David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Build a House, Go to Jail
by David Bacon

MANEADERO, BAJA CALIFORNIA (7/25/02) -- Every day at mid-morning, the phone rings in Julio Sandoval's house in Caņon Buenavista, and his daughter Florentina answers. It's the daily call from the prison in Ensenada, twenty miles away, where Sandoval has been held since December.

Florentina sits at a cable-spool table talking to her dad, while her toddler Jonathan Abel Sandoval Silva practices his new skill of walking on the dirt floor. Meanwhile, Julio's wife Juana heats tortillas on a stove set up on cinderblocks, connected by a rubber hose to a big methane bottle the family has to fill twice a month. Their one large room, dim even at mid-day, is divided down the middle by a yellow blanket, screening off the area where the family sleeps.

Over the phone, Julio gives his daughter instructions to pass onto his lawyer, and Florentina tells him the news from home. The Sandoval residence, with plywood walls, is better than many in Caņon 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. Even an exterior wall of his own house still shows the charred marks of one such fire, which burned down the home next door.

These poverty-stricken residences scattered over a desert hillside hardly seem much of a threat to anyone, yet Julio Sandoval has been in prison since December, for helping indigenous migrant workers in Baja California settle in homes like these. When he was arrested last year, he joined Beatriz Chavez, a well-known leader of similar efforts in San Quintin, further south down the Baja peninsula. Chavez has been in the Cereso prison since May of 2001.

Their crime is an offence unique to Baja -- despojo agravado. Despojo, according to Tijuana attorney Jose Peņaflor, "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 crime a few years ago -- despojo agravado -- which charges that a person has led or instigated others in committing despojo.

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," Beatriz Chavez said over the phone from El Cereso. "They think their only way to ensure control is by throwing the leaders of social movements among them into prison."

For months their two cases have wound slowly through the state's court system, and they 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 go into the prison to talk to either of the two prisoners, 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 Canelos' own thousands of hectares of land, and form partnerships with US 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 Maneadero, San Quintin and the Mexicali Valley.

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

Caņon 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 but controversial figure among Oaxacan migrants. Two decades ago, Garcia led agricultural strikes but was accused later of misusing money and power. In the 1980s, though, he organized farmworkers in the Maneadero valley, who were living in labor camps or even sleeping by the roadside (conditions still common today) to occupy 50 hectares on a desert hillside south of town.

The state government bought out the people who claimed ownership of the land, and resold it to the occupiers through an agency called the Immobiliaria Estatal. Julio Sandoval arrived in Caņon Buenavista in 1990 and built a home there for his family. Sandoval had already led a similar movement in San Quintin to organize a community of Triqui farmworkers called Nuevo San Juan Copala.

Sandoval first got into trouble with the state authorities when he began telling Caņon Buenavista residents not to make payments on their lots. He had discovered that in 1973 the Federal government declared that tens of thousand of hectares in northern Baja, including the land Caņon Buenavista sits on, were government property. As such, it therefore never belonged to private owners. Sandoval's payment boycott received a lot of support because Immobiliaria Estatal had developed a nasty reputation in Baja's poor barrios. With every increase in inflation, the state agency would increase the principal on the loans owed by farmworkers on their homes. Payments on the loans would therefore go up too. Many families never got out of debt.

Sandoval appealed to the Federal government to clarify who really owned the land. Under the Constitution before the mid-1990s, Mexican citizens were entitled to settle and build homes on unused Federal property. If Caņon Buenavista land belonged to the Federal government, therefore, residents wouldn't have to continue to make payments.

The ownership issue, however, has remained unresolved. This is typical for land ownership claims in Mexico, where agrarian reform laws were used to redistribute land for decades, but where multiple owners now often claim the same piece of property as a result.

That confusion was the pretext used to imprison Beatriz Chavez.

In the San Quintin valley, four hours south of Tijuana, indigenous farmworkers 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 late1930s. 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 1995, when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, one of NAFTA's biggest champions, 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." Chavez was dragged from a government office where residents were sitting-in, and beaten. Her spine was injured, and this year, while a prisoner in El Cereso, had to have an operation as a result.

Over the next two years, organized residents forced 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. Last May, however, state police swooped down on the community and arrested Chavez again. This time, instead of spending just a few days in jail, she was charged with despojo agravado. She has been held in prison 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 other Mixtec and Triqui farmworkers. In May of 2000, he led landless migrants in Maneadero in taking direct action to find a place to build homes.

Esther Murrillo was one of a group of twenty families who occupied 78 hectares in the hills surrounding Caņon Buenavista. They chose May 1st, 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, Caņon Buenavista's total population grew to 2700 families -- about 10,000 people. Fourteen hundred families live in the older section, about 40% of whom are indigenous. Of the 1300 families in the new settlement, however, 1000 come from Mixtec and Triqui towns in Oaxaca.

Murrillo had no money to pay rent or buy land. Making 50-70 pesos a day in the fields ($5-7), and working only during the harvest season, she couldn't survive. "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 the highly-politicized Baja California labor board gave the land to Pedro Corral Castro, supposedly as compensation for unpaid work done for his brother. No evidence was ever presented that his brother actually owned the land, however. Corral then offered it to people associated with the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution, to be divided into lots. After Sandoval and other residents occupied the 78 hectares, those associates then asked authorities to charge him 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 PM," Florentina remembers. "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 seem to be making little effort to pick them up. Sandoval

Tiburcio Perez Castro, a highly-respected professor of education at the National Pedagogical University (the first Mixtec to hold that position), believes the Baja government is manipulating different parts of its political opposition against each other, in this case the PRD and the indigenous group led by Julio Sandoval.

But there are even more 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 US 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.

Further south down the peninsula, in Maneadero and San Quintin, a tiny handful of large growers developed an agroindustrial 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 LA 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 the years passed, many decided to stay. As the permanent population grew, so did discontent. In 1988, over a thousand tomato and strawberry pickers struck in San Quintin to raise wages. Their efforts to form an independent union were broken, however, and the strike's leaders fled to the U.S. In 1998, one of the local growers failed to pay workers for four weeks. When the Canelos family wouldn't come up with the money, an angry crowd of pickers set fire to their ABC 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 which encourages investment. When they see land invasions led by indigenous farmworkers, 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 strikes and unions in the fields.

The National Action Party, which won control in Baja California in 1988, formed a ruling political coalition of large ranchers, maquiladora owners and company-friendly unions which has been in power ever since. The same party elected Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, in 2000. While condemning the old PRI for 70 years of undemocratic rule, 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 which eventually toppled the ruling Party of the Institutionalized Revolution 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 Caņon Buenavista], or their social problems like lack of housing or drug addition. 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."

Perez Castro accuses the government of only enforcing those provisions of the law which 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, Ramirez says, can be found in Maneadero and San Quintin fields on any given day during the harvest season. 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.

"But 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 see racism in the way indigenous people from the Mixtec and Triqui towns of Oaxaca, who make up the rural workforce 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's and Chavez's problem, Ramirez says, is that they just won't shut up about it. "Because they're both leaders that 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' case especially, the initiative to prosecute seems to be coming from the government itself. In her appearance before the judge, none of the landowners supposedly bringing the 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."

Unfortunately, while the human rights prosecutor has the power to investigate situations like that of the two prisoners, and in some cases make recommendations, Ramirez has no formal power to press charges or dismiss them himself.

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."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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