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Land and Identity in Mexico: PeasantsStop an Airport

James W. Russell (RussellJ [at] RussellJ [at] teaches sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of After the Fifth Sun: Class and Race in North America (Prentice Hall, 1994), and Modes of Production in World History (Routledge, 1989). This is a revised version of a paper originally presented in October, 2002 at the Conflict in Identities/Identities in Conflict conference at the University of Masaryk in the Czech Republic.

In a three-week period in the summer of 2002, national and international attention was drawn to a fast and furious clash between forces unleashed by the globalized world economy and peasants in a small village within the larger Mexico City urban area. The Mexican federal government attempted to expropriate the peasants’ land to make way for a sorely needed new international airport. The existing airport, with only two runways, was clearly inadequate. A new airport with six runways would bring the country’s air transport infrastructure up to modern standards, a necessity for any country seeking to be competitive in the global economy. The peasants balked at selling their land and in the end they prevailed, seemingly against all odds.

What happened to produce this unlikely conclusion revealed much about the historical and contemporary complexities of Mexican society. It revealed the deep roots of peasant identity that resist being uprooted by the forces of modernization, neoliberalism, and globalization. Those who supported the peasants saw the outcome as a victory for democracy, with many congratulating the government of Vicente Fox for responding to the peasants’ legitimate claims and resisting the temptation to use force to obtain their compliance. Others identified the national interest with the airport project, which they believed clearly outweighed the interests of a few hundred peasants practicing a marginal agriculture. For these, the peasant victory represented not a victory for democracy but a demonstration of the weakness of the Fox government.

The Rise and Fall of the Airport Project

The confrontation began on October 22, 2001, when the secretary of communication and transportation of the Mexican government announced that the long-planned airport would be constructed in the state of Mexico, just outside of the limits of Mexico City. Some 4,550 hectares (approximately 11,000 acres) of land, populated by 4,375 peasants, would be expropriated, the majority of it from ejidos (Indian communal lands), with the municipality of San Salvador Atenco being the most affected. The government would pay seven pesos (about seventy U.S. cents) for each square meter—most agreed this was a pittance in terms of the land’s potential value.

The initial stories from the business magazine, Expansión, gushed about the moneymaking opportunities the project would afford. The cost of constructing the airport would be between 2 and 2.5 billion dollars. One-quarter of the cost would be raised from public sources, the remainder from bonds sold to private banks and other private financial sources. The bigger part of the financial impact would be the business generated by the new airport. In development and growth terms, the transportation function of the airport would be less significant than its function as a new commercial center. New commercial activities would include the concessioned shops within the airport, the hotels and restaurants surrounding it, convention sites, increased tourism, and a myriad of other businesses. In anticipation of the airport project, land speculating companies began buying up land, resulting in a 500 percent increase in land and housing prices in the area. While it is impossible to calculate exactly how much business would be generated in total, the rough figure of $100 billion, mentioned in one press story, does not seem to have been an exaggeration.

The reaction of the ejitarios to the announcement of the expropriation and new airport construction was, of course, different. Far from seeing it as the opportunity of a lifetime, as many business people did, they saw it as a threat to their interests and way of life and immediately took action. Two peasant groups formed to oppose the expropriation. One proceeded with a legal strategy of challenging the expropriations in court. It had some success in winning temporary injunctions against the expropriations. Another group, the Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (People’s Front in Defense of the Land), started from the assumption that the Mexican judicial system was corrupt and could not be trusted to make a fair decision when so much money was at stake. Therefore, any judicial recourse would be an exercise in futility. In their view, a direct action strategy of attention-getting protest marches and popular mobilizations was far more likely to produce favorable results.

The government took the position that the resistance was restricted to a fringe minority. On January 7, 2002, two and a half months after the expropriation order, the undersecretary for public security of the state of Mexico, Alfredo Martínez González, confidently announced that Atenco was “in complete peace and calm. Only twenty ejitarios in the region oppose[d] the new airport.”

Despite the official’s claims of acquiescence to the expropriations, marches and mobilizations by machete waving peasants continued and grew in strength through the rest of the winter and spring. In February, the ejitarios went to the United Nations sponsored meeting on world poverty in Monterrey to protest the expropriation of their land.

In early July 2002, police blocked six hundred Atenco peasants who were attempting to enter the existing Mexico City airport holding banners with the slogans, “Land yes, airplanes no,” and “Neither hotels nor airplanes, the land gives beans.” The police succeeded in keeping the peasants safely out of view of most of the airport’s business and tourist travelers.

