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Citizen Action in the Americas
Machetes Undercut Plans for Mexico’s International Airport
by John Ross | July 24, 2002
[ Editors’ preface ]
The grassroots movement to block the new international airport in the Valley of Mexico has been building a head of steam since last Oct. 22, when Mexican President Vicente Fox declared the expropriation of 15,000 acres for the $2.5 billion project.
Infuriated by the threat of seizure of their ancestral turf, a few hundred Nahua Indian farmers picked up their machetes and called for the formation of a people’s front to defend the land, instigating a struggle that achieved the astonishing result of the president’s offer this July to reconsider the location.
Leading the dissidence is the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land, based in the community of San Salvador Atenco, one of 13 ejidos (trust lands organized as rural production units) at the slated airport site, which is located on the mostly dried-up lake beds east of the nation’s capital.
The Atenquenses, or residents of Atenco, stand to lose 80% of their corn-growing and salt-harvesting properties in what was once Lake Texcoco, the fabled Shangri-La of the Aztec poet-king Nezahualcoyotl.
Over the months since the expropriation order, the campesinos of Atenco, who insist their machetes are work tools and not weapons, have become the darlings of protest marches from Mexico City to Monterrey, earning the distinction of creating the number one social conflict occuring under the Fox administration.
Crashing their broad field knives together like swords or scraping them along sidewalks to create the most exasperating sound in town, the photogenic macheteros are now the focal point of countless demonstrations.
On International Workers’ Day last May 1, 18 U.S. students from Evergreen College in Washington state who marched in solidarity with the farmers, were unceremoniously booted out of the country for taking sides in a domestic political dispute.
Despite their high profile, the Atenquenses got scant response from the administration during most of the months of unrest, and their frustration seethed.
In April, the campesinos took six local police agents hostage, stripping them of their revolvers and R-15 automatic weapons.
In June, a team of topographers mapping ejido lands was captured and paraded at machete-point to the Supreme Court of Mexico, which had barred all preparatory work on the airport until it could determine the legality of Fox’s expropriation order.
At a recent demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy, the furious farmers chopped up the Stars and Stripes with their famous machetes, accusing U.S. President George W. Bush of encouraging the expropriation.
On July 2, they burst into Mexico City’s still-operating airport, waving their broad blades and frightening passengers already intimidated by the prospect of flying in the midst of Bush’s terror war.
Then on July 11, the macheteros of San Salvador Atenco held yet another demonstration to impress their resolute opposition upon Mexico state Gov. Arturo Montiel, an airport champion. This time, a police riot squad waded into the crowd, swinging truncheons and firing off tear gas canisters. Fourteen protesters were arrested, including Peoples Front for the Defense of the Land leader Ignacio Del Valle. Thirty-three people were sent to the hospital, three of whom hovered between life and death for days.
Word of the clash spread throughout the ejido like wildfire, and the farmers, their organization honed by months of struggle, quickly responded. Thirteen hostages, including half a dozen law enforcement officials, were locked up in the municipal auditorium.
Taking advantage of Atenco’s strategic location at the side of an industrial highway, the ejidatarios set up roadblocks that stalled interstate traffic for days, seizing trailer trucks and converting them into barricades. Two Coca-Cola transports were relieved of their cargo, and the pop bottles were emptied out and refilled with gasoline to stockpile hundreds of Molotov cocktails.
A pair of police cars were set on fire and the angry campesinos threatened to roast their hostages alive if the ejido was attacked.
For Mexico’s two-headed TV monopoly, the specter of violence filled a news hole between the World Cup and the imminent arrival of Pope John Paul II. Both TV Azteca and Televisa rushed in crews for extended prime-time coverage and 24-hour updates, helping transform a local flare-up into national and international headlines. Front-page photos of the machete-wielding farmers circled the globe.
Against sensational images of flaming police cars and frightened hostages, the TV giants sounded a shrill call to Fox to intervene and restore law and order. But listeners’ polls during the two nights of rioting favored the farmers.
As an offshoot, farming and fishing communities in the far-flung states of Yucatan, Hidalgo, and Chihuahua have taken up the machete as the symbol of their ire, waving them around at their demonstrations.
By July 13, tensions over Atenco were taut as piano wire. Helicopters chop-chopped through the sky above the ejido, and the farmers responded by firing off ornamental cannons utilized in annual Cinco de Mayo reenactments of the 1862 Battle of Puebla.
Boys on bicycles circled the Atenco perimeter to ward off infiltrators, and two state officials masquerading as reporters were captured. A leader of the Peoples Front for the Defense of the Land, David Pajaro, pulled out a knife and threatened to cut off reporters’ ears.
Meanwhile, 400 Federal Preventive Police backed up by army troops moved into position around the ejido. In response, caravans of supporters from Mexico City poured in to set up a protective "peace" cordon between the farmers and the security forces.
The Atenquenses called for negotiations with the federal government to halt the airport plans. Refusing to talk with state authorities, the representatives of the community announced they wanted a congressional delegation and handpicked mediators to take part in the proposed parley.
With confrontation looming, Interior Secretary Santiago Creel summoned the Defense minister, the head of the CISEN national intelligence agency, and the nation’s attorney general to an all-day huddle.
At nightfall, the meeting moved to Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. At issue in this sticky situation was whether Fox–Mexico’s first president ever chosen from the ranks of the opposition–would unleash forces of repression and co-optation upon protesters, as so often had his predecessors in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that controlled the presidency for 71 years.
