Want a successful protest in Mexico? Arm your women

This fall, when scores of Mazahua Indian women took up arms and marched on Mexico City, they caught the country's imagination. "Women warriors fight for their rights," newspapers declared in 72-point type after the Mazahuas, rifles slung over traditional satin dresses, stormed Congress. TV crews swarmed this impoverished valley for the scoop.

Then last month, less than eight weeks later, the Mazahua Army of Women for the Defense of Water won millions of pesos and huge concessions from a government that had ignored their community's pleas - reparations for damage from a dam built in 1977 - for more 25 years.

"We won't rest until the government does everything it said it would do," says Victoria Martinez, the 31-year-old comandanta who is the face and symbol of the movement.

But what she doesn't say is that the movement is actually a shrewd public-relations ploy that succeeded where other tactics did not. Not only are the real decisionmakers in Valle de Allende men, but the majority of the beneficiaries from the stunning political victory aren't even Indians. As such, these women serve as a telling example of a grim reality in Mexico, where the legitimate pleas of millions go unheard unless they can find a novel way to catch the public's sympathies.

"There's nothing new about a bunch of farmers demanding justice," says Xochitl Galvez, director of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, which works extensively with the roughly 200,000 Mazahua Indians in Mexico State. "But by using Mazahua women, they realized they would get the media's attention."

While countless impoverished Mexicans spend years clamoring for attention, a select few have learned to corral the mass media to their advantage. Most famous are the Zapatistas of Chiapas, whose use of ski masks, guns, and a mediagenic leader - Subcomandante Marcos - won them adherents around the world and passage of Indian-rights legislation. And in 2002, poor farmers in Mexico State took up machetes and torches in a protest that drew thousands of reporters and successfully halted plans for a $2 billion airport.

In the case of Valle de Allende, what appears to be an authentic and unprecedented Indian women's movement is in fact the creation of press-savvy advisers brought in to resuscitate an ailing cause with a carefully measured dose of image manipulation. Indeed, government statistics show that more than two-thirds of the residents of Valle de Allende aren't even Indians.

A quarter century ago, Mexico's National Water Commission seized huge portions of this valley to build a massive reservoir that would eventually supply 30 percent of Mexico City's water. But residents say they were never paid for the land they lost and the growing artificial has lake flooded farmlands and crippled the economy.

Today, most households in the valley don't have running water. Periodic flooding has killed much of the surrounding pine forest, leading to erosion problems. And area groundwater has been contaminated by waste chemicals from the water-treatment plant at the mouth of the reservoir.

Eleven years ago, the community decided to take action and filed petitions with the state and federal government for reparations. The demands, says resident Angel del Pilar Sandoval, went unanswered. "It was pure talk and no action," he says. Last year, record floods spurred the movement to take a step in a new direction: "We went to find an outside adviser."

The adviser, Santiago Perez, a lawyer from another part of Mexico State, has assisted at least three other rural groups involved in government disputes. According to Mr. del Pilar, Mr. Perez further organized the inhabitants of Valle del Allende and suggested a march on the nation's capital. (Perez could not be reached for comment.)

In February, a group of men made the two-hour trip to Mexico City, protesting outside the Water Commission and the Environmental Secretariat. They quickly discovered that the march simply wasn't enough: not a single newspaper covered the story, and negotiations went nowhere.

Several months later, the movement, now guided by a dozen advisers, decided to send some of the area women, loosely associated with the cause, on the same march, but dressed in full ethnic garb and carrying rifles over their shoulders. Taking a page from the Zapatistas, they threatened violence and used militaristic rhetoric. The results were immediate. "[The government] didn't take the men seriously at all," says Eulalia Diaz, who participated in the first march in August. "But with us at the front, everything began to change."

A few weeks later, the women set up outside the water-treatment plant and blocked a truck loaded with chlorine from entering, cutting off part of the water supply. Within days, the women, accompanied by advisers, had met with the head of the Water Commission and the Environmental Secretary.

"We had been already working with this group for a long time," says Jesus Campos Lopez, a ranking water department official who headed negotiations. "But it wasn't until the women came forward that we began to agree."

On Oct. 6, the two sides settled on a plan to indemnify the residents of Valle de Allende for lost lands, build up local infrastructure, and reforest much of the area. Headlines nationwide crowed about a victory for the Mazahua women, but failed to note that all nine signatories on behalf of the movement were men - most of whom weren't Indians.

Today, a visit to Valle de Allende reveals a sophisticated PR operation, complete with daily press conferences, guided tours of the controversial reservoir, a battery of shiny new cellphones at the ready, and scheduled face time with the Mazahua women who now symbolize the movement. "The demands of these people are legitimate," says Galvez of the Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. "But it's a shame it has to reach this level of discourse."

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