April 09, 2008

Border Land Battle Pits Development against Human Rights

Kent Paterson | April 8, 2008

Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

Not too long ago, the high desert community of Lomas de Poleo was considered a desolate, impoverished outpost of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Settled by working-class pioneers who landed jobs in the border city's maquiladora assembly plants, Lomas de Poleo was emblematic of the marginalization that existed on the edges of a booming town built on the export of legal and illegal products. When the sprawling, dusty settlement received attention it was usually for the wrong reasons, such as in the mid to late 1990s when the bodies of at least eight murdered young women were found dumped in the neighborhood.

Now, the several dozen families who still inhabit the upper mesa of Lomas de Poleo are at the center of a growing international battle that could define the nature of urban and community development in the Paso del Norte borderlands that cross Texas and New Mexico in the United States and Chihuahua in Mexico. Ringed in by mean guards and forbidding towers that evoke images of J.R. Tolkein's Mordor, long-settled families are locked in an ownership battle over hundreds of acres of land with members of the Zaragoza family, one of Ciudad Juarez's most powerful clans.

Once isolated, Lomas de Poleo's resisters are increasingly gaining support from international human rights organizations, New Mexico political leaders, and a host of activist groups in both Mexico and the United States. In a significant development, they've joined forces with the Paso del Sur organization that's fighting gentrification of the historic Chicano Segundo Barrio neighborhood across the border in El Paso, Texas.

On both sides of the border, elected officials and developers are busy razing old buildings, planning San Antonio-style river walks and binational arts corridors, trying to lure amusement parks, and hoping to snag the 21st Century factory.

"Residents are sending a message to local businessmen and transnational money that the poor of the border are no longer willing to permit the construction of big businesses at the expense of their own extermination," says Juan Carlos Martinez, an activist with the pro-Zapatista Other Campaign in Ciudad Juarez.

Backed by a Mexican court, lawyers for the Zaragozas lay claim to the land based on its supposed purchase in 1963 by Pedro Zaragoza Vizcarra, the father of current disputants Pedro and Jorge Zaragoza. However, settlers led by Luis Urbina petitioned Mexico's Institute for Agrarian Reform for titles in 1970, and have been waiting ever since then.

Locals attribute the aggressive efforts of the Zaragoza family to claim ownership of their neighborhood to the land's sudden industrial value in a fast-growing corridor of the Chihuahua-New Mexico border. Their homes lie close to a planned international port of entry at Anapra as well as the envisioned binational city of Jeronimo-Santa Teresa. Pedro Zaragoza was named a member of the New Mexico-Chihuahua Commission set up by former Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in 2003 to oversee mutual development, tourism, and environmental projects. Once a virtually worthless patch of wasteland, Lomas de Poleo is now a potentially hot piece of real estate.

In Ciudad Juarez, Jeronimo-Santa Teresa is a controversial issue. Many community leaders and activists oppose the development on the grounds that it will divert scarce water and financial resources away from the city. A 2005 referendum campaign to condition development plans on approval by Ciudad Juarez's voters was shunted aside by the Chihuahua Supreme Court.

The land on the U.S. side of the development is controlled by the Verde Group, a border development outfit founded by wealthy businessman William Sanders. In a recent letter to Kent Evans, the chairman of New Mexico's Dona Ana County Commission, Verde Realty Co-Chairman Ronald Blankenship disassociated his company from the Lomas de Poleo and Jeronimo land controversies.

"There is no formal or informal relationship or coordination between Verde Realty's potential development in Santa Teresa and the potential development of the San Jeronimo project," Blankenship wrote.

Planned as a community of 100,000 people, Santa Teresa has also been an object of controversy in southern New Mexico. Last year, Verde Realty proposed the creation of a Tax Increment Development District to help fund two new industrial parks and a 5,000-lot development in Santa Teresa. Under the formula, a portion of sales taxes generated within the district would go to pay off bonds worth $113 million needed to finance the project. The proposal bogged down in the Dona Ana County Commission amid criticisms that the public till would suffer in order to benefit a private development. In a region facing long-term water shortages, the scope of the Jeronimo-Santa Teresa development, which could eventually house 500,000 people, is also a matter of concern.
Driving Out Local Residents

The conflict between Zaragoza and Lomas de Poleo's residents heated up in 2003. Residents and supporters charge that street gang members employed by Zaragoza to guard the area are responsible for three violent deaths, including two young children who died in a house fire allegedly set by the guards to pressure residents out of their homes.

They have also been implicated in burning down the Jesus Nazaret Church, multiple attempts to destroy other properties, power cut-offs, and the ongoing harassment of people attempting to come and go in a fenced-off community monitored by guard patrols and watchtowers. At one point, an unknown individual or individuals defaced crosses that had been set up to commemorate the femicide victims.

