|Central American University - UCA
Number 253 | Agosto 2002
Atenco: Machetes Challenge Neoliberalism
The Atenco peasant farmer’s rebelliousness and love of the land forced President Fox to change course, proving that eople can challenge and even defeat money’s power with the power and flash of machetes.
It has been clear for several years now that Mexico City’s airport can no longer handle air traffic for the city, one of the world’s most populous. And people have been drawing up projects to build a new terminal for years. Two of these appeared to be the most viable: one near Lake Texcoco, in the state of Mexico, and the other in Tizayuca, in the state of Hidalgo. The first would entirely replace the current airport, which would then be closed; the second would handle international flights, while national flights would continue to operate out of the current airport.
The debate over the site of the new airport soon became an exclusive battle between two powerful economic groups poised to benefit mightily, and the fight grew dirty and intense. What the inhabitants of the areas thought about the plans, however, did not appear to be on anyone’s agenda.
Expropriation and a In the second half of 2001, the balance tilted towards the Texcoco project. Mexico City’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) government expressed its opposition to the plan, given that the airport posed various environmental and urban planning-related problems that would affect the city. The federal government insisted that the choice had been made on purely technical grounds, although several academic specialists challenged this assertion.
ridiculous compensation offer
To carry out the project, the government decided to expropriate the land belonging to several agrarian communities, or ejidos, where the new airport was to be built. Three municipalities of the state of Mexico were affected by President Fox’s decree to expropriate decree. Some 70% of the affected land was in the municipality of San Salvador Atenco, 25% in Texcoco and 5% in Chimualhuacán. Atenco has a population of some 30,000 inhabitants, a high urban growth rate and a severe lack of services. The population’s main source of income comes from agricultural production, mostly corn and beans. Yields are low, due to the region’s deteriorated land and heavily saline water. The irrigated land, where alfalfa is grown, is in private hands.
The decree affected several ejidos in these three municipalities. Those standing to lose the most land to the airport project were Atenco (whose lands would make up 20% of the project), Santa Isabel Ixtapa (23.2%) and Nexquipayac (16.5%). The square-meter price offered to compensate the affected landowners was more than offensive: 25 pesos, or around US$2.50, for irrigated land and 7 pesos or $0.70 for non-irrigated land.
Legal struggle: Since the authorities had not taken into account the inhabitants of the area where the airport was to be built, discontent ran strong. The residents channeled it in two ways. First, they used the legal route, filing 11 appeals against the expropriation. Three municipalities—including Atenco and Texcoco—plus the Federal District also filed constitutional appeals with the Supreme Court for usurping their authority, since the Constitution establishes that municipalities have the right to authorize the use of their land and participate in regional development planning.
Appeals and challenges
The media tried to minimize the protest, noting that the ejidos opposed to the project represented only 25% of those affected by the decree. But in fact, these ejidos held over half the land required for the new airport and without it, the project could not go forward. By the end of August 2001, 5 of the 11 appeals had been accepted.
It is important to note that several of the affected ejidos would virtually disappear if the airport were built. San Salvador Atenco and five other ejidos would lose some 80% of their land, although some of the others stood to lose only around 20%. For those most affected, including Atenco, accepting the expropriation meant renouncing the life of their communities. But the stakes were high for the other side too, as the authorities’ actions showed. Texcoco’s mayor charged that both the federal government (with the National Action Party, or PAN, in power) and the state government (run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) were harassing the town for having filed a constitutional appeal against the expropriations.
Taking the struggle to the streetsIn addition to the legal route, many inhabitants of the communities affected by the decree decided to build a protest movement, which gradually took the form of an organized front to defend the land. In response to the government’s refusal to pay attention to them, the movement resorted to several acts of rebellion. In October 2001, dozens of ejido members blocked a major road leading to the municipal seat of Texcoco.
The next month, brandishing their machetes, they marched to the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square. Federal District police tried to stop them, but given the risk of a bloody confrontation, let them pass. At the end of the year, 3,000 ejido members from Atenco and Texcoco demonstrated in front of the state of Mexico’s government offices. At the beginning of 2002, they marched to the state capital to demand that the PRI governor rescind the decree, stop the harassment and remove from office municipal officials they accused of having betrayed the people’s cause.
