We will never forget Atenco, Sr. Presidente!

Protests in Mexico during elections 2012

Mexico’s social movements have a strong will to change the society. The Atenco movement is one of the country’s strongest. They have stood firmly in the last months with a new upcoming movement of students, # Yo Soy 132, that protested against presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the return of PRI (Institution Revolutionary Party) who is well known as a corrupt and authoritarian party.  Nieto was also the governor responsible for the infamous attack on Atenco,  six years ago. Now he is elected as the next President of Mexico.

”I was truly lucky to get away.” This thought has haunted me ever since the conflict in Atenco six years ago. When I watch the images, and hear the stories of the victims of police brutality, it is hard to believe I came so close to being a victim myself. I was in Mexico City observing the Other Campaign with Subcomandante Marcos, when it happened.

In 2006, an election year in Mexico, the social struggle reached a peak of intensity. The Zapatistas had arranged its Other Campaign, an alternative “election campaign” where Subcomandante Marcos was travelling to all the states of Mexico speaking to the people, and a rebellion was under way in Oaxaca. But one of the worst conflicts took place on May 3-4 in San Salvador Atenco, a village in the state of México, a forty-minute drive from Mexico City. More than 200 people were arrested, several women were sexually abused and two young men were killed. The Atenco movement and the conflict characterized Mexico’s social struggle, and still does. The leader, Nacho del Valle, became an icon and symbol of true social struggle, and in July 2010 he and the other prisoners were set free. “This can never happen again,” he stated as he was liberated.

The Atenco Conflict 

May is the flower month in Mexico.1st, 3rd and 10th of May are important days and the flower vendors in Texcoco depend on selling their flowers in the streets. In the end of April they were told they could not sell their flowers in the streets anymore. They organized, and since Atenco is just ten minutes away, they called for help and advice, knowing that the movement would support them. Atenco residents are known for their strong social organization—in 2001 their movement stopped the construction of a new airport in Mexico City that would destroy their land.  The Atenco movement’s leader Nacho del Valle attended a meeting together with the flower vendors in the Texcoco Community Center. The community guaranteed that they could sell the flowers. But when they went to Texcoco in the early morning on the 3rd of May, police were waiting for them in the streets. The flower vendors along with the Atenco movement protested. The conflict escalated and the movement’s leader was arrested and brutally beaten, together with other protesters. When the citizens of Atenco and the Zapatistas “Other campaign”, heard the news, the conflict expanded and we went to Atenco to show our support. 

The main highway from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz passes by Atenco. The village reacted by barricading the highway, letting no cars or trailers pass. They even took some policemen as ”hostages,” a common practice in Mexican demonstrations, in order to get into dialogue with the authorities.  

The next morning, 3000 state and federal police officers attacked the village, on the orders of the governor, Enrique Peña Nieto. More than 200 were arrested that day; several women were victims of sexual abuse and rape. Beatings and torture were performed on all the people that got arrested and the people in the village who got in the way of the policemen. Bloody pictures of victims were published in the independent media in the following days. The mainstream media focused on the few policemen who were victims of beatings.  Impunity rules, as no police officer has been arrested and brought to trial.

Some activists were sentenced to prison for a month, a year, or two years. But nine men were sentenced to 31 years, the leader Nacho del Valle was sentenced to 112.5 years, and the other leaders, Hector Galindo and Felipe Alvarez, were sentenced to 67.5 years.

In the next four years everyone involved in the conflict, together with organizations, actors, musicians, international observers, and national supporters, fought for the freedom of the twelve political prisoners. The freedom of the nine prisoners was given on July 1, 2010, after the case was appealed to the Supreme Court and they found irregularities and lack of evidences in accusations of kidnapping police officers.  

That year I met Nacho del Valle and the other ex-prisoners for the first time. This small man with the strong and convincing voice looked weak, sick almost, but he went around hugging people, giving us red scarves as a symbol of social fight, and appreciating us for fighting for their freedom. 

Peña Nieto’s answer to the Atenco conflict

Soon after the conflict in 2006, Enrique Peña Nieto said in an interview that he had to send in the policemen in order to establish the rule of law. He justified their harsh entrance by saying that the Atenco movement was a violent group who kidnapped police officers, and that they were only doing this action to disturb the authorities. He never mentioned the sexual abuse or the beatings that were performed by the police. 

