Mexico: The Conflict in San Salvador Atenco

Translated by Cole Miller

The government of Mexican president Vicente Fox issued a presidential decree on October 2 of last year by virtue of which more than 5,000 hectares were expropriated in the municipalities of Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco (in the State of Mexico) for the construction of a new international airport in Mexico D.F.  This decision was framed within a plan to modernize Mexican infrastructure with the aim of achieving better integration of the Mexican economy into global markets, a project closely related to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into force on January 1, 1994, and in effect will expand Plan Puebla-Panama.

The Fox government decided that dispossessed communal farmers –  the majority of whom have worked these lands for at least two generations – would be paid between 7 and 25 pesos per square meter.  These amounts are laughably small from every point of view: from the standpoint of the impoverished situation in which the dispossessed farmers will be left; and in light of the enormous windfall the business group handling airport construction stands to reap from the lands.  It should be emphasized that the farmers made clear their utter refusal to abandon their land from the moment the government went public with its intention to construct the airport, a project which would be the grand achievement of Fox’s six year term.  The communal farmers of Atenco-Texcoco expressed their opposition to the project through appeals filed with the Superior Court of Justice and daily protests in Zócalo, D.F.  In this respect, we should not forget that the government disregarded other possible sites for airport construction, such as vacant land owned by the government in D.F. and land in the State of Hidalgo that belongs to farmers who have expressed willingness to sell their land for the project.  In fact, the real motives that lead to the selection of the current Atenco-Texcoco location have never been clear.

Throughout protests that lasted for nine months, the Fox government didn’t show the least interest in the conflict; the media demonstrated similar indifference by failing to report multiple public events the farmers organized in defense of their land.  Despite daily protest marches by the communal farmers (instantly recognizable by the large machetes they blandish in the air, symbols of their work on the land), newspapers (with the notable exception of La Jornada) and the Aztec – Televisa news programs barely mentioned the controversy.  The media echoed sporadic government declarations, like those of Fox himself, according to whom communal farmers “had won the lottery” by being dispossessed.  And it’s not simply that the media failed to make any effort to provide sociopolitical context for the conflict.  They didn’t even bother to compare information given them by the government with the position held by the communal farmers.  The strategy of the media and the government press office was two-fold: first, to speak of the conflict as little as possible in order to make it more likely that the farmers’ claims would remain invisible in the media, and, second, to belittle their public image so that anyone who happened to become aware that the problem even existed would immediately understand that “those people are so stupid that they can’t even recognize how tremendously lucky they are.” 

Everything changed on Thursday, July 11, when eleven communal farmers – two supposed “leaders” of the campesino movement could be found among them – were jailed when heated confrontations with the police broke out during protests against the state governor.  It was an obvious provocation (strongly reminiscent of methods used during the dirty war of the 60’s and 70’s) whose objective was to decapitate the movement of resistance against expropriation. But the government shot itself in the foot.  The communal farmers knew perfectly well what their motives were, independent of the presence of those two men [the supposed “leaders” of the movement].  In reaction to the arrests, the farmers decided to take fourteen hostages and to entrench themselves among their people by raising barricades. The resulting tension grew to such a pitch that the media and the government had no choice but to give the farmers their complete attention.

The media strategy changed completely from that moment on.  The barricades and brandished machetes were a journalist’s wet dream, and the media could no longer ignore the conflict.  But [the government’s] determination to impose a decision it had already made, the powerful economic interests behind it (the business consortium Atlacomulco) and the certainty that they could manage the media to their own advantage seemed to impede any thorough-going reconsideration of the presidential decree.  So they decided instead to criminalize the movement.  Between the 12th and 15th of July, an overwhelming majority of the media (once more with the exception of La Jornada) insisted on sensationalizing the raised machetes, thereby magically transforming them from symbols of working the land into irrefutable proof of the demonstrators’ criminal violence.  However, not even the media power of the Mexican press could convince public opinion that those 4375 campesino families were entirely composed of wicked psychopaths.  They therefore began running incessant reports about small violent groups that had allegedly penetrated the campesino movement and were “terroristing” the movement from within (especially pertinent in this respect was the information spewed by CNN, available via its web page). 