The sparks of Atenco’s machetesThe response was to criminalize the movement. The state government got arrest warrants against Atenco’s leaders, but these had no effect: the movement was growing beyond its borders. Ejido members from Atenco participated in the protest marches against neoliberal globalization at the Monterrey summit, and wherever social protests took place over the following months people from Atenco were there offering their support. Wherever they went, they brought their machetes, using their traditional tools of work as a symbol of their struggle.
In February 2002, they marched to Mexico City again. By that point, their efforts to build alliances had borne fruit and students and workers accompanied them. They intended to march to the presidential residence to invite President Fox to a public debate on the expropriation of their land, but the police did not let them pass. They continued to set up roadblocks over the following months, especially after the date for bidding on the airport’s master plan was announced. They demanded that not a single step be taken before the Supreme Court issued its decision, and insisted that they would not sell their land.
In June 2002, they confiscated four vehicles and detained eleven electricity company employees who were surveying their land. They also blocked work to appraise their land. And again they called on President Fox to take part in a public debate. On July 8, they marched to the Mexico City airport. Fearing that they would block the runways, the Federal Preventive Police refused to let them pass. In the media, businesspeople and politicians complained that the farmers were allowed to march with their threatening machetes, which they struck against the pavement to make sparks.
"Social rage"On July 11, Atenco’s ejido members were on their way to participate in an event organized by the governor of the state of Mexico when the state police prevented them from going; a confrontation ensued that left several people wounded, including one from Atenco in serious condition. The police detained the movement’s leaders. In response, the peasants destroyed several patrol cars and other vehicles and held several public officials hostage, demanding that their colleagues be freed. That night tensions escalated as the community members dug in. When they blocked a major road, they were besieged immediately by state police, the Federal Preventive Police and the Army.
The farmers declared that they were prepared for anything, even death, but would not sell their land. The magazine Proceso narrated the events under the title "Social Rage." The pro-business press unleashed their pens against the farmers, denouncing them as violent. General Gallardo, who had criticized corruption and human rights abuses in the army and was recently freed after many years in prison on trumped-up charges, denounced police provocation against the Atenco peasants by order of the government of the state of Mexico. He and several other observers concurred that the governor himself had ordered the repression against them and the detention of their leaders.
Demanding a hard hand All of the groups that had received the support of Atenco’s people during the formation of their movement now mobilized in their defense. Workers, peasant farmers, poor urban inhabitants, students and teachers all participated. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas called on civil society to support them. Several organizations prepared a caravan to break through the armed forces siege to bring in food and medicine.
against "hidden hands
The television tried to present this alliance with the broader social movement as evidence of "hidden hands" manipulating the farmers, while the attorney general of the state of Mexico went so far as to claim that foreign subversives and guerrillas had been in Atenco. The ruling class again repeated the tired old saw it invariably drags out to disqualify any social protest, interpreting it as the result of foreign influence, as if the people had no reasons of their own. Protagonists are denigrated by supposing them incapable of thinking and acting on their own, that they must be manipulated by "hidden interests." The dominant classes called on the government to use a hard hand, arguing that the EZLN would have caused fewer headaches if the government had annihilated it in the early days of January 1994.
The people from Atenco Tensions increased along with danger that the conflict would escalate even further. The attorney general of the state of Mexico refused to free the detained farmers and pressed charges against them. The federal government expressed its willingness to seek a non-violent solution, but PRI authorities in the state of Mexico were determined not to give in. When the federal government declared that the problem was under the authority of the state of Mexico, the people from Atenco refused to deal with state authorities and called instead for direct talks with the President, since the whole conflict grew out of his expropriation decree. The state authorities later agreed to free the detained farmers provisionally on bail, but refused to drop charges against them.
seek talks with Fox
The people of Atenco freed their hostages and suspended their roadblocks, but demanded that all charges against their leaders be dropped. They also proposed intermediation by three prominent figures: former bishop of Chiapas Samuel Ruiz, General Gallardo and social activist Rosario Ibarra, leader of the Eureka group on political disappearances. The federal government rejected this proposal and offered to deal directly with those "really" affected, letting it be understood that it would not accept the participation of the movement’s allies.
