OAXACA, Mexico - A "Mexican standoff" is an old phrase that never goes out of style for Native people in Oaxaca state. As citizens of San Pedro Yosotatu have learned the hard way, a land dispute can fester for years in Mexico without effective intervention by the government.
Residents of San Pedro farmed an ejido, or land grant, of 1,200 acres given by presidential decree in 1931. Since 1998, the land has been gradually usurped by neighbors from San Sebastian Nopalera, who vow their claim to it dates from the colonial era. Since then, several people have been killed and three others kidnapped in a stalemate typical of agrarian disputes in this country.
Home to over a quarter of the country's indigenous groups, Oaxaca is the most ethnically-diverse state in Mexico. But while cultural differences may incite conflict, long-term neighbors of the same ethnicity, like the Mixtecs of San Pedro and San Sebastian, can also come to deadly blows.
Early last century large Mexican haciendas, or country estates, were broken up and distributed to poor communities. Sometimes the communal land grants overlapped, a nagging source of conflict ever since. Public officials estimate over 90 percent of Oaxaca land is communally owned, a fact which has increased the likelihood of territorial disputes.
"It wasn't land that belonged to any town," explained Marcial Lopez Castro, commissioner of the San Pedro ejido. "It didn't belong to any community, since it was part of a hacienda. When [Emiliano] Zapata came and said the haciendas would be partitioned into ejidos, we petitioned for [1,200 acres]." Added Lopez Castro indignantly, "this is not contested land, we have the papers for it."
As evidence of their claim, he points to the 1931 presidential decree that created the ejido. San Pedroites say that San Sebastian received a different grant of land in the 1930s that didn't overlap with their own San Pedro's claim was upheld in 1976 by an agrarian tribunal.
The incident, in western Oaxaca state, is far from isolated. In 2001, nearly 700 agrarian conflicts were registered in Mixtec territory that includes parts of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla states. Local indigenous groups charge the government doesn't take their disputes seriously, dismissing them as petty "Indian problems."
But with over 90 percent of Mexico's poorest communities, state officials admit, Oaxaca is ripe for social unrest. In the Nochixtlan district, a chronic dispute lasting 30 years has seen 20 people killed and 60 wounded over a piece of contested ground.
To make matters worse, Mexico is running out of arable land. The country's population nearly quadrupled between 1940 and 1980, putting a severe strain on agrarian reform efforts. In recent years the government has turned to awarding mountainous, rocky land grants that campesinos can barely farm. In Oaxaca and Chiapas, Native peoples have invaded protected lands in biosphere reserves and parks - or refused to be removed from them at all - in order to eke out a marginal living.
Reasons for conflict go even deeper. Mexico's 10 million Native people are a fragmented minority. They tend to live in pueblos where personal loyalties are directed to a small town instead of a larger tribe or nation, a legacy of Spanish colonial practices. In the south, massive mountain ranges play a further role in isolating communities only a few miles apart.
"San Pedro has the right given by the tribunals; San Sebastian has the older right from colonial times," argued Maurilio Santiago Reyes, president of the Center for Human Rights in Mixteca Native Pueblos, a nonprofit based in Tlaxiaco. San Pedro is the real aggressor, he maintains, having attacked Nopalera last year with high-powered rifles and explosives.
With a better-educated, largely mestizo population, contends Santiago, a Mixtec lawyer who works for Nopalera on human rights, San Pedro has been more adept at winning the legal and media battles over the land. He dismisses claims that the ejido is currently held by armed vigilantes and even doubts the charge of kidnapping made by San Pedro. "I'm not convinced that these people have really disappeared," he said quietly.
In some ways the communal ejidos resemble Indian trust land in the United States. In San Pedro, for example, ejidatarios were forbidden to sell any part of the grant to outsiders and could only trade their produce with each other.
Since the early 1990s, however, the government has amended legislation so that individuals on some communal tracts can sell their property. Such a move encourages entrepreneurial development at the same time it threatens the land base of communities both native and mestizo - just as the sale of Indian trust land did before allotment was ended in the United States.
In Oaxaca, Lopez Castro and a few dozen San Pedroites continue their protest vigil in front of the Government Palace. The authorities have made a visit to San Sebastian and found neither the kidnap victims nor any sign of armed vigilantes. The state government has discussed with San Pedro a cash payment in compensation for their ejido, an offer the town leaders have flatly rejected.
"I tell my people to wait for the government to do something," says Lopez Castro. "But what happens if they don't stop [San Sebastian] from committing an atrocity? That's what worries me. We don't want any blood to flow. That's why we're here, and we won't leave until they return our people and our ejido."
For the time being, the rule of law confronts the claims of tradition in the Mixteca region of Mexico. And the government hesitates to intervene.