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Massacre in Atenco: Violence, Politics and Other Campaigns in Mexico

By Chris Thomas  

A reflection on media spin and the Otra Campaña in the wake of the violence in Atenco earlier this month.

Last week, in the morning hours of May 3rd, state police blocked 60 flower vendors from setting up their stands in the public market in Texcoco, State of Mexico, just outside the sprawling limits of Mexico City.  Those who resisted were met with a brutal police response, were beaten and thrown in jail.  After this violent confrontation, the vendors called upon the residents of neighboring San Salvador Atenco, and the campesino organization People's Front in Defense of the Land (Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de las Tierras, FPDT), for support.  The Atencans, whose history of militancy was most recently branded in the Mexican imaginary in their 2002 confrontations with police over the planned construction of an airport through the town, responded by setting up a blockade in the highway between Atenco and Texcoco.  As swarms of riot police repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to lift the blockade, the repression quickly turned to violence as the police, in full body armor and armed with tear gas, batons and firearms, clashed with the Atencans, who, machetes in hands, resisted with rocks and molotov cocktails.  After the police were expelled from Atenco, residents awoke the next morning to between 3 and 6 thousand state and federal riot police raiding the town, beating and arresting anybody in sight, and conducting violent house to house raids in search of the alleged leaders. 

      Although the violence was severe on both sides, it is hard to compare the handful of hostages and beatings suffered by the police, to the hundreds that were beaten, jailed, raped, and even killed, in the case of one 14 year old boy.  The FPDT, as supporters of the Zapatistas' 'other campaign', and having just met with Subcomandante Marcos the previous week as the caravan passed through Atenco, called upon the EZLN and supporters of the 'other campaign' for solidarity in the wake of the violence.  Marcos, after suspending the 'other campaign' and declaring the Zapatista communities in Chiapas on red-alert, led a 6,000 strong march into Atenco on Friday, May 5th, the day after police raided Atenco. 

      The past week has witnessed a national outcry against the repression, illegal detentions (including 5 foreigners who were deported), sexual abuse, and rape suffered at the hands of the police as well as its official endorsement by the government.  Yet despite the atrocity of the events, the entire situation has been underreported by the majority of national and international media outlets, and has been turned into a political pawn for the upcoming presidential elections.  For all intents and purposes, the entire situation has been synthesized into the following hypothetical headline, 'violent machete wielding peasants clash with valiant public servants.'  And though somewhat exaggerated, this headline gives an idea of the way that mainstream media outlets have been polarizing the question around violence.  It is not just about angry peasants or heartless police, but rather the dynamics of power, the power to govern and the powerlessness of being governed, and how violence and knowledge are mediated by those that govern to further reinforce their own power.  

Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra 
      In order to justify the overwhelming use of force, the government has continually vilified the FPDT as a 'violent minority' that instigated the events, and must be handled to the 'fullest extent of the law' in order to reinstate the 'peace' of  'law and order.'  But pushing through the rhetoric for a minute, let's look briefly at the history of the FPDT.

      The FPDT was officially formed in December of 2001 in response to government plans to build an airport on their lands with minimal compensation.  Violent confrontations carried into 2002 as the residents of Atenco, machetes in hands, came out victorious against an army of riot police leading, in August 2002, to the cancellation of the airport plans.  Following their victory, which was an embarrassment to the Fox administration, the Atencans and their machetes (already a symbol of Mexico's campesinos and revolutionary history) became exemplars of national popular protest. 

      The organizing did not stop with the airport victory, however, and in September of the same year, the communities of San Salvador, Santa Isabel Ixtapa, Nexquipayac, Francisco I. Madero, Acuexcomac, and Zapotlán took measures to transform Atenco into an autonomous municipality.  They set up a popular council to replace the then current PRI (Party of Institutionalized Revolution) government, prevented elections from being carried out, and began to take matters into their own hands.  Shortly thereafter, the government began negotiating the release of the political prisoners from the airport struggle in exchange for giving up their occupation of the municipal buildings and vehicles.  The hand-off was made, the prisoners from Atenco were released, and 4 working groups were set up between Atenco and the government regarding health, education, the campo, and social problems. 

      Beyond their own local struggle, following the airport victory members of the FPDT worked directly with other organizations that had come to help with their organizing efforts.  They worked with indigenous groups struggling to create autonomous transportation collectives in Texcoco, struggled with campesino organizations fighting the construction of the giant dam project, 'La Parota', in Guerrero, and even collaborated with organizations as far away as Central America and France. 

