By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
At Cañon Buenavista, Sandoval first got into trouble with the state authorities when he began telling residents not to make payments on their lots. He had discovered that in 1973 the federal government declared that tens of thousands of hectares in northern Baja, including the land Cañon Buenavista sits on, were government property. Sandoval appealed to the government to clarify who really owned the land. Under the constitution before the mid-1990s, Mexican citizens would have been entitled to settle and build homes on unused federal property.
Sandoval's payment boycott received a lot of support because Immobiliaria Estatal has developed a nasty reputation in Baja's poor barrios. With every increase in inflation, the state agency has raised the monthly mortgage payments and even retroactively increased the loan amount owed by farm workers who are buying their land. Thus, the cost of a farm worker's lot keeps going up, even though the original purchase agreement was for a lower price. Many families never get out of debt. But if Cañon Buenavista land belonged to the federal government, residents wouldn't have to make payments.
The ownership issue remains unresolved. This is typical for land claims in Mexico, where agrarian-reform laws were used to redistribute land to poor farmers for decades, but where multiple owners now often claim the same piece of property.
THAT CONFUSION WAS THE PRETEXT used to imprison Beatriz Chavez.
In the San Quintin Valley, four hours south of Tijuana, indigenous farm workers began settling on land belonging to the Ejido Graciano Sanchez in the early 1990s. Ejidosare farm communities, originally set up by Mexico's land reforms of the late 1930s. During that era, President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated the haciendas belonging to large landholders, creating ejidosof small farmers who then held the land in common.
All that changed in 1992, when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, changed Article 27 of the constitution. He privatized the ejidoland, making it the property of individual families, who could then buy and sell it.
In Graciano Sanchez, where Oaxacan migrants were desperate for land to settle and build homes, the ejidobegan selling lots for houses. The same lot was often sold to two and even three different people. No services of light or water were provided.
Chavez organized the residents. "I urged people who had receipts for a lot to occupy other pieces of land. That was my crime," she recalls. "We occupied the land on December 7, 1997, and set up a tent encampment." Police dragged Chavez away from a sit-in at a government office, beat her and jailed her. Her spine was injured, requiring surgery.
Over the next two years, she organized residents to force authorities to give them electricity and water connections. Meanwhile, the fight over conflicting claims of ownership was suspended, and residents thought the government would eventually negotiate a solution. In May of last year, however, state police swooped down on the community and arrested Chavez again. This time, instead of spending just a few days in jail, authorities charged her with despojo agravadoand have held her without bail ever since.
The pressure of land hunger in Baja grows every year, as more families migrate from the south. Sandoval, a Triqui, was especially interested in finding more land for Mixtec and Triqui farm workers. In May of 2000, he led landless migrants in Maneadero in taking direct action to find a place to build homes.
Esther Murrillo was part of a group of 20 families who occupied 78 hectares in the hills surrounding Cañon Buenavista. They chose May 1, the international workers' holiday still celebrated in Mexico, as the day for their action.
"There were only 30 of us at first, and the police surrounded us," she remembers. "They said they were going to burn the houses we built, but 20 of us stayed up and watched all night. We had our children inside, and we were afraid of what might happen to them. But we were all calm, and wouldn't move, so there were no physical confrontations. At first there were 40 houses, and a week later, 50. Now there are about 500. But for a long time the police kept coming every night to scare us."
As a result of the new land invasion, Cañon Buenavista's total population grew to 2,700 families -- about 10,000 people. Fourteen hundred families live in the older section, about 40 percent of whom are indigenous. Of the 1,300 families in the new settlement, however, 1,000 come from Mixtec and Triqui towns in Oaxaca.
Murrillo took part in the invasion because, making 50 to 70 pesos ($5 to $7) a day in the fields and working only during the harvest season, she had no money to pay rent or buy land. "We're poor. So what should we do?" she asks. Once they occupied the land, however, Murrillo and her fellow residents were in for a surprise. "This was just a hillside covered with weeds, full of snakes and tarantulas, and we cleaned it all up," she says. "But then, after we'd done the work, a lot of supposed owners suddenly appeared."
Before 1994, there is no public record of any private owners. That year, however, the highly politicized Baja California labor board transferred the land to Pedro Corral Castro from his brother. No evidence was ever presented that his brother actually owned the land. Corral then offered it to people associated with the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). After Sandoval and other residents occupied the 78 hectares, those associates then asked authorities to charge Sandoval with despojoand despojo agravado.
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