SQUATTING, REPRESSION AND RESISTANCE: THE CRIMINAL CODE AND THE STRUGGLE FOR LAND IN BAJA CALIFORNIA
April 13th marks the 14th anniversary of the Maclovio Rojas community in Tijuana. This year the celebration is tainted by threats of repression that affect not only the leaders of Maclovio Rojas, but also other social
movements in Baja California.
Several organizations are proposing the creation of a coalition against repression. The following document seeks to raise awareness about the issue and support the creation of this coalition.
Tijuana, Baja California, April 10, 2002.
Recently, the inhabitants of the famous colonia Maclovio Rojas received some terrible news: the state government had once again issued an arrest warrant for the community's well-known organizer, Hortensia Hernandez. She was charged with despojo, or illegal land occupation. Some months earlier, police arrested Julio Sandoval, another recognized organizer and member of the colonia CaOUn Buenavista, near Ensenada (December, 2001).
The state prosecutors charged Julio Sandoval with the crime of "illegal land occupation and inciting others to illegally occupy land," considered within Baja California's criminal code as a much more serious crime than a simple charge of land occupation.
And several months before that, the police imprisoned Beatriz Chavez, representative of an ejido (communal farm) called Graciano Sanchez in San QuintIn, about 150 miles south of Tijuana. She was also charged with the vague crime of "inciting" despojo (May, 2001).
It appears that the charges of despojo and incitement have become the weapons of choice for the conservative PAN party government of Baja California in their efforts to "solve" the exploding social conflicts
within the state, a situation created by the overwhelming absence of housing. What's more, the government is using these charges as a means of punishing poor community residents for taking into their own hands the task of finding a place to live. The population of Baja California has grown explosively for decades, engendering serious land conflicts.
Maquiladora owners, land speculators and development companies confront poor immigrants, many of them indigenous peoples from the south of Mexico, expelled by the impoverishment of their fields and attracted by the mirage of the border's prosperity. They are attracted to Baja California, but they are not welcomed with a place to live. And when they organize to occupy a piece of land, the police tell them they have
committed a crime and they should disappear. (Or swindlers will come to "sell" them lands that are already occupied and legally owned by others.) Immigrants have become delinquents, guilty of despojo and "incitement," when in reality they are the ones who should be pressing charges for obvious injustice and fraud.
Hortensia Hernandez, Julio Sandoval and Beatriz Chavez are accused of occupying lands that were the property of legitimate owners, who were robbed by the new residents. The list of supposed owners includes
maquiladora managers and PRI representatives, but the neighborhood residents deny the charges in each case. They say that the lands that they occupied had no owner, or, to use the legal term, were "national
property" or "property of the federal government."
In any case, there were moments in which the government seemed willing to negotiate a settlement. In 1994, the association of Maclovio Rojas residents delivered 37 million pesos to the "federal government" as payment for the occupied property. But that didn't matter.
The government of Baja California claimed that the land belonged to a maquiladora and arrested Hortencia Hernandez. (But wait, doesn't Mexican law prohibit foreign nationals from owning land?) Neither did it matter that the residents of CaOUn Buenavista had official documents that demonstrated that their neighborhood had been settled on 136 hectares that had no official owner. The Ensenada government still sold them the land, without actually holding the title for the property. And when the fraud was uncovered, the police arrested Julio Sandoval for having stolen the land from its rightful owner.
It would seem to make no difference that, in the case of Graciano Sanchez Ejido in San QuintIn, the Ensenada government itself admitted that "the legal status of the Graciano Sanchez settlement has not been clarified completely." Regardless, a group of business associates - who hoped to develop the land - had enough pull with the government that Beatriz Chavez was sent off to jail.
To sum up, in all three cases, as in so many other cases in the state of Baja California Norte, groups of people in need of a place to live searched for lands without an owner and took possession of these lands, following an age-old practice that can be traced back to the origins of Baja California's own cities. However, today these residents must now face powerful groups who, without an legal foundation, declare themselves the rightful owners, make accusations against the community residents, call up their politicians, pay for high-priced lawyers, mobilize the police, and look on with satisfaction as the community leaders languish in jail.
What does it matter, since after all, these "land invaders" are mostly Indians from Guerrero and Oaxaca Indians from Oaxaca. This raises the issue of the blatant racism behind the crime of "incitement" to occupy lands, the second charge that both Julio and Beatriz face. This charge implies that these two are the culprits, the organizers and the instigators of a collective action, a land invasion carried out by dozens or hundreds of people. The crime of "inciting to occupy lands" is a recent one, introduced in Article 226 of Baja California's Penal Code during the administration of Governor Ruffo Appel.
