SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, MEXICO — The standoff between masked, machete-wielding farmers and federal security forces in a poor suburb of Mexico City is localized.
But it may not stay that way.
On Sunday, it was threatening to become a national political crisis. The farmers have blockaded their town, and refuse to release 15 hostages unless the government halts plans to build a new $2.5 billion international airport on their land.
The clash between the rights of rural landholders and major economic development projects is one of the most explosive social issues facing Mexico and other developing nations today. China, for example, faces similar protests from poor farmers forced to move by the Three Gorges Dam project.
With Mexico's three major political parties now picking sides in the airport standoff, this case is emerging as a test of the ability of the pro-business government of President Vicente Fox to peacefully maintain the rule of law, and keep the economy growing.
"This situation is very grave," says Mexico City political analyst and author Guadalupe Loaeza. "People are taking the law into their own hands simply because they have nothing to lose."
Demonstrations against the proposed six-runway airport began last October, when the federal government of Mexico revealed plans for the 10,000-acre facility and announced that local landowners there would be compensated for their property at about $3,100 per acre, a price they say is lower than the land's value.
The existing Mexico City airport with only two runways and no room to expand can't support continued economic growth.
Last Thursday, the protests turned violent when a group of several hundred residents took local officials and police hostage, and blocked highways passing through the town with cars and trucks they overturned and then torched.
Over the weekend, some 700 federal military and riot police surrounded San Salvador Atenco. A spokesman for the villagers threatened to tie their hostages to captured gasoline tanker trucks and set them on fire if the government forces try to enter the town.
Three more hostages reportedly journalists were taken Saturday. The protesters have demanded that 12 fellow protesters arrested in a previous confrontation be released; and they are demanding to talk to federal officials about the airport project.
"We're prepared to fight to the death to keep our homes. This has been our land for 500 years. It's how we earn our living. It's not a question of money anymore," says one protest leader David Pajaro, standing in the central square of the town yesterday.
While rumors abound that the police will attempt to free the hostages by force, President Fox said that "advances must be made through dialogue and negotiation." But the federal government has so far refused to involve itself in what it calls a local conflict.
The country's leading political parties are blaming the others for ignoring the plight of the poor, or for exploiting the villagers for their own political gain.
While Fox defended the airport project, Mexico State Governor Arturo Montiel, from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, tried to defuse the standoff and free the hostages.
The left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, meanwhile, has been accused of inciting the villagers to violence. The party denies the charge, but opposes the airport deal. To complicate matters, a lawyer, who is a senior leader of Fox's conservative National Action Party, offered to defend the villagers' property rights, thus contradicting Fox's position.
"It's terribly complicated," says Ms. Loaeza. "And the problem is that there are many other groups across the country who may decide to follow the people of San Salvador Atenco."
Other Mexican farmers groups have threatened sympathy protests, and some are organizing caravans to travel to San Salvador Atenco to join the efforts there. Disputes over land rights fester across Mexico. They sit at the heart of the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas, and were to blame for the May 31 massacre of 26 men and boys in Oaxaca.
If this protest spreads, it could further destabilize Fox's already weak government, which ended seven decades of single party rule by the PRI when it took power in December 2000.
The San Salvador Atenco conflict also lays bare the low regard most Mexicans especially those from the lower class have toward their justice system.
"These things do not resolve themselves by force, but with negotiation," urged Brig. Gen. Francisco Gallardo, a retired military officer requested by the protesters at San Salvador Atenco to negotiate the problems, in a radio address. "This is an issue of governance ... that puts our international prestige at stake.
The episode comes about two weeks before Pope John Paul II is to visit Mexico, an international event Fox does not want marred by the hostage standoff.
In front of the San Salvador Atenco municipal building, where the hostages are being held, there are homemade banners with anti-Fox slogans. But not everyone caught inside the cordon of police and machete-wielding protesters is supportive. Some farmers are angry that they can't leave to sell their crops.
Ricardo Laudino, a local resident, says, "We're blocking our own development in Mexico. Every time someone tries to create a big development project, someone else tries to block it."
Material from the wire services was used in this report.