In 2001 and 2002 townspeople and ejidatarios of San Salvador Atenco, Mexico successfully halted a plan proposed by then President Vicente Fox to expropriate more than 1,100 hectares of their farmland and territory for the construction of an International Airport. Now in 2013, the deceased plan has been revived to haunt and threaten them.
“This is worse than before,” says Jorge Oliveros, ejiditario and longtime member of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), the grassroots organization that successfully lead the opposition campaign in 2001- 2002. “If the previous project was outrageous, than the current one is even more so. In 2001, 90 percent of our territory was included [in the project], now its 95 percent but with the same strategy of division, threats, repression and death.”
The mega-project, dubbed the “Future City” seeks to expropriate more than 1,500 hectares of land from Atenco and more than 15,000 from the region. It’s not just for the infamous airport but to also accommodate Mexico City’s land hungry and rampantly growing urbanization that nearly extends to the outskirts of rural Atenco and it’s neighboring town, Texcoco.
The FPDT claims it obtained leaked information by ICA, Mexico’s largest construction company, that outlines some of the specific infrastructure projects for the territory. These projects include an area designated for industrial parks, a residential zone for new condominium complexes, a rural campus for Mexico City’s Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), and of course the airport.
Same Strategy New Plan
In 2001, the government’s plan was clear and straightforward. A presidential decree was to evict the ejidatarios from their land, paying them $72,000 pesos per hectare. The current plan is much more subtle with a higher price tag.
“They show us maps saying that ejidatarios have already turned in documents to sell their land, however this is not true,” said Oliveros. According to ejidatarios in the region, representatives from the government’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA) are offering $1,700,000 pesos per hectare, claiming that the majority of the people in the region have already sold-out. “This is to generate confusion and fear. To fuel the rumor that this is something inevitable, that everyone is selling out,” Oliveros added.
However, according to the FPDT only a small minority has actually handed over their papers to sell their land. Many of these deals have occurred in surrounding communities such as Nexquipayac, Francisco Madero and Santa Isabel Ixtapa. This has led the organization to believe that it’s a strategy to isolate and besiege Atenco for its staunch resistance to selling.
“It’s not that it’s a lot of land. The problem is where the purchased land is located; on the outskirts, encircling us. What they want to do is to isolate us,” stated Jorge Flores of the FPDT. The organization also affirms that pressuring ejidatarios to sell their land is illegal, “because by law the ejidal assemblies need to be consulted. But those that have already sold were told not to take their decision to the assemblies,” said Flores.
The ejidatarios see the problem of water as being another component. They fear that if the mega-project is approved and moves forward that their access to water for irrigation and farming will be cut off. They also believe that CONAGUA is actively reducing their access to water to pressure the sale of their lands.
“We are already experiencing water shortages. CONAGUA is now cancelling wells for irrigation so that we can’t harvest on our land or have a supply to our communities, all in order to pressure us to sell our lands,” said Hortensia Ramos, schoolteacher and longtime FPDT member.
Land: Identity, History and Life not Property
“Twelve years ago we said: When did the government ever ask us if we wanted to sell our land? Because of this the government learned how to ask questions. They now ask us farmworkers, do you want to sell your land? But we also learned. We learned that territory does not just mean land, but rather our customs and roots,” said Trinidad Ramirez, notable FPDT member and wife to Ignacio de Valle, a former FPDT political prisoner.
According to the ejidatarios the land has value beyond a monetary quantity. The area is an agricultural zone that predominantly produces the cash crops of corn and beans, but is also characterized by small subsistence farming. “If I have corn, I can sell the husks…I can also raise turkey, chicken, and other animals…and so my hectare of land allows me to be autonomous,” explained Adan Espinoza, FPDT member and former political prisoner.
The area also has a rich cultural past that is monumentalized in to two pre-Hispanic archaeological zones and the Atetetelco Park that belonged to the Aztec emperor Nezahualcóyotl. These sites are located within the zones planned to be developed.
“Here is where we were born, where we saw our grandparents and our own parents die. To not be outraged by these threatening declarations is to allow the desecration of the burial grounds of your dead, which is sacred,” said Ramirez.
Atenco: Chronicle of Struggle, Repression and Looming Shadow of Conflict
Atenco became recognized worldwide in 2001-2002 for its struggle to defend and protect its land. The ejidatario’s accomplishment in stopping the international airport was celebrated by many as a victory against the encroachment of foreign capital that sought to eradicate the farmworker’s way of life.
Armed with sticks and machetes – their primary farm tool and icon of struggle – the ejidatarios had gone to the streets to protest and express their rage for not being consulted about the land procurements. However, they were met by a stiff and heavy-handed police response that only bolstered their support and popularity, eventually leading to their victory and recall of the airport in 2002.
In May of 2006 images of the symbolic machetes returned to the public eye, when state and federal riot police heavily repressed the FPDT after supporting protesting flower vendors in the neighboring town of Texcoco. The then Mexico State governor and now president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered the operation on May 3 and 4 that resulted in the death of a 14-year-old boy, hundreds detained and tortured, indiscriminant house searches and the rape of women. Of those detained, 12 received abusively high sentences. Later in 2010 after international campaigns for their release, all were set free.
Many international human rights organizations condemned the Mexican Government’s repressive response to the protests. In a recently leaked by Wikileaks U.S. Embassy Cable (06MEXICO2517), the U.S. Government even viewed the response as “excessive” and “embarrassing”. However the women who were victims to the unlawful police detentions, torture and rape, say that the response goes well beyond an embarrassment to brutality and violence. Seven years after the events, they are now just being granted a hearing in the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC).
Although the government has had a steady track record of being “excessive” in its response to protest and opposition, Trinidad Ramirez believes that with the new threat to Atenco’s territory, the government will be more careful in how it responds to dissent. “It may not be massive, but rather selective, however we can’t rule it out,” said Ramierez. This selection may prove to be more divisive and harmful to Atenco’s opposition, since the plan has been to divide neighbors over whether to sell and to break the unified strength of the FPDT.
However, Ramirez believes that the strength of the FPDT is firm and its resistance to the mega-project that threatens life, as the ejidatariosknow it, is firm. She said that the FPDT cannot break promises made to previous members who have now passed on.
“Many of them took us by the hand, making us promise that we would not sell this land. How can we sell it? How can we surrender if we have made a commitment to our dead?” said Ramirez.
Clayton Conn is a photo/ multimedia, independent journalist based in Mexico City. You can see more of his work athttp://www.claytonconnmedia.com