The PAN’s general secretary blamed state of Mexico authorities for the violence. The mayor of the Federal District, the PRD’s López Obrador, proposed a truce and the PRD itself expressed solidarity with the people of Atenco. The PRI cynically complained that negotiations were taking place "outside the law," although PRI leaders have historically been experts in the art of bending the law to smash any dissidence and benefit their own members and allies. The PRI complained that "delinquents" had been freed, neglecting the fact that criminals on the scale of Cabal Peniche and other big businesspeople who have defrauded the nation of millions of dollars, in complicity with the PRI, remain free.
Mr. President, would you sell your ranch for 70 cents a meter?PAN members and several leading businesspeople also expressed their discontent, criticizing the government for letting itself be pressured on issues that had already been decided. They feared that the "bad example" would spread and undermine other projects.
The federal government had to recognize that it could not build an airport if it had to use arms to guard it from protesters. President Fox said that abiding by the rule of law did not mean closing the door to dialogue, that both were compatible objectives, and that solutions within the framework of the law could be found. In a CNN interview in which Fox chose not to talk about the Atenco case, he was asked if he would sell his ranch for $0.70 a square meter.
Fox announced that other options for the new airport were being studied and promised he would not violate anyone’s rights. The government secretary denied that the government was negotiating the rule of law, arguing that the best way to encourage compliance with the law was not through force but rather through reason and dialogue.
The federal government offered to reconsider the compensation price and provide land in other areas to people determined to continue working as farmers, declaring that in the spirit of tolerance it would examine all possible alternatives for reaching an agreement. López Obrador praised Fox’s capacity to rectify the government’s mistakes. The PRD called on the government to find other terrain for the airport, while the PRI demanded that the investors be prioritized.
Conflict in CongressIn Congress, the conflict divided the legislators. The PRD, Labor Party and Green Party demanded the government act in a manner congruent with the dialogue it had offered. The PAN came out in the President’s defense, while the PRI defended the governor of the state of Mexico. Many believed that the solution lay in renegotiating the amount of compensation. The PAN maintained that the movement was infiltrated by outside provocateurs, echoing the secretary of communications and transport’s charges that the resistance was manipulated and the conflict a political one designed to put the government to the test and create problems for it.
PAN Senator Diego Fernández de Cevallos lamented that the poor had to use the language of machetes, emphasizing that there was nothing wrong with the rich doing business, but that it was inexcusable that the poor have to use violence. While private enterprise harshly criticized the government for choosing to talk with the protesters rather than repress them, the pilots’ union applauded Fox’s decision to avoid another massacre like the 1968 massacre of Tlatelolco.
Prison for the leadersThe charges against the movement’s leaders continued their course in the state of Mexico, while there too, the movement was accused of being infiltrated by outsiders. The ejido members demanded that all the slanderous incriminations stop. A judge issued a warrant for several farmers from Atenco to face charges for having confronted the police. Others feared they would be next.
Atenco’s residents, who were meeting constantly, demanded that the state attorney general drop the charges. The response was a new warrant to pick up farmers who had been freed on bail.
First victory: Although the government of the state of Mexico had mounted the repression to crush the movement, it continued to grow stronger. The Pope’s upcoming visit to Mexico made the federal government fear that the conflict would escalate and have negative repercussions on the country’s international image. This was no doubt one motive behind the government’s decision to agree to talks in an effort to defuse the extreme tension. The people from Atenco, who had demonstrated that they were ready for everything, even death, took this as a victory: they had overcome the repression. Another important achievement in this stage was overcoming their own internal divisions.
Dialogue, not repression
Some 7,000 people led by the ejido farmers marched to the President’s residence, and this time were received. Among their demands was that the expropriation decree be rescinded, that the federal government engage in direct talks to resolve the problem, that the arrested leaders be unconditionally freed, and that the police be withdrawn from the conflict area. Most important, above all these demands, the people of Atenco insisted that they would not sell at any price, and were not going to negotiate over money.
The movement proposed a public dialogue with the presence of the media, and a commission of 30 ejido members, 10 of whom would be seated at the table to speak. They announced that the People’s Front to Defend the Land would also have 10 advisers, and proposed that the talks be held in the Emiliano Zapata auditorium of the Autonomous University of Chapingo at 5:00 on the afternoon of July 17.
The government aims to divideOnce the extreme tension was defused, the political game continued. The government expressed its willingness to talk but in fact sought out only groups willing to sell in order to negotiate the price, while slighting or ignoring the groups that remained unwilling to sell at any price. The government secretary said that the government would talk openly, with no cards under the table, and wanted to know the feeling of the majority of the communities. Ten representatives of the 13 communities that would be affected by the expropriation agreed to talk on the government’s terms. But the people of Atenco were not among them, since they remained determined not to sell.
