Rebellion in San Salvador Atenco

One, Two, Many Chiapases;
campesino direct action getting the goods


When the Mexican government announced the expropriation of 5000 hectares of farmland around San Salvador Atenco, 20 miles outside Mexico City, they presumed everyone was on board for their big airport plans. Addressing the campesinos who were about to lose their land, their communities and their way of life, President Fox gushed how they had in effect "won the lottery…" and there would be jobs a plenty at the airport.

Winning the lottery’ has not been sweet for Jose Espinosa, a farmer and activist from Atenco, who died in hospital July 24 from injuries received at the hands of the Federal Police at an anti-airport demonstration.

The 2 billion dollar airport project is a key element, alongside the Plan Puebla-Panama, of the Fox administrations’ plan to modernize the country and make the economy more competitive globally and specifically, within the Nafta and proposed FTAA trade zones. The issue of the officially decreed expropriation of the land was not considered to be a hurdle — the campesinos were offered a small sum for their land and promised employment at the airport as ‘janitors or security guards’.

"Even if they offered us millions for our land we would not accept it," said one Atenco campesino in response. Last November, thousands of them descended onto the Capital, many on horseback, masked like Zapatistas and wielding machetes. Fierce clashes with the Police ensued. Fox had seriously underestimated the resolve of the potentially dispossessed campesinos.

Under the Government decree 4.375 families would be forced to abandon their land. This is ejido land held communally by Indigenous Nahau communities since the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

" The land is priceless," said a 70-year-old ejidatario (communal landowner) with a small plot and 10 children. "And besides, I will not sell it. The land is our sustenance. Here we live day to day."

And this is how the campesinos frame their argument. Fox thinks of the land in terms of money, and an opportunity to attract foreign investment while they see it in terms of a way of life. The land that nourishes and sustains them, and the generations before and to come. The conflict in Atenco has become a microcosm for the broader worldwide clash between capitalist globalization and grass roots resistance.

"We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again," declared a third generation ejidatario. " We will defend our land with our lives. They are killing our people, our families. "

In their almost daily demonstrations the campesinos march behind a banner proclaiming ‘The peasants of today are combative and we have stood up to fight against the airport. We represent rebel dignity.’

Rebel dignity, the phase oft quoted by the Zapatistas. The Chiapas insurrectionaries have been quiet of late, reeling under the pressure of insidious counter-insurgency strategies set to divide their support base. Last years initiative to present demands for indigenous autonomy before Congress faltered in what the EZLN charge as a ‘betrayal’ on the part of the Fox administration.

The government may be able to curtail the Zapatistas , but other points of resistance continually sprout up like rhizomes, as if out of nowhere. Like the massive and ongoing campaign of civil disobedience in the southern coastal towns, refusing to pay increased electricity charges. Or the year long student upheaval in the National University two years ago. Or before that, the uprising in the town of Tepotzlan, in a land conflict similar to Atenco, contested militantly by the locals, and won.

And so in the Atenco conflict, the shadow of the Zapatistas is looming over the Fox administration. Indeed Zapatista inspiration is every-where present in the Atenco rebellion. Not only in the slogans, the masks, the strategies of struggle, but also the forms of organization. Police and government officials were ejected from the region. Barricades went up to keep them out and guarded around the clock by all sections of the community. Engineers contracted by the Govrnment were held hostage until they turned over the full plans. The residents began to govern themselves autonomously through Popular Assemblies (in many ways similar to the Community Assemblies in Argentina). In a gesture of homage, they declared themselves an ‘Autonomous Municipality in Rebellion’ on New Years Eve 2001, marking the eight anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising.

Events took a dramatic turn on July 11. 100 campesinos went to demonstrate in a nearby town where the state governor was preparing a speech. The federal Police ambushed the delegation, seriously injuring several and hauling 11 off to the state jail, including two of the supposed ‘leaders’. In response, the campesinos in Ateco rose up, fought pitch battles armed with molotov cocktails and machetes, burnt police vehicals and took 19 government officials and police hostage in exchange for the prisoners. A siege developed as 3000 law enforcement agents, including the army, surrounded the town.

For three days, the stand-off continued, riviting the nation. Solidarity flowed into the community-in-resistance in the form of the formation of a ‘Peace Cordon’ with volunteers from a wide range of local civil society organisations, campesino groups, trade unions, human rights activists and students. Other communities in the region blockaded roads in wild-cat actions. Suddenly, after months of being studiously ignored by the state media (barring La Jornada), the rebellion in Atenco became all the news. And now they were vilified, accused of being ‘terrorists’ and plotting with ‘guerrilla bands’.

But the community remained firm and on July 15, the government tactically retreated. The Atenco rebels declared victory and celebrated with a huge demonstration ‘victory’ in front of the seat of Government in the Capital. Fox, ex-boss of Coca Cola Mexico and ever the shrewd businessman, courted the rebels with offers of a better financial deal.

David Pajaro, spokesperson for the Atenco delegation spelt out their total rejection of any financial settlement — "Not for 7 pesos a square meter, nor for 700 pesos…"

And what common ground is there? The peasants starting point is ‘no airport’. The governments loyalty lies with the project backers, big business and foreign investment. Fox’s neo-liberal strategy to ‘re-structure’ Mexico is invested in the construction of the airport. The memory of ‘betrayal’ of the Zapatistas by the Fox administration lingers clearly in the perspective of the protesters.

The Rebellion of San Salvador Atenco has the prospect of kickstarting an even greater wave of anti-globalization protest across the nation, and the Fox government’s response over the next few weeks will be crucial. And as one masked rebel at the barricades said last week, "What is happening in Atenco is like the effect of one, two, many Chiapases"


To the Chiapas and the Zapatista rebellion page