Women from South Africa, Mexico and the United States worked with wire cutters to dismantle layer after layer of barricade. On one side, trying to get through, were thousands of protestors. Some armed themselves with sticks and shopping carts (liberated from the Cancun Wal-Mart) full of rocks, bottles and other handy projectiles. Some held a rope to pull the barricade down. Some played musical instruments. Some sat in palm trees reporting on the event for independent media outlets around the globe.
The steel barricade kept the thousands from marching far up the road to the Convention Center in Cancun, where the World Trade Organization, with representatives from 148 nations, met behind closed doors in an effort to craft homogenous rules for global trade.
This secrecy, this lack of transparency, is one of many issues the protesters--dubbed "global-phobics" by the Mexican press--have with the WTO. Inequity between participating countries is another.
Welcome to Cancun.
Remember 1999 in Seattle? Riots? Police brutality? Some 50,000 protesters who shut down world trade negotiations? That was the WTO's third round of talks. Its fourth was held quietly in Doha, Qatar, on an isolated island. Cancun was a chance, protest organizers hoped, to send a reminder to folks around the world that WTO-style globalization wasn't working.
While it may be possible to create some sort of fair trade system--a democratic, equitable, transparent and ecological sustainable world economy--the WTO isn't even close, say critics.
The World Bank has estimated that a trade pact between nations could contribute some $520 billion to the global economy by 2015 and bring 144 million people out of poverty. But globalization foes note that, so far, increased global trade has only led to an expanding gap between rich and poor.
"If globalization was going to help the poor, the last 20 years of very rapid globalization should have made everyone rich by now," states a report prepared by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. "But, as globalization accelerates, the benefits are not trickling down to the poor, but up--to the wealthiest people on Earth."
That was the message. But far fewer protesters showed up in Cancun Sept. 10-14 for the WTO talks than the 50,000 or more expected by police.
And, unlike in Seattle, protesters couldn't take their message to the buildings where the WTO met. Meetings for delegates, staff and accredited members of non-governmental organizations took place in Cancun's zona hoteleria, a strip of high-rise, high-end motels utilized mostly by Western tourists. Between the white sand beaches and immaculate golf courses are shopping centers and malls. Subway, McDonald's and the Outback Steakhouse. Planet Hollywood. The Tycoon Store.
The geography of the coastal area--a long peninsula that connects to land on both ends and encloses a picturesque blue lagoon--couldn't have been better suited to security purposes. Activists couldn't get more than a couple dozen protesters within six or seven kilometers of the Convention Center. A barricade separated the excluded from included.
And even if the protesters had gotten through the fence, they would have had to face some 5,000 policemen: locals, hired hands and officers of the Mexican federal police. Truckloads of police patrolled the city. Vehicles going into the hotel zone were stopped and searched.
On the horizon, silhouettes of battleships were visible not far from shore. A person might have gotten the idea that these protesters were armed with something more than chain-store shopping carts filled with rocks and sticks, some handmade banners and plenty of spray paint.
Maybe. A downtown Pizza Hut window was smashed early in the week. By mid-week, many businesses were using plywood to protect their storefronts.
There are only two ways onto the single road that snakes amongst the beach resorts. Only one could be reached by protesters marching on foot in a single day. And that's blocked by cops and a tall, red fence.
"They chose this strategy: barricades, tanks and battleships," said Lesley Adams, 26, of Ashland, Ore. "They're protecting their castle. And people are getting pissed."
Though WTO talks are not held openly, Adams followed this round's goings-on closely.
"The Third World is trying its best not to be bullied. (The WTO) is falling apart on the inside, and we on the outside support that."
In fact, by opening day of the ministerial, several developing nations, including many Latin American and Asian countries, agreed to unite in demands for fair trade policies. By Sunday, the rebel group had grown to more than 20 nations and was calling itself the Group of 21, a nod to the powerful G-8 superpowers from the United States and Europe.
That was all that activists, who'd been planning trips to Cancun for months, could have asked for. They'd flown here from South Korea and Switzerland and Africa. They'd hitchhiked down from Canada. One van carrying more than 20 computers to be used for an IndyMedia Cancun Web site (published by activists) was stopped on the road to Cancun. The computers were confiscated by officials. More were donated.
