The Fighting Campesinos of San Salvador Atenco

Revolutionary Worker #1160, July 28, 2002, posted at

San Salvador Atenco, Mexico--For four days in July, the world got a glimpse of the just struggle of peasant farmers in Mexico. The campesinos of San Salvador Atenco, about 30 km (19 miles) outside of Mexico City, have been fighting against the government's attempts to seize their land in order to build a new international airport. This struggle came to a head earlier this month, when the people of San Salvador Atenco stood their ground against thousands of government police and troops.

An entire community of peasants declared themselves "ready for whatever comes" as they prepared for the confrontation. From Friday, July 12, to Monday, July 15, the town was surrounded by 3,000 Federal Preventive Police and a detachment of the Mexican Armed Forces. The community was holding 15 government officials and police agents captive in order to exchange them for the release of 14 compañeros who were arrested in a police attack on a march on July 11.

TV news cameras focused first on the lines and lines of heavily armed police surrounding the community. Then the cameras swung around to the sun-wizened faces of peasants--women and men-- holding their machetes high, and the masked youth setting up barricades, making Molotov cocktails and collecting materials to be used in self-defense.

The people said, "We expect an attack at any moment." Sergio Vasquez Diaz, a third- generation ejidatario (a farmer on a ejido , or communal land) declared, "We've said it before and we'll say it again, we will defend our land with our lives. They are killing our people, our families. We don't know which of us is going to fall, nor which of them from the government...but this is the stand we're taking."

And then...the government backed down and the town celebrated!

Taking Captivesand Blocking Highways

The government siege of San Salvador Atenco began after a confrontation between the people and the police on Thursday, July 11. A group of 40 peasants set off on a march to a protest in another town where the governor of the state of Mexico was giving a speech. They were surrounded and attacked by hundreds of police. About 100 more peasants came to join the fight. Thirty peasants were beaten to the ground and arrested, including one well-known activist who was beaten by 20 police at once.

Those who escaped and made it back to town set off firecrackers and rang the bell in the plaza to sound the alarm and call everyone out. The people burned three police cars and blocked the highway using three Coca-Cola tractor-trailers.

Peasants from surrounding pueblos who heard about the battle on the radio built roadblocks at the highway and surrounding roads. Three hundred people marched to the court in Texcoco, to demand the release of one of the leaders being held there.

When the authorities refused to release the leader, the people seized seven government officials, including the prosecuting attorney of the region of Texcoco. The campesinos took the captives back to the pueblo to hold them in order to negotiate the release of their compañeros.

Later, the people found some police infiltrators posing as journalists and added them to those detained. Peasants from 16 surrounding pueblos joined the people of Atenco to block the highways and roads that connect the communities with Mexico City. Over 1,000 tractor-trailer cargo trucks were stuck in an enormous traffic jam.

Activists from Mexico City, including veterans of the student strike at UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), went to the area to join the struggle. Social organizations in the southern states of Oaxaca, Yucatan, Guerrero, and Michoacan declared their intentions to close down the highways in their states in solidarity with the struggle of the peasants in the state of Mexico.

Government Forcedto Back Down

The struggle of the people forced the Mexican government to eat its words. At the start of the confrontation, arrogant statements issued from Mexico City had declared that "the government will only negotiate with those who are legitimate, and breaking the law is not legitimate." Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel reassured the billion-dollar investment interests behind the construction of the airport that "the government will not permit the upsurge of violence in the country" and would act with a "firm hand" against the rebel peasants. The governor of the state of Mexico declared, "There would be no exchange of detainees for hostages."

But the police agents and government officials detained by the people were only released after the 14 arrested peasants were released on bail paid by the state of Mexico. This represents an important victory in the ongoing struggle of the people of Atenco.

At midnight on Sunday, July 14, the imprisoned peasants were freed. Three of the peasants had been beaten so badly in the police attack that they are still hospitalized. The freed peasants face charges of riot, attack on state roadways, illegal deprivation of liberty, robbery, and others.

Once the freed peasants were back in the community early Monday morning, the 15 detainees were taken to the first roadblock and turned over to the authorities. The Federal Preventive Police marched away, and the burned police cars were moved out of the roadway.

Some truck drivers who had been stuck in traffic jams for two days had written corridos about the battle of Atenco, and they performed the songs for the TV cameras.

The government announced that it would negotiate the conflict with the community, and Mexican president Vicente Fox has suggested that the government might move the airport project to another location. At the moment, the land expropriation issue is in the hands of the Supreme Court. Whatever happens, the bold actions of the campesinos have made it clear that the struggle of the people will be a major factor!

Months of Militant Resistance

Last October, the government announced the expropriation order for the land at San Salvador Atenco to build a new international airport. Since then, the peasants of Atenco have electrified Mexico with their militant resistance.

Under the government decree, 4,375 families in 13 farming communities would have to abandon their land. The land is primarily ejido, or communal farm land, granted to the community through reforms after the 1910 Mexican revolution. According to the government plans, the ejido land would be replaced by a huge 11,000-acre airport with six runways.

In November 2001, in an action that resembled a scene out of the 1910 revolution, thousands of peasants on horseback and on foot marched to Mexico City and entered the city at nightfall, carrying flaming torches and machetes held high. They marched through the upscale area and past the embassy row where the Yankee embassy is located. They fought with police who cowered behind shields as they tried to prevent the marchers from reaching the central plaza, the Zócalo. Their banners read, "If they want blows, there will be blows, we are not intimidated. The peasants of today are combative, and we have stood up to fight against the airport. We represent rebel dignity."

