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Atenco: From Local Battle to National and Global Cause

IMAGE: With Images of Insurgent Mexico by Tina Modotti

Part Two of a Series, Republished on the 3rd Anniversary of Mexico’s Atenco Struggle


By Maria Botey Pascual
A Narco News Classic

August 21, 2002

Questioned and booed for his treason on October 22, 2001, the mayor of San Salvador Atenco, instead of offering explanations for his silence – presumed by an angry public to have been bought – he and his municipal officials (including the police) ran from the town. Meanwhile, the Town Hall was taken over by the people. They closed it, later taking over the auditorium for the movement’s use, which they poetically called the Sanctuary of Resistance. Later, other towns affected disowned their communal land commissioners and their mayors for not having been on the side of the people, and substituted them with their own people.

As owners of the land, the ejidatarios (communal farmers) – many of whom were also active in the direct action part of the movement – met in assemblies and decided to promote a legal battle for a court injunction against the International Airport project. Their lawsuits were complimented by the constitutional challenges to the Texcoco airport offered by the government of Mexico City and those of Texcoco, Acolman and Atenco. Each alleged the violation of various constitutional articles governing municipal autonomy, property seizures, misuse of public funds, environmental damage, community planning and human displacement.

Of course, not all the neighbors within the affected towns agreed with the marches and blockades, but while some hoped for a court resolution, the resistance and popular power movement was growing in leaps and bounds, given the distrust of the fairness of Justice in the country and the continuous violations of the law by the state and federal governments (the demonstrators were violently put down on various occasions, and the neighbors found people working on the seized properties in spite of the existence of court orders prohibiting any work on the project until legal resolution of the lawsuits. This led the people to place the construction workers into custody and display them to the public, along with their “confiscated” vehicles which were used, as theater, in their marches.)

The development of the resistance was not easy, commented one of the leaders: “We had to work with the people to demonstrate to them, with unity and strength, that it is possible to confront the unjust decisions by authorities successfully. We had to confront divisions created by the government among the people. Up to the final hour the government was making payments and gifts to neighbors in exchange for a favorable attitude about the airport (a pair of cans of paint, bags of cement, some pesos), explaining the importance of not accepting these gifts or at least to do so without changing one’s attitude about the airport. We also had to learn to concentrate on the real enemy, leaving existing tensions between neighbors to the side for later.” And the attempted bribes to change opinion were gigantic. As another leader said, “If they offered me, as a delegate of the movement, a bribe of two million pesos (about $200,000 U.S. dollars) and a house, what amount did they offer the ejido commissioners or the mayors?”

Many of the neighbors recognized that in the nine months before the issuance of the decree they had to create a school of resistance and struggle, where they had learned principally to overcome their fear of the repressive police forces (some would say goodbye to their families before going out to march, knowing they could lose their lives) and of the dirty tactics of the government. They had learned to organize, to maintain unity and to establish links with other resistance groups in the country; to cultivate public speaking skills. The women took time to do all this, in many cases, with the opposition of their husbands and gossipy neighbors. The people who had never participated in the ejido commissions or any social organization awakened their own sleeping consciences. Above all, they learned that, faced with an injust action by the government and a state of law that has been imposed and strategically designed to keep the public submissive and in the dark that they could rebel and in fact they had to if they wanted to keep their dignity. As one communal farmer said, “Maybe if the government had not come to bother us directly, we would have remained as we were for so long, maybe fooled, maybe dedicated to our work without looking up, but they’ve already attacked us. We confronted them and now we are in the fight.”

From the beginning they understood that publicizing their problem and the reasons for their resistance to indifferent neighbors or those who were favorable to the Airport project, as web as to the rest of the country. That’s why, as the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land, as they quickly titled their movement (before that it was named the United Front Against the Airport), made certain to attend all the forums to which they were invited and participated with other civil organizations in their own protest marches, creating a national network of solidarity that ensured their success.