These events drew little national attention, particularly in Mexico City where residents are quite accustomed to marches and demonstrations. Local protest movements often target the capital as the ultimate place to deliver their message, and the anti-airport peasants of Atenco were just one among many.

On July 11, a relatively small demonstration in the anti-expropriation campaign began. Forty peasants left San Salvador Atenco in a caravan headed for Teotihuacan, the closest town to the famous pyramid of the same name. They intended to protest an event at which the governor of the state of Mexico, Arturo Montiel Roja, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and a firm promoter of the airport project, would be present. One kilometer before Teotihuacan, the peasants found their passage blocked by a truck. They pushed the truck out of the way and then were confronted by forty state police. A standoff ensued. Word was sent back to Atenco and eighty more peasants joined the demonstration. Meanwhile the police called in reinforcements and one hundred more police arrived. Then the confrontation began in earnest with rock throwing, tear gas, and clubbing. Who struck first is unclear. In the end, thirty peasants and three police were hurt, some seriously. The most seriously injured, with severe blows to the head and body, was one of the protesters, José Enrique Espinoza Juárez. The police arrested nineteen peasants, including the leaders.

The rest of the demonstrators then went to a Department of Justice office in Texcoco to demand the release of the arrested. There the demonstrators took seven officials hostage, saying that they would only release them when their compañeros were released. Meanwhile, other peasants blocked a federal highway, burned several police cars, hijacked a Coca-Cola truck, and blocked access to Atenco, allowing only residents, and not the authorities, to enter.

Then people paid attention. The confrontation and hostage standoff immediately made national and international news. All eyes were now focused on this epic David and Goliath struggle.

From the beginning of the crisis, government officials found themselves on the defensive as photos of police beating peasants flashed around the world. Mexican public sympathy swung to the plight of the about-to-be-dispossessed peasants. A national poll found that 77.5 percent thought that the peasants “should not have to leave their land for the construction of the airport.” On national and international television news President Fox, who is a large landowner, was asked the uncomfortable question of whether he would sell his ranch for seven pesos a square meter. He could only smile weakly in response to the obvious irony. Newspaper commentators pounced on the issue, writing that the government, in essence, wanted to take the peasants’ livelihood for a pittance, and could offer them only hypothetical jobs as baggage handlers or McDonald’s workers in the new airport. Meanwhile, business interests would make fortunes from the expropriated land.

The president realized that he had a public relations disaster on his hands and quickly attempted to defuse the situation by announcing that the land issue would have to be resolved before construction of the airport could begin. At that point he and others thought it could be resolved by upping the price for the land. Eventually the government would increase the offer from seven to fifty pesos per square meter. The peasants, though, confounded the government’s assumptions once again by saying that their land was not for sale at any price.

Both sides proposed negotiating but never were able to agree on the terms of negotiation. At one point the government said that it was willing to talk with the peasants as long as ten conditions were met. The peasants agreed to seven of the conditions. However, they balked at not having outside advisors and the press present; and they also balked at not being able to bring to the negotiating table the ever-present symbols of their identity and defiant opposition, their machetes.

Three days after the confrontation, the detained peasants were released. At the same time, the secretary of communication and transportation, Santiago Creel, announced that the airport would not be built without the approval of the peasants. The next day the peasants released their hostages and removed the barricades on the federal highway and at the entrance to Atenco.

On July 16, eight hundred of the Atenco peasants, sensing that they now had the upper hand, led a march of thousands of supporters, machetes raised high, down Mexico City’s principle boulevard, Reforma, from the Angel de Independencia to Los Pinos, the residence and office of President Fox.

Throughout this period, as the peasant cause was building momentum, the condition of the injured demonstrator, José Enrique Espinoza Juárez, remained critical. The government stated that he suffered from diabetes and that was why his condition was critical, not because of the beating that he had received from the police. On July 24, three weeks after the confrontation, he died. The government again maintained that his death was due to his diabetic condition. However, the director of the hospital directly refuted the government claim, and divulged that Espinoza Juárez had died from blows delivered by the police during the demonstration.

Any last hopes that the Fox government had for salvaging the airport project died along with Espinoza Juárez, who was now a martyr. One week later, on August 1, the government officially announced that it was abandoning construction of the airport in that area.

Mesoamerican Roots of Peasant Resistance

To what can we attribute the ferocious tenacity with which these peasants refused to sell their land at any price and thereby blocked the construction of a key transportation infrastructure link in the world economy?

