By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Julio Sandoval, who is represented by a lawyer from the National Indigenous Institute, was first arrested in May of 2000, not long after the occupation. That time he was held for four days. Then, on December 11, 2001, the police came again. "They surrounded our house at 11 p.m.," says Florentina. "Then they came inside, at first saying they were chasing a robber, and then saying they were inspecting the pipes. But they had rifles at the ready." They found Sandoval sitting in his house, and took him in for good this time. Arrest warrants are still out for 17 others, including his son, but authorities are making little effort to pick them up.
One respected scholar believes the Baja government is manipulating different parts of its political opposition against one another -- in this case, the PRD and the indigenous group led by Julio Sandoval, said Tiburcio Perez-Castro, professor of education at the National Pedagogical University (the first Mixtec to hold that position).
THERE ARE POWERFUL REASONS WHY THE Baja California government rules with such a hard hand. As usual, the main one is money.
Until the 1960s, Baja California Norte was a desert state with a small population. The federal government of the 1930s and '40s even gave away land to get people to come and settle, fearing that a low population would tempt the U.S. government to lay claim to it. But in the wake of the end of the bracero program in 1964, maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories) began to proliferate in Tijuana, eventually drawing hundreds of thousands of workers up to the border.
Farther south down the peninsula, in Maneadero and San Quintin, a tiny handful of large growers developed an agro-industrial empire supplying the U.S. market -- maquiladoras of the fields. To bring in their crops, thousands of workers were brought every year from extremely poor indigenous communities in Oaxaca. Wages were kept low to make Baja's strawberries and tomatoes cheaper in L.A. supermarkets. Two years ago, the minimum wage was 37.4 pesos a day (about $4), while a kilo of meat cost 38 pesos in the local market. Wages have barely risen since.
At first, Mixtec and Triqui families returned to Oaxaca at the end of each harvest season, but as years passed, many decided to stay. As the permanent population grew, so did discontent. In 1988, more than a thousand tomato and strawberry pickers struck in San Quintin to raise wages. Big ranchers broke their efforts to form an independent union, however, and the strike's leaders fled to the U.S. In 1998, one local grower, the Canelos family, failed to pay workers for four weeks, and an angry crowd of pickers set fire to their packing shed.
Growers and maquiladora owners, the two most powerful groups in the state, have the same fear and share the same desire. They fear social unrest and want to protect property rights and maintain a climate that encourages investment. When they see land invasions led by indigenous farm workers, they worry not just about the sanctity of property rights on a desert hillside, but that these social movements, if they're not stopped, could easily begin leading to strikes and the forming of unions.
The National Action Party (PAN), which won control in Baja California in 1988, has formed a ruling political coalition of large ranchers, maquiladora owners and company-friendly unions. The same party elected Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, in 2000. While condemning the old PRI party, which ruled Mexico undemocratically for 70 years, the PAN has been even more pro-business.
In the middle of this conflict is a unique institution -- the Baja California Human Rights Prosecutor, created in the democratic upsurge that eventually toppled the former ruling party from power in Baja California. Raul Ramirez, the current prosecutor, was a member of the left opposition PRD until his appointment.
Ramirez faults the government's desire to protect investment above all else as the root of the land conflicts. "The authorities don't care about the poverty of these communities [like Cañon Buenavista], or their social problems like lack of housing or drug addiction. But they are very concerned with the question of the land titles of the large landholders. They want to take care of their investments. So the government uses the law, the police, even the army. They say this provides safety and stability for investors. And they abandon the poor."
Professor Perez-Castro accuses the government of enforcing only those provisions of the law that protect private property. "There's a law guaranteeing people the right to health care, but no one has any," he notes bitterly. "There's a law which protects the right to food, but thousands of people go hungry every day." The Mexican Constitution recognizes the right to housing as well.
The social cost of this policy -- children in the fields -- can be found in Maneadero and San Quintin fields on any given day during the harvest season, says Ramirez. Whole families work together -- children cutting vegetables alongside the adults. Felix, a 12-year-old boy picking cilantro in Maneadero in June, said his parents were making about 70 pesos a day, while he was bringing home half that. "We can't live if we all don't work," he said, in the tone of someone explaining the obvious.