In the same spirit, many national groups with experience in resistance and confronting injustice came to Atenco. They supported the locals morally and materially and shared their strategies of struggle and their histories. One Atenco resident recalls the visit by the people of Tepoztlán, Morelos (another local fight that nationalized with the “We Are All tEpoZtLáN” slogan authored by EZLN spokesman Subcomandante Marcos in 1995), “who came in three buses at the very beginning of the fight and spoke about the dangers of repression, the possible deaths of compañeros and the dirty play of the government, recommending above all that we maintain our unity. In them, we saw their heroism and an example of how to beat the system, even under difficult circumstances. From the Francisco Villa Popular Front (one of the national organizations that local leaders say, along with the General Strike Committee of the national university, had an approach to organizing similar to their own) we learned the power of demonstrations as a pressure to make sure we are heard. From the National Teachers Union, we learned their discipline and coordination in the marches, the impeccability of their encampments and, once again, that unity was fundamental to our survival. From the Rural High Schools network (in Mexe, Hidalgo, in Amilcingo, Morelos and in Tenería in the State of México), we saw their guts, their combative and decisive style. From the General Strike Committee (CGH, in its Spanish initials) of the national university, we learned that public forums are very important to make the struggles known and unify them (citizens of Atenco also had gone to Monterey to protest the international economic summit there). From the Electric Workers Union, and those at the Euzkadi, Ford and Fertinal factories, we learned that the fight is not just of the farmers but included the three vectors of popular organization: farmers, workers, and students. We also had meetings more political organizations such as the Revolutionary Popular Front and the Independent Popular Movement, or with university students and teachers such as the unions of professors and workers at nearby Chapingo University – as well as the post-graduate students – from whom we received unconditional support and a space to conduct the dialogue (that had not been offered prior to the discovery of the secret decree authorizing the land-takings for the Airport in the National Archives), and from them we learned the word “inclusive,” that we should not disparage any form of struggle to achieve the demands of the people. Of course, the National Zapatista Liberation Front (FZLN) came and spoke to us about the low-intensity warfare that could fall upon us and they shared their pain as our brothers and sisters. From them we learned that every struggle of peasant farmers is a Zapatista struggle, because it is a fight for land and identity and dignity.”

Of course, international organizations that work in México also arrived, as did individual people from foreign lands who came to understand the struggle and offer support. That fact was used by the system to criminalize the struggle, accusing it of being manipulated by outside agitators (an argument they had to contend with from the beginning after accusations by their own mayor) because Power doesn’t like solidarity to be globalized. And they asked: Are only politicians and businessmen allowed to have outside advice? Isn’t the government of Vicente Fox a clear example of foreign manipulation, including monetary?

The People’s Front in Defense of the Land organized huge demonstrations that, for parts of the struggle, were held daily. Important marches were held on November 14, 2001, and caused an international stir due to the beatings that dozens of men, women and children received from the police as they entered Mexico City. In spite of that, more than a thousand farmers arrived at the Zócalo (Mexico City’s huge public square), with machetes in hand, where thousands of members of civil organizations that supported them awaited, while those who had remained in the towns affected by the airport went out, indignantly, to block the highway in protest of the police aggressions and to ask for the liberation of those arrested, who were freed some hours later.

Six days later they held a local march from Ixtapan to the state attorney general’s office in Texcoco, in defiance of the police attacks that were already occurring against their towns. There was also the constant psychological pressure of low-flying surveillance helicopters over their lands. Coinciding with the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution – “which continues because the abuses by power and injustice continue” – they demanded the cancellation of arrest warrants against some of those opposed to the airport, as well as revocation of the land-taking decree. It was in those days that the Indigenous National Congress joined the fight of the original peoples of the lands of the Texcoco region and participated with them over a period of many months.

On November 28, 2001, they walked from the statue of the Angel of Independence in México City to the Zocalo against the decree and the repression, receiving the solidarity of the passers-by. Already, many more Mexicans understood the justness of their cause, in spite of the manipulations by the media. In early December they joined the grand march of the teachers union to the National Congress, in rejection of the economic policy, fiscal reform, education policies and the construction of the new airport.

