Lomas de Poleo, in the Anapra region of Ciudad Juarez, is in the planned location for the cross-border Jeronimo-Santa Teresa project. Until 2002, no one showed much interest in the destitute parcels of land settled by migrants search of a humble plot of land to raise a few animals. Since then, the residents and the Zaragoza brothers – scions of local gas, dairy and Corona beer franchises – have been locked in a grueling, litigious and often violent struggle over the land.
Salvador Aguero brandishes federal documents which he thinks clearly award the land to Lomas de Poleo residents.
The Anapra region of Ciudad Juarez is dry and dusty, the road leading there lined with junkyards. In spring, fierce winds blow dust so thick it stings the skin and fills the ears and nostrils of residents scurrying to tend their pigs and chickens on small farms dotted with shacks made from cinder blocks, scraps of wood and box springs.
The area is known as a transfer point for the brutal international drug trade, and at least eight women’s bodies have been found here, part of the femicide for which Juarez is infamous. A line of pink wooden crosses bearing testament to these murders cast shadows on the dusty ground on a hillside above Anapra; the lamp posts on the road leading to town are also adorned with painted pink crosses.
It is a seeming no-man’s land. But local businessmen and government officials see a far different future for this chunk of desert. It is the location for the planned cross-border Jeronimo-Santa Teresa project, a huge somewhat amorphous development plan described as including a new city of up to half a million residents; an expanded trade corridor; a new maquila [outsourced manufacturing] industrial park; and even a tourist destination complete with casinos.
A key chunk in this development is the area known as Lomas de Poleo in Anapra, a community founded in the 1970s largely by migrants from Vera Cruz and other southern parts in search of a humble plot of land to raise a few animals. Over the decades the community – about 400 families at its peak – has petitioned for title to the land under Mexican land reform laws. The land’s ownership chain is a complicated saga including the company Carbonifera, several murky private sales, appropriation by the federal government after tax default, and the current residents’ ongoing claims. At least one federal document proclaims the land national property.
And under land reform laws that allow people to acquire title to unused land if they are farming it, many families have had valid land claims filed with the government for years.
But brothers Jorge and Pedro Zaragoza, from one of the richest business families in northern Mexico, are now claiming the land is theirs, inherited from their father who they say bought it in 1963.
No one showed much interest in the destitute parcels until 2002, when the Jeronimo project plans became public knowledge and the Zaragozas began trying to kick residents out of Lomas de Poleo. Since then the residents and the Zaragoza brothers – scions of local gas, dairy and Corona beer franchises, among other industries – have been locked in a grueling, litigious and often violent struggle over the land. Four years ago the Zaragozas erected a concrete and barbed wire fence around the disputed area, with the roads blocked by guard shacks where armed private security guards allegedly harass residents and prevent visitors and food deliveries.
"I can’t get tortillas or water, I can’t care for my animals, my friends can’t visit, I’m very afraid, especially when my son goes to work and I’m alone," said Irene Caldera, an elderly woman from Zacatecas who has lived in Lomas de Poleo with her son Salvador Aguero, 56, for 19 years.
Cecilia Espinosa, of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, said the private guards prevent food delivery trucks from entering and have even prevented individual residents from bringing in food and construction supplies to fix their houses.
"The only providers they allowed in were Corona and Lecheria Lucerna," – the Zaragozas’ own companies, she said.
When residents planned a forum about the situation in October 2007, about 150 guards were brought in and they didn’t allow any visitors into the area, blocking the entrances with horses and trucks.
Three deaths in 2005 have been attributed to the struggle – a man beaten to death as his house was destroyed and two children who died in a fire residents say was arson. (The government blamed it on faulty wiring). Other beatings and physical clashes have been common. Residents blame these acts on "guardia blanca" ["white guard"] – paramilitary mercenaries, with alleged ties to violent drug gangs – hired by the Zaragozas.
The local church was destroyed, and rebuilt. More than 40 homes have been demolished. The homes are labeled "abandoned" by the security force, though residents say people’s homes are destroyed while they are at work at the maquilas.
"Some people only come on the weekend because they work at the maquilas far away, and then they come back and their house is destroyed," said Petra Medrano, a 55-year-old woman from Durango who has lived in Lomas de Poleo for 15 years. She said she is always nervous and on edge, knowing the guards will harass her every time she enters and leaves the fenced-in area.
At the Zaragozas’ behest the government utility cut off electric service to much of the area, even after residents had paid out of pocket just a year earlier to construct the electric infrastructure. But the guards’ complex has electricity; one day this spring about 30 young men stationed there played basketball, raked tumbleweed and kept watch on vehicles coming up the road.
