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Echoes of '68 As Mexico Again Bears Witness To A Student Massacre

Nov. 9 protests in Mexico's Zocalo square
Nov. 9 protests in Mexico's Zocalo square
Reinaldo Spitalletta


BOGOTA — Mexico bleeds as criminal gangs kill the innocent and not-so-innocent, before the gaze of an impotent — or is it indifferent? — state apparatus.

The latest victims were 43 student activists who disappeared in late September and, many believe, were shot dead and cut up by gangsters and policemen collaborating in the western state of Guerrero. The case has provoked protests that are unusual in their scope, especially for a country that has already seen so much criminal violence and impunity.

This is not the first time protesting youth have been murdered in Mexico. In 1968, the Mexican state — headed then, as it is now, by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — ruthlessly crushed student protests in the capital. The crackdown was a seminal event in Mexico's hesitant evolution toward democracy.

What do the students killed in October 1968 have in common with those murdered near Iguala in 2014? Their blood perhaps, and the savagery of their assassins. That, and their unwanted inclusion in Mexico's lamentable history of violence.

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Mexican students protesting in August 1968 — Photo: Marcel·lí Perelló

The people of Mexico — those colorful, sometimes sinister and sometimes magical protagonists of the country's 20th century novels — live today besieged by drug trafficking gangs and the anti-popular policies of a government (and not just this one) that has handed national sovereignty over to multinationals.

In Mexican culture, death does not frighten people because "life has already cured us of fright," as the poet Octavio Paz wrote in TheLabyrinth of Solitude. "Our indifference to death is the other face of our indifference to life. We kill because life, ours and others', is worthless."

On that dark night in Mexico City's Tlatelolco district, days before the 1968 Olympic Games, dozens of students were shot dead by armed agents of the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970). And as usually happens in such incidents, the state concealed the number of casualties. It took journalists like Elena Poniatowska and John Rodda to eventually reveal just how many the regime had killed: more than 300.

Four decades later, Poniatowska, who went on to become one of Mexico's most decorated novelists, is once again clamoring for justice, this time concerning the disappearance of the 43 teacher training students. The 82-year-old Cervantes Prize winner has been one of the promoters of recent mass protests involving students and other social sectors. Recently she addressed more than 200,000 people in the Zócalo, the capital's main square, and gave a historic speech to urge people not to let this crime against humanity go unpunished.

The college in Ayotzinapa where the victims studied is "very poor," she said. "But it is the only place where people who have nothing can be given free higher education. It is the only option for peasants who have chosen to become rural teachers."

Poniatowska said it is time for the poor to raise their voices above those of the political parties and demand their rights be respected. "It is time we were consulted. Being consulted is a political right the inhabitants of the Republic's 32 states have been demanding for a long time," she said.

Mexico, a country where liberal economic policies have produced paupers aplenty, is home to 20 of the world's richest individuals — but also home to enough poor people to fill a smaller country. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pact it signed with the U.S. and Canada has only added to the poverty. Drug cartels, in the meantime, have unleashed an orgy of crime and violence that has killed thousands and made thousands more disappear.

For some time now, Mexico has also been the setting of a dirty war against peasants, native Mexicans, students, workers and the landless. The dead and the persecuted do not make the news on the private broadcasting channels, which serve the establishment and prefer to provide "information" about the different ways, for example, Mexico's First Lady resembles Carla Bruni — whose backside apparently impacted Mexican politicians when President and Madame Sarkozy visited.

Thanks to government henchmen and drug gangs, the children of the 1911 revolution, the descendents of Moctezuma, Malinche and Cortés, are today spattered in blood. Is Mexico in ruins? "We face a national catastrophe," Poniatowska told the crowd. "Mexico is bleeding."

Before authorities officially declared them dead, journalist París Martínez wrote profiles of the missing students. One of them was Abelardo Vásquez Peniten from Atliaca in Guerrero. "He likes football. He scored a lot of goals in a recent match," Martínez wrote. "He was never rowdy, and is respected because he is never disrespectful of others and doesn't go around criticizing people. Besides football, he loves to study, avidly grabbing one book after another, then another. "

I do wonder: What did these students have in common with the victims of 1968?

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putinism Without Putin? USSR 2.0? Clean Slate? How Kremlin Succession Will Play Out

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, political commentators have consistently returned to the question of Putin's successor. Russia expert Andreas Umland foreshadows a potentially tumultuous transition, resulting in a new power regime. Whether this is more or less democratic than the current Putinist system, is difficult to predict.

A kid holds up a sign with Putin's photograph over the Russian flag

Gathering in Moscow to congratulate Russia's President Vladimir Putin on his birthday.

Andreas Umland


STOCKHOLM — The Kremlin recently hinted that Vladimir Putin may remain as Russia's president until 2030. After the Constitution of the Russian Federation was amended in 2020, he may even extend his rule until 2036.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

However, it seems unlikely that Putin will remain in power for another decade. Too many risks have accumulated recently to count on a long gerontocratic rule for him and his entourage.

The most obvious and immediate risk factor for Putin's rule is the Russian-Ukrainian war. If Russia loses, the legitimacy of Putin and his regime will be threatened and they will likely collapse.

The rapid annexation of Crimea without hostilities in 2014 will ultimately be seen as the apex of his rule. Conversely, a protracted and bloody loss of the peninsula would be its nadir and probable demise.

Additional risk factors for the current Russian regime are related to further external challenges, for example, in the Caucasus. Other potentially dangerous factors for Putin are economic problems and their social consequences, environmental and industrial disasters, and domestic political instability.

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