Peasants' Golf War puts Mexico in a spin

Phil Davison reports on a community's struggle against developers, a battle which has become a symbol of inequality
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The Independent Online
Tepoztlan, Mexico - They have dubbed it the Golf War but it's more like a Mexican mini-revolution. The townsfolk of this idyllic valley community, some of them sons of the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, who was born nearby, have ousted the local government and police and barricaded themselves in.

The enemy, as always, is the rich and powerful. But this time a certain Jack Nicklaus is on the townsfolk's hit list. They are up in arms, at least with sticks and stones, against a huge golf course, hotel and tourist- project which they say would ruin the landscape, squander water reserves, threaten wildlife and disturb the bones of their ancestors.

Mr Nicklaus's Golden Bear Course Management company was involved in designing the projected golf course outside this still unspoilt town 50 miles south of Mexico City.

Taking 24-hour shifts to guard the colonial-style town hall as well as barbed-wire and boulder barricades at the town's entrances, the men and women of Tepoztlan, mostly descendants of Nahua Indians, say they will fight ``to the end''. Housewives stand by the bells of the colonial-era churches to warn against any police raid.

If it started as a routine protest, the Tepoztlan takeover has become a symbol of Mexico's greatest problem - inequality.

For one thing, Tepoztlan is a name immediately recognisable to Mexico City's wealthy middle classes who visit its famous hillside posada and turn the town into a bustling blur of colourful Indian street vendors at weekends. Many Mexico City artists have moved here.

For another, this uprising happened in the cradle of the revolution, the heart of Zapata country, where the legendary general led his peasant army against the wealthy elite in the bloody 1910-17 revolution. Zapata was born in the nearby village of Ananecuilco.

Most worrying to the authorities is the fact that a victory by the people of Tepoztlan could discourage potential foreign investors, at a time when President Ernesto Zedillo is trying to woo them in the wake of last December's financial crisis. The golf course project also has plans for a ``corporate park'', including a telecommunications centre run by the American GTE Corporation.

``Zapata lives,'' says the graffitti on the town centre's bandstand. ``If Zapata were alive, he'd be with us,'' says a placard on the town hall. Effigies of the ousted mayor and town councillors dangle from the roof. ``Land and Liberty'', says another placard, echoing Zapata's famous war-cry.

White-shawled Indian women embroider on wooden chairs outside the town hall. They are part of the guard. At their feet, a sleeping dog had been daubed in paint: ``Fuera KS'' (KS Out). KS is the name of the group, including several former politicians of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is trying to build the golf complex.

The $500m (pounds 320m) project is for a golf course, a five-star hotel, 800 tourist villas and the corporate area to be built among the hills of the Tepozteco National Park. President Lazaro Cardenas declared it a conservation zone in 1937 and archaeologists say the area may be the site of 1,000- year-old Indian remains. Local people believe big money and political influence allowed the KS group to get ``permission'', which the locals say was illegal, to start the project.

In March this year, the Mayor, Alejandro Morales, and the town councillors - six from the PRI and two from the centre-left PRD - rejected the project. On 3 September, however, word spread round the town that officials from the state of Morelos were meeting secretly with the PRI town councillors to push the project through. Bulldozers were seen felling trees in the project zone.

Thousands of residents, armed only with sticks and stones, stormed the house where the meeting was taking place, driving off both the local police and the state riot police.

The protesters took five state officials and the local PRI leader, Diana Ortega, hostage, holding them in the town hall. After 40 hours of negotiations, Mayor Morales resigned and the hostages were released. Neither the mayor, Mrs Ortega, the freed state officials nor other PRI members of the town council, have been seen since.

The state governor of Morelos, Jorge Carrillo, of the PRI, said the protesters had been ``satanised'' and ``manipulated by outsiders''. The local bishop said that the protesters were ``agitators, manipulated by foreign agents''. The project would create vital jobs, he said.

Mexico's private television Azteca Channel described the protesters as ``drunks''. However, its credibility was limited by the fact that the chairman of the channel, Ricardo Salinas, is one of the project's listed investors.

On 8 September, federal authorities announced a ``definitive'' ban on one-third of the project but only a temporary ban on the rest. The residents did not budge. The day was their annual fiesta of the Rey Tepoztecatl, the mythical Indian King known as the Son of the Wind, and he was telling them not to trust the authorities, they said.

The people of Tepoztlan see the struggle as parallel to King Tepoztecatl's legendary struggle against the evil serpent-god Xochicalca. The latter swallowed the king, but the serpent's stomach burst open.

Another worry for the government is the spreading influence among peasants of the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) which rose up against the government in the state of Chiapas in January last year.

Pro-EZLN slogans are daubed on Tepoztlan's walls. The EZLN sent a message of solidarity to this town, heading it ``to the people of tEpoZtLaN''. A mock ``wanted'' poster of the EZLN leader, Subcomandante Marcos, decorates a side wall of the local town hall. ``Wanted. For speaking the truth, defending the Indians and rising up against the dictatorship,'' it says.