Calle del Perón once led to a working class neighborhood of some 300 houses on a high barren mesa overlooking the sprawling barrios of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to the east and the green fields of Sunland Park, New Mexico to the north. To the outside world, Lomas del Poleo was another forgotten bedroom for a small pool of global labor, a ramshackle barrio without basic public services where maquiladora workers and subsistence ranchers who raised rabbits, hens, and hogs on two-acre plots of land built a community with their own sweat. They built their own homes; they built their own federally registered kindergarten and elementary schools; they built their own tiny chapel; they raised the money to bring in electricity; they made the unpaved roads like Calle del Perón.
Ciudad Juarez has recently been dubbed the most dangerous city in the hemisphere, where cartels battle each other for trafficking routes and control of local drug distribution, leaving more than 1,600 people dead in 2008 alone; where the bodies of mutilated women have been found in the desert unabated since 1993 (and more women were found dead in 2008, a total of 86, than in any previous year); where the mayor fled to El Paso and the army took over the local police. This is also where some of Mexico’s wealthiest families hope to build a new city along the border. And it’s where a handful of factory workers and subsistence ranchers are fighting for the right to remain in their homes.
In 2001 Pedro and Jorge Zaragoza Fuentes, powerful businesspeople from one of the Juarez hyper-elite families, initiated a siege of Lomas del Poleo. It evolved from a court-ordered eviction to dismantling the neighborhood’s electrical grid to building a barbed wire fence to enclose the residents to establishing an encampment of armed guards to burning and bulldozing resident’s homes. For over seven years the Zaragoza Fuentes unleashed a campaign of forced dispossession that killed three people and destroyed hundreds of homes.
Lomas del Poleo, it turns out, lies in the way of a proposed bi-national city on the border between Mexico and the United States, just a few miles west of El Paso. The new urban area would have an estimated 500,000 residents on both sides, become a new border crossing and host a new six-lane highway into Ciudad Juarez, a new rail crossing, and a tax-free development zone with new maquiladora factories, big-box retail outlets, and hotels. The governors of Chihuahua, Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas, and New Mexico, Bill Richardson, have supported the bi-national development plan, each writing letters to their respective federal governments.
This new crossing would greatly alleviate traffic congestion at existing border crossings between Juarez and El Paso, attracting hundreds, if not thousands, of motor vehicles daily. That traffic flow would make the mostly undeveloped lands along the corridor on both sides prime real estate. For that reason developers on both sides, like the Verde Group and the Paso del Norte Group, started buying up land and water rights several years ago. And for that reason, the Zaragozas have sought to dislocate and remove the entire Lomas del Poleo neighborhood.
The Zaragoza Fuentes family has been investigated by the Mexican government and U.S. intelligence agencies for supposed involvement in drug trafficking, though no case has ever been brought against them in the United States. A 1997 article in the Washington Times by Jamie Dettmer cites a "35-page multi-agency U.S. intelligence analysis" that connects the Zaragoza Fuentes family to drug trafficking.
Dettmer quotes the following passages from the document: "The Zaragoza-Fuentes family heads one of the world’s largest suppliers of LP (liquid propane) gas. Through a myriad of companies, the family operates and controls business interests ranging from LP distribution, to maritime shipping, trucking, aviation, land holdings, management companies and banking interests." And: "behind the vertically integrated companies, the horizontally related companies, the real companies, the shell companies, the web of shared addresses and the recurring names is a second empire…built on narcotics smuggling, money laundering, income-tax evasion, export violations and weapons smuggling."
Throughout the entire conflict, the Zaragoza Fuentes family has failed to prove their ownership of the land. They hold a title from 1963 that may have been false even at the time it was issued, as the seller added several thousand acres of public land to the deal.
With simple homes of concrete and wood, corrugated tin, and mud bricks surrounded by fences built of the rusted remains of discarded box-spring mattresses, Lomas del Poleo was founded by the first wave of migrants from states such as Durango, Zacatecas, and Veracruz who came to work in the border assembly plants, or maquiladoras, in the late 1960s.
In 1970, Luis Urbina and 150 families who had begun to settle in Lomas del Poleo formally petitioned the federal Agrarian Reform Institute for title. In 1975, then Mexican President Luis Echeverría declared the lands Property of the Nation. Private owners were invited to challenge the federal decree. Neither the Zaragozas nor anyone else issued such a challenge. The Lomas residents continued their petition before the Agrarian Refrom Institute and in 1980 they built a kindergarten and elementary school and registered both with the federal government.
In the years that followed no member of the Zaragoza family or of the federal government challenged or complained about the Lomas del Poleo neighborhood in any way until the Zaragozas filed for the eviction order—which the court refused to grant—in October 2001. In 2002, only months after the residents of Lomas completed their electricity project, the Zaragozas got a local court injunction to cut off the community’s electricity, arguing that the 300 plus families were all land invaders. The residents blocked the first attempt to dismantle their light poles and cables on September 19, 2002. But then the electrical workers returned on May 15, 2003 with a police escort and tore it all down.
