“They took out their houses with the people inside,” said Maria Estela Alejandro, referring to the arrival of bulldozers and riot police to clear land—and homes—for the construction of Estadio Azteca, the eventual home of Mexico’s marquis soccer team.
That was 1962. But neighbors fear something similar could happen today in rapidly gentrifying Mexico City.
Named as one of the host stadiums for the 2026 World Cup, the historic stadium was recently called “The Vatican of Soccer” by the president of FIFA, the International Football Association. It will be the first stadium to be a three-time host of the world’s most high profile soccer tournament.
The stadium was built among the rural communities south of Mexico City’s urban core, during years of economic growth when the Mexican government rapidly developed its industrial infrastructure and successfully bid to host the Olympic Games in 1968. Today, the stadium sits surrounded by an urbanized mosaic of densely populated neighborhoods and congested highways, historic townships with pre-Hispanic roots facing growing currents of wealthier newcomers. Local residents have been protesting a proposed massive expansion to the stadium ahead of the World Cup, called the Conjunto Estadio Azteca, which they fear will threaten local water supplies and living conditions.
The mobilizations echo similar complaints made by local communities during World Cup planning stages, such as those in in South Africa and Brazil, in which soccer mega-developments have worsened already deficient social services. Communities throughout Mexico are protesting mega-projects that they see as primarily serving international capital through tourism and real estate investment, including a high-profile train line to Cancún.
“We aren’t against soccer,” said one of the residents at a protest outside the stadium in December last year. “We’re against the way they’re doing it.”
The stadium complex reflects not only the globalizing interests of FIFA, but also flows of Mexican and international capital dedicated to pursuing profits through urban mega-projects. In this case, the expansion involves a four-story mall and seven-story hotel, accompanied by a seven-level parking garage. The proposal follows wider trends throughout the city: the construction of massive new towers and shopping centers, mobilized by what residents call a “real estate cartel” closely aligned with political parties. The political force behind the Proyecto Conjunto Estadio Azteca is Televisa, a long-standing Mexican mass media and entertainment network historically associated with the Institutional Revolultionary Party (PRI) and right-wing political forces.
Residents Mobilize Around Water Scarcity
Residents, citizens, and community organizations began to speak out about the mega-project in 2020. The key issue? Water.
Throughout Mexico, working-class people have scarce access to water. This is especially the case in Mexico City, where the thirst of big capital has led to the construction of highly water-intensive residences and recreational sites for the rich, while long-time residents endure irregular, expensive, and sometimes absent water services. Activists argue that the Conjunto Azteca’s proposal for drilling a major new well is too close to existing water sources, and could provoke land instability and sinkholes. Activists also see water as a political tool. One individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that residents who have resisted corporate construction projects, like the nearby 67-floor Mítikah residential tower, have seen reductions in their water supplies, even as neighbors who have remained silent have not.
As water activist Natalia Lara highlighted, the development would be especially detrimental for working-class women, who shoulder a disproportionate amount of care work and do so on scarce economic resources. The project would create more traffic and less water. Property taxes would increase, pushing people out and disrupting existing neighborhood support networks. High-end stores and corporate outlets would replace neighborhood shops that supply basic needs and, at times, extend credit to neighbors. All these factors would hamstring women as they try to secure food and water, not to mention healthcare and educational needs. That care labor has also fallen on women elders, whose sons and daughters increasingly work double-shifts in this rapidly gentrifying neoliberal city.
Situated on one side of the Calzada de Tlalpan, the major avenue leading from south to north, residents did what they often do in Mexico to be heard: they shut it down. When a consulting group tied to the project attempted to comply with the legal requirement of consulting with affected populations in March of last year, residents and their allies took over the Calzada de Tlalpan, forcing the group to end the consultation. It was merely a “simulation” of a true consultation, activists argued, as it offered residents paltry information about the project and provided them with little advance notice.
Residents have subsequently carried out dozens of events and protests, and have secured the support of activist lawyers in an attempt to delay the project. Through their efforts, the government announced in early 2023 that the project had been suspended, and that only smaller renovations will be conducted to the stadium itself.
“It’s Only a Matter of Time”
Suspended is different from cancelled, noted human rights activist Francisco Cerezo, and many think it’s only a matter of time before investors realign their forces and seek permits for another construction project. The area sits on volcanic rock in a way that protects the community and its infrastructure from earthquakes. It’s located near a major train line and hospitals, close to the cultural offerings of the country’s major public university, and not far from the leafy green areas and vacation spots south of the city. A Mexican real estate platform noted that property values around Estadio Azteca have increased more than 34 percent since the World Cup announcement.
The political stakes are high as well. Claudia Sheinbaum, the city’s influential former Head of Government who helped usher in the project, likely used it to line up investors and real estate forces ahead of her 2024 presidential run. Sheinbaum is the candidate for the country's ruling Mornea party, and a front-runner in the race. Meanwhile one of her main opponents, former Head of Government and former Secretary of Foreign Relations Marcelo Ebrard, helped lead the way for the World Cup to return to Mexico.
Walking the streets around the stadium, it’s hard to see how there could be room for new construction, much less multi-story commercial complexes. Only a narrow street separates the stadium complex from the homes and businesses of the pueblo originario of Santa Úrsula Coapa, which was founded in the year 785 by Tepaneca peoples. The Nahuatl name roughly translates as “river of serpents.” The town today is a hamlet of winding stone roads originally meant for pedestrian and animal traffic, with scarcely enough room for one car to pass in many places. Residents like María Estela Alejandro, who recalls the original displacement in 1962, and the pueblo’s traditional authority Rubén Ramírez Almazán note that any efforts to accommodate major commercial developments will inevitably mean road-widening and infrastructure expansion. “We have had appointments with the government,” Almazán said, “but they just talk in circles. They sugarcoat things, but they don’t cede any ground. Why? Because they're interested in their investment. They’re not interested in how the pueblos live.” While the town’s resistance efforts are part of a broad network of pueblos originarios and local organizations resisting mega-projects and gentrification, it’s hard to know how long grassroots movements to defend territory can hold out. Televisa’s efforts have served to divide the community, offering mitigation funds to fix up local parks, casting the commercial complex as a “green” project, and stating that extra water from a new well would be allocated to the community.
The political scenario has also created tensions. Both Sheinbaum and Ebrard are close allies of the highly popular president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and some residents who oppose the project are hesitant to openly criticize city authorities or the left-leaning MORENA party they belong to. Others contend the situation goes beyond short-term political calculations. “For any kind of stadium renovation, they’re going to need water,” said Alejandro. “And if the pueblo of Santa Ursula is lacking water now, as well as the [nearby pueblo of] Huipulco, what’s going to happen when the renovations begin?”
Eric Larson is author of Grounding Global Justice: Race, Class, and Grassroots Globalism in the U.S. and Mexico (University of California Press, 2023).