A sixty-three-year-old woman, Estafanía Flores, who organized women to prepare the food for the funeral of the martyred José Enrique Espinoza Juárez, pointed to corn piled up in her house and told reporter Maria Rivera:

This is the real reason for this struggle. The government says that our parcels of land are too saline to be productive, but look at all they produce. With what comes from this land I feed my seven children and thirteen grandchildren during a year. What we don’t need for ourselves we give to the animals that we have. We use the skin of the corn as well for festivals and what is left over we sell to the makers of amulets in Chiconcuac. Here one does not die because during the season when the plants are in blossom the land also gives us grasshoppers, snails, mushrooms, quelites [a vegetable similar to collard greens], purslane [an herb for salads], and rosemary. Do you think that it is fair that they take our lands if [our lands] are what allow us to eat? We’re not in this just to be revolutionaries. If they take the land from us, we will die of hunger.

This describes a self-sufficient peasant way of life in which a significant amount of production is for consumption outside of the market. It is also an intensive and diversified form of production in which there are multiple products from the land, as opposed to a specialized use of it.

The head of another Atenco household, Pedro Pájaro, told reporter Jaime Aviles that he buys waste products from a denim factory, untangles the threads by stretching them between lamp posts, and weaves the threads together with an old loom to produce cotton sashes, which he sells to supplement his farming income. He maintains that they are textile products invented “in the time of King Nezahuacóyotl.”

The household of Pedro Pájaro, like that of Estafanía Flores, has one foot inside and one foot outside the market, and that is how it makes ends meet. It grows food for as much of its subsistence as it can, selling excesses to buy what it cannot grow or make. The Pájaro household also has a small workshop, producing textiles for sale, which pay for the necessities the household cannot produce. Its market activities exist in the nooks and crannies of the Mexican market. Note that its raw materials come from the waste products of a denim factory. Pedro Pájaro’s household mode of production is both a part of, and apart from, the national capitalist mode of production in a way that resembles the early fifteenth through nineteenth century stages of capitalist development in Europe and the United States.

To some extent then, Atenco is an example of a community that practices an early capitalist mode of production that is out of step with the requirements of the more modern capitalist mode of production that is asserting itself in the global economy. Recent history, as Eric Wolf reminded us, is a history of European and North American capitalist modes of production expanding at the expense of precapitalist modes of production still being practiced in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. While that contradiction explains much of the economic structural background of the conflict, it does not explain all of it. It does not explain the tenacity with which the Atenquenses defended their land and way of life. It does not explain why they were unwilling to sell at any price. To explain these factors we must resort to the cultural dimension of the conflict.

According to Guillermo Bonfíl Batalla, in his now classic México Profundo, two cultures compete for adherents in Mexico. One, which he calls México Profundo, goes back to the original Mesoamerican civilization that existed before the sixteenth century; the other, which he calls Imaginary Mexico, is based in western attempts to transform the country according to European and U.S. models. The original Mesoamerican-rooted culture has tenaciously resisted extinction despite the Conquest, colonization, and development plans, in large part because of the demographic composition of the population. Mexico, both before the Conquest and now, contains one of the largest concentrations of indigenous peoples in the Americas. At least 12 percent of the population is fully indigenous and another 80 percent is mestizo. Within this demographic mix the Mesoamerican influence continues among the indigenous communities and, according to Bonfíl Batalla, among many other communities that do not explicitly identify themselves as indigenous. In his analysis, they live indigenous ways of life even if they do not identify themselves as indigenous.

Atenco falls in this latter category of living an indigenous way of life without identifying itself as such. The census reveals that of its 29,452 inhabitants over the age of five, only 366 speak an indigenous language—the only indicator in the census of indigenous identity. While some of the ejitarios may have been fully indigenous, most were mestizos. Their way of life though, as Bonfíl Batalla argues, was in many respects indigenous, even if they did not identify themselves as indigenous. And it was this way of life that was at odds with the designs of a capitalist-fueled modernization.

Land and Identity

Spanish colonialism succeeded in breaking up the Aztec Empire and other governing entities of Mesoamerica. The result was to drive the Mesoamerican way of life into segmented autonomous communities. Key to the survival of these communities was control over their land, which the Spanish crown generally allowed them to retain. After independence, though, liberal reforms allowed Indian communal lands to become alienable as private property. In one way or another, large landowners steadily took over Indian lands. By 1900 land ownership was heavily concentrated in the country and that was one of the main causes of the 1910–1917 revolution.