Ever since, the law has considered "incitement" to be a serious crime that denies prohibits the defendant from release from prison on bond. This modification has proven to be very useful to the government.
Actually, police initially charged Julio Sandoval and Beatriz Chavez only with the crime of despojo, but were they released after posting bail.
It was necessary, then, to reissue the charges against them as "incitement to occupy lands" in order to ensure that they would not be able to leave Ensenada's CERESO prison. And it would seem that the government considers that there's no doubt that they're guilty of inciting others to occupy the lands, because if they weren't, why else would a group of southern Indians rise up when the state of Baja California boasts the best wages and the lowest unemployment rate out of
the entire country? And it must be true since, as the Baja California
newspaper El Mexicano reports, the community residents are all
To be clear, the squatters of CaOUn Buenavista and the Graciano Sanchez Ejido are in fact mostly indigenous peoples from Oaxaca. And a large percentage of the original Maclovio Rojas residents were also from Oaxaca. Julio and Hortensia are both Oaxacans. Maclovio Rojas, a
brilliant indigenous organizer whose name lives on in the neighborhood
that chose to honor him after his murder, was also Oaxacan.
But the legal system cannot conceive of indigenous peoples organizing
themselves. They must have been manipulated or inflamed by non-Indians like Beatriz or by "corrupt" Indians like Julio.
In the case of Hortensia, the government has not yet dared to accuse her
of "incitement," but it continues looking for any excuse, the smallest
opening, or any ally within the community, to raise the allegation and
imprison her. Meanwhile, shameless radio stations already paint her as a provocateur. Ruffo Appel's law had a clear target in mind: the
indigenous migrants spilling into the state should think twice before
daring to organize. Doing so converts them into thieves and provocateurs.
Of course the problem must be that the indigenous people are manipulated.
The tremendous social pressure caused by the lack of housing in Baja
California can't have anything to do with it. This can't be the cause,
even though the government itself recognizes that the population growth
in the state is twice that of the national rate and that Tijuana's is
triple the national average. It must be beside the point that one
hundred thousand additional housing units are needed for families without a place to live, meaning that 25% of the state's population is in a
desperate struggle for housing.
Also irrelevant must be the fact that the salaries on San QuintIn's
feudal agricultural plantations or within Tijuana's exploitative
factories can never allow one to even dream of owning a home. What do
they expect people to do? Perhaps they expect them to accept the
humiliation and the criminal sentences because they are indigenous.
One Tijuana municipal bureaucrat even remarked to a Los Angeles Times reporter that the conditions, although difficult, are acceptable since "the majority of these people come from southern Mexico where the living conditions are deplorable." No problem - they are already accustomed to suffering.
Little does it matter that human rights activists like Oscar MontaOo
repeat until their blue in the face that the problem is "a social one
involving violations against working class people and, especially, the
disregard for indigenous people."
Neither does it matter that Ra l RamIrez, Human Rights representative of
the state of Baja California, warns the federal government that the
problem in Baja California is a powder keg: "The land tenure situation
in the municipality of Ensenada, in regards to indigenous settlements,
becomes more serious all the time, due to the unorganized growth in the
region, the lack of land zoning for habitation and the scarce political
will shown by federal, state and municipal authorities to solve this
And this doesn't just happen in Ensenada. It's not surprising that,
regrettably, when the Francisco Villa Ejido in Tijuana organized a land
occupation, more than 500 police and soldiers evicted them, leaving
behind one dead and many more injured from beatings.
Beatriz and Julio tell of their struggles from an Ensenada jail
Beatriz Chavez PErez, an organizer with CIOAC (Central Independiente de Obreros AgrIcolas y Campesinos - Independent Center of Agricultural
Workers and Peasants), was arrested on May 31, 2001.
She was accused of having promoted a land occupation by approximately 600 families residing in the Graciano Sanchez Ejido of San QuintIn. These indigenous residents work on the tomato plantations and seek a means of escaping the deplorable "camps" that their employers offer their workers. This group of indigenous people organized itself and Beatriz Chavez, along with other organizers, took the lead in occupying, what they claim, was federal land (in December 1997).
