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The Latest Flower Wars

12 May 2006

In Mexico nothing really ever disappears. You can raze the temples, burn the idols and the people just change the god’s names, maybe a few inessential rituals and carry on. Tzotzin, Virgin of Guadalupe — the same protective mother of us all. The gods themselves may go underground, they never disappear.

Tezacatlapolca, “Lord Smoking Mirror”, the god of reality (or, as I prefer — “he who fucks with your head”) is very much alive. In the official canon of Aztec theology, laid down by Tlacael(ca. 1395 – 1492), Teza was only #3 in the Trinity. Tlacael was the Dick Cheney of Aztecdom: never himself the ruler, he was the mastermind behind doctrines and practices that created the Aztec hegonomy in the 15th century. Cheney, thankfully, will be gone soon — Tlacael was too sinister to die easily. Among other innovations, he created that offical canon, requiring massive human sacrifices to the gods.


The Flower Wars were not at all “inefficient” when it came to weilding power, but a very effective way to maintain that hegonomy. Ritual battles (with real, not ritual blood) were set up not so much to contain warfare, but to drain the client states of their means of resistance. The point was for the Aztecs to win, take prisoners — and rip their hearts out on the altars. Romantics always claim the warriors went willingly. I’m not sure… the information came from surviving Aztec rulers (no one ever thought to ask the campesinos their opinion) and Tlacael was smart enough to change the school curriculum to make his theology official state policy.

The ruling classes in the lesser states were paid off behind the scenes (literally — they feasted behind screens and received their feather cloaks and cocoa beans during the spectacle)as their ability to resist was coopted by the Imperialists.

Once Tlacael was finally gone for good (like Cheney, he’s too mean to die, but he apparently had a strong heart, and lasted into his late 90s), resistance was not completely futile. Nezapilli of Texcoco exposed the whole rotten system for what it was when he took his bribes, but let his warriors win.

That was then… this is now. The ruling classes still manipulate the people. There are those who see PRI as the modern Tlacael. They’re still around, but no longer able to pull all the strings. Not that it matters — PAN, PRI — the elites adjust to the new dispensation as well as the Aztecs adjusted to Christianity (change the name and some rituals, tone down the bloodletting and life goes on). The rituals simply change.

First, the people protest. WHEN it threatens the power elite, the modern warriors (the police) stage a bloody show of taking prisoners. Preferably foreigners — though outsiders of any kind will do — are “sacrificed”. The foreigners, with great fanfare are deported. The outsiders are blamed in the official press. And, just maybe, there are a few Nezapillis out there.

This Houston Chronicle editorial lays out the facts of our latest Flower War. I’ll be back with “the rest of the story.”

THEY were only humble street vendors, selling flowers on the sidewalk near the market. So when the government of Texcoco, Mexico, made them move, the vendors’ ire was perhaps understandable.

Harder to understand is how their subsequent protest became a bloodbath in which first policemen, then peasants were beaten by mobs.

Since last week, when Spanish-language television aired extensive, horrifying footage of the violence, Mexicans have been trying to work out where this event fits in a country in which political violence has faded. The short answer may lie in nearby Mexico City, where 1990s rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos arrived for a May 1 march that may have inspired the vendors and their friends to riot.

The longer answer may lie within Mexico’s still-aborning democracy, where citizen protest and government response sometimes fall outside the rule of law.

San Salvador Atenco, the town where the rioting erupted, has been in the news before. Five years ago, President Vicente Fox tried to build a badly needed airport there. Local land rights activists resisted violently, and Fox’s government retreated. Now Atenco is ruled by members of the same rebel group — which has fueled ridicule of Fox by his political rivals.

Last Wednesday, state police ousted eight of Atenco’s freelance flower sellers from their accustomed spot. The vendors had been notified of the move weeks before, ignored the warning and turned for help to the local land rights activists. Mayhem erupted.