Some of the ejidatarios took the struggle to the courts and obtained a restraining order to postpone the seizure of the land while the courts determined the legality of the expropriation order. Many peasants have little faith in the courts, however. As one campesino said, "More than a court order, we want them to leave the land in peace, because we want it for the rest of our lives."

On New Year's Eve the peasants declared San Salvador Atenco a "municipality in rebellion." In January the peasants set up nighttime guards and built barricades at the roads leading into the town to protect themselves against police incursions and government engineers. Police attempting to cross through the territory have been disarmed. In April a group of engineers was held by the peasants until they turned over their blueprints and plans, much of which the government has tried to keep secret.

In an attempt to bribe the peasants to abandon their land and make way for the $2 billion dollar airport, the Fox government offered the farmers 7 pesos (about 65 cents) per square meter for their land. Fox said that the people living in the area "had won the lottery" because they would be given jobs as porters and janitors in the new airport.

But the campesinos aren't going for such arguments. One man pointed out, "Most of the ejidatarios are between 45 and 84 years old. What work can we do? Who will employ us? Are we really trained for a job in an airport? In order to work as a floor sweeper in a company these days they demand a high school diploma, and we barely know how to read and write."

Another peasant stated, "It's not right that after being owners we would end up as second class employees." A 70-year-old ejidatario with 10 children and a small plot of land said, "The land is priceless and besides I will not sell it." When asked how much he makes off his land a month he answered, "We don't make money off of it. The land is our sustenance. Here we live day to day." One peasant stated on television, "Even if they offered us millions for our land we would not accept it."

People's Lives vs. Capitalist "Progress"

The communities in the area that would be covered up by the airport have roots that reach back to the ancient indigenous Nahua people. One community, San Cristobal Nexquipayac, still extracts salt from the land using Nahua techniques and is the location of anthropologically important mounds from before the Spanish conquest. In San Salvador Atenco, the people weave a type of belt invented by "tamemes" or Nahua boat loaders. The peasants sell the belts in nearby markets. (These days the thread used in the weaving comes from unraveling scraps of blue jean cloth thrown out by the maquiladoras, the factories owned by foreign capitalist corporations.) None of this culture or history of the people is important to those who want to wipe out peasant communities in the name of what the Mexican rulers and imperialists call "progress."

The airport has been promoted as the biggest economic project of Fox's presidential term. The government sees a new, large international airport near the capital as a key part of the plans to further "modernize" Mexico by opening the doors wider to imperialist investment and capitalist globalization.

But the government schemes have run straight into the determined opposition of the peasants. In addition, environmentalists have pointed to the dangers of building such an airport in the Texcoco region. Among other problems, a huge airport would increase air contamination in an area where this is already a life-threatening problem. Airport construction would also affect the water table and increase the already severe problem with flooding in Mexico City.

The decision to build the airport in this area was connected to the spoils system involving ruling- class forces of the PAN and PRI. With Fox as president, the PAN controls the executive branch of the central government. Meanwhile, the state of Mexico is in the hands of the former ruling party, the PRI. And the financial interests of the family of Hank Gonzalez (now deceased, Gonzalez was on the Fortune magazine list of 500 richest individuals in the world) and his cronies in the Grupo Atlacolmulco will greatly benefit from the building of the airport in this region.

The struggle over land is intensifying all over Mexico. Expropriation of peasant lands is occurring throughout the country as the government barrels ahead with development plans in service of imperialist "modernization" and globalization. Peasants from all over Mexico are organizing to fight these development plans and are being joined by democratic teachers, former UNAM student activists, and many social groups.

Another huge development scheme set in motion by the government is known as Plan Puebla- Panama. If implemented, this plan will destroy the land and culture of indigenous regions not only in the southeastern part of Mexico but also the seven countries of Central America.

An Upsurge of Struggle

The rebellion of the peasants of San Salvador Atenco has sparked a righteous upsurge of struggle among the people and has become an important example of determined resistance against the rulers of Mexico and their U.S. imperialist godfathers.

The police and the troops are gone for now from San Salvador Atenco. On Tuesday, July 16, the federal government met with a delegation of rebel peasants who had just come from a protest/victory celebration at Los Piños, the Mexican equivalent of the White House. Further meetings to negotiate a settlement were scheduled.

The government's position and the community's position are very far apart at present. The peasants' starting point is that the government must cancel the expropriation decree and relocate their airport project. They are demanding that all charges against the arrested be dropped. One peasant leader said, "We have't come to negotiate for money. We have come for the cancellation of the project to build an airport in our pueblo."

The government is offering a higher price for the land in an effort to get the peasants to move out. At the same time, Francisco Curi Perez, the government's top negotiator with the rebel peasants, put out his Mafia version of "justice": "To me it seems unjust that an important group like this one [the peasants in struggle] could act as a chain around the great majority of people that could benefit from a project that would give opportunity to their children. It is enough to look at the social indicators to conclude that if there is not a way out, the region will be condemned to the third or fourth world."

Mexico's rulers claim that by defending their land, the peasants of San Salvador Atenco are condemning themselves and others to poverty. And such predatory logic is accompanied by the threat of the armed forces of the state.

Expressing the stand of the people of San Salvador Atenco, one peasant said, "This movement is like an electric current, and here the first light has come on. The government is failing in its strategies because to try to throw us off our lands they condemn us to death. That's why we say that from this day forward more lights will be turned on."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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