Around this time, the government official in charge of the project to build the new airport stepped up the pressure, arguing that if the airport were not built in Texcoco it might not be built during Fox’s term. Although everyone knew the work would mainly benefit businesses tied to the powerful Atlacomulco political-economic group of the state of Mexico as well as foreign capital, the ejido members were offered a share in it.
The people from Atenco waited for the government’s representatives at the place and time they had proposed, but no one showed up. The movement’s leaders decided not to make too much of the government’s absence, attributing it to the fact that this was a moment of reflection for the government. They also announced that if the federal government did not respond to them, they would turn to the legislative branch instead. Despite this positive spin, they were again stung by the government’s disdain, more convinced than ever that the federal government was mistaken in not considering them. It was the fifth time they had called on the government to talk, to no avail.
Increasingly unitedThe very same day and hour that the people of Atenco were left waiting, representatives of 10 ejido communities with whom the government had offered to talk met in the Department of Government. Those who participated said they agreed with the project to build the airport, but not with the compensation price offered, and that they supported Atenco’s ejido farmers but not the violence.
The following day, the Department of Government invited the president of Atenco’s ejido committee to talk on July 22. The government clearly thought it would be able to sidestep the land defense movement’s representatives, but its calculations were off. Although the social movement and the ejido committee had taken different paths at the start, the repression had united them. Movement spokespeople charged that the ejido representatives who had participated in the earlier meeting with the Government Secretary had not held assemblies with their members to learn their views on the offers, and for this reason were not legitimate representatives. They stressed that the three communities whose lands were most affected had not participated in the meeting, and accused those who had met with the Department of Government of being traitors.
Increasingly determined not to sellThe farmers of Atenco, Acuexcomac, Magdalena Panoaya, Nexquipayac and Tocuila—who owned 42.4% of the land to be expropriated—denounced the official strategy to isolate them and focus on talks with the groups that wanted to sell their land. On July 19, leaders of the movement met with federal government officials in Texcoco and agreed to begin talks July 24.
Representatives of the People’s Front to Defend the Land attended this preliminary meeting. Their leader declared that both sides were committed to finding an agreement. On July 21, a support committee made up of members of several social organizations went to Atenco. Farmers from San Miguel Tocuila removed six members of the ejido committee from their post, including its president, for meeting with the Department of Government without first consulting the community. They reiterated their support for the People’s Front to Defend the Land. The inhabitants of Santa Isabel Ixtapa joined the Front, increasing the number of ejidos that refused to negotiate over the price of the land to six. Despite the government’s efforts to divide them, the movement kept growing stronger. By this point, the government had increased its offer from $0.70 a meter to $5.
Flowers and corridos On July 24, the man from Atenco who had been badly beaten on July 11 died. The mainstream media and state of Mexico authorities tried to convince people that his death was due not to the blows but rather to a previous illness. They also charged that the man was not even an ejido member, and had been forced to join the march where he was beaten. La Jornada commented: "They wanted to take away his land, they took away his life, and now they want to take away his death." In fact, the man was married to an ejido member whose lands he sometimes worked, was a member of the movement and did not want to lose his house.
for a hero from Atenco
The beating clearly played a role in his death. One of the people detained along with him testified that after he was beaten, he felt very bad and asked the police to help him, but they paid no attention to him. When he became sicker, they took him to a hospital, but the hospital promptly returned him to his captors. He later returned to the hospital and died after several days in serious condition.
The first reports on the causes of the man’s death pointed to medical negligence. The hospital stated that the man had died from respiratory problems that he could not overcome because of his diabetes. The National Human Rights Commission, however, found that the beating had led to organ failures. The president of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights attributed the man’s death to complications resulting from the trauma, and noted that striking a person who has been detained—as the police did in this case—is defined as torture.
Prayers, hymns and anger marked the burial. People sang corridos from the Mexican revolution, changing the characters: the protagonist was the man from Atenco and the villain, Governor Montiel of the state of Mexico. The movement blamed the death of this "hero" on Montiel and President Fox. The President’s office lamented the death, acknowledging that it would complicate negotiations.
