Mayhem, Murder and Manipulation – Mexico in Turmoil

Dan La Botz

MEXICAN POLICE ATTACKED activists and residents in the town of San Salvador Atenco in the State of Mexico during several days in early May, killing one, injuring scores, and jailing over 200. The police attack on Atenco followed only a little more than a week after a violent police assault on striking steelworkers in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán that left two dead and several severely injured. President Vicente Fox argued that police had moved in to deal with small cells of violent groups whose presence threatened the public peace. Local residents believed that the Fox government was taking revenge on Atenco activists for their success four years ago in blocking the construction of a new airport. Others speculated broader political motivation: that the Fox administration’s Secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal Carranza may be using violent confrontations with steelworkers and community activists to create the sense that under a leftist administration led by presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador the country would fall into chaos.

The events began on May 3 when police violently attempted to evict flower vendors from the Belisario Domínguez Market in Texcoco. Conflicts between police and street vendors are common in many Mexican cities. The vendors said that they had been given permission to sell on that day by mayor Nazario Gutiérrez Martínez of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), but that he broke his promise to the flower vendors, sending in the police to remove them.  The vendors attempted to defend themselves and then called for the aid of the Town Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT).

It was the FPDT that, in the summer of 2002, had carried out a series of militant confrontations with the authorities, successfully blocking the building of a new airport on private and communal land.

This time FPDT activists and others from the community blocked the Texcoco-Lecheria highway, a typical form of protest in Mexico. Students from the local university, hearing of the conflict, joined the community in defense of the vendors. The local government then sent in 600 police to dislodge the local citizenry who, in turn, responded with rocks, machetes and Molotov cocktails. The FPDT militants kidnapped some police officers for a while, also a traditional form of protest in Mexico, but then released them as a show of good will.

Police Assault and Political Developments

The next day local, state and federal authorities sent 3,000 police to dislodge the vendors and their community and student supporters. Police fought the community for two days, ransacking houses, brutally beating students and local residents, allegedly sexually molesting and raping several women and reportedly also raping two men. Police reportedly killed Francisco Javier Cortés Santiago, 14, in the course of the attack. Several police officers were also wounded, one reported to have lost his hand. The Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received 154 complaints against the police from citizens including seven accusations of rape and 16 cases of sexual abuse. Two Spanish women arrested in Atenco were deported.

Subcomandante Marcos, spokesman for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who had recently been in Atenco as part of a national tour of the “Other Campaign,” immediately returned to Atenco appearing at the head of a mass demonstration. Some in Atenco had declared the town an autonomous community and supported the Zapatista campaign. Marcos spoke out after the attack, saying that local residents had acted out of a commonly felt rage at the authorities.

Mexico, Marcos said, was on the verge of social disintegration and argued that none of the three major party candidates presented an alternative. Speaking to a national audience in a television interview, he ridiculed the election and called for a peaceful revolution to legally change the Mexican government as provided for in the Constitution. After taking a group of hundreds of supporters to show solidarity in Atenco, Marcos promised to stay in Mexico City until all the prisoners of Atenco were released. The prisoners, meanwhile, had begun a hunger strike. Several clandestine Mexican guerrilla groups issued statements saying that they had had nothing to do with the Atenco events, but urging their members to prepare for armed self-defense against the government.

Felipe Cálderon of the PAN and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI blamed the PRD for the violence in Atenco. The conservative parties and press have attempted to link the Atenco “riots” to Marcos and to the PRD, creating the impression that a vote for the center-left party would be a vote for chaos.  Spokesmen for the PRD, the center-left party whose candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was until recently leading in the polls, argued that the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were responsible for the violence. Surprisingly, López Obrador himself had not spoken out on these recent developments.

Behind Increasing Violence?

Mexico has experienced two massive police assaults in the last months, one in Lázaro Cárdenas and the other in Atenco, each involving many hundreds of police officers in attacks on social activists (see Mexican Labor News and Analysis, Vol XI, No. 4). Both resulted in deaths, several critical injuries, and many wounded. While all the circumstances have yet to be investigated, there are allegations of human rights violations in both cities, including several cases of rape by police in Atenco. What has led the state to use such massive force against striking steel workers and against flower vendors and their supporters? Why now? One explanation is that these attacks are the result of the changes in President Vicente Fox’s cabinet and other high government offices. Some people talk about the coming of the Yunque, Mexico’s ultra-rightwing, Roman Catholic political movement. In that view, most important of all was Fox’s appointment of Carlos Abascal Carranza to be Secretary of the Interior, head of the office called Gobernación.

Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior is in charge of law enforcement and the federal police but also historically the country’s top political operative and fixer. The office has frequently been the stepping stone to the presidency. Some believe Abascal and his reactionary brethren finally have the opportunity and are moving to crush the left and the labor movement.

Others suggest that the attacks are not so much about defeating the left as about creating in the minds of the Mexican people a sense that the country is on the verge of a violent outbreak that could lead to chaos if order is not restored. Some believe that Dick Morris, former advisor to President Bill Clinton and more recently consultant to President Fox and the National Action Party, has been advising Fox and Carranza to create a climate of fear in Mexico in order to push voters toward the PAN’s Felipe Calderón. (For a full discussion of this view see: Al Giordano, “U.S. Political Consultants Dick Morris and Rob Allyn Are the Virtual Rapists of Atenco,” The Narco News Bulletin, May 16, 2006, at: http://www.narco

According to this scenario, if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the center-left PRD is elected, the left will be encouraged to become more active, leading to more conflicts like those at Lázaro Cárdenas and Atenco. Calderón and the PAN have spent a lot of money on advertising that claims that López Obrador is Mexico’s Hugo Chávez, the populist president of Venezuela. To avoid such a radical shift to the left, the PAN suggests, Mexicans must vote for the conservative party of order, the National Action Party whose candidate is Felipe Calderón.

The script seems to be working, as López Obrador, who throughout the past year led in the polls, has now been passed by Calderón. A poll in mid-May by El Universal newspaper shows Calderón to be ahead with 39% of votes, compared to 35% for López Obrador, and only 21% for Roberto Madrazo.

Subcomandante Marcos, whose anti-capitalist front is attempting to build horizontal linkages among various grassroots social movements in Mexico, came out strongly in defense of the activists in the town of Atenco. But he may have unwittingly contributed to Carlos Abascal’s campaign to terrorize the Mexican people. And some have suggested that when Marcos said on a television interview that he thought López Obrador would win the election, he gave the PRD candidate the kiss of death. For, despite the fact that Marcos has been attacking López Obrador throughout the campaign period, predicting his victory in the election was taken by some as a kind of crypto-endorsement.

Thus the machete-wielding protestors in Atenco, Marcos the leader of a guerrilla army and an anti-capitalist campaign, and López Obrador the moderate populist have become linked in the media and in the public mind, although more out of coincidence than by any real connections.

Marcos’ “Other Campaign” thus serves to provide the government with a boogey man in a mask to terrify the tenuously perched middle classes. Marcos himself has recognized that the state is attempting to create a sense of fear, and has proclaimed that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and its “Other Campaign” will only conduct a peaceful struggle for change. But his presence among the machetes of Atenco and his origins in the armed uprising in Chiapas in January 1994 make it difficult to shake the association with violent struggle.

In short, the Fox administration appears to have fomented unrest by removing a union leader from office for demonstrating some independence and militance, and then taken advantage of the resulting strikes in Lázaro Cárdenas and other areas, as well as community resistance in Atenco, to further its political goals. The government apparently thinks nothing of killing and maiming steelworkers and flower vendors, and risking the lives of its own police force, if it can achieve the goal of creating a sense of instability and chaos.

López Obrador then faces the choice of defending the workers and communities who are under attack or supporting repression, but has chosen to deal with his uncomfortable position by saying little and doing nothing, as he slips backward in the polls. Carlos Abascal appears to be masterminding a victory both by provoking and taking advantage of social conflicts as they appear on his radar and then launching the nearly military response that turns them into violent conflicts. Felipe Calderón may well be the next president.

Dan La Botz is the editor of the on-line monthly, Mexican Labor News and Analysis, where an earlier version of this article appeared. You can read the monthly magazine at

ATC 123, July-August 2006