Mexico Town Sees Hope in End of Riots

Times Staff Writers

The steeple bell rang at 1 o’clock Friday to welcome mourners who trailed a small white coffin into the sanctuary of the church of San Francisco.

“Let Javier’s death be a benefit to the community,” Father Alfonso Tapia Duarte told the overflow crowd. “There is no evil that good cannot spring from.”

It’s a lot to ask of anyone, much less a 14-year-old boy.

But many townspeople are praying that the death of Javier Cortes Santiago during riots Wednesday marks the defeat of separatists who overthrew democratic rule in a town 14 miles from Mexico City.


“The only law was the law of the machete,” Teodoro Martinez, a 40-year-old machinist, said outside the church.

The separatists now are aligned with Subcommander Marcos, the leader of Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico.

“The riot was a tragedy,” iron worker Agustin Santillan said, “but we needed something to end it. They thought they were untouchable.”

He was talking about the rule of Ignacio del Valle. He and several family members are in custody, accused by prosecutors and townspeople of inciting riots that injured dozens of people before being quashed Thursday by 3,000 state and federal police officers.

Del Valle created the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land. It gained broad support in 2002 during a fight to defeat a proposal by Mexican President Vicente Fox to build an international airport nearby.

“The fight was a good one, to defend the land,” said Martinez, adding that he has known Del Valle since they were children.


Even though much of the soil here is barren, and prices for corn and beans have plummeted, Martinez said, land passed from father to son has tremendous emotional value.

The government offered a fraction of what people thought it was worth.

In July 2002, militants held 15 state and local officials for five days, until Fox agreed to amnesty in a deal to free the hostages. Two months later, Fox killed the airport plan, and Del Valle became known for his victory over the president.

Many people supported him and his group politically and financially when they ran the police and elected officials out of town.

For years city officials had done little to improve town life and people thought maybe this group would do better, one shopkeeper said.

Del Valle and his followers occupied City Hall and other government offices for more than a year. But roads were still unpaved and electricity was spotty.

The difference, people said, was that those who had seized control didn’t like to hear complaints.


“They thought they were the only ones who spoke the truth,” Father Tapia Duarte said. “They held rallies in the plaza. The town started to feel discontent, but most people were afraid to express it.”

Then the marches began. Crime was increasing and people wanted police, Santillan said. They wanted public services. Del Valle, a former city employee responsible for potable water, wanted to be in charge, people said, but didn’t want the work.

“He has land but in the years I’ve known him, he’s never once plowed his field,” Santillan said. “He and the Front are made up of people who don’t work.”

Del Valle and his followers cleared out of government offices in August 2003, but continued a practice of kidnapping officials, waving machetes and blocking nearby federal highway 142 when they were angry.

“The joke around here is that the emcee at weddings always asks, ‘Shall we cut the cake? Or block the highway?’ ” Santillan said.

Although there is now an elected mayor and five police officers who patrol San Salvador Atenco, most people say the office is largely symbolic. Signs in front of City Hall say in Spanish, “Welcome EZLN” -- referring tp Marcos’ Zapatistas.


“We’re still very insecure here,” said Fernando Martinez Razo, the city’s director of public safety. “There are still a lot of people here who took part in the violence. We hear they are regrouping.”

But many at the funeral mass Friday said the movement was spent.

When thousands of riot police arrived early Thursday, rebels sounded an alarm with the church bell but few of their compatriots responded.

A day later, the bell rang in mourning.

Family members said Javier was a serious student who juggled school and two jobs. He was supposed to go to pick up tamales at his grandfather’s house, along a path that took him near the riot triggered Wednesday by the removal of flower vendors from their usual spot in a nearby city.

Officials have not disclosed the cause of death.

“He was saving up for a suit to wear to a friend’s 15th birthday party in July,” said Beatriz Davila, an aunt.

To earn money, she said, Javier worked at a clothing factory after school and helped his family sell candies on weekends.

Mourners walked several blocks from the church to the cemetery to bury the boy.

Men lowered the casket by rope into the brown and rocky soil, and then placed on top a blue sweater, a red cap and a soccer ball.


“We need a new Atenco,” said Martinez, who carried a wreath of palm leaves and flowers to the grave. “There are lots of young people here and they need to be the new blood and have the new ideas.”