Mexico: Violence and Backlash in San Salvador Atenco

This much we know for sure. On May third and fourth, in the Mexican town of San Salvador Atenco, riots broke out which resulted in 200 arrests and 50 injured officers according to an official statement. We also know that a 14-year-old youth named Javier Cortés Santiago was killed in the violence. Those small details, however, are about the only facts that all sides agree on. Disagreed upon is 1.) whether Cortés was killed by a bullet of the police or protesters 2.) whether protesters were raped by police officers or if such claims are fabrications 3.) whether the government was justified in using force, and 4.) most importantly, just what actually set off the riots?

What follows is an investigation of what took place in San Salvador Atenco through the eyes of journalists, bloggers, and foreign anthropologists who were at the scene. But it is also an examination of who we trust when stories contradict, blame is tossed back and forth, and the media, government, and bloggers all insist that they are the ones telling the truth.

According to Google News, Reuters was the first, major, English-language source to report on the violence, when “machete-wielding peasants clashed with police after a scuffle with flower sellers got out of hand.” It seems that the Reuters article was most likely an English recapitulation of accounts by Mexican dailies, which also depicted the violence as spontaneous and centered around unlicensed flower vendors in Atenco's market. La Jornada ran with the front page headline “War in Texcoco-Atenco: The eviction of florists in a market leads to a bloody battle.” Likewise, in a notably critical tone, El Universal wrote [ES], “the use of public force to restrict flower vendors from setting up in a street caused a violent confrontation between police groups – federal, state, and municipal – and the citizens of the area.” An editorial [ES] that same day puts equal blame on representatives of Mexico's three main political parties for not being able to contain “a minor conflict with eight flower vendors.”

But Jay wrote the day after the riots broke out [ES], “now, with what happened in San Salvador Atenco, I've lost all of the little faith that I had in the mainstream media.”

Mi madre vive en Texcoco de Mora, Edo. de México. Yo viví aqui por mucho tiempo. Y me encontraba en casa de mi mamá este fin de semana. Se han dicho tantas tonterías en los medios masivos de información. Desde los ingenuos que creen que remover a 6 floricultores de la banqueta provocó los enfrentamientos, pasando por los defensores sociales que siguen ciegamente a los “oprimidos del gobierno”, hasta los que aplauden la “rápida y efectiva” acción del gobierno estatal para retirar su bloqueo sobre la carretera Texcoco – Lechería.

Pero aqui unos hechos que seguramente no escucharon con López Dóriga, y menos con Tv Azteca…

La policia estatal lleva mas de 15 días en Texcoco! Claro que no tenian los blanquillos para estar en Atenco, así que invadieron el centro histórico de Texcoco. 15 días esperando ordenes, esperando un pretexto para usar la fuerza…

Claro que a muchos no les importó… pues no estaban haciendo nada. Simplemente tomando el sol, rascándose la barriga… impuestos muy bien gastados! El primer día que llegaron a Texcoco todo mundo podia oler que algo andaba mal. Pero poco a poco se volvieron simplemente parte del paisaje…

My mother lives in [neighboring] Texcoco de Mora in Mexico State. I lived there for a long time and that's where I found myself this past weekend. They have said so many idiotic things in the mainstream media. From the simpletons who believe that removing six florists from the sidewalk is what provoked the confrontation to the social defenders blindly following the “government's oppressed people,” to even those who applaud the “rapid and effective” action of the state government for removing the roadblock on the Texcoco – Lechería highway.

But here are some facts that you surely haven't heard from [Televisa anchorman] López Dóriga and much less from TV Azteca …

The state police have been in Texcoco for more than 15 days! Of course they didn't have the balls to be in Atenco [a city known for its violent protesters] and so they invaded the historic center of Texcoco. For 15 days they were waiting for orders, waiting for a pretext to use force …

Of course, for a lot of people, it didn't bother them … [the officers] weren't doing anything, just taking in the sun, scratching their bellies … tax money very well spent! From the first day that they arrived to Texcoco everyone could smell something fishy. But little by little [the police] simply became part of the background.

