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Could History Repeat Itself with Mexico City’s Ambitious Airport Plan?

Mexico wants to begin operating the new capital airport by 2020, but opposition figures, environmentalists, and the community of San Salvador Atenco are already crying foul over the project.

by Andalusia Knoll
Jul 1 2015, 7:28pm

Captura de pantalla vía YouTube

Almost 15 years ago, a government plan in Mexico to build a much-needed new international airport terminal in Mexico City was bungled almost from the start, leading to a protest movement that resulted in a violent crackdown on a community that rose up against the plan.

That airport proposal was eventually abandoned, and Mexico constructed a second terminal in 2008 across from its dated original. Yet even with the addition of Terminal 2, the need for expansion at the Benito Juarez International Airport has remained apparent.

Mexico's government is now hoping to avoid its previous mishaps and build a new airport for Mexico City close to where its current air terminal complex sits.

Environmentalists, opposition politicians, and community leaders in the town of San Salvador Atenco are already raising red flags about the project, claiming a lack of transparency on the part of the government could jeopardize local residents and vast tracts of wetlands on the outskirts of Mexico City.

And if Mexico chooses to use a decree to grab communal farmland for the new airport — as it tried to do in 2001 — the results could once again be disastrous.


The price of resistance

On October 23, 2001, the Mexican government under former President Vicente Fox announced plans for a new international airport in Mexico City. It was to be built using eminent domain to acquire communally owned ejido land in San Salvador Atenco, a small farming community within the State of Mexico.

The people of San Salvador Atenco formed a group called the People's Front in Defense of the Land, or FPDT in Spanish, to challenge the government's eminent domain.

Residents took to the streets in protest, blocked local highways, and marched to the core of Mexico City. The Atenco protesters were armed only with machetes, the farming tool that became the symbol of the town's anti-airport movement.

They continued to mobilize until August 1, 2002, when the government announced that the airport construction plans were scrapped. The movement succeeded, while the people of Atenco were transformed into a global symbol for campesino resistance in Mexico.

The Atenco anti-airport movement became synonymous with the image of campesinos carrying machetes at protests. (Photo by Guillermo Arias/AP file)

But the recognition came with a high price.

By 2006, the embarrassment that the FPDT had produced for the government was not forgotten. That May, Mexico state governor Enrique Peña Nieto — now the country's president — ordered a police operation to break up a protest defending flower vendors rights in San Salvador Atenco.

The assault was seen as a proxy response to the previous anti-airport movement and the established strength of the FPDT.

More than 200 people were detained, including at least 26 women who were sexually tortured by authorities during their detention, according to a report published by United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Two students were killed after the operation turned violent with the entrance of close to 3,000 federal police into Atenco.

Ignacio del Valle, an FPDT leader, was sentenced to 112 years in prison for allegedly kidnapping state police officers. His daughter America was forced into exile, and his teenage son Cesar was sentenced to two years for also allegedly kidnapping security agents.

After a fierce national and international solidarity campaign, all jailed FPDT leaders were released by 2010 — after four years behind bars.

Related: Truck Carrying 'Laser Visas' That Allow Easy US Border Crossings Hijacked in Mexico

The Atenco movement and the government's repression still left the need for a revamped Mexico City airport. More than 34 million travelers passed through its two terminals in 2014, making it the second busiest international airport in Latin America after Sao Paulo.

Vicente Fox's term ended in 2006, followed by the contentious presidential election that brought fellow conservative Felipe Calderon to the presidency. By then, an alternate plan to alleviate congestion at Benito Juarez International Airport had been put into place.

Terminal 2 was inaugurated on March 26, 2008, but according to experts, it did not do enough to meet Mexico City's growing air traffic demand. Delays due to congestion at the airport are common on an almost daily basis in Mexico's growing aviation market.


Peña Nieto's turn

On September 2, 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had been facing dropping approval ratings, announced the construction of a shiny new international terminal during his second State of the Union address.

The plan was pegged to cost $7.8 billion.

