Mexico: Campesinos vs. Fox

Peasants of San Salvador Atenco Stop Government Airport Project

Revolutionary Worker #1164, August 25, 2002, posted at

The fighting campesinos of San Salvador Atenco, Mexico, have forced the Mexican government to back off its plans to expropriate their land to build a new international airport on the farmland belonging to 30,000 people. (For background, see "The Fighting Campesinos of San Salvador Atenco" online in RW #1160.)

At the people's victory celebration, which lasted three days, a young woman who has emerged as a leader of the struggle said: "The fact that today we have succeeded in making them respect us, by throwing out their decree, does not mean that they did us a favor. They were forced to do it. It is the respect that the people of Mexico deserve."

Through an intense back-and-forth battle, the "new" government of President Vicente Fox was becoming exposed as the same old oppressor. And the determined resistance of the people won out! In the words of one campesino leader, "The government, accustomed to subjugating the people, underestimated the people."

The planned international airport to be built at San Salvador Atenco (about 30 km, or 19 miles, outside Mexico City) had been promoted as the biggest project of Fox's term in office. It was backed by the Fortune 500 millionaires of Mexico and major transnational corporations like Nestle, Bayer, Dupont, Nissan, and General Motors.

In October 2001, the government announced that the land of the campesinos of San Salvador Atenco would be expropriated. The government never consulted or attempted to negotiate with the ejidatarios (peasant-farmers on ejidos, or communal land) who own the land and set a ridiculously low price of $.70 per sq. meter as compensation. But as imperialist finance capitalists signed their deals with the ruling class of Mexico, the "nobodies" marched out of the shadows of the countryside like a phantom army from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, brandishing machetes and flaming torches. They took over the streets of the capital city many times to proclaim, "The land will not be sold!"

On January 1, 2002, the government declared that Atenco was a "rebel municipality." The people declared their defiance, refusing to allow police and government agents to enter the area.

The Rebel MunicipalityFights Back

On July 11, a march of about 40 of the most active members of the People's Front to Defend the Land (Frente del Pueblo para Defender la Tierra)--the organization that was formed to unite the 13 affected ejidos in the fight against the expropriation--was ambushed and brutalized by 1,000 riot police. Firecrackers and church bells called out the pueblo to battle positions. The people used police cars, burning tires, and Coca-Cola tractor trucks to block the roads and cause a huge traffic jam on the roads from the capital city. The traffic jam lasted for two days. The people took 15 government officials and police hostage to exchange for the freedom of their arrested companeros.

By July 13, the town was surrounded by 3,000 federal police (PFP) and a detachment of the Mexican Armed Forces. Before the eyes of the world, the people prepared to defend their land with their lives.

Tanks holding 40,000 liters of gasoline were positioned at the bridges to be detonated if the troops tried to enter. People constructed cannons out of wood and pipes and planned to use salt pellets as bullets. Coca-Cola bottles became Molotov cocktails. Late in the night of July 13, 150 students from UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) walked into the pueblo to help man the barricades and patrol the perimeters of the land.

On July 15, the government backed down, the jailed campesinos were freed, and the town released the hostages.

Government's Maneuversand People's Determination

After the hostages were freed and the siege ended, the government announced it would open negotiations with the ejidatarios. And the government set into motion intense manuevers to try to divide the movement and undermine its base of support. A huge media campaign was cranked up to spread the lie that the people of Atenco were being manipulated by outside agitators or foreigners. One pro-government political party even offered a reward of a half million pesos (about $50,000) for information regarding the "outside forces" controlling the people's struggle.

The government issued warrants for the arrest of six people who were not residents of Atenco. But public opinion polls found that 80% of the people of Mexico City were on the side of the campesinos!

On July 17, the government announced it had met with officials from 10 of the 13 affected ejidos who indicated their willingness to sell the land. After the meeting, the people confronted the ejido officials (who are elected by an assembly of ejidatarios) with cries of "traitor." One ejido official was run out of town, and another was burned in effigy for having "sold out to the government."

A campesino leader spoke to the press about the sell-out officials: "They do not represent the majority. Therefore any kind of negotiation that they want to do will not be recognized by us."