The rule of law is one of the most abused concepts in politics and I have noticed that Mexican politicians uses it often in order to justify attacks on social movement who protest. If protest escalates, the well - armored “robocops” are sent in to establish rule of law. The recent elected president used it to justify the entrance in Atenco. He still answers with the same sentence if he is asked about Atenco.  Individual liberty is its most important aspect in the concept of rule of law. Respect for the individual is what justifies a law. Laws cannot arbitrarily violate basic civil rights. The violation of basic human rights was severe in Atenco. 

Can the urgent agenda to establish the rule of law and order justify a police attack, abuse, and human rights violations? Six years after the conflict, the victims are still calling for justice. Twelve women who were abused are campaigning to have these actions condemned, or at least to get an apology and a compensation for the trauma they have been through. Human rights organizations and the inter-American court have recommended that the Mexican state accept the blame for what happened and apologize to the victims. But the state will not listen to the women nor apologize to anyone.  

The man who ordered the attack will be the president of Mexico from the 1st of December this year and the Atenco case will follow him wherever he goes. That guarantee has been given from the Atenco movement and Nacho Del Valle. Accusations against Enrique Peña Nieto for violating the human rights and encouraging impunity in this case dogged him through the pre-elections, but he only responded with “it was necessary”. Maybe Nacho del Valle can bring him to answer something else? The next six years will show us if he can pressure the new president to admit the injustices committed in Atenco 2006.  

Nacho del Valle

In February 2012, I was back in Atenco to celebrate the carnival. When I met Nacho del Valle, the leader of the Atenco movement, again, he looked as strong as an ox. His fighting instinct was still intact. He and his family had invited a lot of people to eat tacos and mole, and dance, wearing masks.  This is a tradition here, and both locals and activists from Mexico and abroad were attending.  

Nacho smiled when he saw me and invited me to dance.  I joined him and kept thinking that this was so surreal. The last six years passed through my mind: the conflict, the visit afterward, staying here for my master thesis, fighting for and then obtaining the prisoners’ freedom, then coming back and being invited to dance as if nothing ever happened. It is incredible to know this story and join them in their present joy.   

Nacho del Valle was born in 1953 and has lived in Atenco his whole life. He started early to protest injustices that happened to farmers in the village and nearby. As he says, revolution flows through his veins.  

When he was arrested, he was known as the leader of the most successful contemporary protest in Mexico. In 2001, an extension of the main airport in Mexico City was being proposed. The federal government, led by president Vicente Fox (2000-2006), offered the peasants of the nearby villages a pittance for their land. Together with other villages, San Salvador Atenco created the People’s Front in Defense of the Land, to protest the plan. They won in 2002, and the plan was cancelled. The Atenco movement gained a huge recognition in Mexico and by other social movements, like the Zapatistas. In the following years contact with the Zapatistas grew strong, and just two weeks before the attack in 2006, Nacho del Valle showed Subcomandante Marcos around the village. 

After the party at Nacho’s house, everyone went to the village to party some more. Finally we got a moment to talk. He told me about the years in prison and the continuing social struggle. 

“They would often give me food laced with urine or petrol and insist that I eat it. I ate it and did not protest. This would make them even more furious at me. They wanted to break me down psychologically, but I refused to let them have the pleasure of seeing me weak. They also tried to weaken me by saying my family was visiting, but when I was to be led out to see them, the prison guards said that there was no time, so the visit got cancelled. They kept doing this, refusing to send my letters, and torturing me physically and psychologically, but it only made me stronger.”  

When he finally was liberated on the night of July 1, 2010, hundreds were waiting for him outside the Maximum Security prison, El Altiplano, a two-hour drive from Mexico City. As he came out of the prison, he was pale but held his fist high and shouted victory—Viva Atenco! For the past two years, he has continued to march against injustice. He is particularly preoccupied with the future of Mexican youth. The current narco violence, which dominates the country, is devastating to the youth in particular areas. So Nacho and the movement have joined the protest marches against presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The Atenco movement has given the presidential candidate a new name, “the Beast,” because of the atrocities that he has caused. The Atenco case is not the only one. He has been head of a state where violence, femicides and hate crimes have increased. 

Nacho can talk for hours, but I don’t have much time. He concludes our conversation with these words: “Freedom is the miracle of who in their hearts can find love for others. Let us build hope together.” Nacho is such a poet”, I think and smile as I leave his house. He is a true ray of hope for the Mexican social struggle and an ideal for the youth.     