Months later, in September 1998, the community's Residents' Council
agreed with the municipal government of Ensenada to pay approximately
,800 pesos for each lot that they had occupied. Beatriz Chavez was an
active participant in these negotiations. However, at the same time, a
group of people laying claim to the land filed criminal charges against
Beatriz and the other organizers.
The Graciano Sanchez community members claim that the land was
unoccupied, it legally belonged to the government, and that, in any
event, no one had made any claim to land before it had been occupied.
Nevertheless, the criminal case against Beatriz proceeded and Pablo
Alejo, a high ranking San QuintIn government official, disavowed the 1998 agreement with the group of indigenous people. The people now call him a traitor.
The police arrested Beatriz in May 2001 and she was imprisoned in the
Cereso Prison in Ensenada, hundreds of kilometers from her home. The case against Beatriz moves forward despite the fact that CORETTE, the state body responsible for issuing land titles, recognized that "the
legal status of the Graciano Sanchez settlement has not been clarified
In other words, the government acknowledges that the alleged owners of
the land could not prove that it was in fact theirs and, nevertheless,
Beatriz was arrested for "illegally" occupying "their" land. And the day
that the government was negotiating with the squatters and had accepted that the land had no owner was the same day that Beatriz was arrested. She was seized as she was negotiating in good faith with the government, say the Graciano Sanchez residents.
Members of CIOAC attempt to intervene on her behalf, but they find that
they also face charges and are harassed by the police. They are forced
to dedicate their limited resources and energy to their own legal
defense. The money ran out and Beatriz has not been able to hire her own attorney, but is forced to accept a public defender who prepares a very mediocre defense, plagued with errors. The proceedings continue (as of April 2002) and Beatriz faces a prison sentence of five or more years in jail. Her current health condition is tolerable, although weak. Several months ago she contracted Typhoid Fever from the prison.
"Life in prison is full of much suffering and separates us from our loved
ones," wrote Beatriz in a letter to one of her compaOeros. "I want to
assure you that I won't give up. Whether I'm inside or outside of prison
I will continue trying to help those who need it. I endure my imprisonment with dignity and a lot of courage, courage
that all of you have leant to me with your support."
Beatriz Chavez has dedicated her free time in jail to learning about the
legal cases of her fellow inmates and attempting to help those who have
nowhere else to turn. But Beatriz herself needs support, including a
lawyer, who can efficiently and honestly represent her, and funds to keep
her in touch with San QuintIn.
In the very same, cold hallway in the Cereso Prison in Ensenada, Julio
Sandoval Cruz relates how he was arrested by more than 50 police on
December 11, 2001. The arrest occurred while the government and Julio Sandoval's organization, MIULI (Movimiento IndIgena por la UnificaciUn y Lucha Independiente - Indigenous Movement for Unification and Independent Struggle), had reached an agreement. Following the pattern established with Beatriz's arrest as she was negotiating in good faith, Julio was arrested, accused of "illegal land occupation and inciting others to illegally occupy land."
The cause for his arrest was also similar to that of Beatriz: the lack
of housing and the search for a place to live.
Outside of the Ensenada prison, Julio's family and members of MIULI wait
their turn to visit, along with a supposed delegation of government
representatives who will be examining Julio's case. The majority of his
family members waiting to see him are women and they have come from
Maneadero, a community that lies an hour south of Ensenada, near Julio's
CaOUn Buenavista community, home to Triqui, Mixtec, Zapotec and Nahua
The dispute over the CaOUn Buenavista lands traces its origins to the
very origins of the community in 1989, when the government of Ensenada
sold plots of land to low income families on credit. As time passed, the
community grew and is now home to 1,300 families. The residents have
been organized for years, demanding public services such as electricity,
drinking water, schools, parks, recreational facilities, scholarships and
a civil registry.
As the years went by, the municipality continued raising the price of the
plots of land and the problem exploded: some of these indigenous
residents stopped paying and the municipal government threatened
eviction. Some of the families managed to complete their payments, but
then they received surprising news.
The municipal government wasn't actually the owner of the lands: the
government had swindled them. These indigenous people, now furious,
organized. They accused the government of fraud and the government
promised it would handle the matter. Empty promises.
The municipal government wants the residents to begin paying all over
again so that it can make payments to the federal government, the actual
title holder. The municipal government grudgingly accepts that there was
fraud, but it refuses to accept the consequences of its actions.
