|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #38|
How the Victory at Atenco Was Won
Part One of a Series, Republished on the 3rd Anniversary of Mexico’s Atenco Struggle
By Maria Botey Pascual
The people of Atenco, machetes held high
Photo: Mexico Indymedia
They took another step to stop the abuses by those who govern, in a process that unmasked the political simulation by three levels of government (that hide, of course, behind the supposed “rule of law”), awakened consciences and gave root to a new force in the fight for a more just world, where there ought to be a balanced distribution of wealth and governmental authorities must allow a role for the true representatives of society.
On October 21, 2001, in the morning’s first hour, the church bells rang throughout the affected towns to announce the terrible news: A large part of their lands had passed into government hands through an eminent domain decree that had, as its goal, the construction of a new International Airport in Mexico.
With an investment, in its first phase, of $2.8 billion dollars, they tried to build a giant infrastructure for an airport on 5,400 hectares straddling three towns: Atenco, Texcoco and Chimalhuacán, the first was the most affected in terms of the percent of land expropriated (70-percent), where some of its inhabitants would lose almost all of their crops as well as many of their houses.
Tearful, but also enraged and indignant because they had not been consulted on the matter – in violation of Chapter V of Mexico’s Article 115 governing municipal governments and land use – hundreds of townspeople blocked the road between Lechería and Texcoco for various hours on that same morning. They were armed with sticks, stones and machetes, the rural tool used by the multitudes in these latitudes that became the symbol of this struggle. The slogan during nine months of conflict was: “We will not give up our land, even if it means giving up our lives.”
Anyone who investigates the causes of this spontaneous and generalized attitude against the construction of this airport project will hear many reasons that converged in a word – Dignity! – a word that emerged from each mouth, youth, adult or elder. Behind it, the famous phrase of Emiliano Zapata: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” and the histories of the struggle by Pancho Villa and he, of the communiqués of the 1970s guerrilla movement articulated by Lucio Cabañas and Genero Vásquez, and of the words of Subcommandante Marcos and the indigenous of Chiapas, the most recent Mexicans to turn the world downside-up again.
The most basic is “The land is life, because it feeds us.” In spite of being one of the most forgotten regions in the Valley of México, the inhabitants of the land that once held, before the conquest, the great green lake of Texcoco, they have survived by farming, raising domestic animals, cultivating corn, beans, lima beans, string beans, alfalfa, barley, wheat, carrots, squash, onion, tomato, lettuce, and also wild plants like verdolagas, quelites, quintoniles, hollyhock and rosemary, and medicinal plants that above all are utilized and understood by the women, and they have produced all this at a level more or less equal to their level of consumption.
They spent more than eighty years recuperating this former lake bottom yard-by-yard – using ashes and dung (and without government aid) – the salty lands were delivered at the end of the Revolution, with its history of blood spilt for “Land and Liberty” (beforehand the zone belonged to just five gigantic haciendas), lands that were passed on from ancestors to grandparents who, bequeathing their parcels, said, “Never ever sell it, the land is worth more than gold.”
Faced with the seizure of their lands, the farmer men and women asked themselves: “We’re already poor. If they take away the land, how will we eat? Where are they going to send us to live? Will there be water in those lands? If they send us to other lands will be able to take those lands from us, too? Will they rob other farmers for the lands where they put us? If they send us to the city, how will we live, when all we know how to do is farm the land? Will we be able to leave our children a place to live and build their homes? Who will we have to ask for help if they leave us without land?”
Here, we arrive at the most basic reason: “The land is my life, my identity, and to lose it is my death.” And in spite of the gigantic advance of the largest human headquarters in América (Mexico City and its satellite cities), Texcoco’s land has maintained its rural essence, organized among communal lands most of which are divided in family ejidos, where the titleholders, peasant farmers and day laborers work. Above all, the area of Atenco maintains the community organization of collective life during important feasts and moments marking life or death, traditions whose origins go back to the pre-hispanic era (with pride, they speak of the park of Los Ahuehetes, where the Texcoco-born philosopher-king and poet Nezhualcóyotl walked amidst its millenarian trees).
Conscious that the siezure of 5,400 hectares would be only the first phase of a larger number of land-takings and the spreading urban development and a brutal infrastructure to connect the new International Airport with the industrial corridors that are part of the larger “Plan Puebla Panamá,” strongly pushed by President Vicente Fox… the inhabitants of this place saw themselves being sucked up by a hurricane of development and later expelled like garbage on the side of the highway, surrounded by cyclone fences (in Atenco, the project would take 80-percent of its terrain and almost the entire town of Ixapan). They saw their families would be dismembered, the inevitable increase in alcohol and drug addiction, and being sent to live in apartments, risen up in the air of places largely unknown to the farmers called cities: “We don’t want it, we would drown there.”
