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Mexico's Land of Discord

Heated conflicts over claims to property are roiling the countryside, owing to contradictory laws and unverifiable Spanish deeds.

October 13, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

XALATLACO, Mexico — For more than half a century, residents of this largely indigenous town battled quietly and inconclusively in court over ownership of a remote and rocky patch of land called Agua Grande. Then on July 9, war broke out.

That's when 300 machete-wielding Xalatlaco townspeople descended on the disputed turf 10 miles away in the mountains west of Mexico City. They took hostage a dozen police and government officials sent there to enforce the rival land claim of residents from Santo Tomas Ajusco, also a town of indigenous people. A day earlier, the police had torn down half a dozen food stands built in Agua Grande by the Xalatlacans.

The hostages were released after 18 hours, but their commandeered police van sat in the Xalatlaco town plaza as a trophy for two months, its tires slashed and its sides painted with defiant graffiti. The situation remains tense as federal, state and city officials try to mediate.

"The people of Ajusco, 500 years after the fact, want to expand their communal territory with ours," said Xalatlaco town historian Donanciano Vargas, maintaining that his community has used the land as a ceremonial center since before the Spanish arrived. "But it's not possible. We won't let them, ever."

The elders of Ajusco are just as adamant. "We will defend our interests until the final consequences," said Jose Guadalupe Romero, an Ajusco alderman, who contends that his community's use of the land for grazing and woodcutting goes back longer than tribal memory.

The conflict over Agua Grande is one of thousands roiling Mexico from the jungles of Chiapas in the south to the Sonoran Desert in the north. Some battles are between native groups that have long used land with little or no documentation while others are between individuals squabbling over property titles or boundaries.

At the heart of the matter is the tangled and contradictory state of Mexico's property ownership laws and record-keeping.

Only 18% of farm properties in Mexico have been definitively mapped, said Nabor Ojeda, a member of the Mexican Congress' agrarian reform commission, which mediates land disputes.

Rather than being surveyed and plotted, the boundaries of most Mexican properties are simply understood among neighbors. They can be defined on documents as being demarcated by the location of a boulder or tree that may no longer be there.

"These disputes are generations old, but they have never been adequately adjudicated. Typically they have been pushed back into the future and into the future. Now the future is here," said Kenneth Shwedel, head of food and agribusiness research at Rabobank in Mexico City.

While property fights have been a fact of life since the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, these days they are increasing in number and violence due to Mexico's poor economy and burgeoning population, said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

Government officials admit they are overwhelmed by the volume of conflicts. "We do what we can do. We fix one and there are a thousand more waiting for justice," said David Rodriguez, a member of Congress' agrarian reform commission.

The disputes are most often between groups of poor peasants or indigenous communities. But occasionally U.S. investors can get caught up in the tangled laws. Such was the case three years ago, when 300 residents, mostly Americans, were evicted from homes they thought they owned near Ensenada in Baja California, losing $50 million in property.

A sizable portion of the fights stem from opposing and often impossible to verify "primordial" rights based on vague, centuries-old royal deeds granted by the Spanish colonial government before Mexico achieved independence in 1821.

That is the case in the dispute between Xalatlaco and Ajusco for Agua Grande, a 3,750-acre mountainous parcel with economic and ceremonial importance for both tribes. Each group claims to have 16th century deeds signed by a Spanish viceroy. Xalatlaco's leaders say they have kept the land as an ecological reserve and spring-fed grazing land for cattle. Aqua Grande is also where the tribe celebrates the equinox with ritual dancing.

"If our forefathers preserved the land for centuries, how are we not going to preserve it for 100 years more?" said Vargas, 72, a member of Xalatlaco's council of elders. "We will defend ourselves with the law but when laws are crooked, we will use whatever means necessary."

In Ajusco, citizens also speak uncompromisingly. Hundreds of Ajusco residents responded to Xalatlaco's raid by blocking the area's main road and threatening to occupy the land by force. "They lit the fuse, which set off the rocket and made all the noise. Let's see where it takes us," said Antonio Mireles Morelos, secretary of Ajusco's community assets commission.

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