Washington, D.C., September 30, 2022 - To mark this year’s anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the National Security Archive today posted an essential collection of ten key U.S. documents on Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1922-2022), the former Mexican president later charged with genocide for his role in the Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi student massacres.
U.S. documents depict Echeverría—a career politician in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—as a man intent on crushing his enemies through manipulation and, if necessary, the unapologetic use of force. A CIA report from January 1971, published for the first time today, concluded that he “shares heavily in the blame” for the violence at Tlatelolco. An Embassy memo produced days after the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre described the Echeverría government’s “continuing effort to co-opt and control [the] student movement.” Other documents featured in this collection illustrate an acute “period of tensions” in U.S.-Mexican relations during his administration and the “psychological crisis” that gripped Mexico after his presidency, while records of his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon illuminate his immense ambitions in global leadership.
Despite ample documentation of his involvement in the atrocities, a special prosecutor was unable to sustain the case for genocide, and Echeverría was later cleared of all charges. He died on July 8, 2022, at the age of 100 and was Mexico’s longest-living president.
The documents published today are the result of years of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and related archival research. Some are drawn from previous National Security Archive postings while several others are published here for the first time.
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The PRI dominated Mexican politics for 50 years after the end of the revolution in 1917, and these decades of relative stability instilled a measure of confidence in the one-party system. But by the summer of 1968, rapid population growth and widening economic inequality created a crisis for Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Civil opposition to the government, led by the burgeoning student movement, was reaching its peak. Luis Echeverría, then the interior secretary, was a key member of the strategic committee of high-level officials that directed the government’s negotiations with the students. A State Department Intelligence Note produced two months before the Tlatelolco massacre said the demonstrations–characterized in the press as “a battlefield, not unlike Paris during the May-June civil disturbances”–were “never a threat to [government] stability,” though they were “highly embarrassing.” The government response was two-fold and reflected a strategy that would characterize Echeverría’s leadership: working “quietly” to “encourage demonstrations” and promote dissent among students, and then relying on the use of “massive force” when the demands became intolerable. As an additional measure, the government’s “connections and controls within the student groups,” the State Department noted, were likely to increase in response to the disturbances. [Document 1].
Over the years, Echeverría repeatedly denied playing a central role in the October 2 student massacre, but a CIA Weekly Summary Special Report from January 1971, shortly after he took office as president, affirmed that he “shares heavily in the blame.” The CIA report said the “full consequences” of the Tlatelolco massacre “probably have not yet been realized,” even as Echeverría was attempting to reduce the “animosity initially engendered by his nomination.” The PRI was “more interested in quashing dissent than in absorbing critics into the system,” the CIA observed. Echeverría would rely on both methods, leading with ideological rhetoric and the open arms of negotiation, but often reverting to repression and control. Notably, the CIA was concerned that “an internal political crisis in Mexico could also spark latent anti-Americanism,” warning that an “unpopular crackdown on dissenters by security forces using US-made equipment would 'involve' the US in the incident" [Document 2].
Echeverría assumed the presidency in 1970 in the midst of increasing civil discontent with the PRI. The student movement, while significantly weakened from the intense repression of Tlatelolco, continued their activities in universities across the country. Just days before the Corpus Christi student massacre, a State Department report reflected on Mexico’s “youth problem.” Despite Echeverría’s “concerted effort to improve relations” with the students, his reliance on “gestures and elements of style” appeared empty in the absence of any substantial concessions. Echeverría was, at best, a “captive” of the political and economic reality in Mexico, and, at worst, another one of the system’s “instruments,” according to the U.S. Embassy cable [Document 3].
Days later, on June 10, 1971, some 10,000 student demonstrators were attacked by a group of plain-clothed paramilitaries during a protest in Mexico City, leaving dozens dead and over a hundred injured. The attackers, known as the Halcones (Falcons), were a parapolice group trained and armed by the Mexican government. Echeverría’s violent response to the largest student protest since Tlatelolco dealt a fatal blow to his gestures of tolerance and open dialogue. A U.S. Embassy memo produced shortly after the crackdown detailed the government’s “continuing effort to co-opt and control [the] student movement” and said the government’s “more intense” involvement in student affairs “raises question [about] whether Echeverría really intends [to] allow students greater freedom.” [Document 4].
