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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

Thinking Economically

Small Farming Community Successfully
Struggles to Preserve its Way of Life
Against the Forces of Neo-Liberalism

by Andrew C. Kennis,
New York City Independent Media Center

San Salvador Atenco, Mexico.   Not more than a year ago, the town of San Salvador Atenco could be described as a small quiet farming community with an aging population. Streetside cockfights and grilled corn-on-the-cob were staples in the pueblo (community) that brandished no more than one restaurant, scores of unfinished homes and narrow allies that often lead to vacant lots.

Atenco is encircled by farming land that has head-high fields of corn and copper-colored beans. This is what residents found themselves fighting to preserve immediately after an announcement was made by the federal government that their land would be expropriated to make way for a multi-billion dollar project to build a new airport to service nearby Mexico City (just 18 miles south of Atenco). And this is what transformed the small faming community of Atenco into something more profound than a mere unknown and quiet rural town on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Soft-spoken and modest corn famers became political spokesmen who were in demand by the national Mexican press and machetes that had in prior times had only been used for the demands of farming became an important symbol in marches. Lives were put on the line in battles to defend the right to protest where demands were voiced to preserve land that in some cases, was inherited for three generations, dating back to the land reforms won after the Mexican revolution.

After a number of hospitalizations, over a dozen arrests, a hostage crisis, an occupation of a major highway, many rallies and a mass march in Mexico City and even after suffering a fatality, the residents of Atenco finally were assured that they would not have their land taken away from them after an official government announcement canceling the plans to expropriate their land.

…Vicente Fox’s government had approved plans to build a six-runway, $2.3 billion airport that would gobble up much of San Salvador Atenco’s…farming land.

A virtual rebellion

Mexico City’s current airport, the 91 year-old Benito Juarez International Airport, is running at full capacity, as it only has one runway for incoming and outgoing flights. As a result, President Vicente Fox’s government had approved plans to build a six-runway, $2.3 billion airport that would gobble up much of San Salvador Atenco’s and other surrounding communities’ farming land. In October 2001, a federal expropriation ruling offered villagers about 60 cents a square yard, roughly $2,600 an acre.

Following the announcement of the plans and the subsequent ruling, immediate protests and marches were organized. Atenco campesinos marched with rusty machetes during impassioned rallies and marches.

“We are right, and that’s why we will win in the court of public opinion,” said Pedro Virato, who owns a butcher shop that he said he would never sell and is located smack dab in the middle of the area where the airport construction plans were proposed. “We are humble people with farm animals, and we are facing an army with guns. How can the people not want to support us?”

Indeed, the people of Atenco did attract popular support and the dramatic nature of their marches attracted some press attention, but for a long while, that was not enough to win any real concessions from the government.

Things began to change on Thursday, July 11, however, when a march was organized to protest an announcement affirming the airport plans by the Governor of the state of Mexico, Arturo Red Montiel. The farmers never arrived to the site as their peaceful caravan was blocked by a truck placed by state troopers in the town of Santa Catarina.

What ensued afterwards, was a bloody confrontation between the Special Police Forces of Immediate Action & Reaction (FARI—essentially the riot cop contingent) and the campesinos. Thirty protesters and 3 state agents were injured, 15 activists were arrested (including campesino leader, Ignacio Del Valle) and 5 activists were hospitalized.

Word quickly got out to Atenco about this development, and supporters took immediate and radical direct actions to protest the arrests, as well as the mistreatment of their comrades. Five police squad cars were burnt and used along with a number of other seized trucks and vehicles (including three gasoline tankers and a number of Coca-Cola tractors) to block the Texcoco-Lecheria national highway.

Thirteen people were taken hostage, amongst whom included the Assistant Attorney General, a number of police officers and some security guard workers. A few days later, more people were taken into custody (state agents accused by farmer activists as having posed as journalists with fake press credentials).

…Atenco activists repeatedly threatened to burn their hostages alive…

After Atenco activists repeatedly threatened to burn their hostages alive to gasoline tankers that they had seized and were using to maintain the highway occupation, the impasse finally ended on late Sunday night (July 14), as the remaining activists were freed. The following day, the highway occupation ended and all 19 hostages were released.

Gains were finally made

During the night of the same day that the hostage and arrestee crisis came to an end (July 15), President Fox, during an interview on CNN, publicly stated for the first time that it was possible that the airport plans could be modified or even canceled altogether.

This was a major victory for the Atenco movement, which had not even finished rejoicing in their prior victory in winning the freedom of their arrested militants. Nevertheless, it did not stop them from going ahead with a planned mass march in Mexico City.

In spite of the presence of dreary overcast skies and occasional drizzle during what is Mexico City’s wet season, some three thousand Mexico City supporters participated in the solidarity march. Arriving with their signature machetes and fronted by the periodic launching of loud fireworks, the campesinos of Atenco marched with their supporters in a three kilometer walk from the Angel of Independence to President Vicente Fox’s residence, Los Pinos.

It was during the march, that more connections between Fox’s other neo-liberal projects and his support to build the airport in Atenco were made. Fox, a former Coca-cola executive, has a number of neo-liberal projects that his administration has taken up: privatizing the energy industry and strong support for more “free trade” agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. “They are all the same monster,” said Felipe Alvarez, a squash farmer who was one of the arrestees during the July 11 peaceful caravan.

