What Does it Mean to be Compañeros?
An Other Mexico, and World, is Under Construction between San Salvador Atenco and East Harlem
By RJ Maccani
Class of 2010, School of Authentic Journalism
February 26, 2010
“Who can imprison the fury of a volcano, the silence of centuries that explodes in rage and pain?” – Ignacio “Nacho” del Valle, Mexican political prisoner sentenced to 112 years
For Mexico, 2010 commemorates 200 years since the War of Independence and 100 since the Mexican revolution. But as Fernando Amezcua puts it, “Little or nothing remains to celebrate.” Amezcua was one of the 44,000 members of the Mexican Electric Workers Union (SME in its Spanish initials) who were put out of work when Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón, issued an executive order in October that shut down the government-owned electric company, Luz y Fuerza del Centro, and sought to break one of Mexico’s oldest, largest and most combative unions. Amezcua continues on as SME’s “Secretary of the Exterior” and I met him just two weeks ago while studying on the Yucatán Peninsula with the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism. As he puts it in SME’s “Plan of the Insurgents”:
The Independence from Spain that two centuries ago cost so much of the first Mexicans’ blood (as always, above all that of the most dispossessed, of the indigenous, campesinos, craftsmen); the resistance against the US and French interventions, the nationalizations of the 20th Century such as petroleum and electricity, have been converted into a new large-scale national dependency on foreign powers, the sacking of our natural resources, and exploitation at the service of the big transnational corporations and international banks.
With this we are reminded that, since the founding of the country, a war has raged over two very different visions of Mexico. And in this symbolic year there is a gaping wound from this war that will be sewn shut, or torn ever wider. This wound is known as the case of Atenco.
Less than eight years ago the people of San Salvador Atenco and other rural municipalities on the outskirts of Mexico City defeated the most important project of then-President Vicente Fox’s administration, the construction of the International Airport of Mexico City. It was an epic, ten-month battle between communal farmers “in defense of [their] mother earth” and a government intent on carrying out the development plans of national and international businessmen. It took on an even greater importance as the country was just coming out of over 70 years of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the new government, headed by the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), was seeking to dispossess the campesinos even while it established this image of Mexico as an emerging liberal democracy.
The battle’s conclusion set a precedent for every other struggle in the country. In a public letter from Atenco’s People’s Front in Defense of the Land (the Frente) to the Zapatistas, they recounted, “It was then that we understood our role in history, we understood that things are not this way because someone decides, but that we too can decide what to do when faced with a decision from the powerful. When we prevailed in July and August of 2002 we confirmed what we already knew: “The government can be beaten.”
And just like their close allies, the Zapatistas, had done throughout Chiapas, they declared Atenco to be an autonomous municipality. Having kicked out their corrupt mayor as well as the police through the course of their struggle, they discovered that by making decisions in public assembly and organizing their own, community-based responses to violence in the town they achieved a level of democracy and safety well beyond what took place under the political parties.
Indeed, the struggle of Atenco was deeply inspired by the Ya Basta (“Enough Already”) of the Zapatistas of Chiapas who on January 1st, 1994 rose up in arms to win a free and democratic government for Mexico and realize the demands of the Mexican Revolution: work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. They did not achieve these objectives in that uprising, but the Zapatistas did succeed in inspiring millions throughout Mexico and the world. Thanks to their years of preparation, and the mobilization of their newfound supporters, the Zapatistas survived the government’s counterattack in those first days of 1994. In the years since then, they have peacefully constructed their own resolution to those revolutionary demands. In the over 1,100 Zapatista communities, which are grouped into 29 autonomous municipalities and five regions known as “caracoles,” over 200,000 of Mexico’s most downtrodden are leading the construction of their own political and judicial structures and educational, health, communication and economic development programs, and they are doing so while being subjected to low-intensity warfare, being surrounded by 50 to 60 thousand troops—roughly one third to one fourth of the Mexican military.
And so when the Zapatistas released their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle in 2005, and began making preparations to defy arrest warrants and death threats in order to leave their autonomous territories and join with “the humble and simple people who struggle” in Mexico and throughout the world, the people of Atenco were already with them. That August and September, Ignacio “Nacho” del Valle, one of the great strategists and organizers of the battles of Atenco, and other members of the Frente attended in Chiapas to form the national initiative of the Sixth Declaration known as the “Other Campaign.”
Within this new struggle, the Zapatistas made it clear that they did not intend to lead, but rather to serve as facilitators of its creation and defenders of its core principals. Each adherent, be they a large organization or a single individual, was encouraged to define and defend their own place in the Other Campaign; To become like an embroidery, as Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos put it, “where each color and each shape has its place; there is no homogeneity, nor is there hegemony.”
