06 May 2006
San Salvador Atenco: heavy manners applied
While England was voting on Thursday, the Mexican town of San Salvador Atenco was being taken back under full state control after almost five years of near revolutionary autonomy.
The town which is located in the State of Mexico, just north of Mexico City, first came to fame in 2002 when the locals fought the riot police for three days to stop the proposed new Mexico City airport being built. It faded from the news after that, but the peasant groups that had forced the federal government to back down then turfed out the local political bosses and basically ran the place themselves.
The peasants came under the control of Ignacio del Valle and are called los Macheteros - literaly the machete men - and the name was taken to honour the machetes that all Mexican peasants use to cut their corn.
The ostensible reason for the initial riot on Wednesday was the arrest of some unlicensed flower sellers, but that is little more than a polite fiction. Most street sellers are unlicensed, and are protected either by bribes to the cops or by virtue of their membership of some mafia-type body that has links to the local politicions.
A more likely explanation for the riot was that Roberto Madrazo, the presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had used the town as an example of government weakness. Mexico State is controlled by the PRI, so it was easy to set up the provocation in the hope that the locals fell into the trap. They did, and several local policemen were taken hostage. The following morning, Thursday, over 3,000 state and federal riot police were sent into Atenco to bring it to heel.
According to Mexican reports when two police hostages managed to escape, the marauding riot squads gave them a battering as well, seemingly believing that they were locals. Secondly, the reports indicate that once Ignacio del Valle had been captured, all organised resistence ended. Still, it left one dead and dozens injured, and del Valle's daughter, America, managed to get out of the town and is reported to be seeking support in Mexico City. Parts of the capital were blocked by demonstrators on Friday, so the girl may be doing her job.
Atenco is an isolated, inbred sort of place and just a generation ago its links to the outside world consisted of the mail and any information that was actually carried by people entering or leaving the place. Today, it has telephone lines and many small shops also earn a bit of extra cash by allowing people to send and receive faxes. It is unlikely that many people have the internet in their homes, but every small Mexican town has its fair shair of internet cafes. Finally, the mobile phone has become ubiquitous even in Mexico. Put simply, people are in touch with one another.
As I argued in the final part of my essay on urban guerrilla warfare, it is this ability to communicate that is allowing urban peoples to resist in a way that they could not a generation ago. It is reported that America del Valle has taken shlter in a Zapatista run safe house in Mexico City. The Zapatistas are based in the south of the country, but have a sort of presence in the capital. Furthermore, other groups that have no connection to the farmers of Atenco are reported to be mobilising in the town's support.
Basically, modern communications allows every group that has a grudge against almost every state to speak to each other. Their final aims may be inimical to one another, but that does not help a modern state to control them. The best that the Mexicans could come up with was old fashioned brutality: the whole operation was shown on television and that only encourages more people to rally in opposition to the state's actions.