Jay's post leads to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about whether or not state force was justified, but Jay reminds readers that his criticism was directed at the press who he says established a story line of sponteneity because they did not have the appropriate background knowledge of what really led to the conflict.

There is no doubt that Mexico City native, Ulises Ali Mejias was the first blogger to write about Atenco in English. He also provided his readers with some context to the conflicts that the citizens of Atenco has often found themselves involved in, including machete-wielding protests against a proposed aiport in the area and disapproval of Wal-Mart's plans to open shop.

Sweetness & Light, a day later, painted the violent confrontation as “Mexican Anti Wal-Mart Riots” and said that the story was receiving so little attention in the American press because it is leftist, also anti-Wal-Mart, and “think it makes their side look bad.”

A.M. Mora y Leon of the popular, international conservative blog, Publius Pundit took the explanation as authoritative and claimed:

In San Salvador Atenco, in central Mexico state, not far from the capital, over 200 people were arrested, protesting a new Wal-Mart about to go up. One 14-year-old was killed, and President Vicente Fox has said over the weekend that the government overreacted.

That drew the ire of several bloggers including Mexican expat Rodolfo Soriano Núñez who currently blogs from New Hampshire [ES] (including this recent post on “The Ghost of Atenco“) and commented on Mora y Leon's post:

The riots had nothing to do with Wal-Mart. You gotta be out of your mind to assume that you know something about what is going on in Mexico just because you can download pictures from Mexico. The riot is connected with the awful mismanagement of the construction of a new airport in Mexico city back in 2000. Lately, the leaders of the movement that emerged back in 2000 to challenge the construction of the airport reorganized their group in an effort to boost their position during the on-going presidential election. Moreover, after a rather unusual intervention of the Mexican authorities to prevent the spread of the conflict, Marcos the leader of the languishing “guerrilla” in Chiapas (the EZLN) decided to show up there to get himself back in the newspapers.

The fact that Zapatista media darling, Subcomandante Marcos has used the disorder in Atenco to enter back into the pre-election political fray has not been lost on anyone. But few commentators have noted the important change in how Marcos and other Zapatista leaders now distribute information. A decade ago the Zapatistas (EZLN) depended on hand written and typed communiques which were sent to the Mexican press and most often published in La Jornada. In the years to follow, those communiques were sent, albeit less frequently, in real time to subscribers of email lists scattered across the globe. Beginning in November 2005, however, the Zapatistas embraced Web2.0 wholeheartedly with the weblog Enlace Zapatista (Zapatista Connection), which allows comments and encourages decentralized participation via proprietary services such as Technorati, Flickr, and YouTube. Perhaps indicative of who may be providing tech support to the EZLN, all posts are available in both Spanish and Italian. Many of them also include podcasts of Marcos passionately orating.

It was Enlace Zapatista that was most active in the days of the Atenco riots and most critical of the press’ coverage. The morning of May 6th a transcript and podcast of a speech by Subcomandante Marcos directed at Mexico's mainstream media was posted onto Enlace Zapatista, which inspired dozens of comments:

Ayer y hoy, fuimos testigos de una verdadera campaña de mentiras y de linchamiento en contra del Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra y en contra del pueblo de San Salvador Atenco, manipulando imágenes, fotos y palabras, los medios masivos de comunicación, sus direcciones, se están poniendo al servicio de la mentira y no de la verdad, un locutor decía que no creía en coincidencias, tampoco cree en la verdad, esta claro que quienes les están pagando a los medios de comunicación para esta campaña de mentiras tienen el dinero y nosotros no lo tenemos, pero esos, los que están allá arriba, que están pagando esta campaña no están en las calles, no hacen andar las fábricas, no hacen germinar al campo, no viven en las montañas, somos nosotros los que estamos abajo los que hacemos todo eso, los medios masivos de comunicación están preparando y ejecutando una campaña de desprestigio en contra de gente noble y buena …