The presence of students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who attempted to form “peace cordons” to discourage assaults by the police and the army surrounding the municipality offered another media opportunity to discredit the movement.  An earlier media campaign in 1999 had attempted to criminalize students who organized a strike that closed the school that year.  The media began to report the presence of members of CGH (General Strike Committee, the student organ during the strike which, as a matter of fact, no longer exists) identifying them by their aliases (El Universal reported insistently about the presence of “The Mosh,” a ready symbol of university violence) in order to fabricate an implicit understanding of something that was impossible to demonstrate explicitly: the extreme violence of their acts.  El Universal even reported, on the front page of its July 13 edition, that, “according to government reports,” the presence of two members of “the separatist band ETA” had been detected (very strange that these members were not detained and sent back to Spain in light of the extradition treaties in force between the two countries), along with one supposed member of Sendero Luminoso.  Curiously, despite the initial prominence given to this information, the following editions made no mention of these mysterious terrorists, neither to confirm their presence nor to disclaim their existence.

On the other hand, the media remained silent about the true claims of the communal farmers.  They focused solely on the paltry amount they had received for the expropriation and not on their categorical refusal to sell their land (“Not for 7 or 7000” was how David Pajaro, the movement’s spokesman between July 11 and 16, made that point).  While La Jornada stressed demographic, social and political context, all other Mexican and Spanish media that covered the news (at least El Pais, ABC and La Vanguardia) reported exclusively about the economic issue.  In no case was reference made to the general problem of campesinos in relation to the land, despite the fact that this question has generated ceaseless tension ever since Spanish colonization and –  without going any farther afield – has been central to the claims of the Zapatista movement since its inception in 1994.  But even when, in subsequent days, no one could overlook the community farmers’ absolute refusal to sell their lands, the reasons why they might want to remove their lands from the free play of the Market was never clarified or discussed.

The tremendous interest the conflict awakened in the Mexican people made it impossible to silence the voice of the farmers, and the media finally had to accept the fact that they didn’t want to sell at any price.  After detained communal farmers were released on bail and the captured functionaries were set free, the actual demands of the campesino movement began to appear in the media. But now that they were no longer dismissed as idiots or criminals – after all, they hadn’t burned the hostages alive, or cut off their ears (a fear that had filled major headlines) – the media strategy evolved into a third stage: suggesting that while a majority of farmers were opting to negotiate the sales price for their lands, a radical minority refused to participate in the negotiations.  A majority of the communications media (read for example the July 15 editions of El Universal and Excelsior) echoed the statements of Governance Secretary Santiago Creel, who declared that substantial progress was being made in negotiations with 10 of the 13 communities involved in the conflict.  Thus a viewer or reader who knew little about the situation would conclude that a small group of lunatic idealists were trying to radicalize the situation by imposing their will on everyone else.  You had to read La Jornada to discover that most of the communal farmers – who own the most of the land –  also belong to the three dissenting communities.

Despite the enormous media campaign, the communal farmers presented documents to the government in which they stuck to their demand that all dialogues be held under conditions of maximum publicity, “before the people and with the assistance of the press” (La jornada, 7/17).  Their starting point was that everyone should know what the communal farmers wanted, since if their real intentions were known no one would have any choice but to help them in their struggle.  Meanwhile, when President Fox was asked about the dialogues during an interview on CNN en español, he answered that he could make no statements about the matter because they might interfere with the progress of the discussions.  The two attitudes toward the media were very clear: while one side’s political attitude is guided by a desire that all important events of political interest take place within conditions of complete transparency, as open and inclusive discussion of the problem in its various aspects would lead to the best resolution of the problem, the other has attempted to inculcate some things while hiding others, administering the information, as if there were a conflict between their attitudes toward the problem and the public expression of such attitudes.

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