As the first phase of their participation in building the Other Campaign, the Zapatistas sent Subcomandante Marcos on what they planned would be a six-month listening tour throughout all of Mexico. His tour began on January 1st, 2006, and was to coincide with the final six months of Mexico’s presidential election cycle and be followed, after the elections, by a delegation of indigenous Zapatista comandantes who would make longer visits to each part of the country beginning in September of that year.
An Injury to One is An Injury to All
From the beginning, adherents to the Other Campaign knew there would be repression. They were, after all, seeking to build a national force organized against the entirety of Mexico’s political class, including the self-described “center-left” Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who was favored to win in the July elections. Motivation for this grew both from the many experiences of corruption and betrayal at the hands of the PRD, as well as AMLO’s stated commitment to continue the neoliberal economic policies of his would-be predecessors.
By mid-February of 2006, over 1,000 political organizations of the left, indigenous groups and organizations, social, non-governmental and artistic organizations and collectives had publicly joined the Other Campaign. It was also at this time that human rights groups were already denouncing a nation-wide rise in actions of intimidation and political persecution against its members. Nevertheless by the time Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, in his civilian role as “Delegate Zero,” rolled into Mexico City, he was greatly emboldened by what he’d experienced in his tour of Mexico’s southern states.
Speaking in front of the US Embassy to over 40,000 people during May Day celebrations, Marcos declared that the civil and peaceful uprising that the Other Campaign was building was going to “overthrow the bad governments… expel from our land the rich, who have turned not just people into merchandise but also our land, our water, our forests, our biodiversity, our history and our culture.” Members of Atenco’s Frente were serving as Marcos’ security detail during this historic visit to Mexico City. Just two days after this speech, they would also be the target of the Mexican government’s most brutal attack against civilians in recent memory.
On May 3rd, 2006, flower vendors from Texcoco, were attacked by police who sought to prevent them from setting up their stalls outside a local market, on a building site that was to become a new Wal- Mart shopping mall. The People’s Front in Defense of the Land, from Atenco, mobilized to support their compañeros from Texcoco. Following this initial conflict, 3,000 municipal, state and federal police, each under the control of one of the three major political parties (the PRD, PRI and PAN, respectively) violently raided the municipality of Atenco. It was an attack by the political class against the Other Campaign and a brutal act of revenge by the outgoing president against the town that had stood in the way of his great international airport project. Over two hundred people were imprisoned, most of whom were subjected to cruel tortures including the rape of 26 women. Mexico’s commercial media seized on the few images of protestor violence to justify and encourage the repression. The police killed a young boy, Javier Cortés Santiago, and a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Alexis Benhumea Hernández.
Citing the Other Campaign’s commitment that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos suspended his tour of the country to help mobilize the rest of the national and international network in support of Atenco. By the end of the month, adherents from all 31 States and Mexico City, as well as Mexicans “on the other side” (of the border) had organized and demonstrated multiple times in solidarity with Atenco. Furthermore, at least 124 actions in 52 cities in 24 countries around the world had also taken place.
A Common Enemy
One such organization that began mobilizing then was Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movimiento). Movimiento is an organization of immigrants, the majority of whom are Mexican, and low-income people of color, in New York City’s East Harlem. I caught up withMovimiento’s spokesperson, Oscar Dominguez, recently to discuss their relationship with theFrente and Atenco over the past almost four years. Like most members of Movimiento, Dominguez had just gotten off of a twelve-hour shift working in Manhattan’s service industry when we met. He began by identifying their common struggle and common enemy:
We, from New York, had begun organizing ourselves for a dignified life and so that we would not be displaced from our homes, and saw that our problems were caused by the capitalists, the rich, the bad governments. And then we saw them [Atenco], and their struggle to stay on their land, the place where they live and their culture, what they are as communities. Thus we saw that in different places, different countries, our struggle is to live a dignified life. And for them the capitalists wish to kick them off of their land… Us here in New York, them in San Salvador Atenco, we are waging separate struggles but against the same thing. The problems that we have are caused by the same people, by capitalism.
Dominguez recounted how they first organized a protest in front of the Mexican consulate in NYC immediately following the attacks of May 2006 to demand that the Mexican government respect Atenco and to put them on alert that people here were watching what was happening. Movimientoalso realized that the mass media from Mexico was being reproduced in their local media. The message their neighbors were getting was that “Atenco was a small group of troublemakers who were trying to impede the progress of the country because the airport was for the economic development of the whole country, not only the community, and this small group, with machetes in hand were impeding all of this.” The machetes, of course, are theFrente’s symbol of their struggle, their work in the fields, and their history. To combat the media disinformation, Movimiento created street theater, complete with props such as wooden prisons, which they took out to 116th between Lexington and Third Avenues in East Harlem.
And in this way, they began a compañerismo with Atenco’s struggle to free its prisoners that has endured a rough road in the intervening years. Shortly after the attack on Atenco in May 2006 came the June uprising in Oaxaca and the electoral fraud of the July elections. Some groups previously within the Other Campaign left around this time, as they believed its moment had past and that they would find more meaningful struggle in the Mexico City government-sponsored protests of the elections.