Throughout the revolution “land to the landless” was a rallying cry for the peasant supporters. Emiliano Zapata pronounced his Plan de Ayala, the most radical land reform plan up to that point in world history, in which land was directly confiscated from landlords and turned over the peasant tillers. With that policy Zapata won the fierce support of the peasants and he remains an icon in their historical consciousness today.

Post-revolutionary governments reversed most of the Zapatista land confiscations in favor of more limited land reform. They partially reinstated the Indian communal lands as ejidos and used the ejido form to distribute land to other landless peasants—the source of the Atenco ejido grants. They redistributed just enough land to assure peasant political support without completely undermining the rural class structure.

Roger Bartra interpreted the post revolutionary governments’ land reform policies as having been motivated precisely by the need to gain peasant support for the state and social peace. But for that, in his words, “today’s bourgeoisie pays a high price.” The existence of such large numbers of peasant families who control small patches of land has frustrated the Mexican upper classes and foreign interests, who want that land for more profitable uses. Altogether the land adds up to a substantial part of the countryside that is unavailable for more capitalistic, generally export-oriented, forms of exploitation.

Contradictions of Neoliberal Reforms

In 1990, the Mexican government succumbed to U.S. pressures and announced that it was endorsing the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). Much of the political rhetoric at the time focused on how free trade would lead to a modernization of Mexico as well as greater prosperity. The now disgraced government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari promised the Mexican people that with NAFTA, Mexico would leave the third world to join the first world. To sell NAFTA, one pro-government newspaper went so far as to run a headline claiming that within five years of the enactment of NAFTA, wages in Mexico would equal those of the United States.

Much of the modernization rhetoric focused on agriculture. Up until that time the Mexican government had pursued tariff policies to protect traditional peasant crops such as corn, beans, and squash from competition from imports, mainly from the United States. As NAFTA was being negotiated it became clear that the traditional, including Indian, peasants would no longer be protected—to do so would interfere with free market principles, the sine qua non of neoliberal reforms.

From the neoliberal point of view, the traditional peasants were using the land irrationally. The peasants would be hit with a double blow. Immediately, in 1991, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari pushed through Congress a reform of Article 27 of the constitution. Article 27 stipulated that ejido lands were not alienable—they could not be sold. Salinas de Gortari’s reform—quickly dubbed the “counter agrarian reform” by the leftist political opposition—allowed ejido land to be sold, thus conforming to the classic pattern in which peasant indebtedness leads to land sell-offs and the concentration of ownership, as it had after the mid-nineteenth century. The second blow began in 1994, the year in which NAFTA went into effect, a complete phase-out over fifteen years of all agricultural tariffs. For many years the main problem of farmers in the U.S. Corn Belt has been finding foreign markets for their large surpluses. Now these owners of large productive farms, with prices held low thanks to heavy government subsidies, stood poised and eager to take over the peasants’ traditional markets.

While the Mexican government attempted to convince public opinion that NAFTA would be to everyone’s enormous benefit, peasants, Indians, and others quickly saw the dangers ahead for their ways of life. It is no accident that the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (the Zapatistas) deliberately chose January 1, 1994—the day that NAFTA went into effect—as the day to launch their attacks in Chiapas. They explicitly condemned NAFTA as inimical to Indian interests.

The Atenco ejitarios, while being far away from Chiapas and not identifying themselves as indigenous, were aware of the Zapatista struggle and identified with its aims. One of the Atenco leaders, América del Valle, related to reporter Maria Rievera that

the recovery of indigenous rights by the EZLN had a great impact on me. The people of San Salvador Atenco participated in the majority of the support demonstrations. We collected supplies for them and informed ourselves about the conflict because Chiapas is near to us. If they were fighting for a piece of land, for their rights to choose their way of life, here we were living in much the same way.

It is clear from her comments that the Zapatista movement provided inspiration to keep alive the resistant peasant and indigenous identity in Mexico. While the Zapatista movement in Chiapas does not represent any military threat to the Mexican government, it does represent a threat to the legitimacy of its policies because it has struck a responsive chord in the national consciousness. It has rekindled defense for the indigenous way of life, which is shared by non-indigenous Mexicans and is being progressively undermined by neoliberal government policies.

It is precisely the neoliberal policies that have had the unintended effect of deepening peasant and indigenous attachment to the land. Mexican government policy up through the end of the 1980s guaranteed to all Mexicans a “basic basket” of foods at subsidized prices. These included tortillas, beans, and bread. The government bought corn, beans, and wheat from farmers, including peasants, at one price and then sold them at a lower price to the producers of tortillas and bread and the sellers of beans who then sold the products at government-fixed prices affordable to the poorest of consumers. This insured that the poor had at least food to survive. Since the late 1980s, bowing to neoliberal pressures, the government has gradually removed this support and allowed prices for tortillas, beans, bread, and other basic items to rise to market levels. As a result, the safety net that existed for the poor is vanishing.

