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History, Growing Social Problems

Luis Echeverria Alvarez, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Netzahualcoyotl, populist rhetoric, Latin American nations

In the 1960s student activism and clashes with the police agitated the country. Presidents Adolfo Lopez Mateos (1958-1964) and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (1964-1970) both underestimated the extent of social discontent in Mexico. Diaz Ordaz, anxious to avoid disruption of the Olympic games in Mexico City in 1968, stepped up the repression and set the stage for a disaster. On October 2, 1968, some 10,000 students in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlateloco were fired upon by soldiers and police. At least 325 died, many more were wounded, and thousands were jailed. The massacre shocked the country, which was already facing an increasingly grim reality of political failure, runaway population growth, and economic decline.

Uncontrolled urbanization began to pose a major social problem in the 1970s, when annual population growth reached 3.4 percent. Between 1940 and 1970, 4.5 million Mexicans moved from rural areas into cities. By 1975 about 2,600 people a day were arriving in Mexico City. Unemployment increased, and malnutrition became commonplace, with over half the population severely undernourished. Cities were unable to house the massive influx of residents and urban slums grew unchecked. Netzahualcoyotl, a slum settlement near Mexico City, became one of the largest cities in the republic in the 1970s.

In an effort to undercut growing opposition, the government decreed wage increases and distributed land to some 9,000 peasants. In 1970 Luis Echeverria Alvarez became president; the former interior minister had been elected as the candidate of the PRI. During his six-year term Echeverria criticized the growing gap between rich and poor nations and tried to establish Mexico as a leader of developing countries around the world. He also adopted measures to reduce foreign control of the economy, and attempted to loosen the economic and cultural ties between Mexico and the United States. He urged the people of Mexico to stop emulating U.S. customs and business practices, and he negotiated economic accords with several Latin American nations, Canada, and the European Community (now called the European Union).

Echeverria made a point of appearing sympathetic to students and other protesters, calling on Mexicans of all classes to work together for social change and economic progress. In reality, the populist rhetoric of his administration was not matched by concrete action; upper-income Mexicans continued to benefit from the government’s economic policies while living conditions declined for poor and middle-income citizens.

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