      Late in 2004, they again gained national attention as they fought side by side with the campesino organization People's Front in Defense of the Teotihuacán Valley (Frente en Defensa del Valle de Teotihuacán, FDVT) to oppose the construction of a Wal-Mart in Teotihuacán.  Although the construction of Wal-Mart eventually went ahead, it wasn't without violent clashes between these two organizations and police forces resulting in injuries, jail time, and the destruction of a number of police vehicles.  According to the FPDT, the recent confrontations in Atenco also have their roots in development plans to expel 'illegitimate' vendors in order to make room for a Wal-Mart in Texcoco.  Since April 20th of this year, there has been increased repression against the vendors, and the events of last week exploded only after weeks of petitions for negotiations were ignored.   

      In addition to these confrontations the FPDT has also, on occasion, taken government officials hostage (this is actually a fairly common practice in Mexican grassroots struggles) in order to negotiate the release of their own leaders being held as political prisoners-another more controversial aspect of their struggle.  Yet despite repeated attempts at diplomacy, it is only these more violent acts that become the focus of both government and the media attention.  It is true that Atenco and the FPDT's refusal of unjust government development projects that threaten their land, way of life, and means of subsistence, has led to violent confrontations with police.  But to discredit their broader struggle and label them as 'a violent minority' only serves to reinforce the monopoly of legitimized violence held by the government.  They are not violent unwittingly and without reason, but rather committed to their struggle for land and liberty, as Malcolm X would say, 'by any means necessary.' 

Media and Politics: Spin that Violence! 
      Now, I don't want to start spinning any outlandish conspiracy theories here, but we also need to keep in mind that all of this is happening in the heat of the electoral campaigns for the upcoming presidential elections on July 2nd-a fact that has certainly not been lost on the candidates.  Both PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo and PAN's Felipe Calderón have jumped at the opportunity to throw some of this bloody Atenco mud at the 'radical leftist' PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  With the help of the media focus on the violent acts allegedly perpetrated by the FPDT, both candidates have implicated AMLO in the violence, saying that what happened in Atenco is just the beginning of the violence that would ravage Mexico were he to win the presidency.  Both candidates have embraced the rhetoric of peace, security, law, and order  in the hopes of galvanizing voters towards their cause, taking advantage of the fear that the media's images have supposedly instilled in the electorate.  Who really serves to benefit from the events in Atenco last week?  And how does the media's role play into these ensuing political games?  Let's begin by taking a look at the national and international media coverage. 

      It is already clear that there were no attempts to understand the broader struggle of Atenco and the FPDT, but rather they were immediately demonized as images of police officers being beaten flashed across the television screens and international newswires.  Without condoning such acts of violence perpetrated by the Atencans, it is nevertheless important to take a look at the other violent acts that didn't make the front pages.  While human interest stories on mainstream television channels detailed the exploits of the heroic police officer that was beat at the hands of the angry mob, the 14 year old boy who was shot in the chest by state police officers fell back to the second page. 

      Also forgotten was university student Alexis Benhumea, who remains in a coma after a tear gas canister broke his skull in two places, leaving his brain exposed.  He remained in hiding for 12 hours in a house with 30 other people, and when a medic staying with them left the house to get help, he too was thrown in jail.  It was not until friends from Mexico City rented a van and drove into Atenco to rescue him that Alexis was finally able to receive medical attention. 

      There was limited coverage of the members of the national and international media who were beaten and whose equipment was confiscated, and in the cases of the internationals, deported.  And while images of police officers being beaten continue to flash across television screens, lost too are the allegations of torture, rape, and sexual abuse.  Many of the 5 foreigners that were deported reported being beaten themselves, sexually abused, and also testified to the abuses and rapes that they witnessed during their detention.  Already the National Commission for Human Rights has received 16 reports of sexual abuse, and 7 reports of rape-incidents that often took place in the back of police vans.  And yet officials continue to deny any wrongdoing except for the handful of police officers that are 'under investigation.' 

      And while there may not be one true version of what happened in Atenco, neither have there been any attempts by most media outlets to give a fuller picture of the events as they happened nor their historical roots.  Ironically when news of the violence in Atenco first emerged, Marcos was giving a speech in Tlatelolco, the site of the military's 1968 massacre against student demonstrations in Mexico City, and the connection between the two events was certainly not lost on him.  He pointed out that it wasn't until years after the massacre that people started asking the question, 'what was the military doing in Tlatelolco in the first place?'  Why is it, then, that not a single media outlet, barely a member of the 'free press' has asked the question, 'what were the police doing in Texcoco-Atenco in the first place?'  How would the political games now being played be altered if members of the media were more inclined to ask these questions, to report objectively on these events, or to write in order to understand rather than for a hot headline?