Days later, the tension grew with some anonymous calls that alerted the townspeople to the possible entrance by the Army into the expropriated zone on January First, while Fox insisted that the Airport decision had already been made in a responsible manner and that it would be built (later it would be seen, much more clearly, that the necessary studies had not been made but that there had been many pressures by economic interests to locate the airport in the State of Mexico). Communal farmers and neighbors constructed more fences and barricades in the towns to impede the entrance of “outside interests,” police forces or construction equipment. Atenco declared itself a “municipality in rebellion” and disowned the town, state and federal authorities “because they don’t represent the interests of the people.” And they established a “maximum alert” awaiting the beginning of construction last January.

But the Army never entered and on January 23rd, more than 2,500 farmers marched to Toluca (the state capital) trying, again, to discuss the issue with the governor. There, they were welcomed by thousands of students and sympathizers with their cause, but also by 11,000 police officers. They were not beaten but neither did they obtain a meeting with Governor Arturo Montiel. They did, though, receive new threats from the state attorney general to prosecute those who would not conform with the airport plans.

On February 5th they accompanied the unionized workers at the Euzkadi and Ford factories in their protest over layoffs and from there the frequency of the marches, together with different social organizations throughout the country in favor of social justice (the solidarity network spread like wildfire), while their participation in public forums and meetings with other communities harmed by the seizures that are part of Plan Puebla Panamá also increased. A colorful march was held in April on the anniversary of the assassination of Emilano Zapata, the grand fighter of the Revolution “who, yes, is behind this movement” they said when they were accused of being led by outside agitators.

What began as seeking a solution face to face (but never obtained) with state Governor Arturo Montiel, ended in the cancellation of the airport project in Texcoco but not of the struggle itself. As many said after the cancellation, “the struggle goes on and on,” and now the solidarity network is strengthened and conscience has grown.

In early July, after almost nine months of conflict, the non-conforming affected peoples had already been pressured psychologically, beaten, threatened with prison and death, and disqualified many times by the government: Their participants (“who are against progress”), their struggle (“manipulated and criminal”), their lands (“that were unproductive”), their people (“uneducated”) and their traditions (“that don’t exist”). They had also been infiltrated, approached with bribe offers and attempts to divide and confuse them. For example, rumors were spread that the members of the Front had received money and were going to abandon the town as soon as things got difficult.

On the road to the town of Teotihuacan, where the governor of the state was found one day, the government tried to deliver a knockout punch: Arresting the leaders and ending the movement with a treasonous ambush – with police jumping out of cornfields and infiltrations by those police forces among the demonstrators – during which the forces of repression acted brutally and violent (and with real lead bullets, in addition to the teargas) against a relatively small group of demonstrators. They arrested more than a dozen communal farmers accusing them of robbery against the government, rioting, attacks on the roads and highways, violence, vandalism and kidnapping in a conflict that left eight people hospitalized and others wounded.

But if the movement had seemed tired after months of struggle, the affected peoples rapidly demonstrated that they were united as never before. Thousands of neighbors angrily blockaded roads and highways, they burned vehicles, they took over soft-drink trucks (the contents were used during those days as part of the Popular Kitchen that fed all the invitees), they rioted with whatever they could find or make (including some improvised Molotov cocktails). Then, in the offices of the state attorney general, they took various police officers and workers hostage with the goal of trading them for the compañeros who had been arrested. By night they dug more trenches and intensified the vigilance throughout the region due to a threat of invasion by the Federal Preventive Police (PFP, in its Spanish initials, who in fact had cordoned off the entire region together with the Armed Forces), while various social organizations throughout the country began caravans toward Atenco and threatened to shut down the highways in their own respective states.

These were days of great tension that dominated the pages of the press and the TV news, national and international, while México awaited the next visit of the Pope and his mediatic wave, adding yet another note of suspense to the matter and the risk that the conflict would extend to the papal visit. On one side, there were declarations of solidarity from throughout the nation. On the other, the call to apply an iron fist to the “rebels.” There was a fierce debate over which side was responsible for the collapse of the rule of law (that, in fact, had been broken from the beginning when the affected peoples were denied information about the plans for their land and the violation of municipal authority over land use, in a country where, in every way, the application of justice depends on too many occasions on who has the economic resources or influence, and where the powerful engage in every kind of dirty play to obtain what they want). And the continued determination of the communal farmers to refuse to sell their lands, although “curiously” the offered price-per-meter was raised and better compensation was offered in the form of housing, jobs and education. But none of that succeeded in convincing the farmers to sell the land and to cease the demand for cancellation of the eminent domain decree, while they continued to seek a direct dialogue with the federal government.

