"Everything in Tepoztlán is a parable."
-Restauranteur Rubén Flores Torres
View Cover art for this story
About the political prisoners
Ecologists in town were aghast at the idea of supporting a golf course that would swallow 800,000 gallons a day, up to five times Tepoztlán's usual water consumption.
"When they elected me," says Mayor Lázaro Rodríguez, "I had never taken part in any political party. I wasn't even a registered voter."
The Golf War
Photographs by Paul Myers
Laura Aguirre and Eduardo Alvarez del Castillo
Part One of a Two Part Story
THIS is a story about a golf course, Emiliano Zapata, Jack Nicklaus, Greenpeace, GTE and the massive sell-off of Mexican lands.
It is the story of peasants who confront the state, the police and the army-and win.
It's a parable that could only take place in Tepoztlán, a lovely, rustic town that hosts campesinos, new age Mexican hippies, ecologists, intellectuals and regular UFO sightings.
Now two men are dead and three are in prison as campesinos stubbornly battle on in the Golf War of Tepoztlán.
AUGUST 24, 1995 was the day when the police, the army and the entire city government were run out of town by thousands of Tepoztlán residents, in the state of Morelos, Mexico. The mob was armed only with sticks, stones and the profound indignation of a people betrayed.
A year later, the entrance to town is blockaded by a low wall of stones topped with a symbolic twist of barbed wire. The police and the army have yet to return.
"There is only one thing you need to understand about this place. Everything in Tepoztlán is a parable," says restauranteur Rubén Flores Torres, gazing sternly after a few tequilas late one night.
I don't doubt it. Since arriving here I've been told by many to look for the UFOs that frequent Tepoztlán's dramatic, sweeping cliffs. An hour from Mexico City, we're already a mile high. The soft, stony mountain of El Tepozteco, graced by a pyramid on top, seems to touch another universe. "The pyramid will give you energy if you climb up there," say Tepoztecos (the name for natives of the town).
Tepoztlán, population 13,000, is known as the "Valle Sagrado," the Sacred Valley of the Aztecs. Its lush fields support a campesino (peasant) class which, while poor, is more comfortable and better educated than many in Mexico. Even those who become professionals do not give up their land; they spend weekends tending family fields of corn, beans and marigolds for the Days of the Dead in November.
This is Morelos, land of Emiliano Zapata's birth, and these are the tierras and people he defended and loved. There are 100 year-old Zapatistas living here who fought by Emiliano's side. Zapata's granddaughter lives nearby.
Though Zapata and the Mexican Revolution are long gone, Tepoztecos have cultivated a defiant personality. Over thirty years ago, a golf course and a "scenic train" from Mexico City were proposed for the town's extensive communal lands. Those plans were abandoned after residents stubbornly fought back with a "No al tren" movement.
"This goes back to 1860," says Nuria Jiménez, who runs a small cultural center here. "The old people say the land was bought by the communities of Tepoztlán and Santa Catarina, and they became communal lands."
AROUND the time of the scenic train debate, in 1962, the family of Francisco Kladt began quietly acquiring property in the region, though it was later acknowledged that some of the land was "in dispute." The lands were protected by various Presidential decrees. Areas in Kladt's holdings were officially designated as archaeological zone, as a National Park (in 1937), as an ecological reserve (in 1988), and historically, as peasant-owned communal lands. But Kladt was somehow able to obtain titles from campesinos and the state, "all quite legally."
In spite of a resistant Tepozteco history, in the early 1990s Francisco Kladt plowed ahead with a dream. Though the young developer had masterminded several large projects in Mexico, none possessed the voracious scale of the Club de Golf El Tepozteco. It was simply massive. Plans included an 18 hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, 800 luxury residential units, an artificial lake, tennis courts, restaurants, a hotel, shopping centers, a heliport, and a riding club. Not emphasized at the time was that the hub of the community would be an international business complex called "El Recinto," (which would be home to US-based corporation GTE). All this, surrounded by the magnificent serenity of El Tepozteco National Park, or what would be left of it.
Kladt's investors were strictly major league. By the winter of '94, his Grupo KS had gathered support from Jaime Alatorre, who, apparently seeing no conflict of interest with his role as head of the Mexican Investment Council (CMI), personally bought into in the project. Other investors included Ricardo Salinas, of Mexico's Elektra appliance empire and the TV Azteca network (recently scandalized over pulling government strings to gain funds). Golden Bear Course Management, a US company in which golfer Jack Nicklaus has a stake, was brought in to design the golf course. In all, more than 70 initial investors, most of them big shots in Mexico's banking, business and political circles, were enlisted by Grupo KS.
IN 1995, project vice president José de los Ríos went about excitedly preaching the KS gospel. The development model he exhibited portrayed the best of all worlds, a happy blend of nature, archaeology, comfort and prosperity.
"It's a style that's Mexican rustic, Mexican colonial.A project like this belongs to us, it belongs to Mexico. We're able to take advantage, in any region, of what is Mexican," de los Ríos noted without irony. "That melding of man and nature and architectural style is what gives you a greater quality of life, and a gentle reminder that we are in Mexico, that we are Mexican."
