‘And flowers bled in Atenco’

San Salvador Atenco and the Suppression of Mexican Democracy

By Andrew Kennis

August 2006

On May 3 of this year, at about 7 a.m., Mexican state police in the city of Texcoco blocked some five dozen flower vendors from setting up their stalls in the local market. Police authorities had reportedly alerted the vendors days beforehand that their space would be blocked by officers. A handful of activists accompanied the vendors to work, determined to force the police to let the vendors carry on with their business. When the police violently stood their ground, additional supporters were called and a confrontation ensued.

Resistance quickly spread, as protesters blockaded the Lecher’a-Texcoco highway that joins the two towns and lies about fourteen miles northeast of Mexico City. Protesters initially thwarted police efforts to break up the blockade, but the police response intensified until about 3,500 officers swept through Atenco in an indiscriminate wave of brutality, beating and arresting hundreds of protesters and bystanders.

Within the context of a presidential election campaign and an increasingly politicized Mexican underclass willing to defend itself in the streets if necessary, Atenco exploded onto the national scene, with bloody scenes of police repression and resistance broadcast live on Mexico’s two corporate networks, Televisa and Azteca. Indeed, Atenco played an important role in setting the stage for the highly dubious election tally, which denied center-left candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador his expected victory. The preliminary results (which have yet to be certified by the electoral tribunal as this goes to press) awarded the Mexican presidency to right-wing candidate Felipe Calderon by a razor-thin margin of 0.58 per cent of the vote, though evidence of widespread irregularities have provoked Lopez Obrador and his supporters to demand a full recount.

The repression in Atenco had a tremendous impact on the election, both for the Left, galvanizing the popular movements that were in many ways the backdrop to this election, and for the Right, violently breaking up those movements and seeking to discredit them in the corporate press.

All eyes on Atenco

Atenco is a dirt-poor farming town of 30,000 people, where street-side cockfights and grilled corn-on-the-cob are standard fare. But beneath its humble exterior, Atenco is no stranger to conflict.

Atenco’s head-high fields of corn and copper-colored beans were what soft-spoken and modest corn farmers found themselves defending in 2002, as Mexico’s President Vicente Fox sought to annex Atenco’s farming lands for the construction of a new airport servicing Mexico City. After a drawn-out struggle that included hospitalizations, dozens of arrests, a hostage crisis, an occupation of a major highway, many rallies, a mass march in Mexico City and a tragic fatality, the residents of Atenco were finally assured that they would not have their land taken away from them when an official government announcement canceled the airport construction plans in August 2002.

Thus, the people of Atenco successfully unseated a business-centred airport construction plan that would have all but completely destroyed the community’s long-standing agricultural-based existence. That existence, in some instances, was based on the communal farming of land dating from land reforms that were instituted after the Mexican revolution early in the last century. (For an account of this historic victory, see “High-flying Captains of Industry are Stopped in Mid-Flight” by Andrew Kennis, Briarpatch Magazine, November 2002.)

Following the dramatic defense of Atenco’s farming lands, the newly empowered and radicalized popular movements managed to unseat the corrupt municipal government, which had been dominated by the infamously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). For over seven decades, the PRI had a stranglehold over Mexican politics, which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. Of the three major parties, the PRI now holds the least number of seats in Mexico’s Congress.

“Atenco played an important role in setting the stage for Mexico’s highly dubious preliminary election results.”

After the PRI was driven away from the town, Atenco’s civil society, led by the Popular Front for the Defense of the Land and its spokesperson Ignacio del Valle, inaugurated a year’s worth of autonomous rule from the summer of 2002 through the summer of 2003. During this autonomous period, civil society administered the day-to-day governmental affairs that previously only corrupt municipal officials had overseen. Activists in and around Atenco managed to extend autonomous municipal rule into the neighboring communities of Santa Isabel Ixtapa, Nexquipayac, Francisco I. Madero, Acuexcomac, and Zapotlan. This established Atenco as one of the most important autonomous communities in Mexico, and it became even more closely allied with the Zapatistas.

These successes represented a serious threat to Mexico’s elite: with a presidential election looming and a popular leftist candidate poised to win, Atenco had to be made an example of.