… ellos están preparando y ejecutando esta campaña de desprestigio, y ustedes son los operadores, simplemente lo único que están logrando es que crezca el odio y el rencor abajo, para que ustedes lo enfrenten, no serán sus directores los que van a recibir los insultos y el repudio, sino ustedes camarógrafos, videastas, reporteros, fotógrafos, son ustedes los que van a recibir porque representan a esas empresas, que están yendo a contracorriente … lo único que están haciendo es que crezca el coraje y esto que esta aquí es una pequeña muestra y lo que pasó ayer otra y seguirán más y más, cuando se presentaron las primeras imágenes ayer en la mañana de las detenciones que hizo la policía, se apreciaba claramente como los policías pateaban y golpeaban a los detenidos que ya estaban reducidos, en la noche ya estaba todo editado, ya nomás aparecían los policías golpeados, ¿donde quedaron esas imágenes?, ¿donde están los desaparecidos?, faltan dos compañeros, uno es el hijo de Ignacio del Valle, su nombre es César y el otro es Ulises Ríos, ¿dónde están?, que los presenten, los familiares de las detenidas nos están avisando que están violando a las mujeres, ¿dónde esta su estado de derecho?, ¿qué hacía la policía aquí en San Salvador Atenco?, si el problema fue local, en Texcoco.

Yesterday and today were were witnesses to a serious campaign of lies and of lynching against the “Front of Villages in Defense of the Earth” and against the town of San Salvador Atenco. Manipulating images, photos, and words, the management of mainstream big media is dedicating itself to the service of lies, not the truth. An anchorman said that he did not believe in coincidences, but neither does he believe in the truth. It is clear that those who are paying the media for this campaign of lies are not out in the streets, do not work in the factories, do not farm in the campo, do not live in the mountains. We are the ones underground who do all of this. The mainstream media is preparing and executing a campaign of discrediting these good and noble people.

They [media executives, managers] are planning and excecuting this smear campaign and it is all of you [reporters, media employees] who are the operators and the only think you are achieving is the growth of hate and rancor from down under which you will be faced with. It won't be your directors that will receive the insults and repudiation, but rather all of you, the cameramen, reporters, and photographers, it is you who will recieve it because you represent these companies that are going against the truth. The only thing you are doing is increasing the rage and all this that is here is just a small glimpse and what happened yesterday, others will follow, more and more. When the first images were shown yesterday morning of the detentions made by the police, it was clearly apparent that the officers had kicked and beaten the detainees, who were already restrained. Then in the night, they were all edited. Where are these images now? Where are the citizens who have disappeared? We are missing two of our partners, one is the son of [automony movement leader] Ignacio del Valle, his name is César and the other is Ulises Ríos. Where are they? Present them to us. The family members of the detainees are telling us that the [police] are raping the women. Where are their rights? What is the [federal] police doing here in Atenco if the problem was local and in Texcoco?

But the Zapatistas are far from the only ones who disagree with how Atenco has been portrayed by the government and mainstream media. On May 6th Alfredo Sanchez quoted [ES] the commissioner of the State Security Agency who had said the day before that none of the police officers in San Salvador Atenco had carried any firearms.

Según el oficial policiaco, los uniformados solo actuaron con escudos, toletes y gases lacrimógenos y jamás dispararon con armas de fuego.

According to the police official, the uniformed officers only acted with shields, batons, and tear gas and never shot any firearms.

But included in the post is a picture taken from La Reforma of an officer in uniform clearly pointing his pistol. Sanchez goes on to quote another official who said there was still not sufficient evidence to determine if 14-year-old Javier Cortés was killed by a bullet belonging to the police, however, like Juan Carreón points out:

Javier Cortés Santiago, de 14 años, falleció de un balazo de pistola calibre .38 durante el conflicto del miércoles en Atenco, y no por el estallido de un petardo, como informaron las autoridades del Estado de México.

Javier Cortés era estudiante de secundaria. Los fines de semana preparaba merengues para venderlos en Bosques de Aragón. No usaba machetes. Al contrario, su familia estaba en contra del movimiento en Atenco, pero ese día Javier acudió al sitio de los enfrentamientos y recibió un balazo en el brazo izquierdo que le llegó hasta el corazón.

14-year-old Javier Cortés Santiago, was killed by a pistol shot of .38 calibre during the Wednesday conflict in Atenco and not a firecracker explosion as Mexico State authorities first reported.