      Mexico`s political parties are also glossing over the facts for their poltical gain. Mere hours after news of the violence in Atenco began to come out, the political parties (particularly the PAN and PRI) quickly capitalized on the situation to spin events in their best interest.  PRIista Madrazo assured the public that with him as president, nothing of the like could possibly happen, not Atenco, not Marcos, and not even the EZLN (harkens back to Fox's famous claim that he would take care of the Zapatista question 'in 15 minutes).  PANista Calderón has applauded the restoration of peace, the attempts to bring justice to the violent leaders, and even more than Madrazo has blamed the whole matter on López Obrador, saying that behind Marcos' mask is the Aztec Sun (the symbol for the PRD).  AMLO himself, Mexico's center-left (depending on who you talk to) candidate, after waiting almost a solid week before making any comment at all, has denounced the violence, as well as 'violence in all forms', continuing, hands bound, to walk the political tightrope in his hopes for the presidency.  

Another Perspective, (An)Other Campaign 
      Outside of the electoral melee, though not the political one, lays the Zapatista's 'Other Campaign' (La Otra), borne out of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (La Sexta), launched in January as a 6 month tour around Mexico to meet with social, political, labor, and other organizations abajo y a la izquierda (below and to the left).  The excitement and support that the Otra started with during the events around Chiapas began to dissipate as the caravan passed through many other states.  Although there was a resurgence when the caravan made its way into the State of Mexico and Mexico City, the response more generally was said to be somewhat underwhelming.  For these reasons, Marcos has been criticized for capitalizing (ironically by many of the same politicians who are, themselves, capitalizing on Atenco) on the confrontation in Atenco to again rally support for the Otra.  The suspicious coincidence of Marcos' passage through Atenco the previous week together with the events that unfolded this past week, have also allowed politicians to implicate Marcos and the EZLN as instigators in the conflict.

      Despite the fact that politicians, out of one side of their mouths, have applauded the Otra as a civil and peaceful effort to open dialogue on Mexico's future,  individuals and organizations involved have suffered increased repression.  Threats, assaults, arrests, and other scare-tactics have been employed against Otra supporters throughout Mexico, and in that sense, Atenco can be seen as a continuation of that same repression.  But how can we understand these contradictions?

      If the Otra is to remain true to its goals by organizing the ignored, forgotten and disenfranchised outside of the official pathways of electoral politics, it has the potential of posing a very real threat to the established order and those who benefit from it, such as politicians, big business.  Last week's clashes in Atenco are just another example of how government and media use violence to obscure facts and instill fear in a situation.   A more nuanced account could serve to undermine these very institutions.  If we accept the proposition of the Otra, that it is a nonviolent revolutionary initiative, it becomes harder to discredit, thereby explaining contradictions between its official approval and the reality of repression that its adherents are experiencing.  Creating an atmosphere of violence around organizations committed to autonomy and change at the grassroots level instills fear, and therefore destroys the hope for change outside of the accepted electoral channels.  

Just Another Campaign? 
      With the Otra suspended indefinitely and Marcos staying in Mexico City until the matter of Atenco is resolved and all of the prisoners freed, the Other Campaign has reached one of its first pivotal moments.  If this presence and the red alert in Chiapas prove to be little more than a political maneuver to put the Otra back in the spotlight, it stands to lose big.  However if the rhetoric of solidarity translates into continued actions, and adherent organizations manage to break through the climate of fear that is being cultivated, it could be a big step towards legitimacy for the marginalized Otra.  If rather than retreat in fear to the polling stations to change the face of power, hope instead persists for significant change and organizing continues from below, the better the chances for changes in the very structures of power. 

      We are still left with more questions than answers as to what happened in Atenco and where things will go from here, but it seems that a crossroads has been reached.  More than 28 remain in jail indefinitely, while 144 have been charged and given the opportunity to post bail, and only 17 have been released.  Given the unlikelihood that the government will heed the FPDT and Zapatista demands of unconditional release of all prisoners, it seems more than likely that Marcos could stay in Mexico City until or through the elections, postponing indefinitely the remainder of the Other Campaign.  But as the news of Atenco slips from the headlines, it remains to be seen how far the momentum will go, and exactly how committed Otra supporters are.  If the climate of fear continues to grow in the face of government repression, the FPDT, the Otra and their supporters could face marginalization.  However, if things play out as Marcos predicts, and the Otra is the only way to avoid violence and perhaps civil war, there could be a cultural, political, scientific and humanist movement without precedent in Mexico-below and to the left. 

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