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Knife-wielding farmers cancel Mexico airport

Protests force the government to back down and look for a new site to build a Mexico City airport.

©Associated Press
August 3, 2002

SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico -- Church bells that recently called townspeople to battle instead summoned them to a celebration Friday after the government scrapped plans to build Mexico City's new international airport on their land.

The government, caving in to machete-wielding protesters, insisted there were other alternatives.

Last month, the airport conflict escalated into a clash with state police in which dozens of people were injured and 15 hostages were seized, creating a five-day crisis for the government of President Vicente Fox.

On Thursday night, Fox's transportation secretary, Pedro Cerisola, said the government would abandon the Texcoco lake bed site on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City that included Atenco.

"No other (site) will have the technical operating advantage that Texcoco would have had, but they are not necessarily bad," Cerisola said. "We move from the ideal to the convenient, to what is viable, to what is possible."

He refused to say how many options were under study, but said new technology could revive old options.

"Some alternatives that in the past were rejected ... are now worth reconsidering," he said. Not all involve relocating farmers, he said.

Among ideas dropped in the past were expanding the current airport into a federally owned lake bed on its eastern edge, or putting the airport near Cuernavaca to the south, Puebla to the east or Tizayuca to the north. These last three are much further from the city than Texcoco.

In Atenco, a small town ringed by corn and bean fields, farmers gathered in the town square Friday to celebrate.

"The government never had the right to remove us from the land of our families and our ancestors," said Guadalupe Monroy, 47. "The government never came here to talk to us and never thought we would react so aggressively."

She cruised around town in a pickup truck, songs of celebration blaring from a bullhorn.

But others in the town criticized the cancellation, saying the airport would have brought jobs, schools and medical clinics to Atenco. None would give their names for fear of reprisals.

Mexico City's airport, first built in 1911, is crowded by homes and businesses, making expansion difficult. Only one of its two closely placed runways can be used at a time.

The proposed $2.8-billion airport in Atenco would have had six runways.

The government last year decided on the Texcoco project, which involved about a dozen communities such as Atenco, after decades of studies.

While many of the communities accepted the government expropriation order and began to negotiate benefits, Atenco's farmers refused and began machete-wielding marches through the streets of Mexico City, vowing never to surrender their land.

In July, Atenco farmers blocked highways, hijacked cars and seized 15 police officers and local officials to demand release of leaders arrested during a clash with state police at a protest.

One of Fox's most prominent critics, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, praised the decision Friday. Lopez Obrador, of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, had opposed the airport and called Fox's decision "reasonable and brave."

Critics, including some lawmakers from Fox's own National Action Party, criticized the government for caving in to the protesters.

Cerisola disputed that. Unlike earlier governments, he said, Fox's administration "is ready to take 'no' for an answer. ... That's a good precedent."

He added that a slowdown in the worldwide air industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made the current airport viable for another seven to eight years instead of the five estimated earlier.

Many farmers were outraged by the initial offer of about $2,850 an acre for their land -- a figure Cerisola said was mandated by a law that forces officials to pay only assessed value. He said officials raised that to 80 percent of the final sale price of the land once it was developed -- up to about $20,300 an acre. Cerisola said that was 100 times the price a year's corn crop would bring.

On Friday, Atenco residents greeted one another with smiles and hugs in front of the municipal auditorium where last month's hostages were held.

Surgeon Abel Galicia Viveros, 42, thanked Fox for the decision, saying the president had realized that "dialogue is the answer, not violence."

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