On the afternoon of May 3, 2006, what could have been a small incident turned into a military attack on a civilian population. In Texcoco, Mexico State, police attempted to remove a group of eight vendors selling flowers without permits in a public marketplace, the Mercado Belisario Dominguez. In truth, the action had political motives that reached far beyond these technicalities, namely that the flower vendors were assumed allies of the FPDT (People’s Front in Defense of the Land), who have clashed with the local and federal government for years. Texcoco is also one of the proposed sites for a new Walmart which both the flower vendors and the People’s Front vehemently oppose.
During the confrontation Javier Cortés, a 14 year-old boy, exposed the location of a policeman to the crowd, who he had seen crouching in the shadows. Allegedly to silence the boy, the policemen shot and killed him on the spot. This unleashed the fury of the crowd, which attempted to force the police out of the marketplace with sticks, stones, molotov cocktails and machetes. A bloody scuffle ensued and, after the crowd successfully blocked a highway, federal and municipal troops were brought in to disperse them.
Atenco is a campesino, or farming town, roughly 25 miles east of Mexico City with a history of defending itself from government and corporate land-grabbers. In 2002, after over a year of wide-spread resistance and repression, the general population of Atenco, in conjunction with the more militant tactics of the People’s Front, were able to force the Mexican government to cancel its plans to build an airport in their town. This was an amazing feat and set a precedent in Mexico for resistance to corporate development and forced displacement.
On the evening of May 3rd following the confrontation and subsequent riot in the marketplace, the Mexican mainstream press barraged the public with violent images of campesinos attacking police, focusing on “the brutal beating of a policeman lying on the ground” (Carlos Fazio, May 21st, La Jornada) instead of that of the murdered boy. This propaganda fueled animosity towards the people of Atenco, and sympathy towards police, which then gave state and federal government the opportunity to descend on and violently repress this well-organized community in an military attack the following day.
The morning of May 4th, in the tradition of Atenco resistance, the people mobilized and took to the streets. Without warning, campesinos and others were subject to an police attack that they never could have predicted. At dawn the police had already surrounded the city and blocked off the roads in preparation for mass-arrest. The people inside were trapped in a war zone, up against a military force with no means of escape or adequate self-defense. The tear gas began almost immediately, then round-ups and chasing through the streets. Unarmed people were cornered and brutally beaten with batons before being thrown in trucks and taken from the city limits. Another young man, Alexis Benhumea, was put into a coma by the beatings, in which he remains to this day. Up to 250 people were detained, mostly farmers and others willing to come out into the streets and risk their lives to show opposition to the government’s neoliberal policies and military crack-down.
A Chilean woman, Valentina Palma Novoa, 11 year resident of Mexico City, was one of the many to get swept up that day for the simple crime of being in the streets of Atenco. She writes of the brutality she witnessed and experienced after being thrown into the back of a truck by the police, along with many others even more injured than her, and having her face shoved by a policeman’s boot into a pool of someone else’s blood. The trip was hellish and neither Valentina nor anyone else trapped in the vehicle had any idea if they would survive, or if their final destination would inevitably end in execution. They were beaten continuously, groped, sexually assaulted and raped by the police. This went on for two or three hours and the police circled the city.
Valentina’s story is only one of many, many accounts. Women and men were brutally tortured en mass. Women have reported being raped with fingers, penises and other objects in the mouth, vagina and anus. Some were forced to repeatedly perform oral sex for groups of police. It is imperative to understand the horrifying fact that the sexual torture, brutality and rape were completely premeditated and mandated from above. The police were given instructions to target these women — they were supplied with condoms by their superiors and instructed to take their time before arriving at the prison gates.
In a speech given by Subcommandante Marcos, the public voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, at a protest in Mexico City exposing the violence against women at Atenco, Marcos pointed out that according to the testimonies of the women raped by police on May 4th, the police enjoyed and derived pleasure from their hideous misconduct. Further, it was “the promise of pleasure from these women’s bodies was a añadito (little reward) that the police received with the orders to ‘impose peace and order in Atenco.’” In other words, the rape and humiliation of men, women and girls is what police consider their due for a job well-done.
