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Strangers in Their Own Country: A Story of Resistance to Capital Expansion and Struggle for Identity

by Amy Cameron

“Prior to 2001, we lived in harmony and tranquility,” Maria Trinidad Ramirez Velasquez (Trini) tells our Witness for Peace delegation in Mexico City, “each one of us has an identity that nobody wants to denounce.”

On October 21, 2001, the community of farmers in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico woke up to a nightmare: they would have to fight their own government for their land and identity.

56,000 people faced displacement by an expropriation decree that claimed 133,000 acres of their land for a new international airport. Trini and her community say the Mexican government “tries to take your identity and make you a stranger in your own country.”

President Vicente Fox declared that the plans to build the new international airport would require eighty percent of Atenco’s communally owned property, land the community depends on for their livelihoods. Despite constitutional law that protects communal land (“ejidos”) and requires consultation with the community for proposed changes, the people of Atenco were never consulted by the government.

Furthermore, they were not offered any resettlement assistance or help finding jobs; instead they were offered around fifty-seven cents per square meter of land (Environmental Justice Atlas).

Trini says that she was never the type of person to speak in public but she felt so saddened, afraid and angry that she had no other choice but to speak out. As guardians of the land inherited by their ancestors, they weren’t going to let the government decide the fate of the land where seeds of many generations had been sown with their ancestors blood.

She and her community knew that they had to respond quickly or lose their livelihoods.

It was in those moments, waking up to a land expropriation decree, that the people had to ask themselves what they were willing to do to defend their land, Trini says. They knew that they were facing an uneven war and that it would take all of the courage and heart they had.

The government had threatened to use force to take the land.

Indeed, they followed through with those threats. On July, 2002, the government security forces entered the community to brutally repress the protesters. They took several political prisoners and killed a small farmer, Enrique Espinoza Juarez, whose body was later laid to rest in the very land for which he died defending.

In August of 2002, the community of Atenco made history and gained international attention. With “the movement in each of us,” Trini says, the Peoples Front in Defense (FPDT) of Land blocked the land grab decree.

The FPDT became a revered example of popular resistance in the universal struggle to defend land against capital expansion and neoliberalism. It was a “barometer for the people’s strength and love for their land,” said Trini. But the community of Atenco paid a heavy price.

That year was full of constant tension and learning about organizing. The FPDT began to see how their struggles were tied to others. They joined with teachers, indigenous groups and all of those who struggle to maintain their way of life — the groups that the government and capitalists try to manipulate and divide and take their land and offer them crumbs in return.

The Atenco community, with their machetes they use to harvest crops, now symbols of resistance, became a strong movement against capitalist expansion. As a result, in 2006, when the FPDT led a protest with the flower workers of Texcoco, 3000 police brutally repressed them. The attack on the protesters, ordered by current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto (then governor of Mexico State) killed a 14 year old boy and detained over 200 people, 27 of which were women violated, raped and tortured in prison. Trini had to leave because the police were pursuing her on false accusations of a crime.

However, Trini says she had to keep fighting for justice. With the key support of women and young people and their guiding principles, truth and justice, the Atenco community stood up to their enemy: the government. Four years later, in 2010, they were able to get all of the jailed FPDT leaders released from prison and the false charges of kidnapping were dropped.

The FPDT still faces repression and they continue their struggle for their land and identity. The most recent move to expropriate the land is called the “Dominio Pleno:” privatization of communal land, for which the government was offering, in 2014, almost four times more per acre and paying neighbors of farmers in the community to convince them to sell their land.

Trini and the FPDT say, “we aren’t the poor ones of Atenco, we are the ones that resist, we know what we want, it’s clear to us: we’ll fight with whatever it takes.”


Maria Trinidad Ramirez Velasquez, Frente del Pueblo en Defensa de la Tierra, San Salvador,

Atenco, Estado de México

“La tierra no se vende”!

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