Tepoztlán’s Highway to Nowhere

The town of Tepoztlán, Morelos, is at the vanguard of activism against corporate-friendly projects. Its fight against a highway expansion may be its toughest battle yet. 

November 30, 2017

The Tepoztlán city hall entrance has turned into a protest site against the expansion of the highway between Mexico City and Cuernavaca. (Photo by Jose Olivares)

Osbelia Quiroz has been spending her days at City Hall in Tepóztlan, in the Mexican state of Morelos, where Indigenous and other community organizers have overtaken the building’s entrance and established a protest site. Since 2011, townspeople have been involved in actions against the expansion of a highway running through town, which seeks to connect Mexico City to Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos. Operations for the expansion began earlier this year, which the government hopes will increase tourism to the area. Thousands of trees have already been torn down—an act resistance members call ecocide.

In early November, local police attempted to remove the protest materials and resistance members from the protest site, leaving two beaten and many others harassed and intimidated. The Human Rights Committee of the State of Morelos submitted a letter condemning the police’s actions.

Tepoztlán is primarily known for tourism—it is home to Tepozteco, a temple atop a mountain, dedicated to Tepoztecatl, the Aztec god of pulque—but the town has long been a vanguard of Indigenous resistance. During the Mexican Revolution, the town fought with Emiliano Zapata and Rubén Jaramillo. In 1979, they successfully fought against the construction of a new jail in town. In the early 1980s, the town won a battle against the construction of a cableway that would take tourists up to Tepozteco. In the 1990s, the town’s emblematic fight against a luxury golf club shook the state of Morelos. What began as a protest against the club grew to become a larger struggle enveloping the entire town that counted with the solidarity of Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos [now Galeano]. The townspeople unified as “Tepoztecos,” standing in defiance against the state and federal government, and eventually overthrowing the municipal government.

“Indigenous organizers have intervened since the era of ‘No to the Golf Club’ and they’re still here,” Quiroz said. “Some have died, others have continued. Tepoztlán has saved itself from many things.”

The Tepoztecos’ history demonstrates how an organized, unified struggle can confront a powerful state and make substantial gains. But their present-day fight against the expansion of a highway differs from “No to the Golf Club.” Although an 80-year old presidential decree protects Tepoztlán and its surroundings from such projects, the government is continuing with its plan to widen the highway, placing the local environment’s future into peril.

“No to the Golf Club:” Setting the Stage for Today’s Resistance

The majority of the land in Tepoztlán is protected by its ejido—or communally-owned—status, which means popular assemblies are organized to decide on important or controversial matters pertaining to the land. The ejidos were established by the Mexican Revolution and further reforms by then-President Lazaro Cárdenas in the 1930s. In 1992, then- President Carlos Salinas de Gortari changed Article 27 of Mexico’s Constitution, opening the door to privatizing ejido land and allowing domestic and foreign corporations to purchase swaths of the communal land, in anticipation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite these changes, Tepoztlán’s land is still legally protected, and the area around Tepozteco is a national park.

Nonetheless, in 1994, Mexican development corporation Grupo Kladt-Sobrino (KS)—owned by Cuernavaca brothers Francisco and Juan Kladt Sobrino— announced plans to build a golf course and luxury country club on ejido land KS had purchased on the outskirts of the town. Activists stressed KS had purchased the land through invalid sales. Initially, Tepoztlan’s City Council unanimously rejected the golf club, but changed their tune six months later. The mayor and council signed permits in August of 1995, allowing KS to begin construction, infuriating the townspeople and sparking a massive protest.

A map of the highway from Mexico City to Cuernavaca thru Tepoztlán that the government has plans to expand. (Map by Jose Olivares)

More than 8,000 of Tepoztlan’s 24,000 inhabitants marched to City Hall, demanding the mayor trash plans for the golf club. But when they arrived, they found an empty building. All members of the city council had fled. Thus, the Tepoztecos took over city hall.

Quiroz was there: “There were children running around and playing, women preparing and distributing food and people were playing music,” she says. That night, the town declared the City Council to be illegitimate and null.

The state government of Morelos, led by governor Jorge Carrillo, attempted to undemocratically organize a popular assembly. Since Carrillo supported the golf club, the new assembly upheld the City Council’s decision to continue with the project. In response, Tepoztecos clashed with state riot police, expelled the officials, disbanded Carrillo’s faux assembly and erected barricades at the town’s entrances.

The townspeople and communal owners of the ejido land organized a communal assembly, led by the Committee for Tepozteco Unity (CUT), a small environmental group. The CUT attempted to persuade Carrillo to cancel KS’s building permits and call for new municipal elections to replace the ousted city council. When Carrillo refused to succumb to the Tepoztecos’ requests, the new popular assembly voted for the CUT to organize local elections.

The town banned large, national political parties from participating in the elections, fearing they would coopt the movement. Instead, they relied on neighborhood assemblies to name candidates for a new, permanent council. Seven representatives were elected to the Free Constitutional and Popular Town Council, which further angered the state government, who began denying Tepoztlán any state services.

Ramiro Vermudes Adan, another resistance member, has vivid memories of April 10, 1996. That day, riot police ambushed the community, sparking an intense confrontation that left many injured and one dead. “Back then, there were people arrested, dead, and beaten,” Vermudes Adan says. “It brings a lot of emotions, my voice starts to break. When they killed my friend, Marcos Olmedo—my voice cracks.”

Days after this confrontation, KS abandoned its plans for building the golf course.

The Free Constitutional and Popular Town Council governed without state recognition until 1997, when regular elections were scheduled. This led to an internal struggle among the townspeople: either hold elections according to federal law requiring candidates to run with a registered political party; or continue to self-rule and risk continued alienation from the state and its funds.

After much debate, town leadership determined that the then-new left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) would play a role in the elections, which would allow the community’s selected candidates to use the party’s registry system. But as observers of Mexico know, the PRD—composed of defectors from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—has become corrupted and moved rightward. In fact, each party that has been elected to rule Morelos since then has acted favorably toward developers and the tourism industry. The state’s current governor, Graco Ramirez, a member of the PRD, is one of the main antagonists in the Tepozteco’s present-day fight against the expansion of the road.

Occupation and Litigation: Tepoztecos Fight Against Expansion

The current struggle in Tepoztlán hinges around the expansion of a highway connecting Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, to Mexico City—the La Pera-Cuautla highway, which cuts right through Tepoztlán. The project to expand the highway was first proposed in the 1990s, but the mayor at the time rejected it. In 2011, the state’s Department of Communication and Transportation (SCT) reintroduced the project. In 2012, current Morelos governor Graco Ramírez was elected, who approved the highway expansion. According to the SCT, the expansion of the road will cost approximately 944 million pesos, or nearly $50 million USD. The Morelos SCT contracted the Mexican corporation Tradeco to handle the project.

The expansion is part of a larger infrastructure project, Proyecto Integral Morelos (Integral Project of Morelos)  to connect metropolitan Mexico City to the state of Morelos in order to increase profits to various companies in the state. Two thermoelectric plants—also part of the Proyecto Integral—in the town of Huexca, Morelos, have operated since 2015.

In 2011, the Tepoztlán Defense Front and the Tepóztlan Youth Defense Front began organizing against the expansion, saying it would be detrimental to the local environment. They are also worry the plans will lead to a reintroduction of the golf club plans, its development expedited by the expansion of the road—allowing for an influx of construction supplies and workers.

In June of 2012, these groups organized a protest camp to block construction materials from entering the area, which was disbanded by riot police in July of 2013. “The time that they attempted to vacate us, we did not try to fight them,” Vermudes Adan says. “At the time, the ex-municipal president ordered the workers to get rid of us."

After their camp was disbanded, the Tepoztecos attempted to challenge the expansion on legal grounds. Their lawyer, who requested anonymity, saying that he had faced threats and is no longer able to enter the city, explained the case to me earlier this year.  “In the judicial system of Mexico, in the first, second and fourth articles of the [Mexican] Constitution, it says every person in the national territory of Mexico has the right to live in a healthy environment and with proper health,” he said. “People are not thinking about the individual and collective health of the entire world.”