Javier Cortés was a middle school student. On weekends he made merengues which he sold in the Bosques de Aragón park. He did not use a machete. To the contrary, his family was against the [autonomy] movement in Atenco, but that day Javier went to the site of the confrontation and received a gunshot in his left arm that went to his heart.

But while the state forensic service (SEMEFO) assures that Cortés died of gunshot wounds, officials are still investigating who shot the lethal bullet. According to Carreón:

Hasta el momento, la Subprocuraduría de Justicia tiene dos líneas de investigación: “una es que los mismos seguidores de Ignacio del Valle (líder del Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra), realizaron el disparo; la otra que fueron los policías”.

De acuerdo al Reglamento establecido para las policías municipales y estatales, los encargados de vigilar el orden público local están facultados para utilizar como parte su armamento pistolas tipo revólver calibre .38, el cual coincide con la munición que le quitó la vida a Javier Cortés Santiago.

So far, the [public defender] has two lines of investigation: “first, that it was the followers of Igancio del Valle (leader of the Front of Villages in Defense of the Earth) that shot the bullet; the other is that it was the police.”

According to established regulations of the municipal and state police, those in charge of keeping public order are permitted to use, as part of their protection, .38 calibre pistols, the same munition which coincides with the bullet that took the life of Javier Cortés Santiago.

Despite the tomes of content published in the week following Atenco's violence, all of the speculation and reporting was done by individuals who weren't actually in Atenco when the confrontation took place. That changed on May 9th when Chilean anthropologist and filmmaker, Valentina Palma Novoa published a statement [ES] from Santiago, Chile where she arrived after having been deported by Mexican officials. Palma Novoa's entire statement was translated into English three days later at Narco News. She explains:

On Wednesday, May 3, after seeing the news on television and learning of the death of a 14-year-old boy, I was moved by the death of this small child and, as an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, decided to go to San Salvador Atenco to assess the situation.

And then, some of the more harrowing excerpts:

They pulled me up by my hair and said, “Get in the truck, b$%@#.” I could barely move but they demanded that we move incredibly quickly. They tossed me on top of other wounded and bleeding bodies and ordered me to lay my head in a pool of blood. I didn’t want to put my head in the blood, but the black boot of a police officer forced me to do it. The truck started and began to move. Along the way, I was groped by the hands many police officers. I just closed my eyes and clenched my teeth, hoping that the worst would not happen.

I stayed still, listening to the groans from the bodies by my side, and heard them continue to bring more prisoners onto the bus, asking their names amidst beatings and shouts of pain. I do not know how much time passed before the bus closed its doors and began to move. The trip lasted about two or three hours. The torture began again and whatever small movement we made garnered more blows. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but the moans of the old man next to me kept me awake. The old man was saying, “My leg, my leg…¡God, have mercy, please have mercy!”

Eduardo Arcos has photos of Palma's wounds.

Valentina Palma Novoa was one of five foreigners arrested at San Salvador Atenco. Two others, María Sastres and Cristina Valls from Spain were also in Atenco and also reported that they were sexually assaulted by the police. According to a translation of an article originally from La Jornada:

The worst abuses came when they were put in a truck together with several dozen other people. “They put us in a truck, where they started beating us the whole time, hitting us with clubs and kicking us. They insulted us a lot, because we were Spanish, saying that we were with the ETA, calling us whores and many other things. Later they moved us to a bigger truck, where they accounted for all of us – I think there were 38 of us – and they abused the women sexually.

The Narco News Bulletin has been just about the only English source with continued updates on Atenco. It is worth reading Al Giordono's implication of two American political consultants behind President Fox's mismanagement of Atenco, an account of solidarity protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and a letter to Valentina Palma Novoa, María Sastres and Cristina Valls by Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar who was arrested 20 years earlier while protesting in El Salvador.