“And who really believes that later they will employ us in their luxury hotels, or even allow us into the airport with a little cart of tamales or atole? The only time they’ll come for us will be when, on the other side of the fence, they’ll be looking for some criminal,” was the final comment of one of the Atequenses interviewed by your correspondent.
But the principal cause of the rage and indignation that filled the town of Texcoco last April 22nd, was the cynicism and trickery they suffered at the hands of three levels of government that did not notify nor consult with them at any time about what was planned. This, in spite of multiple solicitations for information to the different agencies based on a suspicion, and reports in the media for some months before hand, that it was possible that the invasion would fall upon their heads.
Also, of course, the pay granted by the land-taking decree was 7.2 pesos (about 73 U.S. cents) per square meter, whether seized from farms or developed areas (without any other subsidy or secure proposal for their laboral and habitational relocation). “It doesn’t add up to enough for our families to live on,” said an elderly man. “Let the rich of this country give up their haciendas (maybe five percent of the Mexican public has been on an airplane), and see which of them will give up their land for seventy cents per meter,” said an elderly woman, shedding tears of a powerlessness felt. To all this you could add the lack of confidence that the Mexican public has in its own currency that, they know from experience and awareness of the current economic situation of the continent that the peso may be devalued at any moment.
The idea of building a new International Airport in Mexico began in the 1970s and was pushed by the Atlacomulco group presided over by the late Carlos Hank González. He achieved it when President Ernesto Zedillo approved, as his government was passing to the openly neoliberal administration of Vicente Fox, who, up to his neck in his commitment to build the airport project – a necessary step to achive the completion of Plan Puebla Panama in the South – kept this powerful branch of Zedillo’s PRI party in the government by naming Pedro Cerisola as Secretary of Transportation and Ernesto Velasco León as head of the national Airports and Auxiliary Services.
Under the direction of Governor Arturo Montiel Rojas of the State of México, the current chief of the Atlacomulco group with the constant “collaboration” of the state attorney general, Alfonso Navarrete Prida – the one who scorned the dissidents and threatened them with arrest warrants – all of them were cornerstones, among others, of the frustrated mega-business of the Fox presidency in which huge Mexican and foreign corporations (and, it is supposed, a handful of private speculators) had hoped to reap juicy benefits on the backs of the most humble. If the people had not risen up against it, they would have been kicked off their only goods by a corrupt action that is sadly common in this country, where there are hundreds or thousands (depending on which source does the counting) of examples of common farmland zones (“ejidos”) in many states that were never economically compensated for the expropriations in spite of having had been legally established at their foundation. Or they were paid not seven pesos but twenty centavos (two U.S. cents) per meter, or after being kicked off their lands they were charged rent to have a smaller parcel in the same place and at a high price, or, as recently happened in Acapulco, where although the court ruled in their favor, the businessmen didn’t want to let go of their dam. In fact, the former farmers of lands taken for the Lechería-Texcoco highway say they were never paid anything.
Suspecting the possible construction of the famous airport in Texcoco back in the 1970s, say some leaders of the Atenco uprising, and at least once in 1997, the communal lands of the region were divided among the residents with the objective of counting with more communal farm councils ready to fight for the land.
This was the first strategy of resistance against the airport from a social movement that, in spite of the reports broadcast by the media, was not born in October 2001, but long before. By the end of the 1970s, various towns of Atenco together with other municipalities expressed their dissent over a rise in housing taxes in a zone that is among the most marginalized in the State of México, and back then without the minimum services that would merit the exaggerated sum that the authorities tried to collect from townspeople who basically live from meal to meal. The police squashed the protests by students and farmers, but the tax was eventually cancelled.
A number of the participants in the resistance to the airport project by the peoples of the former lake of Texcoco had already participated in the social struggles to improve the conditions of life of the residents of the area. In the 1990s, they were able to organize into, first, the Popular Regional Front of Texcoco, and after that the Popular Front of the Valley of México, with the goal of uniting the communities through its local representatives and pushing social development against the existing lack of the most elemental services such as electricity, potable water, drainage, schools, health centers or projects to stimulate farming.
It was at the end of 1995 when, with these demands, they blocked the Lechería-Texcoco highway and when the Atenquenses experienced a trick pulled on them by the government, which agreed to a dialogue. The farmers lifted the blockade but the government only sent police in, and never showed up at the negotiating table.
Although the organization lived through a crisis due to the crudeness of this event, and some of its leaders then suffered manipulations by the government through slanders promoted by some of the most corrupt individuals within those communities, some of those social fighters, at the end of 2000, began to pay attention to the publicity, according to many of them, of the “supposed” competition between different States to have the airport located within their territories.
