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.

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 The Labyrinth 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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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