Two weeks later armed guards hired by the Zaragoza family set up camp at the entrance to Lomas del Poleo, built a fence around the community, and set about eradicating the neighborhood, house by house. On September 14, 2004, the guards destroyed the community chapel. Residents rebuilt it four days later. On August 18, 2005, the guards beat Luis Guerrero to death after he tried to save a neighbor’s house from demolition.
Just over a month later, arsonists set fire to the home of Magdaleno Villagomez and Maria del Carmen Casango Cordero. Villagomez had left for work in a maquiladora and Casago Cordero had just stepped out to walk her oldest daughter to school. She locked the door behind her, leaving her two youngest children inside asleep. She returned minutes later to a house engulfed in flames.
Neighbors held her back from running inside. Both children perished. The fire department and the Zaragozas claimed that the fire resulted from a short circuit, even though the Zaragozas had disconnected the entire barrio’s electricity over two years before. Witnesses testified to seeing arsonists spread gasoline around the house. The local government did not investigate.
In the nearly seven years since the Zaragoza guards first laid siege to Lomas del Poleo, some 25 families still refuse to leave their homes. In most cases this means physically not walking out the door for fear that a bulldozer will come within minutes. Manuel Delgado Quintana went to work one day and came back to find his house destroyed. "They used bulldozers; it took them about two hours to knock the whole thing down," he said. Adela Placencia said that they came to her house around one in the afternoon on September 26, 2008. They brought bulldozers and dump trucks. As she ran out, they knocked down her house. In the days that followed she tried to guard the broken shell of her home so that city officials could register her complaint, but the dump trucks returned, this time with female guards who physically lifted Adela and her companions in the air and carried them out of the rubble so that the bulldozers could remove the last traces of her home.
"They knock down our houses and they steal our animals and then they go back to their camp and make barbecue," said Martin Gonzalez Garcia. There used to be five stores up on the plateau, but they all went out of business: the Zaragoza guards would not let the distributors deliver their products. The guards also confiscated all animal feed forcing residents to sell off their main source of subsistence, keeping only a handful of animals that they feed with the same corn and beans they eat.
Angeles Espina grew up in Lomas del Poleo. Her parents arrived with the first group of families that petitioned the Agrarian Reform Institute in 1970. She lives with her 76-year-old mother, Natividad Gonzalez, and her three children ages four, six, and eight. "It is really hard," she said. "We can’t go in and out as we need to…. They search us. We don’t have any protection whatsoever."
She takes her children to school in Lomas, where about 80 children study, down from over 250 before the Zaragozas began their siege. She said that when her children recognize the Zaragoza guards’ trucks, "They run inside screaming, ‘Mom, they’re coming!’ They are traumatized."
Alfredo Piñón, 73, lived in Lomas del Poleo for 35 years in a house he built himself until Zaragoza’s guards knocked it down. Piñón summarized his story: On October 10, 2008, He was in his kitchen, preparing beans to feed his animals, when soldiers stormed into his house and threw him against a window. The soldiers said that the Zaragozas had tipped them off that Piñón possessed illegal firearms. They searched his house and approached him with a bag of marijuana and an automatic pistol. "They said: ‘Look what we found.’ And I said: ‘You brought that with you.’"
The soldiers threw Piñón in the bed of a truck, blindfolded him, and began to kick him in the ribs. The soldiers also detained and beat Piñón’s friend and former neighbor Martin Gabino. When Piñón got back to his house, he found that the soldiers had stolen his television and mattress. The next day he went to the police station to press charges. A few days later he got a call. "The police called me and asked that I reactivate my complaint," Piñón said. "The day that I went down to the station, the 23rd, they destroyed my house and stole all my animals."
Piñón had about 50 hens, 10 roosters, 3 hogs, and "a whole bunch" of rabbits, all of which he had managed to feed with beans and grains. All his animals and all his possessions, including photographs of children who had passed away, everything was stolen or destroyed. "I was left with nothing, just the clothes I wore that day," he said.
The residents of Lomas del Poleo have taken their fight to the courts, bringing a case against the Zaragozas in the federal Agrarian Court. In 2005, 62 families brought cases against the Zaragozas. On June 20, 2008, their attorney, Carlos Lopez Avitia, was gunned down in the street in Chihuahua City, shot 19 times with an AK-47 in the head and neck. Avitia had just left a hearing at the Agrarian Court when he was followed and murdered.
Many of the families represented by Avitia abandoned the case and left Lomas del Poleo after his murder. Some 25 families remain and continue their case with a new attorney. In May 2008, five families took cases to the Agrarian Court with the independent human rights attorney Barbara Zamora. The court delayed the first hearing for five months through a series of blunders such as publishing the public notice in a newspaper in the wrong state.
On January 8, 2009, the date of the first hearing, Pedro Zaragoza arrived without a lawyer and the judge postponed the hearing. On January 22, Pedro Zaragoza’s lawyer arrived with a note from a doctor stating Zaragoza was sick. Again the judge postponed the hearing. The judge has postponed the hearing another five times, such that by the end of March 2009, nearly a year after filing suit, the residents of Lomas del Poleo and Barbara Zamora have yet to have their first hearing.