Mexico: police storm Atenco

Will this mean the end of Atenco’s status as a rebel “autonomous municipality”? And how will the Zapatistas, already on “red alert” in response to the repression, respond to this escalation? This is very ominous timing for Fox, with the new explosion in Atenco coming on the heels of wildcat strikes and Subcommander Marcos urging Mexico’s workers to seize the means of production at the national Mayday march. The taking of Atenco also comes on the eve of Cinco de Mayo—which will afford left-nationalists the opportunity to bait Fox as betraying the fatherland to foreign interests, and glorify the rebel peasants as defenders of Mexican sovereignty. From Reuters, May 4:

SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico – Thousands of riot police firing tear gas forced their way into a rebellious town near Mexico City on Thursday and freed fellow officers taken hostage in a riot that left one person dead.

Scores of police in body armor swept into the fractious farming town of San Salvador Atenco, 15 miles (24 km) north of Mexico City, and hauled off bleeding protesters amid peasants armed with sticks, machetes and gasoline bombs.

Violence exploded in the area on Wednesday when police tried to evict unlicensed flower traders from a market. A 14-year-old boy was killed in the riots, whose televised images raised concerns of stability in a presidential election year.

Squads of police went house to house on Thursday, scaling concrete walls in search of missing officers and militant leaders, and hustling out bloodied prisoners to waiting pickup trucks. The acrid smell of tear gas hung in the air.

Eleven police officers held hostage by protesters were all released, Televisa television station said, and police took control of the town.

“The only objective was to restore the rule of law,” senior security official Wilfrido Robles said at a news conference in the town hall, which had been occupied by the rioters.

It was the first time state and federal police had entered the town since machete-toting protesters blocked President Vicente Fox’s plan to build a new airport there five years ago with a standoff that lasted several days.

San Salvador Atenco ousted its mayor and has been under a form of self-rule since then, with local leaders trying to spread the system to neighboring villages.


The airport defeat and the subsequent failure to bring the area totally under government control have been held up by rival politicians as an example of Fox’s supposed weakness in dealing with conflicts.

Dozens were arrested on Thursday as police moved into the town, including a German and two Spanish women who authorities said would be deported.

The riot was the latest outbreak of violence in the run-up to the July 2 presidential election. A surge in drug-gang bloodshed has spread to beach resorts like Acapulco and two people were killed in April when armed police tried to break up a steelworkers strike.

The storming of the town was led by state police under the control of Mexico’s main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI.

PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo has referred to the town during campaigning for the election, saying he would not be scared off by peasants with machetes. Ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon later picked up the same theme.

Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the violence in Atenco was the work of a small group of people opposed to democracy and not a sign the country was slipping into further violence. “I can categorically assure you there is no lack of governability here,” he told reporters.

The Zapatistas staged a brief but bloody uprising in the Indian-dominated southern state of Chiapas in 1994. Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos, who is on a tour of Mexico City, has hardened his political stance in recent days, calling for a government overthrow and vowing to expel foreign capital.

The phrase “brief but bloody uprising” is, alas, becoming the standard media short-hand to encapsulize the events of January 1994—but the preponderance of the bloodshed (and all the attacks on civilians) was at the hands of the government, not the rebels.

See our last posts on Mexico and the Zapatista tour.