1968: The Hidden Photos

By Andrea Noble Posted June 17, 2013

Florencio López Osuna on the Cover of Proceso. This photo of Florencio López Osuna appeared decades after he was badly beaten on the front cover of Proceso, a left-leaning photo magazine published in Mexico.

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On Wednesday 19 December 2001, ex-student leader Florencio López Osuna was asked how he felt about the publication of his photograph on the front cover of the Mexican current affairs weekly, Proceso. This photograph had appeared on 9 December beside the capitalised, bright yellow headline ‘Tlatelolco 68. The hidden photos’. On witnessing the image of his battered and bloodied younger self detained by paramilitaries operating at the scene of the massacre, López Osuna declared that: ‘he was shocked [estaba impactado], that some friends had telephoned to tell him that the photo had gone half way around the world, just like the famous one in which the little girl is seen running from napalm burns during the Vietnam war.’ And to be sure, like Nick Ut’s Accidental Napalm (1972) – an iconic image popularly assumed to have influenced U.S. public attitudes towards the Vietnam War – the photograph had indeed gone half way around the world, appearing simultaneously in the USA in The New York Times, in Spain in El Mundo, and in the UK in The Guardian. In light of the global visibility achieved, López Osuna felt it was necessary to take advantage: ‘We’ve got to get involved. A great opportunity is opening up to us that we must not miss. There has to be a grand commission that reviews and sheds light on the facts.’ In short, the publication of the ‘hidden’ photographs was invested with the catalysing potential to bring about the investigation and clarification of human rights violations committed in the past, when, against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the Mexican government, like other nations in the hemisphere was involved in a paranoid ‘dirty war’ against left-wing ‘suberversion’.

The image of López Osuna’s brutalised body was published as one of a series of thirty-five photographs over two consecutive issues of Proceso (#1311 and #1312), and emblematised the events that had unfolded in the Chihuahua building on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the working class Tlatelolco neighbourhood of Mexico City on the fateful evening of 2 October 1968. Part of the global youth rebellion of 1968, the Mexican student movement was nevertheless couched in specifically national terms, as a protest against the arbitrary patriarchal authority of the ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party). On the eve of the Mexican Olympics – the first third-world country, in the idiom of the times, to host the Games – sharp-shooters, widely believed to have been under governmental command at the highest level, opened fire from the vantage point of the surrounding buildings on the mass of up to 10,000 peaceful student and worker demonstrators who had gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas for a rally. Amidst the demonstrators, the army and police had been deployed to control and contain the masses assembled in the Plaza. Finding themselves also under fire, these agents of the state retaliated.

In the violent and chaotic scenes that ensued, not only were an undetermined number of students and bystanders massacred, but the precise affiliation of the sharp-shooters has also never been established. The government of the day, headed by the severe and paranoid President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970), and aided by Interior Minister Luis Echeverría, claimed that student activists had been responsible for the opening shots. They orchestrated an immediate cover-up of the violence in anticipation of the inauguration of the Olympics on 12 October, when the ‘eyes of the world’ would be trained on the nation, a unique opportunity to showcase the economic and social modernity of the ‘Mexican Miracle’. The events at Tlatelolco marked a turning point in twentieth-century Mexican history: this was the moment at which the full force of the repressive authoritarianism of the PRI made itself publicly felt, triggering the slow process of democratic reform that eventually led to its historic defeat -- after seventy-one years in power -- in the 2000 presidential elections, by the right-wing Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN, or Party of National Action), headed by Vicente Fox (2000-2006).

Concealed from view for over three decades, the photographs thus burst into the (inter)national media sphere at a crucial turning point in Mexico’s democratic transition, into a context in which they carried a potent evidential charge. They remind us that in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America, ‘Cold War’ goes hand in hand with a series of so-called ‘dirty wars’, the legacy of which continue to resonate to the present day.