Sports reporter John Rodda was in Mexico City in 1968 to cover the Olympics. But on 2 October he found himself ducking a hail of bullets, then filed the only firsthand report in a British newspaper of the shootings of student protesters
On 2 October 1968, 10 days before the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, government forces opened fire on a student protest in the capital’s Tlatelolco plaza. Official sources stated that the number of dead was in the dozens, but students claimed hundreds died in what has become known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
Mexico City, October 3
The meeting was held in the Square of the Three Cultures. The student speakers were in a balcony on a block of flats about three floors up. They looked out on to a vast square which on the one side has a church and the building of the Foreign Ministry, which must be about twenty storeys high, and on the right a block of buildings and the Polytechnic, which has been occupied by the police during the present disturbances.
The meeting was due to begin at five o’clock. I got there at that time, but they were late starting. The meeting differed from last Friday’s in that there were many banners and placards being held by the students. As the crowd filed into the square through its main thoroughfare there were armed police on the balcony of the Polytechnic. They were getting a lot of abuse from the students but they took it with a smile and when the students screwed up their pamphlets and tossed them up to the police, the policemen read them.
At that moment I turned to move instinctively to the stairs and suddenly there appeared three, four, five, or six men with revolvers with more following, indicating to us to get on the floor. My first thought was that this is it. They’re just going to shoot us down. I kept shouting, “Prensa, Prensa,” without getting down, but one of them moved forward to use his gun butt on me so I got down, flat on my face, with my feet about three or four feet from the wall and my head a good deal farther away.
Hardly had I reached the floor than the air was filled with gunfire, the staccato of machine-guns and rifles. It was horrifying. Bullets began to ping over the walls, bedding into the opposite side of the balcony. The wall near which I was lying was about 3ft. 6in. high. I managed to squirm closer to it because I was not sure whether the bullets were coming up from the crowd, in which case I would have been OK or that there were people on the top of the Foreign Ministry building who could have picked off anyone who was lying on the floor, I should think up to about five or six feet from the front wall.
After about an hour and a half (it was dark by now and I couldn’t see my watch) there was a long period of quiet. No firing but a lot of shouting up and down the staircase. I looked up and got another shock: a lot of people were missing. I saw my Mexican friend wave his hand to indicate that it was all right. At least that is what I thought he meant, and down the staircase I heard the word “prensa” mentioned several times. When I say it was quiet there was always the background noise of water gushing from the floors above on to our balcony and down the staircase because the tank at the top had been punctured.
The Mexican journalist then indicated that I was to move downstairs. I was told to crawl across on my belly, but a chap pointed a revolver at my forehead and I pulled out my press card. At first he insisted I was a German but after a while he prodded me on and I moved on a few more feet snakewise before being told to turn and move over to the staircase through the vulnerable side wide open to any sniper who might have been on the Foreign Ministry roof.
I got to the staircase and was directed down by men with revolvers. I had to go twice under the drenching water before I found the safety of a closed-in balcony. The men about me, I now realised, were not students. They were mostly too old and their dress if it was ragged was not the raggedness of students.
Shot in back
On this little balcony were other journalists, including a man named Dancey, of NBC. I discovered that his interpreter was one of those shot in the back. They got him across the floor and down the stairs to an ambulance.
We were herded into a kitchen where there were two Germans, one of whom had a tape-recorder. A man with a gun made him play the tape. There was nothing on it, for as the German indicated, when the shooting started he flung himself on the floor and forgot to turn the tape on.
Full of troops
Dancey and I had a few words and I said: “It’s a good thing there are a lot of us here because they can’t get us all run over by cars.” Although I did add that a press bus accident in which the vehicle overturned and caught fire might be their way out. Finally we were told that we were going, and honestly I didn’t know what to expect. When we reached the bottom of the staircase the surrounding area was full of troops who stood around shivering.
After some discussion they took our names and Mexican addresses and led us to the corner. There were shots from the ground floor. Someone was trying to clear up and I went to speak to him, but was called back by the military. Standing there I realised how many military or secret service men there were about. For all wore on their left hand a white glove for identification. Continue reading...