Records about Echeverría’s involvement in global politics show a different side of his legacy and shed additional light on his domestic security policies. As president, he championed economic programs in developing countries and often spoke on behalf of “Third World” interests in sweeping international tours. In his first meeting with U.S. President Richard Nixon, in 1972, the two men engaged in a sprawling conversation on geopolitics and the threat of communism in the hemisphere. Nixon acknowledged Mexico’s unique position as a bridge between the U.S. and Latin America and encouraged the Mexican president to “speak up for the whole hemisphere” [Document 5]. When U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Echeverría at Los Pinos in 1974, Kissinger noted the success of Mexico’s one-party system, saying “you have to capture as much ground from your opposition as possible” and acknowledging that the U.S. took the same approach with its own domestic opposition to the Vietnam war. When Kissinger asked, “how do you elect a president?” Echeverría replied, “Well, it’s no secret. We have one party. Its leaders are in contact with all the country’s social forces.” He told Kissinger that he had risen above the rest because he “joined with [President] Díaz Ordaz and maintained order” in the face of “communist and student outbreaks.” At the same time, Echeverría told Kissinger that Mexico needed “something to capture the imagination of youth,” adding that they needed “to liberalize the political process” and that “it can’t be done with bayonets.” [Document 6].
Kissinger’s analysis of the country’s political stability did not consider the deepening chasm between the PRI and the Mexican people during this period. Political opposition in the form of the student protest movement of the 1960s intensified in the early 1970s with the advent of armed guerrilla groups throughout the country. As the dirty war in Mexico was reaching new heights, Echeverría empowered his military and security services to pursue without limits any and all opposition to the Mexican state. Declassified documents show that the U.S. generally tolerated the Mexican government's harsh measures despite rising levels of violence committed by state forces and just as new policies were being developed in Washington to condition U.S. aid on human rights performance.
Declassified documents also reveal Echeverría’s close ties to intelligence networks, including a history of direct involvement in both producing intelligence and in coordinating operations. As interior secretary, Echeverría presided over the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), the principal intelligence and security agency of the Mexican government. The DFS led counterinsurgency operations against guerrilla groups and the student movement and was dissolved in 1985 amidst allegations of widespread human rights violations and corruption. Throughout the 1960s, Echeverría was also providing intelligence to the CIA station in Mexico City.
His direct intelligence connections, however, are only one side of the story. As president, Echeverría warned of the influence of “dark force” foreign intelligence services, highlighting the threat they posed to both Mexico’s domestic affairs and to developing solidarity between countries in the “Third World.” Whether sincere or not, the declassified record demonstrates that Echeverría likely understood the political value in making these accusations. Claims of CIA interference in international affairs was a card Echeverría found garnered immediate support from other developing countries. Domestically, he would apply the same allegations to the Mexican left in a desperate, though generally effective, diversionary tactic.
The March 1975 incident at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in which an outburst from students during Echeverría’s speech led to his memorable accusation that the students were “manipulated by the CIA,” illustrates both an impulsive and calculating response to criticism. A declassified U.S. Embassy cable, published for the first time in this posting, pulls back the curtain on this episode and its consequences for U.S.-Mexican relations. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Jova characterized Echeverría’s accusation that the CIA was orchestrating the student groups as “wounding” in an exchange with an Echeverría associate, adding that the Mexican government was “playing poker with our chips.” Noting the “many months (or years) of public confrontational language” aimed against the U.S. during the Echeverría administration, the ambassador said the new attack was like “rain falling on sodden ground.” Jova observed that the U.S. and Mexico were reaching a “period of tensions” and urged caution and discretion from both governments [Document 7]. In a memo written later that year, the Embassy referenced the UNAM episode and Echeverría’s assertion that “deliberately accusing the students of [an] affiliation they would abhor” serves to “steal the banners from the left” [Document 8]. Anticipating and diffusing opposition in this manner was a strategy of Echeverría’s throughout his career and did little to stem rising levels of unrest.
The “psychological crisis” that gripped Mexico at the end of Echeverría’s presidency is described in a 1977 State Department report from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The national economy was in dire straits with an inflated foreign debt and following the devaluation of the peso in late 1976. Pressure from the private sector over Echeverría’s “anti-business diatribes” coupled with rising discontent among campesinos with the government’s failure to follow through on promised land redistribution were significant issues awaiting incoming president López Portillo. Appealing to all sides with the promise of dialogue and then bitterly denouncing opposition when it reached “unacceptable” levels left Mexican society deeply divided. The State Department confirmed that diplomatic relations “suffered” during Echeverría’s presidency and described his “verbal blasts at the US, economic imperialism, and allusions to ‘dark interests’” (presumably referring to the CIA and shady U.S. business interests) as damaging to “US goodwill.” In evaluating his immediate legacy upon leaving office, Echeverría “said that the accomplishments of his administration will be better understood in the future than they are today.” The INR report concludes that he was probably right [Document 9].
