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Resistance & Repression in Mexico

John Gibler
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

The Zapatistas’ Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña) is the largest grassroots mobilizing effort and the most stridently anti-capitalist social movement in Mexico. It is also the oddest, most creative, and most elusive political campaign around, incorporating elements of truth commission hearings, old-style political campaign stops, cultural fairs, pirate radio programming, literary readings, marches, internet activism, media spectacle, and road trip organizing.

Since January, the Other Campaign has been winding its way across Mexico listening to stories of resistance and organizing from the underdogs of the left (los de abajo y a la izquierda). Subcomandante Marcos and the caravan of social and political organizations and alternative media reporters that follows him have crisscrossed the country, pulling into Mexico’s most marginalized villages and big city slums, setting up tables and tents, and gathering hours of testimony from indigenous people, peasant farmers, students, sex workers, miners, and any and all who have turned away from capitalism and the recurrent, unfulfilled promises of the Mexican political class.

Media blackout

The crux of this first phase of the Other Campaign—listening—is so simple and so contrary to any previous or existing political movement that many are at a loss as to what to make of it. The Other Campaign’s journey has been mostly ignored by the national and international mainstream media and artlessly skewered by local tabloids and newspapers alike. The story they turned their backs on is not that of Marcos’ peregrinations or of how many times a day he refills his pipe, but that of the everyday struggles of those who have been cut out of the benefits of capitalism. Even with the stage set by the Zapatistas, neither the press nor this year’s presidential candidates paid any attention to the people who came to participate in the Other Campaign.

This includes the peasant farmers who set up camp on the barren flats near their homes to protect an underlying aquifer from illegal pumping in El Batan, Queretaro; the elderly residents of Yerba Buena, Colima, in civil disobedience against a government order to abandon their village and thus clear the view for tourists at a nearby elite hotel; thousands of riverside villagers in Guerrero organizing to protect their homes and farmland from flooding by the La Parota dam project—a dam designed to deliver more electricity and potable water to the beach-front hotels of Acapulco; and peasant farmers who rose up against the federal government in 2002, defeating a planned airport project that would have expropriated their land in San Salvador Atenco, Estado de Mexico (the state that surrounds the federal district to the west, north, and east).

The Other Campaign drove into Mexico City on April 29 to inaugurate a national labor meeting and then, on May 1, to march with 20,000 people into city’s central plaza. The national press corps filled its pages and airtime with comments on how Marcos has lost his appeal (“His crowds are so much smaller than during the 2001 march.”) while continuing to ignore the voices and political demands of the underdogs who participated in the meetings and public events. The Other Campaign in Mexico’s sprawling capitol was going just as it had across the country: gathering voices, building alliances, and slamming capitalism and the politicians who serve it.

Atenco & Texcoco

On May 3, at 6:30 a.m., two hundred state and local riot police tried to force some forty flower vendors from the local market in Texcoco, fifteen miles east of Mexico City. The vendors, many of whom belong to the People’s Front in Defense of Land (Frente Popular en Defensa de la Tierra), resisted and called for help to neighboring San Salvador Atenco. About one hundred activists from People’s Front, the organization that defeated the airport project in Atenco, arrived with machetes and rocks to confront the police. In the first hour of clashes, six flower vendors and eleven police officers were injured, and about thirty activists, including several of the leaders of the People’s Front, took refuge in a nearby house.

By 10 a.m., another 150 Atenco residents blocked the highway that borders the town and leads to Texcoco. Residents took several police officers hostage, demanding a prisoner swap for the flower vendors who had been detained and the group’s leaders who were by then trapped in the house in Texcoco.
By 2 p.m., around eight hundred Atenco residents, armed with machetes, rocks, bottle rockets, sticks, and Molotov cocktails, had gathered to defend the blockade. Over five hundred federal, state, and local police and riot police, armed with tear gas rifles, salt guns, clubs, and riot shields, tried to lift the blockade. During each successive clash the People’s Front pushed back the police, who, as they retreated, destroyed property and beat residents and press, including photographers from the Associated Press and La Jornada. The violence on May 3 was severe on both sides, though the police used disproportionate force: a 14-year-old boy was shot in the chest and killed by a .38 pistol, and two activists were shot and wounded.