In spite of the fact that by Friday, July 12th, the President of the Nation continued to state publicly that the Airport plan would not be detained but that he was ready to dialogue, the project began to tumble three days later with some curious statements to CNN. That’s when, at the last minute, the press office of the President of the Republic placed a condition on reporters that nobody ask Vicente Fox about Atenco, but Fox tripped on his own words and ended up saying that there were other alternative places to construct the airport and that nobody’s rights would be violated (he was later corrected by his own Interior Minister Santiago Creel, and “in private,” Fox himself ended up saying that he did not know of any other options).

But if there was still any possibility in favor of the greedy businessmen and government, which continued in these days claiming that it had negotiated the airport deal with various local representatives – and this enraged the inhabitants of the region even more, who declared that any such individuals did not represent the people and that this was another dirty move by the authorities – the situation became more difficult still. One of the protesters, beaten and arrested, had died. He had been the last one still in the hospital and he slipped into a coma. But not only that, the State Government also tried by all means and with tremendous cynicism to falsely convince the public that the deceased did not even have any land at stake (it was in the name of his wife), and that he had been forced to participate in the movement against his will and he died because he did not tell the hospital that he had diabetes. They said that his diabetes killed him, in spite of the fact that the doctors had declared that he had suffered a cranial fracture as the cause of death.

This death coincided with the first and only meeting between the townspeople and the federal government, that after various fits and starts occurred in the National Archives on July 24th and not in the Chapingo University campus near Atenco as the farmers had wanted. At this meeting, the director of development for the new airport and negotiator for the federal authorities, Curi Pérez Fernández, had to listen to the anger expressed by the farmers over the death of their compañero. They characterized it as an assassination by the government and once again stated their absolute opposition to the airport, while protestors chanted outside the building: “Enrique Espinoza, Your Death Was Not In Vain.” They also chanted, as they had for months, “The Land Grows Beans, not Hotels or Planes,” and “Zapata Lives, the Fight Continues,” and the internationally-known “When the People Rise Up, for Bread, Freedom and Land, the Powerful Tremble from the Coast to the Mountain!” Responding to the wide popular support for the justness of their cause throughout the country – in spite of the the blockades and hostages taken by the movement, in spite of the insistence by the state attorney general that outside agitators and even foreign terrorist groups had “sought to create a martyr” – and at the risk that, everybody knew by then, the conflict was on the verge of spilling over nationwide.

The death and burial of one of their compañeros (on seized lands, because with the airport they would even lose their dead) unified the opponents and other affected towns even more, including sectors that until then had remained apart from the movement. They met at the People’s Front for Defense of the Land in the First National Peasant Farmers Gathering in San Salvador Atenco, and counted with the presence of more than 100 civil organizations of the country including delegates from Central America. When all was added up, it remained clear that the Texcoco Airport could only be built by imprisoning and over the dead bodies of the people of the region, since the farmers had remained firm in their determination to fight unto the death if necessary.

While some sectors of the media reported on the problems of soil and climate inherent in an airport in the Texcoco area, pointing to better conditions existing in another site (Tizayuca, in the state of Hidalgo) – the economic interests thus confirmed that the Texcoco site was not as optimal as they had portrayed it to be – or proposing other possibilities, the government and the entire country was riveted, at the end of July, in the visit (a giant media show that also created other controversies) of the maximum authority of the Catholic Church, to whom the farmers of Atenco sent a letter the summed up the conflict in their words. It said:

“...In the entire world very profound changes attack human dignity. Under false pretenses our governments tell us of well-being and progress for our peoples that in reality are just words that paint over the extreme poverty that they are forcing upon us. And when we raise our voices to denounce the injustices, we get indifference and repression by the State, for the sole reason that we defend our rights and our dignity…”

“…The eminent domain decree is illegal and illegitimate, because we were never informed nor consulted. The authorities have treated us and our land as merchandise, forgetting that we have identity, history, culture and traditions that are not for sale nor subject to the interests of a few mercenaries…”

“…The People’s Front in the Defense of the Land asks you to investigate our situation and declare yourself in favor of our cause, which is right and just, because our believes are as sacred as our lands and our lands are our lives.”

