"Work on the big ranches affects children's development," Ramirez counters. "They don't go to school. There are no health services for them. They're exposed to the weather and to chemicals. And the purpose is the exploitation of their labor by ranchers who profit from it. It violates their right to a childhood, their labor rights, their social rights -- everything we value."
Chavez and Sandoval, the jailed activists, see racism in the way indigenous people from the Mixtec and Triqui towns of Oaxaca, who make up the rural work force throughout Baja California, are treated. The state power structure, they say, permits abuses because it sees them as inferior, and targets them for prosecution when they become a threat. "It's a racist attitude," Chavez declares.
Sandoval and Chavez's problem, says Ramirez, is that they just won't shut up about it. "Because they're both leaders who create a lot of noise, the easiest thing for the government is to throw them in jail. Instead of negotiating a solution, they use the police." In Chavez's case especially, the initiative to prosecute seems to come from the government itself. In her hearing before the judge, none of the landowners bringing charges even showed up. "Who's accusing me of taking their land?" she asks. "If there's no accuser, then I shouldn't be going to prison."
Ramirez, the human-rights prosecutor, is sympathetic to Sandoval and Chavez, but while he has the power to investigate and make recommendations, Ramirez has no formal power to press charges or dismiss them.
So in the end, the rule of law itself is in question in Baja California, according to Perez-Castro, "at least insofar as it protects people, especially the poor, in the enforcement of their rights. They pass laws to protect the maquiladoras, so the rule of law exists in that sense," he admits. "But there is a danger to social stability, because it's so one-sided. It's not just indigenous people who suffer from lack of legal protection. Workers do too, and even the middle classes."
For Julio Sandoval, it's even simpler. "They're not looking at the law. They're afraid of us, and all they can do is put us in jail. It's vengeance."
WEB EXTRA: David Bacon describes how activist workers, with the help of Southern California labor unions, are challenging Mexico's economic elite, with mixed results.