Twenty-five years after he left office, a newly-created Office of the Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past (Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado – FEMOSPP) began to prosecute those responsible for state repression against students. In 2004, Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo charged Echeverría with genocide for his role in the Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi massacres. An Embassy cable from 2005 detailed the “slow judicial progress” made by the Special Prosecutor’s Office and the “controversial effort” to charge former President Echeverría with genocide. While the case was stalled pending a Supreme Court appeal, the Embassy speculated that Carrillo defined genocide in the case of the Corpus Christi massacre as “the state’s concerted effort to eliminate a specific group of individuals” [Document 10]. Echeverría was eventually cleared of all charges.
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, secret intelligence note
A report from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research produced two months before the October 2 massacre at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas evaluates recent developments in the student movement. Describing the “deployment of tanks and armored cars against student barricades,” the report ultimately determines that the “monolithic nature of the Mexican political system” ensures government stability even in the face of the “unprecedented” riots. Echeverría’s strategic committee works quietly with student leaders while the government line, for “face-saving reasons,” will “probably continue to stress the communist role” in the student disturbances. The report notes there is little evidence to support this theory.
CIA CREST database
A CIA Weekly Summary focusing on Mexico details the political transition from Díaz Ordaz to Echeverría. In evaluating the incoming president’s relationship to Mexican youth and the student movement, the report references the Tlatelolco massacre and acknowledges that Echeverría “shares heavily in the blame.” The agency describes the rise of the “politically aware Mexican” that threatens the unity of the official political system and notes that the PRI has found its recent experiments with liberalization to be “increasingly dangerous.”
A State Department report reflects on the first six months of the Echeverría administration and its relationship with Mexico’s youth. The Embassy observes Echeverría’s “basically moderate position” on key economic issues despite his insistence on the “need to bring about a more equal distribution of national wealth and social progress.” The report notes that while Echeverría’s statements “closely coincide with youth views,” his administration is “less publicly…devoting considerable resources to the control of student groups.”
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
This U.S. Embassy memo describes Echeverría’s response to the student situation in the wake of the Corpus Christi Massacre. The memo details the Mexican government’s “conciliatory posture” and “willingness to hear the students” following the violence of June 10 and remarks on the present disunity among student groups. Echeverría’s carrot and stick strategy, at the expense of the government's public image, appears to have successfully divided the opposition.
Presidents Nixon and Echeverría meet in the Oval Office for the first time. The majority of the conversation is centered around the spread of communism in Latin America. In discussing hemispheric issues, Echeverría acknowledges the “atmosphere of reciprocal understanding” reached by the two leaders. Listen to the conversation
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with Echeverría at Los Pinos for a discussion ranging from the need for foreign investment in Latin America to Boumédiene and Tito. Echeverría advocates for a stronger alliance between U.S. business interests and Mexico to counteract the appeal of the “communist mirage” and to “capture the imagination of youth.” Kissinger jokes that “all countries have domestic problems except Mexico.”
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
An undisclosed source referred to as Echeverría’s “hombre de confianza” visits the home of U.S. Ambassador Jova at the president’s request following the March 14 events at UNAM. The source relates to Jova the “political necessity” of accusing the leftist students of CIA affiliations, though the Mexican government recognizes there is no such involvement. Ambassador Jova advised the Mexicans to avoid making public statements on “these very subjects (CIA, et al)” and what he referred to as “internal problems of friendly government.”
This Embassy cable notifies the State Department of Echeverría’s campaign for the post of Secretary General of the United Nations. The Embassy describes Echeverria's personal character as reactionary, particularly during the student massacres in 1968 and 1971: "On both occasions Echeverria was undoubtedly a key decision-maker and his response to the disorders was drastic and violent." Relating his career in Mexican politics, the Embassy asserts that “the system fits him like a glove.”
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, secret intelligence report
A State Department report from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research assesses Echeverría’s immediate legacy and the challenges that face incoming president José López Portillo. During his term, Echeverría “surprised observers by outlanking the left with rhetoric–a favorite move being to call leftist students ‘fascists’.” The report also describes Echeverría’s ambitions in international affairs and his “frenetic involvement in every Third World cause.”
U.S. Embassy confidential cable
This Embassy cable details the “slow judicial progress” made by the Special Prosecutor’s Office and reports on the “controversial effort” to charge former President Echeverría with genocide. In a report on the status of the prosecutions in early 2005, the U.S. Embassy described the progress made by FEMOSPP and the obstacles they still faced, including the office’s hyperfocus on “administrative tasks and processes,” noting that they appear “somewhat closed to victim outreach.”