Julio recounts how MIULI would not wait for the Ensenada government to
cheat them again. The community members decided to take possession of 78
hectares that lie adjacent to their neighborhood and they formed the
"Extension of CaOUn Buenavista." MIULI is in possession of official
documents that demonstrate that these lands are "national" and the
organization proposes a direct negotiation with the federal government,
without the meddling of the Ensenada municipality.
Once again, however, a group of people, tied to the political elite of
Ensenada (including former congress representative, Abraham Correa), has
appeared with "claims" to the 78 hectares of land. The group filed a law
suit against Julio and 76 other MIULI members and the Ensenada government
agreed to pursue the case.
The police arrested six of the community members, including Julio
Sandoval, in March of 2001.
These arrests demonstrate racism and contempt. When Epifanio Sandoval
demanded to view the arrest warrant, the very civilized police responded
with a "shut up, you stupid Indian," and "we don't have a warrant and if
we did we wouldn't show it to you."
The group was charged with illegal land occupation (despojo), but was
released on bail. However the government later issued additional
charges, accusing them of "aggravated" land occupation. Julio was
arrested once again and can no longer leave. Since December 2001 he has
remained in prison.
"What is happening to me," writes Julio from his jail cell, "is only one
indication of the state of vulnerability that the people of Baja
California and indigenous people, in particular, suffer."
Julio remains strong and he is committed to initiating a hunger strike.
His health is also tolerable, although he often suffers body pains and he
does not receive adequate medical care or medicines.
Solidarity has reached inside of the Cereso Prison and the prison
authorities complain that Julio has received more visitors than any other
Days pass and, like Beatriz, Julio listens to and tries to help those
around him. As Julio remarked, the justice system in Baja California
"sent so many indigenous people to jail for the crime of not speaking or
understanding fluent Spanish and / or not knowing the rights." The
promise of the border's prosperity ends here.
A conversation with Hortensia Hernandez must be quick, especially now
that the police once again are on the look out for her. Hortensia and
other organizers from Macholvio have already spent months in jail before
their community secured their freedom through a 200 km march to Mexicali.
Hortensia is out on bond, but keeping her legal case afloat requires
sizable amounts of money, time and energy. Lawyers must be paid only to
evade the legal traps that the government sets in its attempt to find any
excuse to arrest her people.
"These are resources that are being drained from the community when they
could be used towards something more productive," Hortensia, obviously
The residents of Maclovio Rojas need no introduction, the community is
the most consolidated and recognized autonomous community in Baja
This popular neighborhood was born thirteen years ago when a group of
settlers took possession of 167 hectares that now accommodate 2,000
families, or 10,000 inhabitants. Maclovio Rojas is located just to the
side of an industrial park and almost in almost every family, at least
someone works in the maquiladoras. In 1994, the community paid 37
million pesos for the land they live on, but since then the value of the
property has multiplied.
Today maquiladora owners and developers covet the land, which could
extend the industrial corridor or possibly house luxury homes with
panoramic views of the nearby mountains. Groups have again claimed to be
property owners and try to convince the government to evict the Maclovio
In 1998, 200 police officers and soldiers attempted to evict 60 families
that "stood in the way" of plans to expand a maquiladora. Women and
children, armed with rocks and sticks, stopped them, while other people
blocked the highway between Tijuana and Mexicali for four hours.
The government has refused to provide public services to the community,
arguing that "they occupied a land that did not belong to them." With
the government's emphatic refusal, the residents took the matter into
their own hands and have siphoned off water and electricity from the
And with state, national and international solidarity, they have created
a cultural center (an Aguascalientes in the Zapatista tradition), a
women's center and a health clinic. Today their focus is on an
educational project and they are planning computer education while
demanding official recognition for their school.
Today, Maclovio Rojas is calling on all progressive people and
organizations to create a movement to do away with the crime of
"incitement," the legal abomination created by the government of Ruffo
Appel to get rid of organizers and activists by throwing them behind
Beatriz and Julio's organizations, CIOAC and MIULI, are also interested
in this project. Soon we will see who will join forces with the movement
for the right for housing and organization.
Contact information for more information
- Colonia Maclovio Rojas: firstname.lastname@example.org
- MIULI-FPR: email@example.com
- Comite Flores Magon-FPR: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Comite Zapatista Tierra y Libertad: email@example.com
- Globalifobicos de las Californias: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Comite Zapatista de Los Angeles: www.czla.org or email@example.com
Original: About the Heroic Struggle of Maclovio Rojas in Tijuana