Early in the week, activists from Food Not Bombs passed out a free meal in front of the Ritz Carlton. Others stripped down and spelled out the words, "No WTO" in the sand.
Nudity sells. The media showed up.
But still, stories weren't making the front page of newspapers. Acts of protest went unnoticed. Busloads of Mexican students and farmers, campesinos (10,000 by some accounts), arrived in town Tuesday and marched through the city to the blockade in front of the zona hoteleria. A few protesters broke apart cement blocks and threw them at the police, who responded by throwing the cement chunks back at protesters. The most devastating moment was the suicide of a South Korean farmer, Lee Kyung Hae, whose livelihood had been ruined by the effects of corporate-friendly world trade.
Even the suicide ended up buried on the back pages of many far-away newspapers.
"That man felt like taking his life was something he needed to do to reach a group that doesn't allow him to participate," Adams said. "Honestly, when I came down here, I was emotionally prepared to have the police kill one of us. Someone committing suicide was not an idea I had in my head."
She understood what Lee was trying to accomplish.
"It's because of the system," she said. "He was just trying to make it real, but the media here are glossing over it. ... People die every day from our country's domination and oppression. It's shocking."
FROM THE outside, the Indy-Media Cancun office doesn't look like the home of a sophisticated computer network where independent media activists put out a Web site that was getting heavy traffic. There were more than 10,000 hits on most days last week.
There's a brown cardboard sign for Comida No Bombas on a cyclone fence around the yard. The windows are covered. Two Mexican students guard the entrance.
Before noon, an activist called Almond popped into the IndyMedia Cancun with a story. Almond is a Northern California tree-sitter affiliated with Earth First and other environmental groups.
That morning, he said, several activists had infiltrated the zona hoteleria for covert ops. He reported this news to Soña Angelica, an activist with Indymedia Tucson, who arrived in Cancun well before the WTO talks began to help with the independent media project here.
At 2 a.m., Almond told Angelica, he and others left downtown Cancun with barely enough money for a cab. Using donated climbing gear, the group ascended to the top of an unfinished high-rise across from the Conference Center. There, they hung a huge banner--about 50 feet wide and 30 feet tall, Almond said--on which they'd painted a Spanish slogan that translates to, "Get them all out!"
"And they're going to have to let it hang there," he said. "They can't get it down. We just got the front page of every newspaper in the world!"
The latter turned out not to be true.
When she's in Cancun working relentlessly to keep the Indymedia Web site up to date, Angelica works with a nonprofit environmental group in Tucson.
One day, during the middle of the ministerial, I met with Angelica at the Indymedia Center. Her long hair was neatly braided. She wore a T-shirt that said: "My heroes have always killed cowboys."
During the height of actions, it took several teams of media activists working round the clock nonstop to keep the world informed about actions in Cancun.
"There's a lot going on," she said. "It's overwhelming."
The upside to independent journalism is that anyone can be reporter or photographer or post an audio clip to the IndyMedia sites. Dissatisfied with bland, meaningless corporate media? Do it yourself. Write your own stories. Make a video. Publish online at the IndyMedia Web site.
"Don't just hate the media because it misrepresents the issues you care about," Angelica said, inferring that people should do more and get involved. "That's really the crux of it."
She spent most of Thursday night editing a video of Tuesday's march.
"I stood in one place and let the entire crowd march past," she said. "I added some music, some dissolves. I wanted to give a sense of the number of people. It was a huge group."
PERHAPS THE LARGEST SINGLE protest on the parts of the many anti-globalization groups who traveled to Cancun was a march on Sept. 13 from downtown Cancun to Ground Zero, the main barricade into the hotel zone.
At the Parque de Palapas, where activists camped out under giant tarps, the Zapatistas, anti-imperialists, anarchists and Maoists (among others) prepared to march to join more groups. They'd decided, after much debate, to bring shopping carts full of projectiles--sticks, rocks and bottles.
Some activists speculated that violence may be the only way to get the attention of the mainstream media and the outside world.
"That's the postmodern protest dilemma," said Dan Gingold, a 24-year-old from Nevada. "You're a protester, but in a way you're also--I don't want to say pandering--but you are in a way. That has a strange air to it."
Gingold and his friend, Aaron Buskirk, 22, of Ohio, camped in the park with the groups of Mexican university students.