Following the initial arrests in Atenco on May 4th came neighborhood raids, targeting anyone with long hair, earrings, tattoos or any item associating them with the EZLN or Zapatista Liberation Army.
It is logically impossible that the attack in Atenco was improvised by a group of ‘bad’ murderous cops. The evidence is clear that the attack was a carefully planned and militarily strategic move on the part of Mexican government, with participation of both state and federal authorities, as well as local medical and prison services, required to pull it off. Carlos Montemayor writes “The violent and illegal detentions in the first hours of dawn….are an ancient and reoccurring practice of repressive armies and police forces” (La Jornada, May 13, 2006). In addition, the support of a complacent and conservative media that stigmatizes the campesinos in resistance, covers up and calls into question the testimonies of the victims is essential to the success of these actions. Officials are asking for “evidence,” but there were reporters who witnessed the arrests and refuse to come forward for fear of what the government will do to them. In the case of the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City 1968, and the subsequent decade of repression referred to as the ‘dirty war,’ much of the public didn’t even know that hundreds of students and radicals had been killed and disappeared in their own city by the military. The massacre happened one evening and by the next morning the blood and bodies had already been cleared from the streets, the witnesses never seen again.
The purpose of government repression is always social control. Like Tlateloco, Atenco has come at a time of wide-spread organization in Mexico among the poorest and most effected by globalization, more recently centered around the Zapatista-initiated ‘Other Campaign’ which is has been traveling around Mexico for the last 8 months linking the struggles in indigenous and poor communities through dialogue and exchange. The Campaign has garnered huge media attention around issues usually completely censored and ignored. The Other Campaign is a grass-roots effort to create a forum in which communities can participate in the movement against neoliberal capitalism as a large-scale, unified body. The oppression we saw at Atenco obviously has the opposite goal in mind. The rape and humiliation is intended to have the effect of silencing civil society, making the work that the Zapatistas and many, many others are trying to do that much more difficult. Families get the message that they cannot participate in resistance, that they “must not get involved” in politics in any capacity other than the state-sponsored presidential elections this July. The effect may be that more people resign themselves to one of three corrupt political parties, seemingly the only ‘safe’ way to avoid more violent repression.
That is certainly what the government wants, and neoliberal policies that amount to fascism is certainly one way of attempting to achieve it, making it clear that resistance and self-defense in Mexico will not be tolerated, but will instead be brutally and criminally punished. We shouldn’t be surprised that any state would be willing to go this far to deter and prevent resistance. It has been seen too many times throughout history and across the globe. It is important to recognize that as long as the U.S. and corporate globalization continue to impose neoliberal policies of “free trade” all over the world and support repressive governments, atrocities like those seen in Atenco will continue.
As Slingshot goes to press in early June, at least 31 of the original 218 political prisoners remain incarcerated, with an additional 20 or more people missing or unaccounted for and feared ‘disappeared’ or in hiding. Five internationals expelled immediately after the arrests from Mexico have not been able to return. Meanwhile, countless police, now known to the world as rapists and abusers, bask in the impunity granted by their government. Though 52 are under state and a mere 3 under federal investigation, not one of the over 3,500 federal and local law enforcement agents known to have participated in this atrocity has been taken off his/her beat. Not to mention the masterminds themselves who continue to get rich off neoliberal economic policy at the expense of the lives of many and the livelihoods of millions.
But many continue to resist without fear, a huge march in Mexico City is planned for the 28th of June and the Zapatista Other Campaign continues to use its weight to mobilize a movement to free the remaining political prisoners and demand that all levels of government guilt and involvement be punished. In the U.S., we must continue to show our solidarity in any way possible, from letters to and protests in front of Mexican Consulates, as well as strong opposition to free trade and U.S. international policy.
For more info about Atenco check out:
Chiapas Indymedia chiapas.mediosindependientes.org, Mexico Indymedia mexico.indymedia.org/, Narco News narconews.com/, Enlace Zapatista enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/, La Jornada www.jornada.unam.mx/
Sarah Shourd is an Oakland resident influenced by Zapatismo and resistance movements everywhere.