Members Only | July 11, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
He’s finally gone, but Mexico is still a mess
Each Mexican president since World War II deserves some level of blame. Few deserve more than Luis Echeverría Alvarez.
Luis Echeverría Alvarez has died at the age of 100. You’d think that this former president of Mexico lived a good century. But you’d be wrong. If you want to consider what’s wrong with Mexico today, a lot of it is at least partially the responsibility of Echeverría.
Echeverría was born in 1922 in Mexico City. Part of the post-revolutionary generation, he became an academic, teaching political theory at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1947. He soon was a rising star in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), becoming secretary to PRI’s Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada. From a young age, he was on the fast track to power.
On October 2, 1968, 10,000 students marched in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to demand greater democracy, independent unions, and other things that reflected the anti-democratic nature of the PRI at that time. Then the military moved in and the snipers began to fire. Upwards of 300 people were massacred.
There was a time when the PRI was genuinely revolutionary.
Originating at the end of the Mexican Revolution, the PRI quickly sought to institutionalize itself as the legitimate inheritor of the Revolution, successfully for a while, with real benefits to the people.
When Lazaro Cardenas governed in the 1930s, Mexico was home to thousands of Spanish Civil War refugees, not to mention Leon Trotsky, which was a mistake given that there were so many Stalinists in Mexico ready to kill him. In any case, Cardenas went far to deliver the promises of the revolution to the nation’s poor.
But by World War II, the PRI had already begun turning its back on the past. It became an increasingly authoritarian, top-down organization that bought the support of the poor through small gifts, nepotism, patronage and, if necessary, the power of a gun.
Presidents were chosen within the PRI power structure, with no democratic accountability. Effectively, party leadership tapped the next candidate on the shoulder. Any meaningful sense of democracy was compromised in the name of institutionalizing the revolution and passing power down in an orderly and often lucrative manner for those lucky enough to have access to it.
By the 1960s, many Mexicans felt the PRI had betrayed them. As in much of Latin America, populist anger, often channeled into the leftist movements rising in the developing world through these years, began to challenge the Mexican state.
When Gustavo Diaz Ordaz took over in 1964, he named the increasingly prominent Luis Echeverría as his Interior Secretary.
This put Echeverría in charge of the police and internal security. He was worried about the fracturing of the Revolution. Seeking to salvage the PRI as the site of power, if not the legacy of the Revolution, he cracked down on movements that Diaz Ordaz and Echeverría claimed were undermining the legitimacy of the state.
With the state in effect controlling hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs through captured unions brought into the revolutionary government, they had the ability to crack down.
They sent 15 percent of the military to Guerrero to fight the guerilla movements challenging PRI power there, movements that would be unlikely to exist had the government in Mexico City taken their problems seriously in the decades before 1968.
Echeverría’s truest legacy was his role as the primary official, other than Diaz Ordaz, responsible for the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre.
On October 2, 1968, 10,000 students marched in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. This was the culmination of student protests that reflected those around the world during that year. Mexican students had marched since the beginning of August in a nonviolent way to demand greater democracy, independent unions, and other things that reflected the anti-democratic nature of the PRI at that time.
That Mexico was hosting the Olympics in a few weeks made its government even more angry. The protestors assured the government that it had no intention of interfering in the Olympics. The military moved in under Echeverría’s orders. Snipers were placed in the apartment buildings of government workers that surrounded the plaza. The workers had no choice but to surrender their homes to the snipers, as their livelihood depended on it.
Then the military moved in and the snipers began to fire. Upwards of 300 people were massacred. With nowhere to run in the large square, they were mowed down, beaten, captured and tortured.
After refusing to discuss his actions for three decades, finally in 1998, Echeverría gave an interview when he denied ordering the violence and claimed he had no control over the officers and soldiers responsible for the massacre. This laughable claim is technically true in that they were transferred to a special unit directly controlled by Diaz Ordaz, but something that effectively nobody believes. There is no way that the second-most powerful politician in Mexico and the man already tapped as next president did not know about this.
He blamed Diaz Ordaz, who certainly has his share of the blame and Echerverría did not work alone, but in 1970, Diaz Ordaz selected Echeverría as his successor in thanks for his role in the massacres.