The movement’s lawyer officially charged the police of the state of Mexico with homicide. The National Human Rights Commission recommended that the government seek another site for the airport, since "they can’t kill all those who don’t want to sell." The death united the people from Atenco and neighboring communities even more.
"We won’t sell our Mother Earth"On July 22, the Department of Government informed the people of Atenco of its conditions for continuing talks. They would have to suspend their marches and leave their machetes and advisers behind. Also, the media would not be allowed to be present during the talks. The farmers responded that they would go to the place proposed by the Department of Government on the 24th, but would bring their machetes and their advisers. Their advisers were faculty from Mexico’s National Autonomous University and the University of Chapingo, while their machetes were the symbol of their struggle. Nor did they agree to exclude the media. They complained that the government was playing it two ways by holding talks with other groups when it had agreed that the talks would be held with those who rejected the plan to build an airport on their land.
The people who participated in the talks on the 24th did not brandish their machetes, although some brought them along sheathed. The people from Atenco who remained outside the room did raise their machetes. In the meeting, the two sides talked but reached no agreements. The government representative warned the movement that the ejido assemblies had the last word, while the movement’s leaders demanded that they be recognized as the People’s Front to Defend the Land. Another meeting was set.
"If no solution, a revolution"Inside, the representatives argued that they would not sell their mother earth, the basis of their existence and way of life. In response to accusations that they opposed progress, they replied that what they in fact opposed is progress on behalf of a small minority. Outside, demonstrators chanted, "if there’s no solution, there’ll be a revolution." The Latin America regional coordinator for the Habitat International Coalition, a United Nations consultative organization, declared that the government was violating several basic rights of the Atenco farmers, such as the right to housing, and described the government’s attitude in the first session of talks as "arrogant," which would aggravate the conflict rather than resolve it.
Things of value without a priceOn July 26, the residents of Atenco and other ejidos waited in vain for government representatives to show up for the second round of talks at the University of Chapingo. They learned from the radio that the government would not participate. They had been stood up on six occasions now, while the authorities kept their schedule of meetings with representatives who were not recognized by their communities. PRD leader Rosario Robles called on the government to return to the talks, arguing that its policy of turning a deaf ear was responsible for the violence.
The ejido members of San Francisco Nexquipayac got their committee president to sign a letter promising not to participate in negotiations between the purported representatives of the 10 ejidos willing to sell and the Department of Government. The ejidos of San Felipe and Santa Cruz de Abajo held assemblies and agreed to join the People’s Front to Defend the Land and fight the expropriation of their land. Once again, while the Department of Government tried to divide and weaken the movement, it continued to grow stronger. By the end of July, the number of ejidos opposed to the new airport had increased to eight.
On July 27, the deputy secretary of government informed the Atenco ejido committee president of the proposed increase in the compensation price and offered to build schools and health centers, relocate affected houses and provide jobs in the new airport. But in their assembly, the ejido members ratified their refusal to sell their land. The leader of the Eureka group, Rosario Ibarra, criticized the government for failing to understand that some things have no price.
Massive support for On Sunday, July 28, the first National Peasant Farmer Conference took place in Atenco. The People’s Front to Defend the Land along with representatives of 93 peasant and social organizations from around the country decided to organize a national mobilization in mid-August to give Fox’s government an ultimatum: that the decree expropriating land in the Atenco, Texcoco and Chimalhuacán municipalities be rescinded. One of Atenco’s leaders explained that they were seeking to build a national consensus around this demand. In the assembly, people decided not to march to the Basilica of Guadalupe on July 30, during the Pope’s visit, to avoid providing any pretext for repression. They would instead make their political-religious pilgrimage from Atenco to Texcoco. Signs of support for the movement from Atenco and the struggle of its people abounded all around the country.
the people of Atenco
On July 23, before the man struck by the police died, the polling company Consulta Mitofsky had done a telephone survey to measure public opinion on the movement. To the surprise of the powerful rightwing politicians, the movement enjoyed wide support. Although 80% agreed that there is need for a new airport and a third thought Texcoco was the best site, 77.5% felt that the people from Atenco were not obliged to leave their lands and houses in order for the airport to be built, showing widespread rejection of expropriation. A full 84.7% felt that the Atenco movement was legitimate and that the people in it were seeking to protect their patrimony, while only 7% felt that there were "third parties" behind them. Over two-thirds felt that the government should find another place to build the airport.