He added: "Today, ecological developments are highly profitable. That's why we love ecology."
Many Tepoztecos didn't like the idea. Historically, they're just not all that interested in "progress." They love their valley where burros and horses are still common modes of transportation. They love their village where people eat wild mushrooms, grilled cactus and squash-blossom tacos, as they've done for hundreds of years. If it means losing their beloved way of life, many Tepoztecos really couldn't care less whether the tax base would be raised or 13,000 jobs would be created. "I don't think this is simply about conserving traditions for the sake of conserving them," says Father Filiberto González, the village parish priest. "We need to understand at what point our traditions and our environment make and shape the individual. Our identity."
Another problem was that the Club de Golf was out of their league. Tepoztlán does enjoy the presence of a certain wealthy intellectual class seeking refuge from Mexico City. But for the vast majority of Tepoztecos-the farmers and the working class-the project was something that really could not engage them economically, socially or philosophically. With its gated entrance and high-tech business park, the development was not intended to concern them.
In addition, ecologists in town were aghast at the idea of supporting a golf course, where once there were wildlands, that would swallow 800,000 gallons a day, up to five times Tepoztlán's usual water consumption.
By spring of 1995, friction was building in Morelos, and the Tepoztecos' concerns got good coverage with the liberal press in Mexico City. The PRI, the country's old guard ruling party, had control of the state government, and Governor Jorge Carrillo was graciously smoothing the way for KS to begin construction. But in Tepoztlán thousands marched, and even the city's PRI mayor, Alejandro Morales, promised he'd fight KS and the state all the way. On March 18, 1995, surrounded by thousands of town residents, Morales signed an official statement rejecting the project. Abraham López, a campesino who represented the communal lands of Tepoztlán, also came out against KS.
In late spring, Francisco Kladt brazenly opened offices in Tepoztlán and began a campaign to sell lots and memberships in the Club de Golf for $137,000 US dollars. Alarmed by Kladt's nonchalance in the face of the town's opposition, a group of residents visited mayor "Alex" Morales in August. Some suspected that a deal was afoot between Morales and Governor Carrillo. The residents left reassured that Morales "did not want the Club de Golf plans to go through."
Abruptly, on August 22, Morales and members of the city council produced a "carta de factibilidad" (feasibility study) of the project, which the state government understood as permission to proceed with construction.
But on the morning of August 24th, all hell broke loose.
Several thousand Tepoztecos had had enough. Shocked that their local officials, all old friends and neighbors, had sold them out, they stormed city hall and placed it under siege. They slept in the offices and guarded the steps day and night.
And that was only the beginning.
AN uneasy peace held for a week. Though they were ousted from city hall, the mayor and city council were still in town planning a comeback. Morales blamed the "disagreement" on the leftist PRD party. In the daily La Jornada, the deposed mayor complained that outside PRD agitators had taken over city hall, not the townspeople. The city functionaries were outraged that they had been displaced by a mob; all assumed that the state would soon send in police.
"On Sept 3rd, the [townspeople] met, as usual. They meet on the first Sunday of every month," Nuria Jiménez said. "At eight or nine in the morning they realized that something was up. The riot police were in town, together with PRI people. The people didn't know it [at first], but they had been tricked."
Realizing what was about to happen, someone climbed to the roof of city hall. Bells rang, slamming back and forth riotously, the signal to summon Tepoztlán's citizenry. With thousands rushing to see what was up, there were plenty of eyewitnesses. Most of the participants still won't openly admit to having an active role in the uprising. Speaking out can have consequences, and fear of police reprisal later on causes residents to guard their words.
Lázaro Rodríguez: "They were having a meeting in the house of Abraham López, who was representing the communal lands. This group was called so that the communal landholders would authorize a permit to illegally sell the lands. So the townspeople started gathering when they realized [this]. There they found the state Transportation Director, the municipal PRI president, Diana Ortega, and the Sub-Secretary 'C' of the state government, who should not have been there. It was supposed to be a meeting of comuneros, not the state. And they were guarded by riot police. The granaderos (riot police) just came and stood in the road to provoke the town. Immediately, people came from all directions and chased them out."
José Manuel Medina: "The people outnumbered the granaderos. There were 200 of them, and thousands of us. They were scared to death."
Nuria Jiménez: "The mayor got the hell out of here."
Not everyone at the meeting made it out. Seven of them, the "traitors," were taken prisoner by the furious crowd. "They beat Diana [Ortega]," recalls Nuria sadly. "She was a friend; she wasn't a bad person, but everyone said she had betrayed us."
By the time the sun slid behind the valley's cliffs, barricades had been constructed, 24-hour guards were set up, and the police, the granaderos, the PRI and the whole city government, except for the seven held hostage, were gone.
While the people slept, if they slept, the army and police quickly surrounded the town, but dared not enter. For two days, until the prisoners were released, townspeople hid in their homes, terrified that the granaderos would come storming in at any moment. But they never did.