As TV news cameras rolled, peasants blocked the highway and bludgeoned a policeman insensible. Other police were taken hostage. A 14-year-old boy died in gunfire. The next day, thousands of state and federal police flooded the town, seeking the missing lawmen and savagely clubbing locals.

In Mexico City, commentators aim suspicion for the chaos both at rebel leader Marcos and at Fox’s government. Marcos’ Zapatista uprising in 1994 played a key role in Fox’s election, which ended seven decades of one-party rule. Since then, the publicity-craving Marcos has fallen into Mexico’s political margins. Though he has been coy about it, Marcos is thought by many to have encouraged Atenco’s militants to rise up against the state police.

Mexico’s federal and state governments also have reasons for wanting to be seen as tough guys. As Mexico enters the home stretch of a presidential election, both Fox’s National Action Party and Mexico State’s PRI party must play hardball to counter the humiliation from the airport debacle. Certainly, neither level of government inspired any professionalism or restraint from its police forces.

Five hundred years ago, the Aztecs planned and staged Flower Wars (an allusion to the bloody wounds) in which warriors and prisoners fought or were sacrificed. Anthropologists say the bloody posturing was meant to show the Aztecs’ political control. It was an inefficient way of wielding power then. It remains so now.

Thankfully, the mindless political bloodshed in San Salvador Atenco is atypical of today’s gradually democratizing Mexico. It’s an unwelcome remnant of a rejected past.

I’m dubious how much credit, or blame to give “Marcos”. Rafael Gullen certainly is the foreign press’ favorite Zapatista, but then, the Zapatistas — and Marcos — always have had their own agenda. If they aren’t manipulated by PAN, then they certainly are a boon to the conservatives (and, for complicated reasons I’ll post later, I argue that the Zapatistas are a reactionary movement). While thankfully the modernists recognize that they can live with any government, there is a feeling (egged on by the TV networks and conservative press) that the “Alliance for the People” (PRD-PT-Convergencia) administration is the “end of the world as we know it”. Lopez Obrador is hardly a radical, but he is a threat to the same old-same old way of doing business in Mexico. At any rate, the good part of the elites sense danger.

So… take your typical market dispute (and, in the State of Mexico, market disputes can get very nasty indeed — especially as the poorer people get steamrolled by the new wealth and “global forces” rolling in from the Federal District) and the ritual police overreaction. One dead, a few Colombians and others publically deported, and … shift the blame to Lopez Obrador. Or, even better, bring in Marcos. Lopez Obrador has been down in the polls, but why risk it? Even though the Zapatistas have always prefered dealing with the conservative PAN politicans, and even though Marcos is contemptous of the PRD (claiming it’s not left enough) the conservatives have a vested interest in making any violence during the campaign season “leftist violence”.

I don’t know if the traditional highway blockade that follows these ritual sacrifices are simply more of the spectacle or the beginning of a Nezapilli-type reaction to the latest Flower War. Or, if disturbances at a PAN rally by bottle throwing PRD supporters in Tabasco (Reuters, 11 May 2006, “Leftists throw bottles at Mexico frontrunner rally”) is either.

I DO know that behind the scenes, PRI and PAN have brought in foreign “spin doctors” to manipulate the elections. I also know that AMLO has turned these ritual blood-letting spectacles around, and gives the new Aztecs something to really worry about.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. jonathan schoch permalink
    20 August 2008 3:33 pm

    I wonder where you find info on the flowery wars. I wondered if the people were told that the war was limited to just enough sacrifices.. then I wondered if the people were happy to eat the victims or just happy not to have been the victims.
    and then I went on to think about why people like snuff TV ..
    train wrecks and floods and wars..is it the effigy principle..their suffering will be subtracted from mine. art is full of violence..it is our impending doom..? or is it boredom?
    spectator life.
    rage at emptiness?
    what do you think is the origin of the honorific title:SNAKE WOMAN..?

  2. 15 October 2008 9:25 pm

    Very interesting, thank you.

  3. shaun permalink
    22 June 2009 3:34 am

    am inspired. thank you.

    S

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