TIJUANA — Against the barren hillsides on the outskirts of this Mexican border city cling several hundred dwellings, representing the latest invasion of squatters and a nagging reminder of an embarrassing political problem that will not go away for Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, governor of Baja California Norte.
The settlement, just off the highway from Tijuana to Tecate, has been named El Camino Verde (the green road) by its residents. But the narrow, dusty paths and roads that crisscross the sun-baked hills of El Camino Verde have been anything but verdant for residents and their governor, who campaigned on a platform of affordable land for Baja's homeless.
Earlier this year, about 10,000 homeless people took the governor at his word and began occupying privately owned land southeast of the city. The shantytown is the latest among scores of squatters' camps in Tijuana that have grown as fast as this exploding city of 1.7 million.
What makes El Camino Verde unique is that not all of its residents are the poor, uneducated laborers from villages in the interior who have come north to find work and a new life. Among its residents are doctors, lawyers, a civil engineer and several educators. And among its dwellings are a handful of concrete block, landscaped homes, in contrast to the tar paper and cardboard shacks that typify most squatter camps.
To add to the troubles of the governor, the land grab was instigated by people closely identified with Leyva Mortera and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, people who are attempting now to force the government to buy the land, develop it and sell it to them cheaply.
In the past, squatters have been led by small, mostly leftist opposition parties that have used land-grabbing as a way to beef up party rolls and embarrass the bigger PRI, said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, spokesman for the Mexican United Socialist Party.
But this latest invasion was led by PRI members Alejandro Herrera and his wife, attorney Roxanna Soto, former political allies of the governor who founded Grupo Mexico to campaign for him in 1983. Many of the group's members were energized by Leyva Mortera's campaign promise.
Officials familiar with the dispute say it arose when Herrera and Soto's followers acted on their own literal interpretation of Leyva Mortera's promise of affordable land. Leyva Mortera's spokesman, Miguel Angel Torres, said the couple "falsely represented" the governor's position and encouraged their followers "to invade" the unoccupied private land.
"The governor offered to settle some of them farther east, at El Florido, but they refused," Torres said.
Baja state officials have developed 2,000 lots at El Florido, complete with water, electricity, roads and sewage, Torres said. But Berta Hernandez, an elementary school teacher and spokeswoman for Grupo Mexico, said El Florido is too far from Tijuana, where most of the group works.
According to Torres, state officials have developed and sold 37,000 lots at below-market price, resulting in homes for 200,000 landless people, since Leyva Mortera's election. Some of the lots were on government-owned land, while others were on private land purchased by the state. Some lots are fully developed, while the state is in the process of providing services and building roads to others.
Torrez acknowledged that Herrera and Soto were close political allies of Leyva Mortera two years ago, when they campaigned for him. But now, Herrera is languishing in La Mesa Prison, charged by state officials with smuggling drugs, while Soto is organizing marches and meeting with state and federal officials in an attempt to obtain her husband's release.
The couple and their followers have received the support of some Tijuana newspapers, which at the beginning of the crisis reported that Leyva Mortera, a former Tijuana mayor, played down the group's actions because squatters are so commonplace in Tijuana.
Although the PRI leadership has refused to support Herrera and Soto, the group's size, which Hernandez claims includes more than 5,000 voters, has nevertheless made it a force to be reckoned with. This factor and the extensive coverage given by the local press to the group's dispute with Leyva Mortera have prompted party leaders to quietly urge the governor to find a solution to the problem.
Meanwhile, Leyva Mortera's political opponents, including one newspaper that is calling Herrera a political prisoner, contend that Herrera was jailed on phony charges in an attempt to minimize the political damage to the governor. But all are watching gleefully as the PRI, which has never lost a race for president, governor or senator in Mexico since it was founded in 1929, deals with an internal dispute that, among other things, led to the resignation of a Tijuana police chief.