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Hunger for Land Triggers Bloody Feuds Among Impoverished Mexican Farmers

October 11, 1987|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

MESA LARGA, Mexico — The truck showed the scars of the latest land quarrel, and the sight was enough to convince the villagers that they did not want more trouble.

The windows of the red vehicle were smashed, and all of its tires were slashed. Gashes in the body were clearly the work of a machete. The vandalism had followed a wave of incidents: broken windows in the common meeting hall; attempts to burn down thatch-roofed huts; fights and threats in the corn fields; one bruised farmer in the hospital.

The villagers fretted that more violence would come. They wondered if they should not give up some land to their foes just to avoid further trouble, for in other places, such rivalries had ended in much worse than a ruined communal truck.

"Better to divide the land than have your head split," said Rafael Jimenez, 27, a resident of Mesa Larga, a corn-growing community in the state of Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico.

Tension Not Unusual

The tension at Mesa Larga is not unusual in Mexico's countryside, where land warfare among farmers erupts with unsettling frequency.

A total of 705 farmers have died in rural violence since 1982, according to a new report compiled by the Chapingo Autonomous University, most of them in conflicts over land tenancy or in efforts to occupy land owned by someone else. Others were apparently killed for organizing independent peasant movements; a small number died in drug battles or in feuds over credit payments.

The violence points up the persistent difficulties on Mexico's farms. More than 70 years after a revolution was fought in part to give peasants a better life, the Mexican countryside not only is largely impoverished, but it is prone to sudden violence.

More than 30 million Mexicans live in the countryside, and over the years, the government has dispensed millions of acres to satisfy land hunger that still endures.

Despite the balmy climate that prevails in most of Mexico, the land does not yield abundance easily. Much is semiarid. Only 20% of the nation's farmland is irrigated. Legions of poor peasants head north during the off-season to earn money harvesting crops in the United States, while others migrate to large farms within Mexico, tolerating harsh nomadic lives for wages equivalent to less than $3 a day.

Rights May Be Challenged

When and if the migrants come home, they often face vexing problems basic to their meager livelihood: The rights to the land they live on may be challenged by neighboring farmers or the former owners.

In Mesa Larga, about 300 families inhabit a landholding called an ejido. Ejidos were formed in the wake of the Mexican Revolution to provide poor farmers with plots of land. By law, the land is owned by the state, and the farmers nominally have the right to government credits in order to cultivate it.

In the 20 years since the Mesa Larga ejido was formed, periodic disputes have arisen over who has the right to farm parts or all of it. First, a conflict with an adjoining ejido broke out and resulted in the division of some good bottomland between the two.

Then, in 1978, landless peasants invaded part of Mesa Larga. The dispute simmered for seven years, and longtime residents of Mesa Larga suspected that former owners of the land had encouraged the invaders to cause trouble. Machete battles became frequent.

Finally, trouble broke out among Mesa Larga farmers themselves. About two-thirds of the families decided to farm the land communally and divide the income equally. The idea was promoted by an independent peasant union. But a third of the farmers, loyal to a government peasant group, have resisted the program, preferring to farm individual plots for individual profit.

In June, fights erupted among the Mesa Larga farmers. The violence ended, for the time being, with the vandalism of the truck. In the meantime, credit has been delayed because inspectors from the bank fear making the trip to Mesa Larga.

"It is difficult for us to go on like this," said farmer Rafael Lara, 29. "Without a clear idea of who has right to the land, we can't farm in security."

If credit problems were not enough, the example of farm violence elsewhere would probably be enough to prompt them to settle the dispute by dividing up the land again.

In San Juan Copala, a village in Oaxaca, 200 farmers have perished in land battles since the early 1970s, according to press reports. Some of the bloodshed was attributed to rivalry between a government-controlled peasants' union and an independent group.

Not long ago, 300 peasants occupied land in Tequixquiac in the state of Mexico in an effort to wrest it from its owner. The peasants used sticks and stones to try to fight off police who were sent in to evict them. Three peasants were reportedly killed in the melee.

In June, nine members of an independent peasants' union were shot dead during a land battle in Embarcadero, Veracruz. As happens in many cases of rural violence, no one was arrested in the killings.

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