The Tepoztecos have grounded their contention in the 1937 presidential decree that had established that the surrounding land of Tepoztlán is protected by its national park status. Although the land slated for the project is state-owned, so communal land is not being privatized, the lawyer says the presidential decree and the Ley de Amparo (Law of Legal Protection) should serve as the highest authority.

The Tepoztecos and their legal counsel took the fight to a circuit court in Cuernavaca, where three judges heard the case. In the court’s opinion, one judge sided with the resistance, and the other two declared the expansion of the road to be legitimate. The townspeople appealed the decision and took the fight to the Mexican Supreme Court in April of this year. The justices rejected the appeal, once again siding with the expansion of the road.

The Tepoztecos have continued their efforts in limited ways by posting anti-expansion posters in the town, hosting informational meetings, sending out press releases and attempting to organize the townspeople. But today, their  only request is to be able to dialogue with government officials on the expansion. A public records request allowed them to access blueprints for the project, but they have received no concrete explanations for the proposals from experts, as federal law requires, so that communal assembly can vote on them.

Meanwhile, internal conflicts have challenged the resistance movement. Since Tepoztlán has grown to be a tourist hub, over the years, people from Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and even other countries have moved in and opened their own businesses tailored to the tourism industry. Since a large percentage of the town makes their livelihood from tourism, most people in the town may not see the expansion as a particularly bad move, regardless of the environmental costs, including deforestation.

Graco Ramírez’s office, the federal SCT and Morelos’ SCT did not respond to numerous requests for comment. In addition to the local government, Gabino Ríos, a former Tepoztlán mayor, and Francisco Navarrete Conde, a former city council member, have been particularly vocal in their support of the expansion. According to a press release by the SCT, the Mexican governmental body inspecting environmental damage also approved of the expansion.

Construction crews in the area began work in February of this year and are continuing their duty to expand the road. According to estimates by Tepoztecos, crews have already knocked down 2,800 trees. The SCT estimates more than 121 hectares to be affected by the project. As a result, more have joined the struggle against the expansion. The numbers of people involved still pales in comparison to the mass movement from 1990s, Vermudes Adan told me.

“If it was a large movement it wouldn’t be like this,” he said. “Not even 25 or even 20 percent [of people in Tepoztlán] are [actively resisting] with us. There are people who are morally with us. There are others who are neutral.”

Earlier this year, construction crews knocked down a large, yellow ficus insipida, popularly known as the “amate amarillo,” native to the area and revered for its beauty. The Tepoztecos picked up the chunks of tree and carried them to the town’s center, placing them at the main city plaza as a symbol of protest against environmental destruction. People in favor of the expansion attempted to take the tree back to the construction site, but it has remained in the plaza ever since.

Future Hope

Though the odds the Tepoztecos face are high, Quiroz says that giving in is not the answer. “If we do not raise our voices, it is better for them,” she says. “They want us to be submissive people, but no. For them, it is called progress. For us, it is destruction.”

The rise of María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martínez, the Indigenous woman running for president in the 2018 elections with the National Indigenous Congress and the Governmental Indigenous Council, gives the Tepoztecos hope.

Osbelia Quiroz, one of the leaders of the resistance, sits at home beside legal documents in front of her. (Photo by Jose Olivares)

The National Indigenous Congress party has been supportive of the Tepoztecos’ fight. Quiroz had sent a video to the National Indigenous Congress to put the issue on their agenda. Marichuy has drawn massive crowds to her events, placing Indigenous and working class people at the forefront of her message.

One of the banners at the City Council protest site today celebrates the 22nd anniversary of the town’s historic victory in the golf club fight, featuring a book with hundreds of photos from that era. Although the Tepoztecos are at a frustrating moment in their fight against the expansion, their proud history of resistance keeps them going.

“What are we defending? The environment,” Quiroz said. “This has always been defended. Always.”

Jose Olivares is a journalist, originally from Mexico City and now based in the U.S. He holds degrees in Sociology and Journalism from the University of Nevada, Reno. His work has been published by NPR, the USA Today Network/RGJ.com and Next Generation Radio. Follow him on Twitter @jlosc9.

Jacob Jacoby is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno pursuing degrees in journalism and political science with an emphasis on the Middle East. He graduates in May 2018.

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