Letter to John Paul IIIn a last effort to overcome Atenco’s resistance, the Department of Government sent the media a letter from the president of an ejido committee that supported the airport project and stated, in the name of other committees, its intention to negotiate the price.
When Pope John Paul II arrived in Mexico, the people of Atenco made a pilgrimage asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to intervene on their behalf with President Fox. In the diocese of Texcoco, they delivered a letter addressed to the Pope to explain to him the reasons for their struggle.
In the letter, which they titled "The land, God’s gift to all," they denounced the government’s false promises and attempts to rob them of their lands. They told the Pope that his visit took place at a time when people all over the world are facing changes that strike a blow to human dignity, and that under the cover of speeches about prosperity and progress governments are leading their people into even deeper poverty. They told him that it was precisely to denounce these injustices that the people of Atenco had raised their voices, but they were met by indifference and repression. They explained the whole story of the expropriation and insisted that the expropriation decree was both illegal and illegitimate, since they, the owners of the land, had never been informed or consulted. They also denounced the way the authorities treated them and their land as merchandise, ignoring the fact that they had a history, traditions and dignity. The people of Atenco asked the Pope to speak in favor of their just and worthy cause, because "our beliefs are as sacred as our land, and our land is our life."
Fox cancels the project: The day the Pope left Mexico, President Fox announced that the project to build the airport in Texcoco had been cancelled. The official reasons were that the new compensation price had not been accepted and the negotiations were dragging out too long.
A great victory
Negative reactions in other places continued along the lines of those expressed during the conflict. The bishop of Ecatepec, a friend of big business, complained that 300 machetes had proven to be more powerful than the President, and said that the airport should have been built in Texcoco even if 500 people had died. Leading figures in private enterprise agreed that giving in to the peasant movement was a sign of government weakness. Many congressional representatives also expressed their discontent.
Conservative commentators in the United States complained that Fox had given in to "violence." On the other hand, Cárdenas described the President’s decision as "the triumph of reason," López Obrador praised Fox for keeping his word, and former general Gallardo said that everyone had won.
In Atenco, the decision was celebrated as what it was, a great victory, and the people held a ceremony to their patron saint in gratitude for it. They responded directly and bravely to the bishop, denouncing him for using the people’s faith to his own ends and charging that his statements were those not of a man of the Church but of someone with his hands in the airport business.
The glimmer of a changeOn August 6, President Fox definitively rescinded the expropriation decree. Up to that point, the people from Atenco, who only had the President’s announcement to go on, felt the threat of renewed conflict continuing to hang over them. As a way to celebrate this legal seal on their victory and respond to those who might have thought their struggle no longer had any basis, the people of Atenco announced that, like the Zapatistas, they would form an autonomous municipality; they had gone for several months without any outside authorities and functioned very well as a community. In response, some powerful groups described them as "lawless people."
The President’s decision to rescind the expropriation decree did not defuse the polarization created by the conflict. Just the opposite: those opposed to the farmers’ interests were stung by their defeat while the people of Atenco along with those who supported their struggle saw that it is possible to win.
Many lessons to learnThe movement revealed that Fox’s government, like all that have imposed neoliberal policies on their people, lacks an agrarian policy and has no strategies to address the problems of rural areas and resolve their conflicts. It is interested only in achieving greater integration through commercial and financial globalization, and to accomplish this, prioritizes large infrastructure projects that benefit large capital. While the theft of peasant lands has always been an important part of capitalist accumulation, the current stage of neoliberalism has intensified this trend.
The government has been applying the infamous "Hood Robin" reverse tactic of robbing from the poor to give to the rich. The economic powers that invade lands belonging to peasant communities to evict the people and plunder their land are protected. People lose faith in the capacity of those in power to resolve the needs of those from below, while the contradictions between the model imposed by the government and people’s real situations intensify.
Those looking for "hidden hands" behind the conflict would find them easily enough if they followed the tracks of a state that swindles the poor and subsidizes the rich. This explains why peasant farmers who do not want to lose their land, which is all they have to pass on to their children, have become radicalized.
Those in power not only exclude the majority of the population but are incapable of even seeing them. In its mea culpa, the government admitted having erred by not negotiating with those affected at the very start. Its initial attitude was one of disdain, making clear that it would not listen to the people’s demands or take a step back. This radicalized the movement and led it to use a violence that may not be legal but is legitimate. The brutal repression was the last straw.