Of course, with Mexico's presidential elections right around the corner, the violence in Atenco has been politicized into a partisan blame game. In fact, when Eduardo Arcos first wrote of the riots, several commenters offered their theories on which party was behind the disruption to win political favor. Alfredo Sanchez describes [ES] how some are trying to tie leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the fomented violence. On the other hand, Eduardo Arcos admonishes the pro-Obrador citizen media site for making videos that blame National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón for the police repression. And Enigmatario says that Subcomandate Marcos is using the momentum to disrupt the upcoming presidential elections by promoting his Zapatista autonomy movement. But, in a post titled “Playing the Fear Card,” Dave Pentecost is critical of an AP article portraying Mexico as a nation on the edge, which was then picked up by Forbes, CNN, and ten Spanish-language papers. Pentecost concludes, “this has to be based on a new PRI campaign talking point. Go back to the old repressive PRI government for another 71 years? We'll see if that's really the national mood.”

A plethora of videos documenting violence carried out by both protesters and police can be seen on YouTube. Similarly, Technorati has nearly 3,000 posts with the search term “Atenco.” Likewise, nearly 150 photos can be found on Flickr.

But with so much overwhelming content online, why has Atenco only been referenced obliquely in the anglophone press? Why was police oppression only condemned when it was spoken of by foreigners? Why has so little context been given of the region's long-running autonomy movement against the federal government?

They are questions to be considered, but so far without answers. Readers who would like to gain more understanding of the region and how a proposed airport inspired a growing movment for regional autonomy that was encouraged by the EZLN, “¡Tierra si! ¡Aviones no!” (Land Yes! Airplanes No!) is a three part documentary movie directed by Adan Xicohtencatl and Constantino Miranda and freely available for download.


  • I recommend taking a peak at this blog and the thread following, which as well attempted to provide some real time assessment from Mexico City.

  • chris

    A few points, The Other Campaign of Marcos and the EZLN began in January of this year, long before the events in Atenco. They responded to the repression in Atenco, but did not start their campaign because of it.
    Second, why is Narco News Bulletin the only source that you tarnish with the “biased” label? No news source can be called unbiased. They can only be judged based on integrity, fairness and accuracy, all characteristics that Narco News possesses, much like some of the other sources you cite.

  • You answered your question yourself.

    And it is (some part of) the answer to why the Anglophone press pays attention to Sudan, but ignores the bloodier situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa, home of Bunia, google “the Curse of Gold” by HRW). Congo-Kinshasa was Francophone Africa.

    It is, I strongly suspect, the basis of the division of Protestantism and Catholicism following Germanic Luther’s 1517, Germanic Europe (Scandinavia, England, Germany, Austria) ended up Protestant, while Latin Europe (France, Italy, Spain) stayed up Catholic.

    I think it is part of the reason Switzerland, which publishes its laws in four languages (3+Rhaeto-Romansh, possibly the most Latin of all languages) has such a seemingly easy time of things, and might speak to their business sense.

    Language, Baby

    It is the main way for culture to spread, and that includes the news.
    Sometimes that _is_ the news.

  • […] David Sasaki on recent violence in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico: This much we know for sure. On May third and fourth, in the Mexican town of San Salvador Atenco, riots broke out which resulted in 200 arrests and 50 injured officers according to an official statement. We also know that a 14-year-old youth named Javier Cortés Santiago was killed in the violence. Those small details, however, are about the only facts that all sides agree on. Disagreed upon is 1.) whether Cortés was killed by a bullet of the police or protesters 2.) whether protesters were raped by police officers or if such claims are fabrications 3.) whether the government was justified in using force, and 4.) most importantly, just what actually set off the riots? [Link] […]

  • Chris,

    Thank you for your comment. You’re absolutely right about my editorializing of Narco News – that was irresponsible. I have been a long-time reader of the site and am always thankful for their coverage and translations. I have also come to understand, though, that the stories always come from a certain ideological perspective. That’s what I wanted to relate to readers, but I should have let them form their opinions on their own. You are also right about La Otra Campaña. I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked to research the topic, though a simple Google search reveals a wealth of content on Enlace Zapatista, La Jornada, and even the BBC.


    I agree. I think the language divide was a major part of why this story didn’t make it into the anglophone press. The Mexican newspapers were contradicting themselves so much those first days, trying to spin a narrative, that I have a feeling correspondents were even more at a loss of how to turn it into a readable story for English-speaking readers.

  • […] information on the movement against the development of the airport in Atenco in: Global Voices Online and “Women of Atenco” in Amnesty […]

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