That afternoon, state and federal riot police stormed the house in Texcoco where flower vendors and leaders of the People’s Front, including the group’s main spokesperson, Ignacio del Valle, had been bunkered down since the early morning. Approximately five police officers beat a Televisa cameraperson who tried to film the operation. Televisa showed the footage of the beating, filmed by the reporter who was clubbed, on national television that night.

Red Alert

When Subcomandante Marcos heard what was happening in Atenco on May 3 he suspended the Other Campaign activities and called a Red Alert in Zapatista communities. Hundreds of participants in the Other Campaign—students, labor organizers, and members of the Other Campaign caravan—went to Atenco to stand in solidarity.

While the May 3 confrontations were bloody and fierce, they were not beyond the scope of even very recent clashes between workers and police. Just a few weeks before, on April 20, Mexican police shot and killed two miners as they tried unsuccessfully to break a strike at the Sicartsa steel mill in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan. Violent police repression of social dissent is common in Mexico. No one imagined, however, what was to come on May 4 in San Salvador Atenco.

The first church bells went off around 2 a.m., but it was a false alarm. Men and women from Atenco returned to their positions behind the highway blockade, and those in solidarity leaned back against stone walls along Fresno Street, stretched back out on the concrete basketball court in the central plaza, and fell asleep.

The bells and bottle rockets began to sound again just after 6 a.m. This time residents and activists awoke to the sight and sound of over 3,000 riot police invading the town. The first wave of their attack brought tear gas bullets (three inches long and an inch in diameter, made of reinforced aluminum) fired at head-level and then a rush of hundreds of heavily armored riot police wielding shields and police batons.

Within ten minutes, the less than two hundred residents defending the highway blockade retreated down Fresno Street towards the plaza. As the police followed, firing tear gas, 20-year old Alexis Benhumea, a dancer and economy student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, was shot in the head. He collapsed from the impact and was immediately lifted from the street by his father, Angel Benhumea, and carried into a nearby house.

The police entered Atenco from six directions, completely surrounding the town. Activists and supporters who had arrived during the night retreated to the plaza and then scattered, running to hide in houses or trying to escape to a forest a few hundred yards outside of town. By 7:30 a.m., the police completely controlled the town.

Police violence

From 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., the police went house to house, guided by masked civilians, breaking windows and doors and tearing people out into the streets for beatings. Police thrashed activists, human rights monitors, and reporters alike with batons, hitting them repeatedly in the head and body. Jorge Salinas Jardon, a telephone worker and participant in the Other Campaign, was chased down and beaten for two minutes by over thirty police. Dozens of photographers and television news camerapersons filmed and took photos of his beating and subsequent dragging along the asphalt while unconscious, his hands obscenely swollen and his face drenched in blood.

The photographs and video footage of the mass beatings defy imagination. In broad daylight, police piling bodies into the back of a pick-up truck, one officer standing on top, kicking an indigenous woman between her legs. Police standing over bodies collapsed on the concrete in pools of blood. Police breaking windows, climbing up the church tower with baseball bats, dragging people screaming down the street, delivering repeated blows to the head.

This was the violence that police put on display before the cameras. Once people were detained and piled into buses and pick-up trucks, police drove them out into the country for continued beatings. Thirty of the forty-seven women detained reported sexual violence such as beatings on their breasts, buttocks, and sexual organs, and various forms of rape. Police raped one man with a police baton. One of the buses stopped twice to let police remove bloody, unconscious bodies. Those prisoners who arrived later reported not seeing again those who were carried off the bus.

In the house off Fresno Street, Angel Benhumea desperately tried to coordinate with friends in Mexico City for an ambulance to take his son to the hospital. Soon after taking refuge in the house with twenty other students and union workers who fled the first wave of violence, Alexis Benhumea lost consciousness and began to bleed severely from the wound in his head. His skull was broken open by the impact of the tear gas bullet, his brain partially visible through the wound.