There, from the first months of 2001, some inhabitants of Atenco began asking for information from the local governmental authorities, which pled total ignorance of any airport matter (false statements, as they would later come to know, and that’s why they consider these authorities to be sell-outs and traitors). They began to assemble facts collected through the media and Internet, although it still wasn’t clear if the ex-lake of Texcoco would be the airport construction site “because the maps published on the Internet were imprecise and kept changing.”
It should be stressed that in this time the media manipulation had already begun, above all on television news, that presented the airport project as an opportunity for progress that would noticeably improve the lives of the residents of the area selected and that would generate thousands of jobs and a great economic boom that would benefit the people and the environment: propaganda based on supposed studies (later it would be known that there weren’t that many) that never took the opinion of the majority of the townspeople into account. (This can be proved in the document that the State of México published, but that was not made public, which spoke of airfields, highway infrastructure, soils and fauna, but never referred to any human problems, those humans whose small towns didn’t even appear on the map.)
According to statements by one of the leaders of the movement, it was in the summer of 2001 that a representative of the government finally came to the town (the only time that any authority came near the community, although many townspeople didn’t know about it at the time) to promote the airport plan with the same tone that it would be a project of “progress.” In a meeting “in which it was never determined what land-area would be affected but they told us that if some communal land-owner resulted to be outside of the perimeter, the farmer would be paid commercial prices for the land,” as well as other confusing, tricky and shameful messages by the authorities who have been involved throughout this process. (The government would later come blasting into the community, trumpeting the decision to put the airport in Texcoco as if the locals had won the lottery, saying that with the airport their sons would have the opportunity to gain careers as jet pilots.)
While the pressure from the media began to take root among some residents of the zone, and others doubted that it would really be brought about in Texcoco, a small group of people organized Sunday assemblies in the municipal auditorium of Atenco to question the consequences of the possible airport. They invited professors from a nearby university to inform about the potential impacts, and tried, together, to plan actions that might be necessary for any contingency. At the same time the tension rose in the community after the discovery, on the lands of various communal farmers, topographers that, upon being questioned about their presence, answered only that “we’re just looking,” but never explained the reason for being there, and a mayor who never answered the questions that the populace had for him.
These suspicious actions culminated in the discovery, in early October last year, of soil-extraction machinery in lands adjacent to San Salvador Atenco without any permission from the property owners. Angry already about the violations to their rights while the government had still not given them the courtesy of communicating openly about the new airport (although some political leaders were made suspicious by the secret nature of media questions), the communal farmers drove the trucks and the soil drill to the Town Square, where they were guarded night and day by what became the first Popular Guardians. It was then that various residents of the towns held the first marches in the region demanding an explanation from the government for the trespass upon their lands and demanding that the airport project be stopped. Meanwhile, the mayor of San Salvador Atenco claimed he knew nothing about the protests, and accused the participants of being outside agitators.
When the order finally came to sieze the lands, the non-believers awoke from their dream, and the opposition to the construction of the International Airport in Texcoco rose in volume: Hundreds of neighbors blocked the highway, while declarations against the airport multiplied. The opposition included the government of nearby Mexico City, as well as university students and environmentalists who warned about the dangers of flooding in the city caused by the destruction of the natural drainage of the area. They also warned of the disappearance of a migratory bird sanctuary where birds from Canada and the United States stop to rest, and this later provoked a legal complaint under the environmental clauses of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The issue of the birds launched a national joke, after the Secretary of Transportation Pedro Cerisola y Weber said that if the birds had accepted the airport in Mexico City, they then also accept the new one.
Those who were not in agreement were never consulted nor duly informed at any moment, and they were the residents of the towns affected. From the first day they established a permanent occupation of the Town Square of San Salvador Atenco and they organized to resist. But they were also opposed because it was already clear that, because of the powerful interests at play, they would have to take effective measures against the project before the first shovel of dirt was removed.
There, they constructed the first barricades and walls to impede the passage of the machines, and they organized in a more or less spontaneous form with distinct commissions for vigilance, collection of supplies and funds, a kitchen to feed the popular guardians and communications, while support from other towns in the region began to arrive, as well as from the first national civil organizations that declared solidarity with the movement.
Maria Botey Pascual is the author of “A la recerca d’El Quemado” (“In Search of Burnt Mountain”) (2002, Columna Press, Barcelona), has been a correspondent for the Mexican daily Por Esto!, and participant in the journalistic coverage by Narco News of the 2001 Zapatista Caravan. She reported this story from San Salvador Atenco.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism