The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBER 5


The Mexican
Golf War

by Andrew Wheat

TEPOZTLÁN, MEXICO -- An April 10 police ambush of villagers protesting a proposed luxury development slated for this beautiful colonial town killed one man and inflicted a range of shooting and beating injuries on approximately 100 other people.

The villagers opposed plans by Mexican development company Grupo KS to build 800 luxury homes, a five-star hotel, a business park, a helicopter pad, an artificial lake, Mexico's first golf academy, an 18-hole pro golf course and other recreational facilities on land that has been federally recognized as El Tepozteco National Park and the Ajusco-Chichinautzin biological corridor.

The police ambush had an unexpected effect: citing the violence and "non-existing guarantees to both the investors, the municipality inhabitants and to the State of Morelos community in general," Grupo KS announced it was "cancelling the development project."

Many villagers greeted the withdrawal announcement with skepticism, but it appears to have put an end, for now, to the "golf war" that broke out in 1995 on prized land outside of Cuernavaca, some 45 miles south of Mexico City's sprawl. Grupo KS still adamantly maintains its land claim and has pledged to develop it as it sees fit in the future.

The Tepoztlán activists had won an earlier victory in October 1995, when U.S. telecommunications giant GTE announced that it would seek another site for the $30 million data services facility that it had planned to build in the proposed $32.3 million "El Tepozteco" development.

In dispute in the golf war was whether the proposed development would desecrate or safeguard the ecological goals of the national park and biological corridor, and whether it represented an appropriate form of development for the area. Opponents of the development, led by Tepoztlán Unity Committee (CUT) members such as biologist Raúl Benet, argued that the El Tepozteco project threatened the ecological diversity that the national park and biological corridor were established to conserve. Opponents also claimed that the jobs promised by Grupo KS would not have contributed to building and maintaining a sustainable community.

Grupo KS countered that the area was already environmentally degraded and economically depressed, and that the proposed development would have benefitted the land, its ecology and local residents. "In general, the zone is severely deteriorated as a result of irregular settlements, lack of employment, severe erosion and the [non]existence of resources to halt this deterioration," noted a 31-page analysis of the project that Grupo KS published -- on recycled paper.

Northern intrusion

Although Mexican entrepreneurs masterminded El Tepozteco, two U.S. interests figured prominently in the plans: GTE and Golden Bear Course Management, the golf course design company owned by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

GTE Data Services, the Tampa, Florida-based subsidiary of GTE, was to be the "anchor tenant" in the development's El Recinto business park, according to a GTE press release from June 1995, two months before a full-blown controversy erupted. GTE announced it would seek another data processing site in October 1995, after activists led by Ralph Nader, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth protested the potential environmental impact of the project and the manner in which developers and the Morelos government were trying to impose it on the village.

Golden Bear has designed a golf course for Grupo KS. At the time of its withdrawal announcement, the developer announced that it had purchased alternative land for a golf course in the nearby town of Tlayacapán.

Grupo KS saw the international prestige attributed to Nicklaus courses as a magnet that would sell the development's residential and recreational facilities. Even in its design phase, however, the Nicklaus golf course occupied the center of controversy. Critics argued that the golf course alone would have consumed more than 4,000 cubic meters of water a day. This amounts to five times as much water as the 28,000 inhabitants of Tepotzlán now consume. Tepoztecos were also concerned about the golf course's expected heavy use of agrochemicals and the potential for them to enter the water table and harm the region's rich biodiversity.

Grupo KS responded by claiming that the $119,000 in annual municipal property taxes that its says the completed project would generate would have allowed Tepoztlán to overhaul its obsolete and failing water and wastewater infrastructure. It also contended that the aquifer supplying Tepoztlán and the one that would supply the development are "totally independent," and that the project, which called for planting 16,900 trees, would have resulted in a net water recharge gain to the underlying aquifer.

The green and the rough

Grupo KS enjoyed the backing of the businesspeople and state and federal politicians who run Mexico and Morelos. Among the known investors in the project is David Ibarra Múnoz, a former Mexican Treasury Secretary and the ex-husband of Morelos Environmental Development Secretary Ursula Oswald Spring, a leading promoter of the development project. Another notable investor was Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the owner of Azteca Television station.

But the developers confronted formidable opponents in the Tepoztecos. Morelos was the home of Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata, who maintained a fort in Tepoztlán as one front in his battle to give peasants title to the lands that they worked for wealthy landowners; and Tepoztecos are proud of their revolutionary heritage. Many residents of the municipality's relatively prosperous central town chafed at the notion of working as gardeners or golf caddies on what they regard as their community's land. Although they were billed as the golf development's purported beneficiaries, a poll conducted for the Mexico City daily La Jornada indicated that most of Tepoztlán residents opposed El Tepozteco.

Given the severity of Mexico's economic recession, Grupo KS hoped that its promise of 13,000 jobs during the project's five-year construction phase and 2,900 permanent employees would be irresistible. Asked about the failure of the promised jobs to win over more support, company spokesperson Miguel Sánchez says that many Tepoztecos are lazy. By way of illustration, he says that many of them will not harvest their own tomato crops, preferring to hire poor migrant laborers from the southern states of Guerrero or Oaxaca.

Because of the beauty of this land and its proximity to Mexico City, Tepoztlán residents are also development battle veterans. The first attempt to build a golf course in the area 30 years ago escalated into a violent confrontation in which a professor leading opposition to the project was fatally injured in what many people say was retribution for opposing the golf course. Since then, the community has fought attempts to build luxury homes, a train line and a tram to ascend Tepoztlán's bluffs.

Although they enjoyed federal and state government support, El Tepozteco developers needed local municipal approval to rezone the land from agricultural use to residential and tourism uses. In a March 1995 public vote on the issue, local officials rejected the zoning request. But in a secret extraordinary meeting in August, Municipal President Alejandro Morales Barragán and six of eight members of the municipal council reversed themselves, approving the zoning change. In response, 2,500 outraged community members occupied the town hall and decided to dissolve the municipal council.

The expulsion of the municipal council led to one of the tenser moments in the golf war. In early September 1995, the state of Morelos, working with a small group of golf course supporters in the town, planned to install a new, pro-golf course council in Tepoztlán. In an apparent effort to take city hall, between 100 and 300 state troopers advanced to within a couple kilometers of the main square. In response, thousands of townspeople mobilized -- some with cudgels, stones and machetes -- to prevent the troops from advancing on the town. Tepoztecos also took as hostages five state officials who entered Tepoztlán to meet with development supporters. The next day, these officials were released in exchange for a government promise not to press kidnaping charges against Tepoztecos, a promise that was not kept. After the incident, Tepoztecos blockaded most streets entering the town to repel access by government security forces.

The week after the showdown with state troopers, Tepoztlán held elections, choosing a new seven-member council that unanimously opposed the Grupo KS development.

The State of Morelos responded to this election by naming a new city council with candidates of the governor's choosing. On the same day that the community learned of this shadow council, however, the governor's hand-picked candidates resigned, saying that the recently elected council was the legitimate representative of Tepoztlán residents. Nonetheless, the state refuses to recognize the municipal government, and cut Tepoztlán off from the public works funds that it channels to every other state municipality. The state has also stopped performing such functions as providing birth, death or marriage certificates for Tepoztecos, which could lead to bureaucratic chaos in the future. For their part, Tepoztecos have blockaded the entrance of the local state property tax office with an old ambulance and no longer pay tribute to the state government. This state-municipality conflict continues, even in the wake of Grupo KS's withdrawal announcement.

Out-of-orbit satellites

Pro-golf forces made repeated attempts to feed existent divisions in the municipality and to organize around a disenchantment with the standoff, a sentiment which was strongest in the municipality's satellite communities. Notable among these is San Juan Tlacotenco, located 10 kilometers north of Tepoztlán's central square. Like the other satellites, San Juan residents tend to be poorer and more dependent on agriculture than their neighbors in Tepoztlán proper. Some San Juan residents also harbor resentment toward the main town, which they view as dominating the municipality's representation and budget -- despite greater economic needs in the satellites. Residents of San Juan, for example, do not have running water.

A particular irritant in San Juan is that one of the road blockades erected by the municipality cuts off easy access to Cuernavaca, the principal market for the village's crops of flowers and nopal cactus. As a result, residents must make a winding detour that can double what used to be a half hour ride to Cuernavaca.

In early March 1995, the satellites formally organized into the Council of Tepoztec Communities (CTC). San Juan resident and CTC leader Carlos Vargas Gutiérrez says the CTC was created to promote development in the satellite communities and does not have a position on the golf development. Pressed about how he would vote if there was a referendum on El Tepozteco today, however, he says he would support the project. "As a source of employment," he says, "it's good."

Grupo KS began clearing a sensitive parcel of land that the federal government had not approved for development in late August 1995. The National Ecological Institute, the technical arm of the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Fishing, ordered the company to halt construction two weeks after it began. Vargas Gutiérrez says that most of the unskilled laborers hired by the company were from San Juan, including 130 of the town's 1,736 residents. "In these 15 days that they worked, there was a noticeable increase in income in the village; the benefit was felt immediately," says Vargas Gutiérrez, an agronomist who, unable to find a job in his profession, grows flowers for the market. Instead of the usual unskilled laborer salary of $4.73 a day, Vargas Gutiérrez says Grupo KS paid a daily wage of approximately $6.15.

Because of the perceived support of San Juan residents for the golf project, Vargas Gutiérrez says, "Many of us here, including me, cannot enter Tepoztlán; it's like we're on a blacklist. If we go there, we could be the targets of some kind of aggression," he says. Similarly, he says Tepoztlán's leaders will not let people from San Juan sell nopal in the central market "because they don't support their struggle -- erecting barricades, volunteering for guard duty, participating in their marches."

Even some strong supporters of the movement against the golf development say that some of its militants resorted to ill-advised retribution in at least one instance. "In some groups in Tepoztlán, there existed xenophobic ideas which come out in public assemblies in which people who are not native Tepoztecos or who have foreign traits or names are impeded from speaking," says Tepoztlán writer Mariá Rosas. "This attitude of reverse discrimination is being overcome, but nonetheless lies latent and emerges in the most critical moments of the struggle. Another factor is that I think the people are frustrated at having struggled so long without having the enemy right there in front of them to destroy. An enemy that they perceived close at hand are ... the foreign vendors with strange ways of dressing and foreign languages who arrive here to sell their artisanry."

In late November 1995, some merchants in a municipal assembly called for the revocation of market vending privileges for a group of vendors, many of whom have hippie fashion tastes. Several CUT and community leaders argued that these foreigners were not enemies of Tepoztlán, Rosas says, but early one morning native Tepoztlán vendors drove this group out of the market in an ugly confrontation. The native vendors rationalized this behavior in a public meeting by branding the foreigners as "traitors" who support the golf development, an allegation which -- in many cases -- was false. Rosas says this market expulsion was a terrible mistake, as illustrated by the fact that it eventually resulted in the imprisonment of three Tepoztecos.


Not all of the vendors driven from the market were foreign hippies. Rocio Ortiz Rojas, a relative of former Mayor Alejandro Morales Barragán and an alternate state representative from the ruling PRI party, was kicked out of her open-air butcher stall on December 2, 1995 in an incident that led to the golf war's first casualty. Just before the shooting, the merchants' association that runs the Tepoztlán market decided to strip Ortiz Rojas of her vending privileges. This step was taken because Ortiz Rojas was an outspoken supporter of the development project who verbally harassed other vendors, according to Tepoztlán voluntary security corps member Alejandro Hernández Gutiérrez.

When Ortiz Rojas was told by security volunteers that she could no longer sell her merchandise at the stall, an altercation ensued in which she pulled a pistol, which she was photographed brandishing in the market. Unarmed security volunteers disarmed Ortiz Rojas, who was taken into custody in the city hall. She says she was beaten by her captors, an allegation that they deny.

Shortly afterwards, four armed friends and relatives of Ortiz Rojas who support the development project entered the town square led by Martín Rivera Rojas. When they were approached by 10 or 12 security volunteers -- backed by a huge crowd of townspeople -- they fled, firing shots as they retreated, according to witness Alejandro Hernández Gutiérrez. Two people were wounded, including Pedro Morales Barragán, uncle of the deposed mayor. Security members apprehended the gunmen and their weapons, all of which were turned over to the police. Morales Barragán later died from his wounds.

In response to the shooting, the State of Morelos issued arrest warrants for 14 people. None of those charged were among the suspects apprehended by Tepoztlán security volunteers, and all of them opposed the development project. The three men who have been imprisoned in connection with Barragán Gutiérrez's death were not at the scene of the crime, according to their statements and those of witnesses. At the time of the arrests in late December 1995 and early January 1996, the Mexico City daily La Jornada reported that the police had not interviewed many witnesses of the shooting.