Although the dilemma that the resistance movement had caused the federal government had nothing to do with the Pope’s visit, it was during the few hours of His visit that President Vicente Fox announced the cancellation of the Texcoco Airport Project. The announcement took the opponents by surprise, ready as they had been during months of conflict, to fight. And it provoked shameful declarations by those who had economic interests in the project, such as the Bishop of Ecatepec, who said that whether it took one death or hundreds, the airport should have been built.

Their rebellion against authority, based on the rightness of their cause, brought them a triumph that they won for themselves. With intelligence and integrity they took to the streets, they knew how to convince the nation of the reasons for their fight and demonstrated that the abuses of those who believe that they can dominate the world to their tastes and for their particular interests with money and prepotency can be defeated with dignity. And this has given courage to other communities that suffer similar problems.

But beyond experiencing the force of unity and practicing People Power, and of making decisions in public assembly, they demanded more than ever before that their true representatives must be on the side of the people. They realized, for example, that by kicking the police out of town and organizing their own self-vigilance for the town that public safety increased, as crime and drug addiction decreased, according to their own observations. The extraordinary positive experience, and the disappointment in all the political parties “who during this struggle only came near us to forward their own interests” has now led Atenco to declare itself an Autonomous Municipality (in the style of the Zapatistas of Chiapas). They are ready to negotiate the creation of a Town Council – a formula that Mexican Law provides for in cases of political collapse – when and only when they are permitted to choose its members. Although the mayor has recently tried to return, the townspeople have rejected him: They continue to ban him from Town Hall.

The farmers have stressed more than once, and now more than ever, that, yes, they want progress, but a progress that corresponds to the necessities of each community as expressed by its own population. With this challenge they have already held the first work meeting with the academics of Chapingo University, for the elaboration of a development plan for the region that includes agricultural stimulation, water treatment, the creation of new educational centers, promotion of artisan crafts, commercial modernization, public services and industry, as well as a plan for protection and conservation of natural areas, and their rights that these demands be attended to by the corresponding authorities.

The chant is now “Atenco Lives, the Fight Continues,” and “The Voice of the Machetes Could Do More than the Dollars.” On August 14th, the farmers of the Texcoco area demonstrated, once again, in the national capital, accompanied by dozens of civil organizations and with machetes in hand, to demand that the federal government cancel the prosecutions of all the opponents, especially a dozen farmers, the cancellation of arrest warrants against various members of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land and damages to be paid to the family of the fallen comrade who had been beaten by the police.

It’s that in Atenco, they are conscious that if the federal government changed its mind regarding the airport, it happened because it wanted to toss the hot potato that was at the point of provoking a national extension of the conflict. But that the attacks by the selfish national and international businessmen, protected by the government, could come again in a more subtle manner if the people let down their guard. The farmers continue standing on their feet in struggle to support “all the just causes that defend the dignity of the people and of México.” Concretely, they are preparing to combat the Plan Puebla Panamá, which is already affecting communities in various regions of the country. And for this they already count with a national network of civil organizations stronger and more vigorous than before.

Maria Botey Pascual is the author of “A la recerca d’El Quemado” (“In Search of Burnt Mountain”) (2002, Columna Press, Barcelona), has been a correspondent for the Mexican daily Por Esto!, and participant in the journalistic coverage by Narco News of the 2001 Zapatista Caravan. She reported this story from San Salvador Atenco.

Read Part I: How the Victory at Atenco Was Won

Watch the Documentary ¡Tierra si! ¡Aviones no! (Land Yes! Airplanes No!) in Salón Chingón

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