When an ambulance finally arrived, the federal police would not let it enter the town. Alexis thus lay unconscious in the house, bleeding into a makeshift bandage for ten hours before a reporter from Indymedia Chiapas received a call from inside the house, rented a taxi-van with another reporter from Narco News, and took Alexis and his father to a hospital an hour away in Mexico City. Alexis made it to the hospital alive and survived four hours of brain surgery, but he never woke up. The brain damage caused by the bullet impact and the extensive hemorrhaging was too much. Within a week his brain failed.

Due to the overwhelming violence evident in the still and video images published in the national press, police brutality became daily front-page news in Mexico, though US newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times completely ignored the evidence and testimonies of brutality, failing to even mention the issue in their reporting.

Rule of law

The assault on Atenco was also an assault on the Other Campaign. The federal and state governments justified the so-called “police operation” as necessary to “restore the rule of law” to Atenco. The government’s logic is clear: grassroots organizing that leads to results is a threat to the elite political class.

Consider this curiosity: in the past year, drug violence has killed 143 people in Nuevo Laredo alone. One hundred and forty-three people executed in one city in one year. On April 20, the heads of two Acapulco police officers were found posted on the iron bars in front of a state government building above a hand-scrawled note: “So that you learn some respect.”

After Acapulco woke up to front-page photographs of the decapitated police, however, there was no raid the next day, no 3,000 federal, state, and local police surrounding the mansions of known drug cartels. In fact, there has never been a crackdown on drug traffickers like the May 4 raid on Atenco. The hundreds of deaths at the hands of the major cartels do not seem to threaten the “rule of law.” Yet somehow forty flower vendors do. It comes as little surprise that the police chief who organized the raid, Wilfredo Robledo, has been linked to major drug cartels for decades.
The venom and brutality of the police raid on Atenco belie the true target of the violence: those who challenge the concentration of power within the political class—the People’s Front in the Defense of Land, the Other Campaign, and the Zapatistas. The logic of the violence is this: activism is criminal.

The police used the pretext of “rioters” to beat and imprison the leaders of the People’s Front and disarticulate the movement. The attack was also a direct hit against the Other Campaign. The most severe beatings were unleashed on known participants in the Other Campaign. Moreover, the Zapatistas had pledged the support of the Other Campaign and the Zapatista troops to the People’s Front in Atenco. The violence thus challenged their word and organizing capacity.
The Other Campaign did not back away from the challenge. On May 5, one day after the raid, Subcomandante Marcos led a march of thousands into the central plaza of Atenco. He announced the indefinite suspension of the Other Campaign’s departure for the north and the shift in focus to freeing all of the political prisoners detained by police in Texcoco and Atenco on May 3 and 4.

Fear vote

The right-wing presidential candidates have used the violence in Atenco and Marcos’ presence in Mexico City to attack the opposition candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The right-wing campaign machines have lurched into motion with newspaper and television adds announcing, “López Obrador: a danger to the nation,” while juxtaposing his photograph with those of violent scenes from across the country. The discourse is meant to compel the “fear vote” against López Obrador.

For his part, López Obrador has been tepid, failing to make a strong denouncement of the police brutality in Atenco. The Zapatistas have been extremely critical of him and the PRD and are in no way allied with them, but for the federal and state government officials who planned and executed the violence in Atenco, both are dangerous, and both have been targets in the manipulation of information.

Much more than the outcome of the presidential election on July 2, 2006, the response to the police brutality in Atenco will be a defining moment for Mexican democracy and social justice, as well as for the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign. If, confronted with the overwhelming photographic, video, and medical evidence, the Mexican government is unable to try and prosecute those responsible for the Atenco raid, then those institutions will prove to be, as the Other Campaign claims, nothing more than private businesses for the ruling elite.

Alternatively, if the social movements across the country and the Other Campaign in particular are unable to mobilize the mass numbers of people needed to demand the release of the political prisoners and the trial of the intellectual authors of and direct participants in the raid, then the message of the Mexican right will remain clear: organized social protest will be viewed as a criminal threat to the rule of law, justifying the full use of police and military force and repeating the cycle of violence that makes a national grassroots organizing effort like the Other Campaign so urgent and necessary.


John Gibler reports from Mexico on the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign. He is a human rights fellow with Global Exchange and the Chiapas-based Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research(CAPISE) and co-editor of the magazine Palabras de La Otra.