Gingold, who has a bachelor's degree in Spanish, spent several weeks living with Zapatistas on a community farm in southern Mexico.
While marching to the barricade, activists painted over the corporate logos on yellow road-side umbrellas. They wrote "Fuck the WTO" along the curbs and climbed up sign posts to put anarchy signs over street names. One slogan spray painted on a wall: "Make of this action a creation not a reaction."
The march came to another a halt. A group of women linked arms across the road. Long ropes were draped in the middle of the road. The barricades would be cut, then pulled away with the ropes.
Buskirk considered arming himself with a stick from the jungle alongside the road.
"I'm not planning on hitting anyone," he said. "It's just for protection."
Gingold replied: "I don't know, dude. The ones with the sticks will be the ones they go after first."
Women armed with wire cutters climbed the fence, and the dismantling began.
It took almost two hours to cut through the layers heavy-duty reinforced steel cyclone fence barricade.
Cops from the hoteleria side of the fence poked the women through the fence as the work progresses. Gingold and Buskirk volunteered to pull rope.
The workers were hot and thirsty. A cry went out for water at the front. A shopping cart full of water pouches rolled in and was emptied within seconds.
One of the women, taking a break, wandered back into the crowd. She pulled off a thick leather glove to wipe sweat from her face.
"I need some serious fucking manpower at the front," she told a friend.
TV cameras lined the edges of the protest. Someone pointed out birds circling in the sky.
"Did you imagine there'd be vultures?" someone asked.
"Let's pretend they're condors," another said.
A group of South African women who'd been inside the "cage"--cutting fence from between layers of barricade--took a break and noted my taking of notes.
"Don't forget to write that 'Africa is not for sale,'" said Donna Andrews, 28, as she panted in the shade of a palm tree. Andrews, with the African People's Caucus, said cutting the barricade was a meaningful act in itself.
"The symbolism of hacking the gate is that the WTO must go," she said. "It's undemocratic."
In South Africa, trade liberalization hit the working class hard, she said, as tariffs fail to discourage foreign imports, or goods often created with the help of huge government subsidies on behalf of, say, the United States or Europe. This kind of subsidy makes it nearly impossible for domestic companies to put out a competitive product. That puts South African companies out of business.
"Working-class women are losing jobs," Andrews said. In addition, the country sorely needs to be able to manufacture its own drugs to fight an epidemic of AIDS. Andrews doesn't think the WTO's much-publicized pharmaceutical maneuvering will help that situation.
"We will be unable to produce essential drugs," she said.
And it's not like working class women or AIDS patients will ever have a way to appeal to the WTO, an inaccessible, non-elected instrument of corporate globalization.
"Africa is a place for them to make money while we are dying," she said.
The last of the gate came down. Many were ready to rush into the waiting rows of police.
Some shouted for "Guerra!"
Others cried for peace, for a violence-free end to the day's actions.
A chant of "Lee! Lee! Lee!" began, in memory of Lee Kyung Hae, who'd died wearing a sign around his neck: "The WTO kills farmers."
The chant sounded so much like "Peace! Peace! Peace!" that several people were unknowingly chanting the latter harmoniously.
There was no rush to the gate. Instead, calm descended. A voice from the front declared: "Today's action is over."
Protesters were invited to sit down while a group of Korean activists come forward to honor the memory of Hae with speeches and flowers.
"Today we have shown the power we have when we are united," said a speaker. The crowd cheered.
A few disappointed activists began harvesting the metal barricades from the jungle's edge.
Buskirk ripped duct tape from his cardboard arm guard.
"Why did they have to pull the fence down if they're not going to go in?" he asked his friend.
"It's symbolism," Gingold answered. "Tomorrow, everyone's going to take down their tents and go home."
BY THE MINISTERIAL'S END on Sunday, it was clear to most that the WTO's Cancun talks had failed. The G-21 walked out on the meetings, citing unsatisfactory offers on behalf of wealthy nations to deal with such issues as agricultural subsidies.
An African media source called the conference "doomed," but added that the developing countries had found power in "flexing its new-found muscles."
The message so important to the global-phobics--the ideal on which Lee Kyong Hae spent his life--was finally reaching the people who needed to hear it.
The slogan chanted all day Saturday hung in the air.
"The people united will never be defeated."