On July 23 the government raised their offer for the land to about $5 per sq. meter and included promises for new schools and hospitals and a share in the profits from the airport project.

But for the people, the government offer was too little, too late. Most campesinos in this region have less than five hectares of land. And people did not want to leave their land for an uncertain future as a wage worker. One ejidatario said, "I am 66 years old and I have to share my land with my two brothers. The [compensation] of a little less than 600,000 pesos would have run out in less than three years. At my age, what kind of business would I be able to start?"

Many of the homes in this region do not have indoor plumbing. There are high rates of illiteracy and school dropouts. The town has no ambulance. At the same time, unlike many regions in Mexico that have become virtual ghost towns because the people are forced to immigrate to the U.S. to survive, Atenco has a functioning economy and a deep sense of history. "La vieja guardia," or "the old guard," sit in the plaza and reminisce about the 1910 Revolution and the experience of their grandparents who worked for 12 cents a day in the haciendas of the rich landlords. The connection they make between the past and the present has strengthened the resolve of the struggle. As one campesino leader said, "In the Revolution, the hacienda owners pushed us off onto the worst land, the most eroded hillsides. Now it is big capital that wants to destroy us."

During the struggle against the airport, the old guard were among the most reliable soldiers at the barricades protecting the center of the town. One man explained, "I am an ejidatario from La Magdalena. I am 75 years old and I have worked my parcel for 50 years, ever since my father died. Our pueblo has chosen a handful of land over a wad of bills. The bills run out, and the land lasts forever. It is our life. It is what permits us to look people in the eye, like equals."

Mexico's campesinos have accumulated much bitter experience with the false promises of the government. Fifty years ago, ejidatarios were driven off their land so that the government could build the current Mexico City airport. Those peasants never received a dime of the money promised to them. One of those ejidatarios told the press: "There was resistance by some with shotguns... But in the end we believed in their promise to pay us. Fifty years later we are still waiting."

July 24 was the day that the government was supposed to open negotiations with the People's Front to Defend the Land. It was also the day that Enrique Espinoza died from the injuries he sustained when he was severely beaten in the police attack on July 11. Two thousand people came to his funeral.

On July 27, the inspiration of the Atenco fighters became contagious as hundreds of people closed down two major highways in Chiapas in southern Mexico for seven hours in solidarity with the struggle of Atenco.

On July 28 representatives of 93 campesino organizations from the southern states--where the majority of Mexico's indigenous population lives--held a meeting in Atenco. The people of the southern states also face a threat to their land by capitalist mega-projects like Plan Puebla Panama. Also at the conference were students and professors from universities, progressive artists, and recently liberated political prisoner Erika Zamora. (As a college student, Zamora worked on a literacy project among peasants in Guerrero. She survived a government massacre of social organizers sleeping in a schoolhouse in El Charco, Guerrero. The government claimed that its forces were in a shoot-out with guerrillas. She was arrested, tortured, and jailed for four years.) Some ejidatarios from Atenco have recently traveled to join the struggle in El Podrido, Guerrero, where expropriated campesinos have retaken their land.

By July 28, 8 of the 13 communities affected by the expropriation had actively joined the People's Front to Defend the Land. Instead of dividing the movement, the government found that its maneuvers had backfired and left it more isolated.

The determined stand of the people set off a debate within the ruling class over how to proceed. Some officials and business executives warned that to give in to the people would show foreign investors that there was a situation of "ungovernability" in Mexico. But the president of the Human Rights Commission, which is loyal to the government, advised officials that they could not kill all of the people of Atenco--and that there are 30,000 agrarian conflicts in the country, representing dangerous time bombs and the possibility of social explosion.

On August 1, the government announced that the airport project in San Salvador Atenco had been cancelled. They said that they would consider other sites for the airport.

The Mexican power structure is trying to portray the government defeat as evidence of the Fox regime's willingness to solve problems through democratic means. Fox came into power in 2000 as the "president of change" who promised to get rid of the hated rule of the PRI, the long-time ruling party which was synonymous with corruption and repression of the peasantry.