In an interview with Multinational Monitor inside his Cuernavaca cell, prisoner Gerardo Demesa Padilla, secretary of professional services for the state chapter of the teacher's union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), said that witness accounts corroborate that the fleeing gunmen were running uphill in their attempt to elude their pursuers. This is important, he said, because the evidence shows that bullets were fired from above. "There is no [evidence of] impact from below shooting up," he said.

"There are disturbing signs that the three men imprisoned in Cuernavaca, Morelos were deprived of their liberty solely because they oppose a large development project that enjoys the backing of powerful Mexican investors and politicians," 95 individuals and groups concerned about the environment and human rights wrote Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo in a March 6, 1996 letter. "There is considerable reason to believe that the three imprisoned men were not at the scene of the crime when the shooting occurred and had no connection to the gun that killed Pedro Barragán Gutiérrez." Signatories, which include representatives of Amnesty International USA, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, told Zedillo that "an independent human rights commission should be formed quickly to investigate the shooting in depth and to determine whether sufficient cause exists to deprive Demesa Padilla, Carrillo Conde and Mendoza Ortiz of liberty. In the absence of such a finding, the men should be set free and a subsequent investigation should be launched to determine how the legal system in Morelos could come to be commandeered for political purposes."

Lending support to these concerns, CUT leader Adela Bocanegra says that in an early March meeting with CUT members, Morelos Government Secretary Guillermo Malo said that the state would release one of the prisoners if Tepoztlán agreed to hold the new elections that the governor had been calling for and would release a second prisoner after the election -- an unusual deal to offer regarding alleged murder suspects.

The incident leading up to the announcement by the developers that they were abandoning their project in Tepoztlán occurred on April 10, 1996, the seventy-seventh anniversary of the assassination of Zapata by the Mexican government. With President Ernesto Zedillo travelling to Morelos that day to deliver a speech, Tepoztlán villagers prepared a petition to the president opposing the development signed by approximately 5,000 residents. They never delivered the petition.

On the way to the speech, the Tepoztlán caravan encountered two sugar cane trucks blocking the road. When the caravan stopped, State of Morelos police emerged from behind the trucks, knocked out windows in the buses from Tepoztlán and opened fire. To force them off the bus, the police beat many elderly, women and children who attempted to hide under their seats. CUT member Marcos Olmedo Gutiérrez, 64, died from gunshot wounds sustained in the ambush. Approximately 100 other residents received bullet or beating wounds; more than 60 of them made formal complaints to the National Human Rights Commission.

In the initial official report of the incident, the State of Morelos said that the Tepoztlán residents had refused to identify themselves at a roadblock and opened fire on the police. Testimony from witnesses and a videotape taken by someone on the Tepoztlán caravan contradicted this account. As the real story emerged and human rights appeals were issued by Amnesty International and Global Response, Morelos Governor Jorge Carrillio Olea, a strong supporter of the development project, announced the detention of dozens of police officers involved in the ambush. In less than a week, however, almost all of these officers were released on approximately $400 bail. Moreover, the Attorney General of Morelos said that Tepoztlán residents present at the ambush had failed to present themselves in Cuernavaca to file formal charges against the police after having been summoned by telegram. Tepoztlán residents, however, said no telegrams were received.

Given the strong role of the State of Morelos in the golf development, the imprisonment of Tepoztlán's three political prisoners and the ambush of the protesters, human rights activists have questioned the ability of the State Attorney General to ensure that justice is served. They have joined the call of Tepoztlán activists for an independent prosecutor to investigate the ambush and the cases of the prisoners.

"A pattern is making itself disturbingly clear in the Tepoztlán case," says Mark Konrad, public policy analyst for Essential Information and a leader in organizing U.S. support for the Tepozteco opponents of the golf course. "Various levels and agencies of the Mexican government are willing to abuse human rights and corrupt the judicial process to squelch political opposition to elite-favored economic policies and projects."

"These are charges of the highest order, because they impugn the integrity of the Mexican political system," Konrad adds. "Unless the Zedillo administration acquits itself far better with regard to this incident than it has so far done, it will have disqualified itself as a legitimate partner in U.S.-Mexico economic cooperation on human rights grounds alone."

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