By the end of that tumultuous year, the six month commune in Oaxaca would be put down with even more force than the repression against Atenco, and the Other Campaign would find itself not as an independent force to the left of a “center-left” government led by the PRD and AMLO, but instead a highly visible target of the fraudulently-elected candidate of the PAN party, Felipe Calderón. And beyond that, the political class as a whole had shown that mutual corruption could translate into a closing of ranks, if only to stay propped up: The PAN provided support to the embattled PRI regime in Oaxaca in exchange for support in sustaining the presidential election fraud, and the PRD walked away with its own fraudulently won governorship in Chiapas.
Around this time, Atenco’s political prisoners had been whittled down to 31, although this included three of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land’s leaders, Ignacio del Valle, Héctor Galindo and Felipe Álvarez, who were being held in a maximum security prison. And those staffing the encampment outside of Almoloya prison, where the majority of the prisoners were being held, were down to five people.
While attending the School of Authentic Journalism last month, I also had the opportunity to interview Fernando León. León is a student at UNAM who has been directly involved in the case of Atenco since 2006. He recounted the governmental context of those difficult early days:
The legitimacy of Calderón from the very beginning was so limited. He supposedly won the elections with less than 1 percent more votes than AMLO. Calderón’s legitimacy was destroyed. What was the way to counteract this illegitimacy? The supposed fight against narcotraffickers and the war on drugs. From here the figure of Calderón has been one of military authority in the streets fighting the supposed evil of Mexico.
And Calderón wasn’t without help in his efforts to militarize the country. Shortly after he assumed office, the US government cooked up what it would eventually dub the Mérida Initiative, a drug war support package a la Plan Colombia. And in the intervening years, with millions of US tax dollars in tow, extrajudicial executions and human rights abuse have skyrocketed, while drug seizures have fallen and the drug war has grown from a regional into a national problem.
From early on it became clear that the true target of Calderón’s war was not drugs, or narcotrafficking, but Mexico’s social movements, and the poor and working classes in general. Although fourteen other Zapatistas, all indigenous commanders, were able to leave Chiapas in March of 2007 to visit the northern states of Mexico, they were met with increasing harassment, and by September of that year, the Zapatistas announced that they would be ceasing these tours and visits of the Other Campaign due to the increasing repression against their communities in Chiapas. But even as much of the public momentum of the Other Campaign has faded, the work that began in that space continues.
In Spite of the Difficulties
Along with numerous national and international initiatives in Mexico, groups such as Movement for Justice in El Barrio have also found ways to advance their struggles “on the other side.” At the beginning of 2007 they successfully kicked out the largest landlord in East Harlem, Steven Kessner, whom the Village Voice had dubbed one of the city’s “10 worst landlords.” A year after this victory, Movimiento began building their own “International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio” to challenge the London-based firm Dawnay, Day Group that had just taken Kessner’s place. They were able to build a multi-national network of allies and supporters that supported them in eventually seeing the fall of Dawnay, Day in East Harlem in October of last year.
In spite of all the difficulties, in many ways the People’s Front in Defense of the Land of Atenco has only continued to build in strength. Narco News’ Kristin Bricker and a journalist from Radio Chapingo in Texcoco met with Maria del Carmen Perez Elizalde of the Frente near the end of last year to discuss the case of Atenco today. Just twelve prisoners remain in jail, although the prison sentences they have been given are almost unimaginable in Mexico:
To Felipe [Álvarez] and Héctor [Galindo] they have given a sentence of 67 years in prison and to Ignacio del Valle they have given a sentence of 112 years, more than a century. And to the other  compañeros, 35 years. How is it possible that they have given more than a century? So much time in prison, right? When according to the government it is fighting against the narcotraffickers and they are only giving them 3 years, 5 years, 6 years and these are sentences that they never complete.
Just this past December the Frente and their supporters completed their 12 prisoners/12 States tour in which they “involved over 130 organizations of Mexican civil society in over 100 political actions, marches and meetings.” The tour culminated in a massive concert in Atenco wherein they announced that the next phase of the Campaign for Freedom and Justice for Atenco “consists in removing our prisoners from jail once and for all.”