Faced with the resistance of the campesinos of Atenco, the Fox government feared that suppressing the struggle with brute force could ignite even more unrest. But as a leader of the People's Front to Defend the Land put it: "If they backed off in this case, it is because they had no other choice. A confrontation was coming--by force! But if the gap between the authorities and the pueblo continues, if they insist on using force to achieve their objectives, this will happen again. There will be many Atencos."

The Myth of Social Peace Is Demolished

Within the Mexican ruling class, there is now profound concern over the implications of the cancellation of the airport project. The Entrepreneur Coordinating Council, a group of top capitalist executives, said that the cancellation of the airport project will cause the loss of other economic opportunities due to the "increase in the `country-risk' and the perceived vulnerability for investments." ("Country-risk" is a rating system used by imperialist investors to determine whether their investments will be safe in a particular country.) Warning of the erosion of the image of Mexico as a stable country since Fox's rise to power, the Council said Mexico has lost "a good part of the historical assets that were accumulated with the change in power."

One capitalist entrepreneur described the decision to move the airport project as a "horror" and warned, "It's difficult to see that anyone would want to come and invest when political decisions are put ahead of any other criterion and when seven machetes can reverse a technical decision and investment of this magnitude." Many representatives of the big bourgeosie in Mexico are emphasizing the need to re-establish the "rule of law."

The Catholic Church authorities have also weighed in. Onésimo Cepeda, the bishop of Ecatepec, gave his blessing to the Mexican government's tradition of massacring the peasantry to steal their land when he said, "Even though one person might have died, or even though 500 might have died, the terminal should be built." He criticized the government for "weakness" because it gave in to popular pressure: "We are laying down a path in Mexico. 300 machetes can override what the President says, and I think that is fatal for Mexico."

Even Fox's own party, the PAN, said that "the errors and mistakes" of the Fox government "are the order of the day in plain sight of everyone."

While the government was forced to back down in San Salvador Atenco, the lives and lands of campesinos all around the country continue to be under heavy assault. Mexico's rulers are walking on a tightrope over the mouth of a smoking volcano of discontent--but they must forge ahead with the schemes to displace millions more peasants to carry out the wishes of their imperialist masters. One campesino leader stated: "The essential problem is an unjust social order that has a lot of faces. It is called neoliberalism, NAFTA, Plan Puebla-Panama, and Free Trade Area of the Americas."

The victory in San Salvador Atenco resonates powerfully among the people of Mexico whose situation has deteriorated to desperate levels with the effects of NAFTA and imperialist "development." The rebellion of "los de abajo" has revealed to the world the suppressed force that the powers want to keep hidden from view.

The struggle of the campesinos of Mexico has historically shaken the country to its foundations, overthrowing governments and driving out invaders. Today, the peasantry remains the key force for revolution in Mexico: Millions of campesinos are still locked in a life-and-death struggle with the oppressors who control the land and their imperialist masters.

And this struggle is intensifying. The situation in Atenco is a microcosm of what is happening all over Mexico. One leader of the Atenco struggle said, "What happened here is a wake-up call for the government. There are wake-up calls all over the country; it's just a matter of time before the uprisings begin. The authorities have forgotten the history of Mexico."

Many voices in high places are openly clamoring for the blood of the ejidatarios of Atenco. The campesinos who were arrested on July 11 still face serious charges, and the state is looking for ways to bring charges against more people who participated in the movement. They are looking into making a crime out of the use of the machete. Voices of the big bourgeosie in Mexico called in the press for punishing the ejidatarios so as to "not set evil precedents in the society and generate a new tendency that specializes in delinquency to obtain government attention."

The ejidatarios of Atenco have alerted the public about the threats of revenge by the Atlacomulco group, a financial group closely tied with the PRI, and the family of Hank Gonzalez, a Fortune 500 millionaire (now deceased), who would have directly benefitted from the construction of the airport. Representatives of the People's Front for the Defense of the Land said, "If a small group of political gangsters wants to take us on, we won't just stand with our arms crossed."

Although Fox has announced that the airport will not be built, the government has put nothing in writing. The people of Atenco say they will remain vigilant until there's a clear victory. And the people of Mexico will need to sum up the lessons of the anti-airport fight and the implications for the overall struggle in Mexico.

One ejidatario made clear the people's continued defiance and determination: "The government better not think that we are going to go back to sleep. We continue to stand up and struggle."

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