20 January 2012 – My First Day
The story of Atenco, a small town in the State of Mexico, which borders on Mexico City is unique, of course. Yet it also is an example of oppression, violation of human rights, military assault, rape & sexual violence, and political prisoners that can be found throughout Mexico – and indeed in too much of the world today.
The story of Atenco is also one of community resistance, social movements and activism, and resilience in the face of that oppression. It is a story of international solidarity and activism to support the people of Atenco in their resistance and the defense of their traditional lands.
The story of Atenco is also one with something of a happy ending. For now. But “victory” for the people of Atenco cannot be measured solely with the release of political prisoners and their return to their homes and families, now almost two years ago. Nor can it be measured solely by the fact that they still control their land, for now.
Real victory for the people of Atenco must be measured in sustainable peace, social and economic equality, justice, an end to impunity – and the recognition of and respect for the vision of “progress” that they hold for themselves. And that their vision of progress differs wildly from that which the state would impose upon them.
The short, short version of Atenco is government officials wanted to take over – some would say steal – the lands of the farmers of Atenco to build a new international airport near Mexico City around 2001. The people of Atenco organized themselves to fight for the right to keep their own land. Surprisingly, in the legal battle that ensued, the courts came down on the side of the landowners. Business leaders called the farmers an obstacle to “progress.” One of them, Enrique Pena Nieto, became the governor of the State of Mexico, which is where Atenco is located. He seemed to take the situation personally.
On May 3 & 4, 2006, in response to a public protest of people defending their right to work, the Governor ordered 4,000 Mexican police and military to attack the town. At least 40 women were sexually assaulted, houses were ransacked, and 12 men, some of them the leaders of the organization defending the land in Atenco, ended up in prison. They spent four years there as political prisoners. Others spend those years in hiding. The women took their place in leadership roles, in protecting their families and now also in the struggle to free their husbands, brothers, sons.
Over the next years, the Nobel Women’s Initiative became involved in supporting the efforts of the women of Atenco by lending our voices to amplify theirs. It seemed to help. I ended up going to Atenco to show further support on behalf of NWI and other Nobel Laureates supporting their efforts. Finally the cases of the 12 men came to the Supreme Court in mid-2010 and at a strategic moment, I was able to return, meet with the Justices themselves and other public officials – and then be there when the court decided to set the twelve political prisoners free. It was unreal. Amazing. Even though I delayed my departure to see them actually walk out of prison, which should have been almost immediate, but took maybe 36-48 hours and I had to leave the country before seeing them walk free.
On Friday, January 20, I was able to go back to Atenco to see again the women we’ve supported in their struggle to defend their land and their rights. And finally, finally, I got to meet the twelve men. Strong, dignified, proud of their struggle to defend their land and their livelihood. Proud and determined to defend their own vision of “progress,” which isn’t an airport/shopping mall taking away from them what they want in their own town and on their own land.
I asked what their vision of progress was. Immediately, it was a good school system to educate their children. It was decent, affordable health care in reasonable proximity to where they live. It was the re-investment of taxes into the land so they could farm better and produce food not only for themselves but for the country and beyond.
For them, progress includes justice and seeing those guilty of the acts of violence perpetrated on them and those who ordered that violence be charged, tried and sent to prison. From them, progress is an end to the impunity that plagues this country and an end to the “war on drugs” whose primary victim continues to be civil society – the people of Mexico.
They know their struggle isn’t over. They know we will all have to work together, each in our own way, to end impunity. To find justice. To create political and economic systems that operate to the benefit of society as a whole and not simply to further enrich those who hold power at the expense of everyone else. In other words, to create a world of sustainable peace.
My visit this past Friday to Atenco was such an emotional encounter I honestly can’t put it into words. We wanted to break out into a huge fiesta, but that will have to wait until my next visit.
Now, the Nobel Women’s Initiative is back with a delegation of women to hear women from all over Mexico tell their stories of the violence against women and human rights defenders and journalists and the ongoing disintegration of the fabric of society here. Next we will go to Honduras and end our journey in Guatemala.
We are looking for ways to continue our support for the women and the organizations they represent – as we did in the situation of Atenco — as they fight for their rights, struggle to end the plague of violence against women in their countries, and in their efforts to create a different future for themselves and their children.
None of us believes that a vision of sustainable peace is a utopian dream and we are united in the sure knowledge that the only way we can make it reality is if we work together to achieve it.
PS: Former Governor Enrique Pena Nieto, the man who ordered the attack on Atenco on May 3 & 4, 2006, that I mentioned above, is soon very likely to become the next president of Mexico. His vision of progress likely still includes a shiny new airport.