A small hope 

The main presidential candidates were Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), Josefina Mota Vasquez (PAN), and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (MORENA Alliance). Peña Nieto was leading the mainstream media polls from the very beginning of the pre-election. He has been groomed for the presidency ever since he got into politics. His family is powerful within the PRI hierarchy. The opposition hoped that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador could be the hope of a change. He ran in 2006 and was leading the polls but lost with a small margin to Felipe Calderon. Suspicions of fraud weakened the election process, and they had to recount the votes. This time Pena Nieto won with 6 percent, but Lopez Obrador will not accept the election until they recount votes and investigate irregularities as buying votes by giving out free shopping cards in Soriana, the biggest supermarket chain in Mexico. Suspicion of fraud haunts Mexico again. Newspapers all over the world write that “the perfect dictatorship” is back, referring to the power of PRI. PRI led Mexico for 71 years straight after the revolution, weakening the democratic processes and being blamed of corruption, authoritarianism and lacking respect of human rights. 

During my stay in February 2012, people were convinced that Peña Nieto was going to win. He had done everything “right.” He is rich and well educated, he married a well- known soap opera actress, he is young and handsome with the perfect family and he comes from a family with strong political roots within PRI. The road to the presidential residence, Los Pinos, has seemed open to him from the very start of his political career. 

On May 11, Peña Nieto was attending a political meeting at the Universidad Ibero Americana in Santa Fe, just outside Mexico City. Some students asked him critical questions, and when he did not want to answer, the crowd booed. It got so intense that security had to escort him to the men’s room and hide him there until it was safe for him to go out. Later, the PRI party accused his opponent, Lopez Obrador, of paying students to create trouble. It’s a well-known technique in Mexico, called porras—paying students to create trouble in a protest march or a political meeting. But this accusation shocked the students, who made a YouTube video in which 131 students gave their opinion about the case and showing their student IDs. A small hope and motivation to fight against the corrupt system, the return of PRI and Enrique Pena Nieto was initiated with these young students and their movement. 

From that video emerged the movement called # Yo Soy 132, “I am number 132,” meaning that everyone who agrees with the students is number 132. The movement embraces everyone who wants a change in Mexico, especially those who are opposed to Peña Nieto.  In the last month, Peña Nieto plunged in the polls. Students organized three anti-Peña Nieto marches in Mexico City. Thousands joined. The Atenco movement has been one of the main attractions in the marches, as everyone knows about their struggle. They have been fighting against Peña Nieto for years, first as a governor and now as the forthcoming president.    


Mexico needs the past to meet the future. It needs old and young activists to join forces, and to learn from each other, to fight injustices. It needs this hope. They did not manage to stop   Peña Nieto from becoming president.  But social movements, old and new, know that politicians cannot save this country. A president can do much damage, as Felipe Calderon has done the past six years. The people must organize and stand up against any abuse of power and injustices that will occur the next six years. The totality of Mexico’s problems must be addressed, discussed, and fought in every corner of the country. The simple strategies used both by the Atenco movement and by # Yo Soy 132 create hope and may make a difference. In Mexico the word on the streets is that history must not repeat itself. PRI should not have regained their power, but they did. 

The Atenco movement is happy to see this new movement of young, energetic students. This is what Mexico needs, young people with the urge and motivation to organize and protest, standing alongside the more experienced movements.  

The media is strongly allied to Peña Nieto. For instance, the anti-Peña Nieto march of May 19, 2012, drew more than 100,000 people to the streets, but the main media reported that ”only” 10,000 participated. The media in Mexico cooperate closely with the politicians, who can pull strings to get the result they want. Recently The Guardian published documents implicating Televisa (the most powerful television network in Mexico), in selling news and entertainment spots to promote Peña Nieto when he was governor and preparing his presidential campaign. Televisa also tried to destroy the presidential candidacy of Lopez Obrador in the 2006 election. That election was inconclusive and had to be recounted, resulting in Lopez Obrador suspecting election fraud. Once again it has happened, leading people to the streets in protest and demanding recount. Mexico shows the world through these elections that their democracy is still weak and lacking a firm, reliable and transparent structure. We are up for 6 exciting years, and I believe marches and protests will continue against Enrique Pena Nieto. There is a quote that sums up the situation in Mexico: “If there is no justice for the people, there will be no peace for the government”. In these days the streets are filled with young and old Mexicans telling the world: That man is not my president!