Would Fox fall upon Atenco "like Sharon upon Jenin?" writer Jaime Aviles worried. Others, such as agrarian rebellion expert Carlos Montemayor, saw the flashpoint as a test of Fox’s approach to applying his grandiose Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP) development scheme in southern Mexico. If the president was heavy-handed with Atenco, that would set the tone for forced removal of Indians and farmers who resist the PPP and "the questionable benefits of modernization" it proffers, Montemayor noted.
Finally, in the wee hours of July 14, Fox decided that going down the road of repression would put a curse on his airport that would be hard to shake, and he called off the troops. Indeed, there was still room for negotiation, he reasoned: The Texcoco airport could be reconfigured to avoid Atenco (although the town graveyard might butt headstones with a busy runway); the old airport could be extended into surrounding garbage fields; even the formerly rejected airport site in adjacent Hidalgo state was still available.
Tensions eased enough to result in the release of state-held prisoners in exchange for the hostages. Most everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief.
But Fox’s conciliatory attitude disgruntled some of the business leaders who helped elect him and for whom, he is proud to say, he toils. In their eyes, the image of lawless marauders rattling machetes, torching cop cars, taking hostages, and getting what they wanted, was an unacceptable one and would make Mexico the Typhoid Mary of international investors.
"This was a very bad message. These pictures were broadcast to the whole world," said a frowning Francisco Schutte, director of the National Real Estate Association, whose members are poised to make a bundle on the new airport.
The head of the nation’s most elite business confederation chimed in: "We cannot do business this way. A handful of subversives cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress," bemoaned Jorge Espina, president of the COPARMEX.
Local Discontent Breeds on Previous Unrest
The first bids on the airport master plan were to have been let July 8, but have been postponed twice, undoubtedly to the chagrin of the 25 corporations vying for the facility’s juicy architectural and engineering contracts, 16 of them transnationals, including Bechtel and Shell.
At the root of the farmers’ discontent is the 70 cents the Fox administration offered per square meter to the 13 ejidos in the expropriation area. Even those ejidos that generally agree on expropriation (10 out of the 13) are holding out for Fox to sweeten the deal. Meanwhile, developed land surrounding the airport site, reportedly owned by Mexico state political bosses, is selling for $30 to $100 a square meter.
The macheteros account for less than half of the 1,500 affected ejidatarios. Another faction in Atenco hired high-powered attorney Ignacio Burgoa, nicknamed the "King of the Injunction," and secured a restraining order to halt all airport work until the Supreme Court decides if the expropriation is constitutional. The once-postponed decision is now set for Aug. 16, a date that will mark a milestone in the machete movement.
Through the months, campesino defense leader Del Valle and his 22-year-old daughter America, two of the most visible heads in the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land, have insisted that "the land is not for sale," no matter if Fox raises the price sky-high.
The people’s front has only one demand, and that is cancellation of the expropriation, a position that seems to nullify prospects for the negotiation they want even before any talks commence.
Mexico state’s PRI Gov. Montiel charges outside agitators are behind Atenco hard-liners and their uprising, suggesting that financing for the macheteros comes from Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leader of the left-center Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), and/or from an investment group in the area of the competing airport site of Hidalgo.
Montiel’s Secretary of Government Manuel Cadena accuses subversives of stirring up the revolt. He cites the Peruvian Maoist-influenced guerrilla Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, as a possible culprit.
While such speculation smacks of unfounded discreditation tactics, in fact, the Atenquenses’ struggle has attracted some ultra-left sympathizers. For example, this reporter recently received a communiqué from the Popular Revolutionary Army-Democratic Tendency, pledging its armed militants would defend the ejido against government attack.
Reportedly sighted during the Atenco fireworks this month were firebrand General Strike Council leaders Mario "El Gato" Benitez and Alejandro "El Mosh" Echeverria, whose intransigent opposition to National University (UNAM) concessions during a 10-month student strike that ended in 2000 managed to turn near victory into abject defeat.
But support from moderate-left urban organizers, the national Barzon farm-aid movement, and Mexican civil society’s Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN) has been strong enough to gain declarations of solidarity for the campesinos’ cause from nongovernmental organizations, not only in south and central Mexico, but as far away as the U.S.-Mexico border and in Europe.
For his part, Atenco leader Del Valle is a registered member of the PRI, not surprisingly since his ejido has been PRI domain since gaining its land in 1929, the year the PRI’s predecessor party was born. Yet he is motivated by the model of the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) struggle, which venerates revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata. The EZLN’s 1994 armed revolt in the state of Chiapas and pursuant peace talks with the federal government for indigenous autonomy showed Del Valle that "whatever happened in Chiapas could happen here," he says. "The Zapatistas are our model and our inspiration."
John Ross is a veteran Mexico reporter whose most recent book, The War Against Oblivion chronicles the Zapatistas’ eight-year saga.
Sources for more information:
Farmers Prepared to Put Lives on Line | Los Angeles Times , July 17, 2002
Protest Ends with Hostages Free | Washington Post , July 16, 2002
Solution Applauded on All Sides | Dallas Morning News , July 16, 2002
Victory Goes to the Protesters | Los Angeles Times , July 16, 2002
Government Sticks to its Guns on Airport | Financial Times , July 16, 2002
Prisoner Release Lifts Hopes of Accord | New York Times , July 15, 2002
Ten Hostages Taken by Airport Protesters | AP/ Dallas Morning News , July 12, 2002
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Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
John Ross, "Machetes Undercut Plans for Mexico’s International Airport," Americas Program Chronicle (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, July 24, 2002).