Mexican Standoff

A Mexican standoff ended in the late summer.

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

lack of the rule of law
– a culture

mass immigration

in the United States.

Mexico City`s airport is overwhelmed, encircled by
the ever-growing

and often socked in by

. 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

since his inauguration at the beginning of

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

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

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

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

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

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,
, 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


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