Letter From Mexico

CUERNAVACA, June 11 - Two and a half years of political dormancy among students here came to an end yesterday and at nightfall an estimated 25 persons lay dead with hundreds of others wounded.

Late in the afternoon thousands of students, massed behind banners carrying political slogans, poured from the campus of the National Polytechnic Institute at Mexico City's northern edge and headed towards the monument of the Revolution midtown, chanting in chorus "Mexico-Liberty," "Mexico-Liberty." Shortly a group of riot police asked that the demonstrators disperse as a permit had not been secured for the march and it was thus illegal. Several blocks on another-and larger-detachment of police reiterated the order. The marches began singing the National Anthem. The police retired and the demonstrators moved forward again. At about 5:10 p. m., while march leaders talked with police, a number of overflowing gray buses pulled up and unloaded hundreds of young men armed with clubs, pistols and submachine guns.

"I noticed them as they came running arms linked," Mexican journalist Juan Miguel de Mora said, "in a way which reminded me of films that I have seen of Hitler's storm troopers.... These men didn't wear uniforms, but their paced run was very military.... I saw them hit with clubs and sticks the students running in all directions. Two or three were caught and savagely beaten."

While the right-wing youths, numbering as many as a thousand, charged back and forth clubbing everyone in their path, including reporters and photographers, the riot police shot tear gas canisters into the remaining conglomeration of marchers. As pistol shots began to ring in the air tanks pulled up behind the column of demonstrators. They were trapped. Some students took refuge in the Normal subway station, others hid in private houses and a nearby hospital. Some of the marchers tried to get away in cars.

"I saw one plainclothesman draw his revolver and fire it repeatedly at a passing car," Jason D. Clay, a Harvard student who watched the melee from the heart of the fighting on the Melchor Ocampo highway. "Shooting was indiscriminate. But people in the neighborhood stood around watching as if it were a bullfight. Their interest seemed sadistic."


The consensus among the spectators was, Clay said, that the armed youths were police trainees-paid, armed and transported by the city police. Onlookers yelled that the right-wing youths were "crazy" and appeared to sympathize with the marchers, Clay said.

"When this group of attackers retired," journalist Mora said, "some people who were watching from the roofs or their houses threw down sticks for the students to defend themselves. Some bricklayers at a nearby construction site gave the students pieces of wood with the same intention."

Gunfire sounded continuously. Many cars and even a Red Cross ambulance were riddled with bullets. While uniformed police stood aside out of the fighting, only shooting tear gas into the crowd periodically, armed plainclothes police took part in some of the most intense fighting and, Clay said, were responsible for much of the shooting. The main column of the marchers dispersed, the battle raged over twenty city blocks. Armed vehicles and military patrols waited at street-corners without participating in the hand-to-hand fighting all around them. Snipers of unknown political orientation fired down into the street from positions on rooftops. At each volley of gunfire the people left in the street ran frantically in one new direction or another. The marchers who had taken refuge in Ruben Lenero Hospital were chased and shot at.

At 7 p. m. a mob of approximately 2500 students started marching towards the zocalo or central plaza. Tanks, armed vehicles and battalions of soldiers sealed off the square from demonstrators to protect the National Palace. The demonstrators charged that Cabesa de Vaca, who had been gravely wounded when the young "shock troops" had charged, was being held captive by the police along with other student leaders. Today rumors swept the city that Vaca had been killed by police before the car he was being carried in had even reached its destination.

By 8:45 p. m. the fighting was over and the city appeared calm. Police and military remained stationed through the night and today at numerous points within the city. Shortly before midnight Mayor Alfonso Martinez Dominquez, meeting with the press, said that the city was calm and that the government would not permit disorders to continue. Today on street-corners throughout the "Normal" area where the fighting had centered many of the right-wing students lingered without the clubs that they had carried yesterday.

It was left to Mexico City's hospitals and medical centers to pick up the pieces. While a city newspaper put the death toll at eight this afternoon, the unofficial count, which had it at 25, seemed more reliable in view of government efforts to minimize the number and the intensity of the fighting itself. Over a hundred persons were treated for wounds and many of the several hundred people held by police were said to be seriously injured.

National media and public opinion joined unanimously in condemning every faction for their participation in yesterday's events. A television commentator said in his broadcast tonight that it didn't matter who was most guilty, all participants share responsibility for the violence and it was the peaceful citizens of Mexico who were the real victims. What has not yet emerged from the confusion is the original cause and objective of the march. Differing sources said that it was to show solidarity with the students of the University of Monterrey who this week won their battle for university autonomy, that it was an expression of general dissatisfaction with the government, or that it was to back up demands for the release of the several hundred political prisoners who have been held since the disorders preceding the 1968 Olympics.

This morning angry representatives of the press met with President Luis Echeverria to protest the violence that had been directed against reporters and photographers covering the demonstration, leaving many-including NBC Mexican correspondent Anthony Halik-seriously injured. Echeverria, also meeting during the day with student representatives said, "if you are indignant, I am even more so," and ordered a full investigation into the day's events.

"I don't agree with the aims of the demonstration," Octavio Paz; the Mexican poet, said when he heard the news of the fighting. "It seems a political error - but such repression is intolerable." While student meetings were held on all the city's university campuses today, it seemed unlikely that demonstrators would venture out into the heavily patrolled streets.

News of the incidents was met with little more than indifference outside the capital city. Previously active students complained of the lack of issues and purpose behind yesterday's demonstration and minimized the ultimate effect the slayings will have on the country. One architecture student in Cuernavaca said that the students' political situation was so impossible that violence can only lead to more despair. Just as revolution is undesirable for Mexico while it rapidly progresses towards development, with an increasingly better economic situation, change through overt political channels in this virtually one-party country is impossible, he said.

What is surprising is that confidence in the newly-elected president, Luis Echeverria, has remained so high among Mexican progressives. These people maintain that Echeverria, who is responsible for the "3 de October" Massacre in which over 500 marchers were killed ending the 1968 riots, is Mexico's political hope. They believe that Echeverria, granted such appalling faults, is the man that will either succeed or fail at enlightening and reforming Mexico's far from democratic political system.

The latest rumor-brought to Cuernavaca by a local university student who just returned from Mexico City-is that one or more machine guns located in downtown buildings opened up on people in the street below. It is not known who the machine gunners were or if they had any purpose above murder. It is impossible to verify this report.

Now there is only confusion-as to the purposes for yesterday's demonstration, what occurred during it, and, most important, what is happening now. Wrote a Mexico City columnist for his paper's afternoon edition: "It is an informed voice that is missing. And the truth-above all-the truth."