Mexican Police Quash Uprising

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Times Staff Writers

Thousands of riot police stormed the town square early Thursday to subdue machete-wielding protesters who had beaten two officers into unconsciousness and dragged them through the streets in attacks televised nationwide.

A 14-year-old boy identified as Javier Cortes Santiago was reported killed and dozens of people were injured in confrontations that began when authorities kicked out flower vendors from their usual spot in a nearby city.

The violence, which erupted early Wednesday in this rural town on the outskirts of Mexico City, was a bloodier reprise of a 2002 rebellion that ousted the elected local government and established self-rule after a dispute sparked by President Vicente Fox’s plan to build an airport nearby.


The televised scenes of police helpless to save their colleagues or to subdue rioters were another embarrassment for Fox. They also offered a backdrop for Subcommander Marcos, the leader of Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico, who was in the capital to denounce the July 2 presidential election and call for the overthrow of the federal government, regardless of the winner.

Leftist former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is locked in a tight battle with Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party to succeed Fox, who is barred from seeking reelection. Former ruling party candidate Roberto Madrazo is a distant third.

The violence began when flower vendors were told this week by municipal authorities in nearby Texcoco that they could no longer sell their goods on sidewalks outside the local market. Ignacio del Valle, a leader of the 2002 rebellion, accompanied the vendors to work Wednesday morning, confronting police blocking their vending space, media reports said. A fight erupted, and the vendors and Del Valle retreated to a house in Texcoco, calling supporters in San Salvador Atenco to help them.

Within hours, rioters blocked a stretch of federal highway here, about 14 miles northeast of Mexico City, turning back police with rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks rockets.

By Wednesday afternoon, two officers had been trapped by the crowds, and TV helicopter news crews broadcast their beatings, reminiscent of the attack on truck driver Reginald Denny during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

One Mexican officer lay prone for several minutes as groups of men took turns kicking and beating him until they apparently tired. He was then stripped of his protective gear and dragged down the street for others to strike.


An ambulance finally reached the man, but the vehicle had been commandeered by rioters, who loaded the officer inside and drove in circles, stopping occasionally to greet cheering townspeople. A second badly beaten officer was loaded into the back of a red pickup truck and slowly driven around town for display.

Authorities have been unable to confirm the fate of the officers. There were rumors that one had died of his injuries.

“We’re going to analyze the videos and find those responsible,” Humberto Benitez, secretary-general of the state of Mexico, said Thursday. “We’re not going to let the delinquents take over.”

After clearing the town center using tear gas Thursday morning, state and federal police began a door-to-door search, arresting 217 people, including Del Valle, who was taken to the La Palma maximum-security prison, authorities said. A dozen officers held by rioters were released or found.

“We’re supporting the florists and we just wanted them to be able to sell their flowers,” Del Valle’s son, Ulises del Valle, said in a phone interview broadcast by Televisa. “They tried to kick them out, so in support we blocked the highway.”

Ulises del Valle said protesters beat the officers because “the town is so angry it is difficult to control.”


State and federal authorities believe the flap over flower sellers in nearby Texcoco was a pretext for violence by town rebels belonging to Del Valle’s People’s Front for the Defense of the Land. “It’s no coincidence,” said Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto of the state of Mexico. “It was a planned and intended action.”

Townspeople kidnapped five state officials last month after the state secretary of education failed to show up to hear their grievances. They released the hostages in a deal with state police, who dropped charges.

“We let this problem grow for years,” Benitez said.

Like the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994, this town of 17,000 residents broke free of government control in July 2002, motivated by land disputes. Corn and bean farmers angry about the government’s plan to buy their land cheaply for a new airport took over public offices and held 15 state and local officials hostage.

For five days, the Fox administration was virtually paralyzed, then agreed to grant amnesty in exchange for the officials’ release. Two months later, the president abandoned plans for the new airport. He was ridiculed for being defeated by farmers with machetes.

But the humiliation didn’t end there. After winning their battle with Fox, protesters led by Del Valle quickly declared the town independent and kicked out police, the mayor and all government officials.

A year later, in July 2003, several hundred townspeople angry about being abandoned by the official government staged a protest in front of federal offices in Mexico City. They complained of assaults, petty crime and drug trafficking under rebel rule.


Government was restored to San Salvador Atenco a month later, when rebels relinquished control of municipal offices in exchange for amnesty. In December 2003, they tried to block the installation of the town’s newly elected mayor, starting a melee that injured about 20 people.

Late Thursday afternoon, state and federal police had left town, but the smell of tear gas lingered in the central plaza.

A woman who has sold tortas there for years was willing to give her assessment of the rebel movement but not her name.

“Ignacio del Valle has been a problematic guerrilla leader,” she said. “Since he was 18 he’s been trying to protect the poor. The problem is he only thinks in terms of violence.”

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.