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Build a House, Go to Jail

Photos by David Bacon

MANEADERO, BAJA CALIFORNIA -- Every morning, the phone rings in the Sandoval house in Ca�on Buenavista. Julio Sandoval is making his daily call from the prison in Ensenada, 20 miles away, where he has been held since December.

His adult daughter Florentina sits at a cable-spool table talking to her dad, while Julio's toddler grandson Jonathan practices his new skill of walking on the dirt floor. Over the phone, Julio gives his daughter instructions to pass on to his lawyer, and Florentina tells him the news from home.

Meanwhile, Julio's wife, Juana, heats tortillas on a stove set up on cinder blocks, connected by a rubber hose to a big methane bottle the family has to fill twice a month. The one-room house, dim even at midday, is divided down the middle by a yellow blanket, screening off the area where the family sleeps.

The Sandoval residence, built of plywood, is better than many in Ca�on Buenavista. "Some of us live in cardboard houses, and cook on wood fires, a very dangerous combination," Julio notes in an interview over his home phone, in a call arranged by the family. An exterior wall of his own house still shows charred marks from a fire that burned down the home next door.

These poverty-stricken residences scattered over a desert hillside hardly seem much of a threat to anyone, yet they are the reason that Julio Sandoval has been in prison for nine months, for helping migrant workers in Baja California settle in homes like these. Another housing activist, Beatriz Chavez, a well-known leader of similar efforts farther south down the Baja peninsula, has been in prison since May of 2001.

Their crime is an offense unique to Baja -- despojo agravado. Despojo, according to Tijuana attorney Jose Pe�aflor, "means using land or water belonging to someone else, without their authorization, in a furtive manner." This offense is on the books throughout Mexico. But in Baja the legislature created a new, more serious charge a few years ago -- despojo agravado -- the crime of leading or instigating others in committing despojo. Families husk tomatillos in Ca�on Buenavista, an �illegal� community created by a land invasion.

The law is directed against communities created by land invasions, and especially at the people who lead them. It's really a political offense. "The government is afraid of the poor sections of the population, especially the migrant indigenous people from Oaxaca, and wants control over them," said Beatriz Chavez, over the phone from the Cereso prison. "They think their only way to ensure control is by throwing the leaders of social movements among them into prison."

For months the two cases have wound slowly through the state's court system, and Chavez and Sandoval now await sentencing. Rumor has it that the judge is preparing to give them five years apiece. Baja California authorities wouldn't permit a reporter to enter prison facilities to talk to the jailed activists, nor would they make any public statements themselves.

THOUSANDS OF INDIGENOUS FAMILIES come north every year from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to work for Baja's large landowners. Families like the Castanedas and the Caneloses own thousands of hectares of land, and form partnerships with U.S. corporations to grow and export tomatoes, strawberries and other row crops. In the late fall and early spring, almost all the cilantro and green onions in Los Angeles supermarkets come from the Baja communities of Maneadero, San Quintin and the Mexicali Valley. Family portrait: Grandson Jonathan, wife Juana and daughter Florentina with baby in Julio Sandoval�s one- room house.

Most Oaxacan migrants remain farm workers, although some families, like Sandoval's, have taken a step up from the fields, selling goods to tourists on the street. It's easier, year-round work, with a higher income. Every day, after the morning call from prison, Sandoval's wife and daughter pack Florentina's three kids into an old pickup and leave for Ensenada. There they spend the day in front of waterfront fish-taco stands, selling tourists the wool shoulder bags Juana weaves at night, and jewelry and craftware made by neighbors. Before his imprisonment, Julio Sandoval made his living in the street as well.

Ca�on Buenavista was created in two separate land invasions by rural workers from the ranches of Maneadero, the agricultural valley just south of Ensenada. The first was led by Benito Garcia, a charismatic, controversial figure, who led agricultural strikes two decades ago, but was accused later of misusing money and power. In the 1980s, he organized farm workers in the Maneadero Valley, who were then as now living in labor camps or even sleeping by the roadside, to occupy 50 hectares on a desert hillside south of town.  

The state government bought out the supposed landowners, many of whom had questionable claims to title, and then resold the land to the occupiers through an agency called the Immobiliaria Estatal. Julio Sandoval arrived in Ca�on Buenavista in 1990 and built a home for his family. Sandoval had led a similar land invasion in San Quintin to organize a community of Triqui farm workers.

At Ca�on 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 Ca�on 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 Ca�on 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. Ejidos are 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 ejidos of 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 ejido land, 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 ejido began 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 agravado and 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 Ca�on 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, Ca�on 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 despojo and despojo agravado.

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 Ca�on 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.

"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.

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