This would be less of a problem if the economy was growing, creating enough jobs to give the poor the purchasing power needed to offset the rise in prices, but it is not. From the perspective of the poor—whose numbers by most accounts are increasing and now account for well over half the society—the freeing of market forces has simply resulted in prices rising while incomes remain the same or decrease.

In this context, of insufficient jobs and unaffordable food, it would be irrational for peasants willingly to give up or sell the land from which they derive a basic subsistence. Even apart from their cultural attachment to it and considering only their economic interests, the often meager subsistence that they derive from their land is far better than what they could hope for in the paid labor market.

Contradictions of the Contemporary Mexican State

While the above explains the peasants’ motives and the depth of their opposition to the expropriation of their land, it does not explain why they were able to prevail. Injustices abound in Mexico as in all countries; and the justice of a cause rarely guarantees its success.

What is significant in the case of the Atenco movement is that the Mexican state was divided. Three opposing parties occupied the most relevant government posts. The rightist National Action Party (PAN) controlled the national government. The PRI—which up until recently had a national monopoly over political power—governed the state of Mexico. The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) controlled the government of Mexico City. Clearly, the PAN had initiated the airport project, and it bore the brunt of the opposition. Despite some internal rumblings, the PRI supported the airport project, though it also opposed the PAN. The PRD announced that it supported the peasants’ struggle. In addition, the Mexican congress and senate were divided among the parties.

If the conflict had occurred ten years ago when the PRI had its near monopoly over all state positions, the PRI would have used force to push the airport project through, and would have been likely to mobilize its peasant base to back it. In fact, the PRI used its then near-monopoly control over both the executive and legislative branches to push through NAFTA. The national and international proponents of neoliberal reforms in Mexico, along with many others, clamored for ending the PRI’s dominance and opening up political pluralism. An unintended consequence of breaking the PRI monopoly may well be that it undermined one of the neoliberals’ key economic projects. The success of the Atenco resistance owes at least as much to the unique historical political conjuncture within which it occurred as it does to its motivating causes.

The Fox government attempted to salvage some political advantage from the airport debacle by claiming that it demonstrated that the government was truly committed to democratic principles. La Jornada, the daily newspaper of the center-left, editorialized in a similar vein—that the government, to its credit, had bowed to democratic pressures (July 15, 2002). It is not at all clear though that those sentiments were widely shared within the economic elite. Not only had actual capital and potential profits been lost, perhaps more important, there was the fear that the victory of the Atenco peasants would encourage more resistance in the country by the lower classes to economic rationalization projects predicated on neoliberal reforms.

Lurking barely beneath the surface of Mexican politics has been the specter of ungovernability. The period of PRI domination was often justified by the argument that the country required an authoritarian government to insure order and avoid chaos and violence. Indeed, Mexico during the PRI dominated period was Latin America’s most politically stable country. From the end of the revolution until 2000, when the PRI lost national power, there were regular elections, no coup d’etats, or long-running personal or family dictatorships, and the military stayed respectfully out of overt politics, unlike in other Latin American countries. The PRI represented a form of institutionalized authoritarianism in which opposition could only exist within defined limits. The party itself was vertically organized and disciplined. It firmly controlled the state and exercised indirect control over the economy.

Neoliberal reforms in the 1990s—including, most prominently, the privatization of state-owned companies—loosened the PRI’s and the state’s control over the economy. These reforms were greatly applauded by the domestic economic elites and their international backers who had the most to gain from them. As a result of privatization, a number of Mexican millionaires became billionaires, and foreign-based multinational corporations increased their hold over key sectors of the Mexican economy.

The next logical step was to follow economic liberalization with political liberalization, meaning replacing the PRI’s near monopoly over state power with political pluralism. From the point of view of the economic elites, a more open political system would allow them to use their economic power to influence political decisions, as occurs in the United States, and it would function better than an authoritarian system where they were confronting a unified state.

In the long run, the Mexican elites and their international backers were betting on economic and political liberalization being functionally interrelated and in their interests. However, the debacle of the airport project shows that, at least in the short run, giving up the security and predictability of the authoritarian state has resulted in losses for the elites. Whether this will lead the economic elites to take another look at the option of political authoritarianism, especially if the Atenco peasant victory is followed up by others, remains to be seen.