THE rebels had a name, the Comité de la Unidad de Tepoztlán, (CUT). Disgusted by days of fruitless dialogue with the state, the city hall squatters cut off talks and proceeded to organize their own election for mayor. There were no political parties and no campaign spending was allowed. Candidates were culled from each of Tepoztlán's eight barrios, and on September 24, ballots with photos of the candidates were distributed so that any resident, literate or not, could understand clearly who was running. National and international observers showed up, including two superstars of the left, writer Carlos Monsiváis and actress Ofelia Medina. Lázaro Rodríguez was the clear winner.
"When they elected me," says Lázaro, "I had never taken part in any political party. I wasn't even a registered voter. I came representing a group of ecologists." The Mayor, known fondly as "El Chimpi," groomed himself like he wanted to be the next Emiliano Zapata. Now, he curls his mustache for photographers, and struts through town with a red handkerchief around his neck, a campesino's straw hat on his head.
"All we did was implement Article 39 of the Mexican constitution," says José Manuel Medina, the new Secretary of the city government. Article 39 is brief. It states: "The national sovereignty in its essence and origins resides with the people. At all times, the people have the inalienable right to alter or modify their government." Medina says, beaming. "This is the first time that the law has been used, at least in this spontaneous way."
The new administration was named the "Free, Constitutional and Popular City Council of Tepoztlán." Teens took shifts as guards to maintain town barricades, and women set up a kitchen on city hall steps to feed the volunteers. This new feeling, of being in control of their town, was exhilarating to Tepoztecos. Each day at dusk, Lázaro walked outside to the city hall porch, and waving his hat above his head, announced the day's news to a proud congregation of old men and women, teenagers and merchants. "We took possession without guns, with nothing but pure intelligence," says Lázaro.
Now seen in an international spotlight, the audacious, perhaps mad, determination of the people of Tepoztlán captured the hearts of environmentalists and activists all over. Ralph Nader, along with US representatives of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, signed letters directed to Don A. Hayes, president of GTE Data Services, and to Jack Nicklaus at Golden Bear Course Management, urging them to withdraw from the Club de Golf project.
Nicklaus apparently did not find the letter or the events of Tepoztlán memorable. In a Golf Digest interview with Bruce Selcraig, Jack fumbled, "I was told there was some uprising, but I didn't know. I just don't get in the middle of it."
In late September, the CUT filed a lawsuit against KS and Governor Carrillo for their parts in the "illegal purchase" of communal lands, while negotiations continued with the state of Morelos.
Two sticky points in the talks were the CUT's demand for a definitive closure of the Club de Golf project, and the state's demand that new, open elections be held in which the PRI could participate. Francisco Kladt even proposed that the whole golf project be put up to a voters' referendum. On this, the CUT held stubbornly: there would be no new elections. More elections would mean admitting to the world that their own elections were not valid. Walls of restaurants and homes were sprayed with "No a las elecciones" graffiti.
Though hundreds of arrest warrants were issued for Tepoztlán's rebels, no one could be hauled in as long as the offenders stayed safely inside town behind the handmade barricades. The police were surreally kept at bay, in part because of the attention the press and the nation's intellectuals were giving the situation.
There was no clear reason why the army didn't just roll in and massacre the infidels. A transparent barrier seemed to repel the violent forces outside. This was all seen naturally as part of the Tepoztlán enigma, the mystery that attracts the New Agers. It was the latest parable of the Sacred Valley.
Spirits soared. "We built our own democracy here," says resident Leticia Moctezuma. Lázaro and the CUT had organized the town, and a little income enabled volunteers to paint and spruce up the town plaza. Funds were collected from public bathroom fees, market space rental and small donations from visitors. Interestingly, very little crime occurred now that the police were banished. Farmers and grandmothers spoke out in town assemblies for the first time, and a sense of control over their destiny grew. Campesinos were confident that Kladt and his Club de Golf would soon surrender.
"In November, things kind of went back to normal," says Nuria. "The feast of los muertos [Day of the Dead] is well known here. It's a very intimate holiday. We commune with our deceased ones, and we tried to spend those days in peace."
The peace of November would give way to December blood. Before New Year's Eve, one man, Alex Morales's brother, would be killed. Two taxi drivers would be in jail, and on January 18, a beloved teacher would be arrested outside of town. Though hundreds of witnesses could testify to their innocence and alibis, the men would be charged with murder.
Soon the the incarceration of the three would come to be seen as the state's best and most brilliant move. To many, it was clear that the taxi drivers and and the teacher had become helpless hostages, to be held by the state until Tepoztlán gave in.
The Morelos government, exasperated by its capricious child's games, began to play hardball.
Continued next issue.
Or read the text of part two.
Back to El Andar contents.
"Today, ecological developments are highly profitable. That's why we love ecology."
Club de Golf Vice President José de los Ríos
México 1996: Related photo essay by Janjaap Dekker
Seven "traitors" were taken prisoner by the furious crowd. "They beat Diana Ortega," recalls Nuria sadly. "She was a friend, but everyone said she had betrayed us."