The residents’ water service was also cut off, which is ironic since the water tower which serves the area is on the hillside right above Lomas de Poleo.
"The water is passing right in front of my house, but I don’t get any," said Adelaida Plascencia, 60, who came here from Zacatecas 26 years ago.
They lament that the destruction is targeting structures and systems residents paid for and labored to build themselves, creating a town out of a desert.
"We built the roads, the alleys, the school, everything," said Medrano.
Residents have been offered new houses on small plots of nearby land. A number of families have taken the offer, and now live in solid, modern homes which appear comfortable but are packed too closely to gather to allow the raising of animals or gardens that sustains most Lomas de Poleo residents.
The 70-plus families who remain in the disputed area also say they don’t trust that they will really be given ownership of the new homes if they accept them; given their experiences so far, they think the Zaragozas or the government will just kick them out again when it becomes convenient.
Medrano sees little hope of winning out over the Zaragoza brothers, though she is determined to keep trying.
"I make 500 pesos a week, they make 500 million," she said. "What can we do? We don’t have the resources."
Juarez mayor Reyes Ferriz backs the Zaragozas’ claim of ownership, and said there are fewer than 20 families still in the disputed area.
"The landowner has possession and registered title to the land," said Ferriz. "He allows easements for the possessors of property on the land" – the Lomas residents. Ferriz said the disputed area "will not be valuable for 20 or 30 years," and that it is not geographically central to the border development plans.
The federal government has yet to take a definitive stance, though the federal human rights commission (without binding power) recently called the situation a violation of human rights. Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a professor with the human rights commission, said it is up to the federal government to decide if the land is private property and who owns it, meanwhile the existing conditions are a violation of human rights perpetrated by the Zaragozas and their employees.
"At this moment they have to guarantee the right to transit and the right to live in peace for these residents," he said. "It’s obvious that human rights are superior to the rights of a third party property owner."
He said the Juarez municipal government’s position appears to be "a position of incomprehension of human rights and a position that some people are more valuable than others."
Contrary to Mayor Reyes Ferriz’s statement that only 20 families are left, Hickerson said that (as of March 2008) the commission counted 72 families living in Lomas de Poleo.
Pedro Zaragoza was appointed to the bi-national New Mexico-Chihuahua Commission to promote development and tourism, convened by the former Chihuahua governor and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson in 2003. The Jeronimo-Santa Teresa plan has also drawn opposition in the U.S., most notably in El Paso where it is feared it will mean the redevelopment and gentrification of the city’s historic Segundo Barrio neighborhood. Since controversy over Lomas de Poleo broke out, U.S. municipal officials and developers have distanced themselves from the Mexican side of the project.
Veronica Leyva, a Juarez-based organizer with the bi-national Mexico Solidarity Network, called it ironic that the Zaragoza Foundation, a philanthropic entity funded by the family, promotes anti-poverty and child welfare programs at the same time the Lomas de Poleo families are being harassed and repressed. (A spokesman at the foundation said no one was available for an interview.)
On April 10, the anniversary of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s murder and a day of protest throughout Mexico, Lomas de Poleo residents and their supporters rallied outside the municipal hall in Juarez, collecting signatures on a petition demanding the government recognize the land as federal property and remove the Zaragozas’ guards.
"We have more rights to the land than them," said Aguero, brandishing a copy of the 1975 federal decree denoting the existence of 25,000 hectares of federal land including Lomas de Poleo. "If they think they own the land why did they wait until four years ago to tell us? Now it is convenient for them."
As residents and supporters kept up a monologue about the situation over a loudspeaker and displayed large boards with color photos of the development, many passersby read and signed their petitions or nodded their support.
Above the protesters on one side rose a barren hillside with a message written in white rocks "Cd Juarez – La biblia es verdad – Leerla" [Juarez City – the bible is the truth -read it] and on the other side, the pedestrian bridge to the United States.
From Lomas de Poleo you can also see the infamous border wall being constructed by the U.S., a series of tightly spaced, curved, tall metal posts creeping down the hillside just a few miles from Lomas de Poleo. So residents are always reminded the kind of forces and divisions they are up against.
Leyva sees the Lomas de Poleo issue as part of the larger issue of the border, which by its nature facilitates massive corruption, exploitation, violence and anonymity.
"The femicide, the exploitation in the maquilas, the corruption is all linked," she said. "It’s all about a lack of human rights which is very profitable for some people."
(A condensed version of this story was published in The Multinational Monitor)