He ran for president in 1970 and easily won. In fact, as the PRI’s chosen man, he had no chance to lose. Seeing the problem of the 1968 killings, he talked a big game about bringing the poor, students and indigenous people into government. Using populist rhetoric, he attempted to portray himself as a man of the people. He made grand promises to restart the revolution, build schools, housing for workers, provide universal health care and other big projects.
Presiding over the PRI’s bloated corpse, Echeverría did little for the people. The 1971 Raymundo Gleyzer documentary, Mexico: The Frozen Revolution, is a good summary of how terrible the PRI had become.
Echeverría presided over the nation’s dirty war against radicals in the largely indigenous states. He tried to couch this in populist rhetoric and public gestures to claim he was a man of the Mexican people.
He was terrible at governing. He gave ever-longer speeches (up to 6 hours!) and other expressions of a massive ego. He ranted about US imperialism in Latin America while never admitting his own guilt. In 1971, there was another attack on protestors in Corpus Christi Day in Mexico City in broad daylight. Several were killed. While Echeverria’s involvement is not clear, the attack came from the government.
Moreover, violent responses to the populist uprising in the state of Guerrero, with a dirty war killing hundreds of people, reinforced Echeverria’s reputation for having little respect for human rights.
Named “Operation Friendship” of all the horrific names one can imagine, it was created by Díaz Ordaz, then continued by Echeverría. He cracked down on the Guerrero insurgency. When a man by the name of Julio Hernandez Hinojosa went to the municipal building in the town of Atoyac to protest the detention of two women, he was handed over to the police. They accused him of working with the guerrillas, tortured him, castrated him and killed him.
Another man wrote of how he was beaten by soldiers while two officers raped his wife in front of him. Then, on April 24, 1973, around 400 soldiers and four tanks entered the town of Los Piloncillos and started killing people. First, they machine-gunned five campesinos in front of community members. Then they went to the home of a community leader and murdered him. Others were beaten. This was the beginning of Echeverría’s dirty war. Plan Atoyac was implemented in 1974 to restrict food supplies to Guerrero to starve out the guerrillas. During his presidency, about 700 dissidents were disappeared. Such was the legacy of the Revolution in rural Mexico.
Echeverría did face a lot of problems not of his own making. In his six-year term, the population of Mexico rose from 48.5 million to 70 million while growing rural unemployment and migration from the countryside to Mexico City strained the nation.
He responded by reinvigorating government spending in a number of arenas to gain support from the people for the continued rule of the PRI. This included bringing indigenous people into the government a little. But even then, it was to undermine revolutionary activity in rural areas more than caring much about these communities.
He sort of encouraged independent unions, as the Mexican labor movement had been co-opted by the PRI early on, and freed some unionists from prison. And ironically, while repressing leftwing movements in his own country, he developed reasonably close relationships with both Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, allowing Chilean dissidents to seek asylum in Mexico after the Pinochet coup.
The rich hated Echeverría because he talked a populist game about land reform even while killing and jailing dissenters. Journalists made fun of him for his eccentricities and populist gestures.
He engaged in the cronyism that got him into power to begin with, naming his good friend Jose López Portillo as Finance Minister at the same time that continual devaluation of the peso placed Mexico into an economic crisis. López Portillo, who Echeverria had known since childhood, was then named as Echeverria’s successor. In the internal dictatorship that was the PRI, once he was touched, he was touched.
And so the nepotism and corruption of the PRI continued.
Echeverría then went into a very, very long retirement after his term ended in 1976, largely staying out of the public eye, in no small part because of Tlatelolco and the dirty war of his presidency.
At first, he wanted to stay active and he lobbied to be the secretary-general of the United Nations, despite his filthy past. People long sought to make Echeverría pay for his crimes.
In 1995, a judge threw out a case involving a 1971 incident where plainclothes Mexican police officers killed more than two dozen dissidents. In 2006, a Mexican judge ruled that Echeverría could be investigated and charged with crimes relating to Tlatelolco.
But a magistrate overruled it the next year, granting immunity to the ex-president. He has been the target of occasional protest, such as in 2007 when people painted his front door red to mark him as an assassin. But he escaped accountability and died at a very old age.
Now he is gone. But Mexico is still a mess. Decade after decade of ineffective government and violence have continued to undermine that nation. Each president since World War II deserves some level of blame for this situation. Few deserve more than Echeverría.
Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.