The government released a slick video featuring design mockups of an "environmentally friendly" crystalline dome in the basic shape of an X, evocative of the "x" in Mexico.

The video featured renowned British architect Norman Foster, who has been hired to design the new airport in partnership with Fernando Romero, the prominent Mexican architect who designed the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City for his father-in-law Carlos Slim.

"This airport will be the best infrastructure project in the most recent years in our country and one of the largest in the world," Peña Nieto said during his September 2014 address at Mexico's National Palace, calling the plan a cornerstone for his development-minded administration.

Mexico's communications and transportation ministry said it had acquired more than 10,000 acres of land necessary to build the airport, and the transportation secretary, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, said neighboring communities would not be affected.

"There will be no expropriation degree, because the airport doesn't require a single extra foot of land to be built," Esparza said during a subsequent press conference.

Related: Can a President Accused of Corruption Convincingly Push an Anti-Corruption Law? Mexico Is Finding Out

Skeptics raised doubts from the beginning.

For starters, the new airport's precise location is still unknown — nine months since the proposal was formally announced — and government funding for the plan has been significantly reduced under recent federal spending cuts.

Authorities say the new airport, known by the shorthand NAICM (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de Mexico), will be located in the federal zone of the mostly dry Texcoco Lake, which in the times of the Aztecs spread across much of the Valley of Mexico floor.

The Texcoco lakebed sits to the east of Mexico City's limits, near the populous State of Mexico suburb of Ecatepec, and is seen in simple maps published in press reports about the future airport's location.

Airport opponents note that in 2011 Mexico's national water commission, or Conagua, started acquiring plots of land in the area for an environmental project related to Mexico City's persistent flooding and runoff problems — not an airport.

And although officials are floating ideas to connect Mexico City's vast subway system to the NAICM, government officials at several agencies involved in the project turned down or ignored months of VICE News requests for details about the plan, including its location.

Foster's office has also declined to comment about the construction site, underlining the secrecy surrounding the project's details. In February, the government slashed the project's budget by 63 percent. The government is currently planning to sell private bonds to mitigate the minimized budget.

Then in March, a group of 50 opposition senators gathered to express doubt about the airport plan, expressing concern over the new airport's earliest contracts and saying that it "smells like corruption."

"There are conflicts of interest all around," Senator Alejandro Encinas said in the group's press conference.

Those doubts came in the wake of the cancellation of a multi-billion-dollar plan for a bullet train between Mexico City and the central Mexican city of Queretaro, over damaging allegations of a conflict-of-interest between Peña Nieto and a contractor tied to the Chinese consortium that was going to build the bullet train.

Mexican engineer Jose Luis Luege, who is the former chief of Conagua, said the airport plan is a looming "disaster." Through his group Ciudad Posible, Luege is pushing a proposal for an airport in Tizayuca, in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, in order to turn the Texcoco lakebed back into a usable body of water.

"It will have a brutal environmental impact that will cause much more damage to the region," Luege told VICE News in an interview.

An animated simulation of the interior of the proposed future airport for Mexico City. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Still, the NAICM plan is marching forward.

On Monday, the newspaper Reforma published a special supplement trumping up the project. The paper said the new airport's construction begins this month. Twenty-one new contracts related to the airport project are scheduled to be announced on July 8.

If all goes according to plan, the airport is expected to begin operations on October 20, 2020.

While the government has reiterated it will not expropriate land in Atenco or in neighboring communities for the new airport, local residents there told VICE News in several interviews that they remain vigilant and unconvinced.

The Atenco ejido last year voted — some say illegally — to parcel up the communal land for individual sales, part of a long-term wave of such land-reform measures that coincide with the arrival of neoliberal economic policies in Mexico since the 1990s.

The FPDT recently denounced the presence of construction trucks on the border of their ejido.

"This is part of their strategy, to edge in, little by little," Ignacio del Valle, the leader who was jailed after the 2006 crackdown, said in an interview with VICE News. "This is very serious. It is about our land."

Related: Mexico's President Appoints a 'Friend' as His New Anti-Corruption Chief

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter @andalalucha.