Twice last fall, outside supporters of the land resisters who were attempting to enter the community for planned forums were halted by armed guards.

In one case, counter-demonstrators organized by an individual identified with Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were allegedly rewarded with grocery bags full of goodies. According to the Lomas de Poleo support group, a pro-Zaragoza youth was heard to remark that it would be "cool to shoot some bullets into the crowd."

On Feb. 20, Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, an investigator for the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, charged he was beaten and involuntarily detained by Zaragoza guards for 15 minutes.

On different occasions, members of Ciudad Juarez's municipal police force, who are currently under investigation by the Mexican army for alleged ties to drug trafficking and organized crime, reportedly stood by and watched as residents and supporters were threatened.

Responding to an international S.O.S., an international delegation including observers from Amnesty International, the International Civil Commission for the Observation of Human Rights, La Raza Centro Legal, National Lawyers Guild, and other organizations visited the Paso del Norte in late February. For eight days, the human rights observers toured the area, reviewed documents and photographs, spoke with residents and their supporters, and interviewed a handful of low and mid-level Mexican government officials. However, attempts to meet with Pedro and Jorge Zaragoza and higher-level Mexican authorities were unsuccessful. In a 20-page report, the delegation concluded that a pattern of harassment of residents existed.

"The majority of these actions constitute human and civil rights violations under the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Mexican Constitution," the report stated. The documents mention violations of the guarantee to freedom of speech and assembly, the right to free transit, and the right to decent living conditions, among others. Police have stood idly by as these events unfolded and so far no prosecutions have taken place.

Due to its geographical proximity to planned border developments in New Mexico, Lomas de Poleo has recently become a political issue on the U.S. side. In 2008, activists succeeded in putting the land battle on the agenda of the Dona Ana County Commission, the local governing authority that helps regulate regional development.

A draft resolution that linked future border development to respect for the human rights of Lomas de Poleo's residents, removal of "private guards and militia" from the community, and a fair resolution of the land ownership conflict was presented to the County Commission earlier this year. At a Feb. 26 County Commission meeting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, elected representatives heard firsthand testimonies from Lomas de Poleo residents and Father Bill Morton, the Catholic priest whose church was torched in the embattled community.

A Lomas de Poleo resident for almost 40 years, Alfredo Pinon told the meeting he had "the misfortune" of watching friends and neighbors killed.

"The hardest thing is to watch your friend killed in front of you, or hear two children scream but not be able to do anything about it," Pinon said. Taking the floor, Commissioner Oscar Vazquez-Butler sympathized with the residents' plight. "We have a human rights crisis going on in Lomas de Poleo," Butler said. "There's civil exploitation, there's civil injustice. There's a gated community with barbed wire and guard dogs and bats and guns and rifles ..."

At the County Commission meeting two weeks later, Zaragoza attorney Mario Chacon reiterated his client's contention that the land was legally purchased by Zaragoza's father in 1963. Contrary to residents' complaints of a violent atmosphere in the community, Chacon maintained that the situation was "not that serious."

The Dona Ana County Commission approved the resolution, and ordered copies sent to New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman and other officials. Quoted in the Las Cruces Sun-News, Dona Ana County Commissioner Kent Evans doubted his colleagues' action would have much effect. "We can express our dissatisfaction and hope they listen, but that's about it," Evans said.

In a subsequent meeting with Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan, Bingaman raised the Lomas de Poleo issue and passed along the Dona Ana County Commission's resolution to the two federal officials.

"I'm glad I was able to bring this issue to the attention of the Mexican attorney general, and that he committed to looking into the situation," Senator Bingaman said in a news release.

Until now, no agreement has been reached between Lomas de Poleo's resisters and the Zaragozas. Meanwhile, Ciudad Juarez's other residents are getting a taste of what life has been like in Lomas de Poleo. Since the beginning of the year, gang land gunfights, record levels of narco-related executions and the unearthing of mass, clandestine graves have jolted the border city. And more young women and men have disappeared.

On March 28, the Mexican army intervened in the bloody contest raging away for control of Ciudad Juarez's lucrative drug trade. Armed to the teeth, over 2,000 Mexican soldiers arrived as part of the Mexican government's OperaciĆ³n Conjunta Chihuahua and began patrolling the streets, stopping residents, and setting up checkpoints. Whirling Mexican military helicopters brought more war sounds to the border.

Living in the shadow of a police state has been a grim reality long familiar to Lomas de Poleo's residents but conveniently ignored by others in the Paso del Norte region. Now as turf battles for real estate and drug routes spread, other residents are getting a bitter taste of that reality. In this context of mounting violence, the struggle of Lomas residents for basic human rights has become an example for the rest of the borderlands.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and an analyst for the Americas Policy Program at www.americaspolicy.org.


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