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baja police arrest mexican housing activists

By David Bacon


ENSENADA, BAJA CALIFORNIA 912/28/01) -- In Baja California, trying to find a place to live was never easy, Today it's in danger of becoming a crime, especially for the state's growing communities of indiginous migrants from central and southern Mexico.

In the last six months, leaders of Baja's housing movement have been jailed by the state government as criminals and threats to the social order. Two of the state's best-known organizers of migrant farmworkers are already in prison. Arrest warrents have been issued for as many as18 others. Almost all are Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Triquis - indigenous communities of Oaxaca whose members make up Baja California's agricultural workforce.

On May 31, Beatriz Chavez, who's led the Independent Confederation of Farmworkers and Peasants (CIOAC) in the agricultural valley of San Quintin for the last two decades, was picked up by the state Judicial Police, and brought under guard to the Cereso state prison in Ensenada. She's been jailed ever since. On December 12, another leading organizer and Triqui community leader, Julio Sandoval, was picked up in Maneadero, a farm town just south of Ensenada, and taken to the same prison.

Both Chavez and Sandoval are accused of leading illegal land occupations by homeless migrant workers. But the real problem, they say, is that racism against indigenous migrants has become official government policy. "There's a crisis of justice in Baja California," says Julio Cesar Alonso, another CIOAC leader, "in which the leaders of social movements in this state are being systematically jailed. Our community has endured three year s of racism and persecution." Alonso's name is on the arrest list as well.

Reaction to the jailings has spread to Oaxacan communities in California, provoking outraged letters and telegrams to Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy. "The policies followed in Baja are being dictated by big ranchers, who don't want to see any kind of organization among indigenous communities," says Rufino Dominguez, coordinator of the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front. "They remember the strikes and unions of the 1980s, and they're afraid that any kind of organizing effort is eventually going to lead to the same thing. Fighting for a decent wage and for the rights of migrant workers is still not a crime in Mexico, but they're trying to make it one."

Chavez, the state says, led migrant farmworkers from the Ejido Graciano Sanchez onto land owned by the government. Sandoval, an activist in the migrant settlement of Cañon Buenavista, is accused of seeking to expand its present 50 hectares to another 60 hectares surrounding it.

Title to the land in question in both cases is murky. In Vicente Guerrero (a colonia in the San Quintin Valley), Chavez and CIOAC have tried to buy vacant land from the army, which they say would like to sell it. The state of Baja California, however, is legally required to act as an intermediary, which it defuses to do.

The land surrounding Cañon Buenavista is federal land as well, according to Sandoval's organization, the Independent Indigenous Movement for Unification and Struggle (MIULI). Small landholders have made claims to it, which MIULI says are just a legal pretext for the state's effort to arrest the organization's leaders.

It has been an established principle in Mexican law, since the land reform won by the Revolution of 1910-20, that vacant land belonging to the federal government can and should be used to house those who have none. But the government has implemented a series of economic reforms since the1970s, pushed by the World Bank and international lenders, designed to make the country's economy more attractive to foreign investors. The Constitutional provision for land reform was modified substantially in the mid-1990s, and traditional protections for land occupations weakened as a result.

Baja California, since the National Action Party won the governorship in the mid-1980s, has often led the rest of Mexico in pursuing these economic reforms. In 1987 it passed legislation removing the old protections for land occupations, and established, a new agency, Immobiliaria Estatal, to buy up vacant land and make it available to poor barrio residents for housing.

The system has never functioned, and community activists say it was never intended to work. "It doesn't offer much, and when it does, it levies high prices and high interest rates," Alonso charges. The rates aren't fixed, and each year, when the minimum wage is raised, the amount of the loan principle is increased by the same amount. Poor residents who have tried to use the program say their debts grow larger every year as a consequence.

Land hunger on the Baja peninsula, however, is intense.

Until the 1960s, Baja California Norte was a desert state with a small population. 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. Tijuana now has over 2 million inhabitants, and Mexicali isn't far behind. But while the jobs attracted people to the border from all over Mexico, hardly any housing was built to accommodate them.

Further south down the peninsula, in the San Quintin Valley, a tiny handful of large growers developed an agroindustrial empire, supplying tomatoes and strawberries for the U.S. market. To bring in their crops, thousands of workers were brought every year from poor Mixtec, Zapotec and Triqui villages in Oaxaca.

Wages in San Quintin were kept low to make the valley's strawberries and tomatoes cheap, while ensuring high profits for ranchers. "Today the minimum wage here is 37.4 pesos a day (about $4)," says Domiciano Lopez, a local community organizer. "While some workers can earn twice that much in the fields, a kilo of meat costs 38 pesos in the local market - half a day to a day's wages. That means families here eat meat once a month."

At first, migrant families lived in labor camps, and returned to their homes at the end of each harvest season. But as the years went by, many decided to stay in the valley. As the permanent population grew, so did discontent. In 1988, over a thousand tomato and strawberry pickers struck to win better wages. Their efforts to form an independent union were broken, however, and the strike's leaders fled to the U.S.

In Tijuana CIOAC organized maquiladora workers to take over vacant land and form the neighborhood of Maclovio Rojas a decade ago. Residents have since faced hostility from both the government and Hyundai Corporation, which seeks the land for an industrial park. Barrio leader Hortensia Hernandez was jailed twice, the last time for over 2 months in 1997. The government still refuses to supply electricity and sewer service to residents.

As workers migrate from Oaxaca to San Quintin and Maneadero, and families try to escape the miserable conditions in the camps, the pressure for housing in the small rural towns has escalated. Over 20,000 landless families live in San Quintin, but in the eyes of state and local authorities, they are still strangers. "We've always had to live in the camps. They just want us to work to make the ranchers wealthy, and then go back to Oaxaca," Alonso says.

In Maneadero and San Quintin, MIULI and CIOAC began pressing harder for more land. In December of 1999, Olvaldo Medina y Olvera, a state government official, led the violent expulsion of families in the Graciano Sanchez Ejido. Chavez was arrested with other organizers and beaten in jail by Medina y Olvera, who has since been cited by the National Human Rights Commission for torture and repression. He was recently appointed director of the Cereso prison where Chavez and Sandoval are currently encarcerated.

In 2000, another Mixtec activist, Celerino Garcia, ran for election as a federal deputy on the ticket of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution. Garcia was the candidate of a network of grassroots organizations like CIOAC and MIULI, which sought to use the election to highlight the need for housing. "We came together to oppose the policies of the PAN state government," explained Ensenada activist Ramiro Orea. "For poor people - workers, people in the barrios - the state has refused to budget money for social services. We have terrible problems of lack of housing in Baja. In the colonias for workers, dirt streets turn to mud when it rains, and in many neighborhoods there are no sewers, running water or electricity. Getting any of these services requires a big fight. So that's what we do. We fight."

Garcia didn't win, but the thousands of votes he received were a warning of growing anger among workers and the homeless. When the government still wouldn't respond, this spring activists sat in at municipal and state offices, and even blocked the main highway going south down the peninsula. The climate of intimidation increased when the staff member of the state's human rights commission in San Quintin, Oscar Montaño, was accused in the press of belonging to the Zapatistas and another guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Army of the People. The current wave of arrests soon followed.

"The struggle for housing has a long history in Baja California," Dominguez says. "It includes land occupations, because the government has never been willing to make land available in a legal way." But when the legal avenues are shut off,, barrio residents say, they have no alternative other than direct action.

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