Media finally paid attention

It took a virtual uprising for the mass media in Mexico to pay attention to the Atenco struggle, but their coverage still failed to be substantive. Choosing to concentrate instead on the dramatics of the struggle—machetes carried during marches, the hostage crisis and highway occupation—the media missed how activists and residents alike perceived the crisis in far different terms, as a struggle between pressures from corporate globalization and respecting the needs and concerns of a small farming community.

Coverage in the big papers and on television following the march all too often read like that of the popular daily Uno Más Uno, which focused on a number of UNAM activists and other activists who are household names in Mexico. The activists were merely supporting the cause and were not significantly involved in organizing the march or resistance activities in Atenco.

…the machete was not a symbol of violence but instead of the way of life of the campesino.

Further, coverage often focused on the fact that Atenco campesinos carried machetes during their marches, whereby reporters then depicted such a tactic as some sort of violent undertone. As Alvarez explained to me, however, the machete was not a symbol of violence but instead of the way of life of the campesino. The bottom line for the Mexican media was that such sensensationalistic coverage won out over substantive reporting on the actual issues at stake and according to the Atenco campesinos, was the reason why they demanded public meetings with the Fox administration.

The mass media in Canada and the United States also failed to pay much mind to the struggle in Atenco. This was unfortunate because the struggle had significant implications for other important neo-liberal projects of the Fox administration, as well as having international significance.

“Encuentros” commence following mass march

Upon the arrival of the march at Los Pinos, a contingent of Atenco representatives was allowed to pass a fence which had been constructed by local police forces to prevent demonstrators from passing. The contingent delivered an invitation to President Fox to enter into “encuentros” at the University of Chapingo, an agricultural college near Atenco. President Fox would never wind up accepting the invitation, but he did send representatives into what they thought would be negotiations.

Ignacio del Valle, a corn farmer who explained that before October 2001 he never could have imagined becoming one of the spokespeople for a movement to save the common farming lands of his community, explained why the government was mistaken to think that it was entering negotiations: “Our land is simply not for sale, period.” His daughter, a student activist named America who also took on a public relations role during the struggle, reiterated such sentiments when she stated that, “Our land, our lives, don't have a price. Their value can't be determined by the market.”

The government apparently did not understand such concepts as Fox negotiators reportedly tried to divide the movement by offering different prices of the land to different individuals, despite the fact that much of the farming lands in Atenco and its many neighboring communities are commonly owned. At one point, the ante was raised as the government changed their offer to buy the farmlands from a miserly 7 pesos (USD $0.75) per square meter to over 50 pesos per square meter (USD $4.90), or from USD $2,833 per square acre to $21,000 per square acre.

“Our land is simply not for sale, period.”

The Front of United Communities in Defense of the Land (Frente de Pueblos Unidos en Defensa de la Tierra, FPUDT), the lead group in organizing against the airport, considered such offers a “taunt” of the government. “The government does not understand that dialogue does not mean that we are negotiating our lands,” declared a press release from FPUDT. The ejidatarios (farmers of commonly owned farming lands) continued to insist that they would only meet to discuss their firm demands, not to negotiate them.

In the midst of the encuentros, Jose Enrique Espinoza Juárez, a resident of the Francisco Madero neighborhood in Atenco, died. Espinoza's death was related to severe injuries he suffered during the peaceful caravan that was met with police violence on July 11 (which later led to the virtual rebellion in Atenco just noted above). In that incident, police used tear gas, clubs, heavy plastic shields and live ammunition against the protestors.

Mexican government public relations officials claimed that Espinoza’s affliction of diabetes was the sole cause of his death. However, the Mexico City daily, La Jornada, interviewed Dr. Juan Carlos de la Fuente Zuno, the director of the trauma unit that Espinoza was checked into, and confirmed that “the blows received during the confrontation was a cause in Espinoza’s death.”

The pueblo is victorious

The Fox administration finally caved in and officially announced the cancellation of the airport plans on August 6, 2002. Luis Navarro, a Mexico City journalist and opinion editor, explained in succinct terms that the Fox administration simply, “could not afford the political costs of building the airport, as the Atenco residents successfully organized to the point where such costs were raised past acceptable limits.”

Following the announcement of the cancellation of the airport construction plans, Atenco immediately began to celebrate, and had festivals for days. Dancing groups, who traditionally take a street route to salute the authorities of the muncipality during such festive times, this time saluted the directors of the FPUDT. The FPUDT has maintained a closure of the Atenco mayor’s office since the announcement of the airport plans in October 2001. The leaders of the group are advocating a proposal to create an autonomous muncipal advisory council similar to the model of the autonomous communities of the popular and internationally renown Chiapas rebel group, the National Zapatista Liberation Army (commonly known as the “Zapatistas”).

While the fate of the way that Atenco is governed and organized is uncertain, what is certain is that the people of Atenco have saved their farming lands and way of life. And they have done so against the powerful forces of neo-liberalism, despite being no more than a mere small farming community. Whether such victories can be won in the future against bigger projects, such as the Plan Puebla Panama, is the current question of the hour that many other civil society groups, as well as the government, will seek to answer.

[18 apr 03]

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