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Mexican land dispute divides Native communities

OAXACA, Mexico - The men and women of San Pedro Yosotatu, most of them poor farmers, are staying at the fancy Government Palace in Oaxaca this winter - uninvited. Since early February, several dozen protestors have camped out in the palace's front portico on the main city square, lying on cardboard mats and sleeping under blankets.

The people of San Pedro are Mixtec Indians, and they are looking for three of their companions, kidnapped last November by members of an aggressive neighboring village, they contend. Since 1998, say the protestors, the people of San Sebasti?n Nopalera, heavily armed, have also driven them off a land grant of more than 1,200 acres they had farmed in Oaxaca state, under presidential decree, since the 1930s.

The residents of neighboring San Sebasti?n are also Mixtec, an ironic if common occurrence in the rural and heavily indigenous Mexican south. Towns that share the same customs and language can find themselves locked in violent disputes over land because of expanding populations, a failing economy, political corruption, and inadequate legal documentation.

"Since we acquired the land" in the 1930s, said Marcial L?pez Castro, protest leader and commissioner of the ejido, or land grant, under dispute, "we've worked the land, lived there, had a community, a school, an office. But [San Sebasti?n] wiped it away ? They burned our coffee fields. They wiped out our houses, destroyed our harvest. They don't allow us close to the land now, or we get fired on by armed people who control the ejido ? But what worries us most are the three who have disappeared."

L?pez Castro, a father of nine, boards with another family in San Pedro while he fights to get his land back. "In 1998, they burned my first house. In 2000, they burned it down again after I repaired it. They held my wife and daughters [the first time] ? The authorities asked for volunteers to go in search of them, and we got my family back. They left with just their clothes. Everything else we had to leave behind."

The ejido, irrigated by a small river, grew coffee, fruit and vegetables, with pasture for grazing. The damage to property and livestock was estimated at $2.2 million, said Domingo Castro L?pez, an evicted farmer whose grandparents worked the same fields. Except through a pair of binoculars from a nearby hill, Castro L?pez hasn't seen his land in four years.

Supported by regional Native organizations, San Pedroites claim the violence has political roots. They allege that state deputy Salom?n Jara Cruz condoned San Sebasti?n's claim to the ejido in return for votes in the general election. Local and state governments have done nothing to intervene in the meantime, although police acknowledge the disputed land is held by armed vigilantes.

San Pedro Yosotatu, 70 miles west of Oaxaca, has 1,200 inhabitants, barely a fifth of its larger neighbor. Most houses have electricity. Water runs sporadically. Modest houses are built of wood, adobe and stucco. Public transport, in the guise of a van or truck, comes once a day, taking three hours to negotiate 40 miles on mostly unpaved roads from Tlaxiaco.

Like other Mixtec communities of the southern Sierra Madre, San Pedro lives squarely in the modern world. Young men play pick-up basketball. Alcoholics anonymous have a meeting place in the town center. Down the street, a horse is tethered next to a suburban SUV. Meanwhile, state police with automatic rifles lounge uneasily along the main road.

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The treasure of San Pedro is the land itself. Banana trees grow next to nopal cactuses. Pines, firs, coffee, mangoes, and bougainvillea crowd the village streets, while beans, corn, and squash are grown in surrounding communal lands as they have been in Mexico for millennia.

Of 80 farmers who worked the ejido, some 30, with their families, have fallen into extreme poverty since the attacks. Some, including two of L?pez Castro's children, have moved to the United States. A public loudspeaker blares a local name whenever a phone call comes from the north. The intended scurries to one of two telephones in town to wait for a call back from a husband, friend or parent who now lives on "the other side."

Andr?s Castro Garc?a, whose father worked the ejido, was mayor of San Pedro when the conflict broke out: "We danced together. Partied together. Played basketball together," he said wistfully of the old days with Nopalera.

San Sebasti?n has responded in kind to the extended protest. Half-page advertisements in Las Noticias, an Oaxaca daily, claim that the ejido has been theirs since time immemorial. They accuse San Pedro of burning down their houses, driving them from their land, laying waste to their fields in much the same tone as their neighbors.

Castro Garc?a admits that three members of San Sebasti?n have been killed since 1998, while no one, kidnap victims aside, has died from San Pedro. The aggressors, he explains, were killed in self-defense. There are only about 30 firearms in all San Pedro, he said, the vast majority of them hunting rifles. That San Pedro would dare attack a much larger and more powerful neighbor he finds preposterous.

Castro said San Pedro is willing to give up as many as 200 acres of the ejido in return for their friends. He cautions that the next step may be to surround the capitol building in Oaxaca and increase political pressure on the federal government to intervene. "We're willing to talk, but first we want our people," added commissioner L?pez Castro. "And if they don't bring my people, there will be no talking."

Negotiations with the state government in Oaxaca continue. "The secretary asked us several times, 'How much do you want for your ejido and to forget about this?'" recounted L?pez Castro. "I said to him, "give the money to these people who want me to leave my land ? I need my land because I live there. I don't intend to sell a single piece of it.

"Then the government says, 'Leave here. How much land do you want us to buy somewhere else?' But I wasn't born somewhere else," said L?pez Castro, who is 64. "I was born [in San Pedro]. 'We could buy you something closer to Mexico,' they say. But that's not where we were born. We don't leave the land where we were born."

(Continued in Part Two)