Mexican Standoff
September 11, 2002, 05:00 AM
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A Mexican standoff ended in the late summer. President Vicente Fox was forced, at machete point, to abandon much-heralded plans for a new U.S.$2.3 billion Mexico City airport. The impasse says a lot about Mexico`s political culture and lack of the rule of law – a culture mass immigration is planting in the United States.

Mexico City`s airport is overwhelmed, encircled by the ever-growing megalopolis and often socked in by smog. Governments have tried and failed for 30 years to get a new one built. This time, Fox planned a new one farther away, by the bed of dried-up Lake Texcoco.

His government thought it had done everything right, consulting the Mexico City and Mexico state governments. Instead, the grand project has blown up in Fox`s face. His humiliation by a gaggle of peasant farmers is the worst setback yet for a president who has struggled since his inauguration at the beginning of 2001.

What Fox didn`t do was consult the Mexicans who would lose their land to the airport. No doubt he thought it unnecessary, if it occurred to him at all. Not only do Mexico`s rulers not vet their projects with peons, Article 27 of Mexico`s constitution – a vestige of the bloody revolutions early last century – says "private property shall not be expropriated except for reasons of public utility," a term defined so broadly as to make property rights entirely subject to government fiat.

Mexicans are long-suffering, but they have a rebellious streak and aren`t too particular about obeying inconvenient laws. Those to be expropriated, the ejidatarios (collective farmers) of San Salvador Atenco, spurned the paltry compensation on offer and went on the warpath. They marched in Mexico City. Closer to home, brandishing their machetes, they blocked roads, burned cars and kidnapped officials sent to make them see reason. In the brawls, the police captured some rioters.

The standoff began in earnest. The farmers refused to negotiate. Foreign and Mexican Leftists, including some of Subcomandante Marcos` Zapatista rebels, flocked to Atenco to show solidarity with the farmers – a curious spectacle of a bunch of Marxists backing people who were, after all, fighting for private property.

At first Fox declined to negotiate with hostage takers. The farmers said they would burn their hostages alive unless their comrades, who had been charged with violent crimes, were turned loose. Fox hesitated, then let them go, on the farmers` "recognizance," a fanciful notion in Mexico. He then offered the Atenco ejidatarios twice as much for their land.

Nothing doing, said they, no airport here, and manned their barricades, machetes at the ready.

Finally, backing down for the third time, the government gave up. Plans to build the airport at Atenco were dropped. The announcement was timed to be buried by the Pope`s visit. It didn`t work. To add to the embarrassment, the leaders of 10 other ejidos in the State of Mexico immediately denounced the capitulation, saying it was "imposing the will of the minority" (the Atenco ejidatarios) on them!

L`Affaire Atenco prompted public introspection among Mexican pundits about the nature of Mexican society. The Mexico City daily Reforma`s columnists wrote for weeks about the lawlessness of both sides: the contempt of government for property rights and ordinary people and the brazen and successful violence of the ejidatarios.

As Mexico moves in with us, the take on Mexican attitudes in these excerpts is worth noting:

Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez (El prestigio de la ilegalidad, Reforma, July 15, 2002)

"It`s said illegality is the last resort. Usually it`s the first reflex. Political illegality is, frequently, a rational and strategically planned act that doesn`t result from desperation but from calculation. People who block roads, break windows, keep people from attending university, kidnap cops or burn a criminal alive know they can count on a solid structure of protection and legitimation. … Illegality effectively enjoys an enviable prestige. If people say Mexican institutions suffer from a general discredit, one must say there is one institution that has escaped: the institution of illegality."

Federico Reyes-Heroles (Extorsión, Reforma, July 16, 2002)

"Today, stronger than ever, all the profound vices of our wrongheaded citizenry surface. … In Mexico, in general, the law is neither respected nor applied systematically. Mexican modernity, the proud tenth economy in the world, still hasn`t arrived at the basic accord of every state based in law. The law applies sometimes; it depends. Depends on what? To begin with, the citizen grants himself a wide and generous license. Three of every four Mexicans believe they only have to respect those norms that seem just to them, in their personal opinion. … Mexicans do not accept that, first, one has to obey the law."

Is it any wonder Vicente Fox calls illegal alien Mexicans heroes?

In 1939, the British Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh visited Mexico. On his return to England he wrote a book about it: Robbery Under Law. While he saw much that he liked and met many pleasant people, his impression was of a pathologically corrupt country. He saw that unfortunate country as a warning, and a danger, to civilized nations. It is a warning we might heed today:

"[In the English-speaking world] progress is still regarded as normal, decay as abnormal. The history of Mexico runs clean against those assumptions. We see it in the story of a people whom no great external disaster has overwhelmed. Things have gone wrong with them, as they went right with us, as though by a natural process. There is no distress of theirs to which we might not be equally subject. … The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. … If [society] falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history. There is nothing, except ourselves, to stop our own countries becoming like Mexico. That is the moral, for us, of her decay."

September 11, 2002