Thousands of peasants armed with machetes and wooden sticks, many of them on horseback, fought running battles against anti-riot police in Mexico City on November 14th. The peasants had travelled 30 km from their properties in the State of Mexico to protest against the expropriation of their lands by the government in order to build the new Mexico City airport. This conflict, which has been going on for months, threatens to became a major headache for Vicente Fox's one year old government.
The decision to locate the new airport in the Texcoco/Atenco area was widely contested and some alleged that it had been taken to please business groups close to the new right wing president. The peasants have objected to the potential environmental damage from the airport in the area which is located where the old Texcoco lake was, but mainly to the price they are being paid as compensation: an insulting 7 pesos per square metre (less than 80 cents!). These plots of land are the only source of income for hundreds of peasant families who also see that they will not be able to get a job by migrating to the cities following the start of the economic recession which is hitting the Mexican economy hard.
This lack of any alternatives is what has radicalised the San Salvador Atenco peasants and those in neighbouring communities. The day the new location for the airport was announced back in October, the mayor of the local council (a member of the former ruling party, the PRI) quietly left town fearing for his life, since he had promised the peasants that his connections would protect their land. Since then the peasants have managed things themselves and through mass meetings have decided the running of all council affairs and the plan of struggle.
Finally, on November 14th, after having blockaded the local roads several times, they decided to march on the capital. And they did so carrying their tools, mainly large size machetes. Once in the capital the police tried to re-route them through secondary streets and finally led them to be ambushed by several cordons of police officers in full riot gear. The peasants sang the national anthem (which refers to the defence of the land), beat their machetes on the floor to sharpen the blades and proceeded to charge on the police cordons. The police replied by firing tear gas and beating the peasants with truncheons, but having the advantage of riding horses the peasants managed to break the police lines and after a short but violent battle were able to continue their march.
Hundreds of onlookers joined them as they march onto the main Zocalo square. They made a triumphal entry under two massive banners depicting Mexican peasant revolutionaries Zapata and Villa entering Mexico City. The banners had been installed by the Mexico City council to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the Mexican revolution, but Zapata's slogan of "Land and Freedom" had a very modern ring to it! The struggle of the Atenco "ejidatarios" (cooperative peasants) was already quite popular before, but after they managed to beat the police into retreat they became a national symbol for all those who are against the new government (and their number is growing very fast).
On November the 28th the Atenco peasants marched again on the capital but this time they were allowed through. They had been warned not to bring weapons, but they insisted that machetes were the tools they earned their living with and they brought them regardless.
In the meantime the legal side of the battle registered another victory for the ejidatarios when 3 of the 13 ejidos (form of collective ownership of the land) were granted an injunction against the expropriation.
The ejidatarios have made clear that they will fight for their land even with their lives if need be, but this has also become a very thorny issue for President Fox. None of the major plans he promised to deliver when he was elected has been implemented a year after. He does not dare take decisive steps towards privatisation of the electricity company, or of the oil company, and now Congress has stalled his tax reform proposals. His Indigenous People's Law, which was supposed to settle the issue of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, was rejected by the EZLN. If he is defeated on an issue like this, which has now achieved national prominence, a signal will be sent that struggle (and furthermore, violent struggle) can win, and this would be very dangerous for President Fox.
That is why the government is using all means available to try to defeat this movement. Undercover antiterrorist squad police has been active trying to infiltrate the movement and fabricate a frame-up against the peasants. Prominent leaders of the movement have received threatening phone calls. Some of the ejidos have been promised more money for the land if they stop the protests. So far none of this has worked.
The explosive nature of this movement can also be explained by the deep crisis of Mexican agriculture. The introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement has meant a total collapse for Mexican agricultural production faced with sinking world prices, cheaper imports from the US and the monopolisation of all major agricultural sectors in few hands.
The struggle of the Atenco ejidatarios against the expropriation of their lands is just an anticipation of what the Fox government will have to face if he tries to go ahead with the privatisation of electricity and oil. And this time he will not be just facing a few thousand peasants but the might of the organised working class.