And the Frente and Movimiento have remained compañeros throughout these years. Just over a year ago, while delegates from Movimiento were attending the First World Festival of Dignified Rage in Mexico, members of the Frente invited them to visit Atenco. It was there that Movimiento was able to screen its video message to Atenco, which featured many of its members who could not make the journey. The Frente responded to Movimiento with a video message of its own. This creative way of crossing the border to speak with each other “face-to-face” has been essential not only to their growing relationship, but to the overall dynamic of their struggles. As Dominguez of Movimiento puts it:
In May of 2006, it was Vicente Fox who was in government but now it is Felipe Calderón and he continues with the same policy. So we took over the Mexican consulate here to demand the freedom of the prisoners of San Salvador Atenco. In the video message of San Salvador Atenco to us, they told us that it gave them more energy to know that us in New York were watching what is happening with them and that we are helping them in our form, our style, at our pace. It gave us certainty that our struggles in different places have encountered each other. It is how we continue struggling, with more energy and we are confident that in time we will succeed in defeating the enemy that we have in common, which is capitalism and the bad governments. That capitalism is not only in Mexico, not only in New York, it is in all parts of the world and that the bad governments are servants of capitalism.
As for President Calderón? Fernando León, organizer in the Campaign for Freedom and Justice for Atenco, points out that:
The costs of this [drug] war, and what this war has produced, has become so real for the people who are in these situations that [Calderón’s] legitimacy is again being interrogated. The popular cry today is for the military to return to their barracks and that the supposed strategy of Calderón against narcotraffickers is erroneous. Even people within his own party and cabinet say that this strategy is wrong. And so it has had a very big political cost for Calderón. If in the first year or two of his presidency he was situated as a strong figure of authority, this popularity is every day declining more. The military soldiers in the streets provoke the human rights violations. The military only sees an enemy as an enemy to be killed. They are trained in this way and you cannot just tell them to not commit human rights violations because this is their agenda. And this has, in one way or another, fallen into the lap of Felipe Calderón.
The War of Visions Rages On, Compañeros
Legitimate or not, Calderón is not for the moment the most central governmental actor in the case of Atenco’s 12 prisoners. The Supreme Court of Mexico is currently considering the justice of their imprisonment. For this pending decision, León has two predictions:
One is that they are allowed to leave this year thanks to an opinion of the Supreme Court. And the other has to do with the fact that the situation of the airport remains open. That the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) is buying land and the airport project was never dead. This would be the other possibility, that the prisoners are kept inside so that the People’s Front in Defense of the Land remains focused on them and they don’t have all the power necessary to focus on the airport project. Also, we are in the year 2010, which is so symbolic. And some believe nothing will happen, and others want it to not just be symbolic, and the federal government is preoccupied with this and if the prisoners are released the Front can rededicate itself to the struggle they have always been bringing. These are the two possibilities: that they leave, as they should have never been prisoners in the first place, and the other that the revenge of the federal government continues, and the abuses continue.
The war of visions for Mexico rages on. Soon enough it will be time for the Supreme Court to decide for one or the other. Perhaps after last year’s opinion to free those convicted of the 1997 paramilitary murder of 45 unarmed indigenous parishioners in the village of Acteal, Chiapas, the Court will want to add some “balance” to its ledger and close the case of Atenco with freedom for the prisoners. Or perhaps it will tear the wound, and the gap between these two Mexicos, ever larger by closing the legal route for their release.
No matter the outcome, it seems clear that the Frente has its eyes on the horizon, and the calendar. As Frente member Maria Perez Elizalde told Bricker, “What is needed now is for Mexico to wake up in time and this is the principle struggle of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land. Beyond the freedom of the prisoners, beyond the defense the land, a very concrete struggle of the People’s Front is to wake up our brothers and sisters to what is going on. So that we don’t exchange our freedom or land for a few pesos. For a few pesos that you have today but tomorrow are already gone.”
Movimiento and the Frente still continue to find new ways to be compañeros. The most recent was “a simultaneous press conference in Detroit we did through the Internet with the compas of Atenco,” which Dominguez described to me, “so that they could speak for themselves to the media-makers of the left who were gathered at the Allied Media Conference. It was an honor for us that they joined us in this press conference because their struggle is enormous compared to ours. It gave us confidence to create bridges of communication between different struggles in different countries. It was very moving for the members of Movimiento.”
This Sunday Movimiento will extend these “bridges of communication” even further when they host their Third Encuentro for Dignity and Against Displacement. They will be joined by other organizations fighting gentrification throughout New York City and the region and by many more. Haitian organizers who have just returned from their shaken homeland will share their experiences. The members of the Frente will be present again, as they were in Detroit, through a live video conference. This time they will also joined in this way by Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. The nine political prisoners of Atenco who are being held in Molino de Flores prison in Texcoco have sent along a written message for the gathering. And surely the other three, Nacho, Hector and Felipe, leaders of the Frente held in the maximum security prison “El Altiplano,” will be present in the thoughts of many in attendance.
So, will Mexico be a country of compañeros, or Calderóns? An armored, open-pit mine and playground for the rich? Or a place where, as the Zapatistas say, everything is for everyone and many worlds fit? After all these years, the question has not yet been definitively answered; in 2010 these two Mexicos are in conflict, from East Harlem to Chiapas.
And how will we respond, dear readers? Will we be compañeros?