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Hostages Are Free in Mexico Airport Clash

Dispute: Farmers turn over 19 people after the government releases a dozen of their protesters. Officials might reconsider the project.

July 16, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Ending an explosive four-day standoff, farmers opposed to a new international airport released 19 hostages early Monday after the government freed a dozen protesters and indicated it might be willing to reconsider the project.

Although the dispute is far from settled, citizens of San Salvador Atenco, located at the heart of the planned airport site, scored a victory by forcing the state to release its prisoners first and getting the federal government to promise a dialogue with those affected by the airport plans.

Ever since the site for the $2.3-billion facility was announced in October, landholders in the Texcoco area 18 miles northeast of the capital have expressed outrage at the price the government offered for the 13,300 acres of land needed for the project. Others vowed they wouldn't leave at any price.

On Thursday, the dispute turned violent as farmers occupied municipal buildings, took hostages and destroyed or hijacked at least 30 vehicles, which they then used to block highways. Barricades were thrown up around the town, and more than two dozen people were hurt in skirmishes between farmers and police.

With tensions mounting, the government appeared to blink first, softening the position that the project would continue as planned.

At a Sunday night news conference, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said the government was considering raising its offer to landholders, and he refused to answer a reporter's question as to whether the airport site might be moved.

"Give us the chance to [meet with farmers] and then when we are done with this consulting effort and have explored all possibilities, then I think it will be fair to definitively respond to that question," Creel said. He added that the government was also considering a land swap.

Blockades of main roads into San Salvador Atenco were being lifted Monday afternoon, but a meeting between farmers and government officials had not materialized. Farmers were planning another rally today before the presidential residence, Los Pinos.

Although farmers at one point in the standoff threatened to kill the hostages, those released Monday, including assistant state prosecutor Jose Andres Mendiola, said they had been treated well. Hostages were delivered early Monday to a nearby exchange point, hours after state police released their prisoners.

"They gave us three meals a day and covers to keep warm during the night," security guard Horacio Santibanez told a local reporter after his release. A defiant Ignacio del Valle, a protest leader who had been jailed by Mexico state police and charged with inciting a riot, said after he was released that his group would continue to "struggle to conserve the patrimony of our children."

Releasing the prisoners "was an act of good faith," state Gov. Arturo Montiel said Monday.

The new six-runway airport is to replace Mexico City's Benito Juarez International Airport. The Texcoco site was selected over a more distant location in Hidalgo state, largely because of lower costs. But about 34,000 people live at the Texcoco site, whereas the Hidalgo parcel is largely vacant. Moreover, environmentalists have criticized the Texcoco location because it includes marshlands used by migratory birds.

Much of the Texcoco land is held in ejidos, a form of land grant given to farmers and peasants as part of Mexico's land reform after the 1910 revolution. Owners have been offered about 70 cents per square meter of land.

Ruben Lechuga, an anthropologist at Iberoamericana University in Mexico City, said the ejido holders he has talked with have taken a harder line toward the government since the violence broke out Thursday.

"Before you had some younger members who were willing to negotiate a sale of land to the government," he said. "Now things have changed, and the words you hear most are 'We won't sell.' "

Rafael Aguirre in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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