The federal government’s decision to rectify its position and agree to talk is to be praised. Even the people of Atenco also recognized that they had seen the glimmer of a change, though the new government had remained largely trapped within the course set by the former regime. It had committed other mistakes after the first one it acknowledged, trying to divide the movement through a fragmented series of talks sometimes more simulated than sincere.
What the Mexican Atenco was one more example of the movement of the marginalized against neoliberalism and its powers. The peasant farmers have defended their right not to sell their land. The powerful, as is their wont, first made plans to their detriment, without consulting them or even considering them, assuming they could take the lands of the poor in exchange for beads. Later, when the people rebelled, they thought that raising the price would resolve the conflict, ruled as they are by the law of profit. They were totally unprepared for the people of Atenco to respond by refusing to sell their ancestral heritage at any price. Then instead of trying to understand their indigenous-based culture, they immediately assumed that the whole thing must be the result of a plot, with outside hands manipulating people they disdained and believed incapable of thinking or acting freely. The government and businesspeople accused the peasants of opposing progress and presented them as violent, intransigent enemies of development. They didn’t listen to their arguments, or want to hear and understand them.
"Heartland" had to say
The peasant farmers said they were not interested in selling their land because their way of life, their identity and the life of their whole community were there; that they were not interested in the proposed jobs because they work the land to which they owe their lives and don’t want to work for companies. They rejected only the "progress" that exterminates their culture and traditions.
The farmers were also unwilling to put a monetary value on their land because they were fully aware of the experience of people in the south of the Federal District, who after three decades have still not received all the money due them for the expropriation of their land to build the Military School. The farmers want a development that includes them not as servants or low-level workers but rather as people who have the right to decide over their work. The powerful made little attempt to understand them and many analysts argued that they don’t understand the "Mexican Heartland" at all.
Atenco and the ZapatistasThe decision to form an autonomous municipality was neither capricious nor accidental. Atenco has been yet another of the movements inspired by the Zapatista movement, both old and new. The figure of Emiliano Zapata and his defense of the people’s land were revived in Atenco. The new Zapatista movement has also been a source of inspiration, as one of its leaders recognized, arguing that the struggle is won not with slogans but with reasons. The Zapatistas offered their support to the people of Atenco, and explained how large infrastructure projects like the proposed airport are part of the model promoted by the Puebla Panama Plan. The Zapatistas face the same basic issue as the people of Atenco, since in Chiapas they too are resisting privatization of their land.
Indeed, the similarities are numerous. Both groups have demonstrated that they are willing to die rather than give in. The first response of the authorities to both movements was to try to annihilate them. Both have been criminalized, both have organized themselves outside the political parties and both have brought their peasant struggle to the cities. Both responded in defense of their dignity and have used symbols of struggle that give them identity, hoods in one case, machetes in the other. Both movements were offered negotiations that were merely simulacrums, traps. Both have grown stronger through the solidarity of other excluded people and shown their determination to resist no matter how long it takes. Both movements include many young people and have encouraged all groups harmed by neoliberalism to join together.
Puebla Panama Plan: Flash pointsAnother consequence of the Atenco movement is that it roused several politicians who warned that there are many flash points in the country, that the Puebla Panama Plan can spark off many Atencos and that some 5,000 latent agrarian conflicts could burst out at any time. With Atenco, people began to notice a number of tensions and economic and political pressures that could lead to violence. Anthropologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights, declared that the abuses against Mexican peasant farmers persist and that the violence occurred because the authorities failed to pay attention to the ancient land problem or respect the rights of those who work and love their mother earth.
More Atencos will comeAtenco’s resistance has created a movement that has encouraged solidarity and established new networks of struggle. Atenco’s peasant farmers have become an example for many others in the defense of their land and their indigenous agrarian traditions.
The struggle goes on. Although the expropriation decree no longer hangs over their heads, criminal charges remain pending against the movement’s leaders. And the big investors, bitter over their defeat, are calling on the government of the state of Mexico, which also resents the multi-million dollar losses implied by cancellation of the airport project, to continue to press those charges in order to set an example. As always, winning a battle does not mean winning a definitive victory. For this reason, the expectation and the hope is that more battles will follow.