Police crack-down

The resulting police incursion was particularly excessive for what was ostensibly a mere attempt to close flower stands, as the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) wielded high-caliber weapons and undertook 209 arrests of vendors, local activists, reporters, and a number of foreigners. All 209 of those arrested were hospitalized as a result of brutal police treatment. Social movement leader Ignacio del Valle was among those arrested, and del Valle was brutally beaten by police officers, as pictures later published in the Mexican mass media revealed. Del Valle is no stranger to police repression and jail time, as he was also imprisoned at one point of Atenco’s previous struggle in 2002.

Illegal searches, arrests, robberies, torture of detainees, sexual abuse and fatalities rounded out the long list of human rights violations reported against police in Atenco. These gross violations serve as a chilling throw-back to an era in Mexican history where such operations were routinely conducted against activists—-a period known as the guerra sucia, the “dirty-war” of the 1970s.

Two young men were killed during the clashes with police on May 3, 2006, including fourteen-year-old Francisco Javier Cortes Santiago, who died from shots fired by state policemen, as revealed in an interview of three police officers by the Miguel Angel Pro Juarez Human Rights Center.

Hundreds more civilians were beaten and jailed, while twenty-three of the forty-seven women detained were raped or sexually abused. The abused included foreigners Samantha Deitmar, a German documentary film-maker, two Catalonians, Maria Sostres and Cristina Valls, and Chilean Italia Mendez, all of whom gave detailed accounts of the abuse to media in their respective countries.

These abuses were carried out with near-impunity, as twenty-three low-ranking officers involved in the raid and the abuses have been given injunctions protecting them from being jailed. Thirteen state police officers were charged with abuse of authority, a misdemeanor, on June 26. No officers with any decision-making power, much less any officials who may have been involved with the planning of the repression, have received any charges; facts that have not been lost on rank-and-file officers, who spoke out against such omissions in an interview published in Narco News.

The pundits and the bandits

The sheer scale of the raid on the flower vendors and the vicious tactics undertaken by state authorities, including an exaggerated show of force for such a low-priority operation, point to a carefully timed and politically motivated police raid designed to provoke, and then savagely repress, Atenco’s social movement. The clash occurred only two months before the election, at a time when Lopez Obrador was enjoying a double-digit lead in the polls.

Broad segments of the corporate media seized on footage of protesters clashing with police while pundits implored the police to escalate repression against the “bandits” and trouble-makers. This incessant, one-sided coverage sought to turn public opinion against the “senseless” violence of the protesters, while subtle yet false associations were often made between the Lopez Obrador campaign and Atenco, as if the soft-spoken candidate was responsible for the resistance to the repression that took place in Texcoco. As election day drew nearer, attack ads were aired repeatedly on both corporate networks claiming that Lopez Obrador “accepts barbarism and breaks the law,” and declaring him “a danger to Mexico.”

In reality, however, Atenco activists and adherents to the Other Campaign were some of Lopez Obrador’s harshest critics, with Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos dismissing him as “the left hand of the Right.” In a failed attempt to distance himself from the movement, Lopez Obrador himself declined to condemn the police brutality in Atenco.

Another important motive for the state repression was the elimination or decapitation of a popular social movement. Some of the cause’s most committed and effective activists continue to languish in jail, as only seventeen of the 209 arrested have been released, while twenty-eight continue to be held indefinitely and 144 have been given a chance to post bail. In this sense, the crackdown on Atenco killed two birds with one stone, in that it served as an invaluable (perhaps essential, in light of the election results) propaganda tool while also repressing an increasingly popular and radical social movement.

After two tragic deaths, a contested and possibly fraudulent presidential election, dozens of cases of police brutality, and an apparent “dirty war” being conducted by Mexican police authorities, Mexico’s civil society faces an enormous challenge in overcoming the current wave of repression. The people of Atenco and their many supporters will be front-and-centre in this struggle.

Andrew Kennis is an adjunct professor of communications and political science and an independent journalist who splits his time between Mexico City, Chiapas, and New York City. He can be reached at [email protected].

Reference information for this article was drawn from sources including the Los Angeles Times, La Jornada (Mexico City), Counterpunch, the Chiapas Peace House Project, El Pais and Narco News.

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