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For Some in Mexico, Property Is Worth a Life

Dispute: Land means food, freedom, everything, says a man injured in the recent standoff between farmers and the state.


SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico — With his land smack-dab in the footprint of a planned Mexico City airport, Ignacio Yanez vowed Tuesday to defend his five acres with his life. And he put it on the line last week as he and 30 other farmers clashed with state police at a roadblock.

The battle, Yanez's severe injuries and the arrest of farmers set off a four-day community rebellion that is forcing the federal government to rethink plans to build a $2.3-billion airport here to replace the capital's overcrowded transportation hub.

"Nothing worth fighting for is free," Yanez said, his left arm in a cast as he stood amid corn and squash on acreage originally given to his great-grandfather by the government after the Mexican Revolution nearly a century ago. "The land is our mother who feeds us, gives us liberty and tranquillity, without which we are nobody.

"It is not negotiable at any price," he said.

Marching with his neighbors, Yanez was trying to make that point to Gov. Arturo Montiel of Mexico state last Thursday. The marchers had hoped to confront the governor at a speaking engagement in Acolman, about 10 miles up the road from here, but police blocked their way. A melee ensued in which a dozen farmers were arrested. Five of them, including Yanez, were hospitalized.

Word of the clash got back to San Salvador Atenco, and within hours farmers had blockaded roads and taken hostages. A tense standoff with 900 police officers who ringed the town threatened to become a pitched battle. Residents hijacked propane-gas tankers and threatened to blow them up if the authorities moved in.

The confrontation ended peacefully Monday when the government released Yanez and the other prisoners and farmers released their 19 hostages.

The clash underscores the farmers' deep attachment to--and dependence on--the land.

"Everything people in rural Mexico have is wrapped up in the land," said John Womack, a history professor at Harvard University who has written extensively about Mexico. "It's the equivalent of their pension plans, their life insurance policies, their workers' compensation and their daily livelihoods. So both for the community and the social insurance it gives them, they are going to fight as long and as hard as they can to keep it."

Until the clash, Yanez and other farmers had a hard time being taken seriously, despite the increasingly violent tenor of their protests, including their brandishing of machetes. It was the 12th time Yanez had marched since October, when the government chose his neighborhood as the site of the six-runway airport, a huge public works project that will take six years to build.

In the aftermath of the confrontation, President Vicente Fox told CNN on Monday night that other sites for the airport would be studied.

While critics accused the government of caving in to lawlessness, the 48-year-old Yanez emerged as a local hero. He paid a price, returning from jail with a concussion, a head gash, a broken wrist, his neck out of joint and a summons to appear in court this morning to face riot charges. Others in town have suffered economic losses as commerce has come to a standstill.

"The police blocked our way and interfered with our legal rights. And so we started to fight, to defend ourselves," said Yanez, a father of five. "We threw rocks; they threw them back and beat us with sticks. The tear gas weakened me; I fell and they were on top of me. I lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital."

Despite Fox's comments and Yanez's optimism that farmers had defeated the proposed airport, the fight is still unresolved. No meetings between the government and farmers have been scheduled.

Until now, the government has been firm about its intention to expropriate about 13,000 acres, including about 2,600 acres in San Salvador Atenco, for the airport.

But if the Fox government ends up deeming the political cost of an airport here too great, the clash Thursday on the road to Acolman undoubtedly will be the farmers' Bunker Hill, a lost battle that inspired their forces to eventual victory.

"Anyone poor in Mexico who takes on the government, especially in the state of Mexico, knows very well you don't get very far with the authorities unless you're willing to get the hell beat out of yourself," Womack said. "If you are fighting for all you've got in the world, people are prepared to do that."

The Yanez family lives on the crops--corn, squash, alfalfa and beans--grown on their five acres and on the proceeds from a tiny store they operate adjacent to their modest home. They are among 1,500 landowners in Atenco.

"We don't want to change our lives. We are happy where we are," said Yanez's wife, Maria Concepcion. "It's not a great thing, but we live well and it's quiet."

There is deep-seated mistrust here of the government ever coming across with even the small amount of money it has offered for the land, said merchant Carmelo Rojas.

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