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Squatter Invasion Poses Baja Political Problem : Unusual Amalgam of Home-Seekers Demand Governor Make Good on Promise

Times Staff Writer

Against the barren hillsides on the outskirts of this Mexican border city cling several hundred dwellings, representing the latest invasion of squatters and a nagging reminder of an embarrassing political problem that will not go away for Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, governor of Baja California Norte.

The settlement, just off the highway from Tijuana to Tecate, has been named El Camino Verde (the green road) by its residents. But the narrow, dusty paths and roads that crisscross the sun-baked hills of El Camino Verde have been anything but verdant for residents and their governor, who campaigned on a platform of affordable land for Baja’s homeless.

Earlier this year, about 10,000 homeless people took the governor at his word and began occupying privately owned land southeast of the city. The shantytown is the latest among scores of squatters’ camps in Tijuana that have grown as fast as this exploding city of 1.7 million.

What makes El Camino Verde unique is that not all of its residents are the poor, uneducated laborers from villages in the interior who have come north to find work and a new life. Among its residents are doctors, lawyers, a civil engineer and several educators. And among its dwellings are a handful of concrete block, landscaped homes, in contrast to the tar paper and cardboard shacks that typify most squatter camps.

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To add to the troubles of the governor, the land grab was instigated by people closely identified with Leyva Mortera and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, people who are attempting now to force the government to buy the land, develop it and sell it to them cheaply.

In the past, squatters have been led by small, mostly leftist opposition parties that have used land-grabbing as a way to beef up party rolls and embarrass the bigger PRI, said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, spokesman for the Mexican United Socialist Party.

But this latest invasion was led by PRI members Alejandro Herrera and his wife, attorney Roxanna Soto, former political allies of the governor who founded Grupo Mexico to campaign for him in 1983. Many of the group’s members were energized by Leyva Mortera’s campaign promise.

Officials familiar with the dispute say it arose when Herrera and Soto’s followers acted on their own literal interpretation of Leyva Mortera’s promise of affordable land. Leyva Mortera’s spokesman, Miguel Angel Torres, said the couple “falsely represented” the governor’s position and encouraged their followers “to invade” the unoccupied private land.

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“The governor offered to settle some of them farther east, at El Florido, but they refused,” Torres said.

Baja state officials have developed 2,000 lots at El Florido, complete with water, electricity, roads and sewage, Torres said. But Berta Hernandez, an elementary school teacher and spokeswoman for Grupo Mexico, said El Florido is too far from Tijuana, where most of the group works.

According to Torres, state officials have developed and sold 37,000 lots at below-market price, resulting in homes for 200,000 landless people, since Leyva Mortera’s election. Some of the lots were on government-owned land, while others were on private land purchased by the state. Some lots are fully developed, while the state is in the process of providing services and building roads to others.

Torrez acknowledged that Herrera and Soto were close political allies of Leyva Mortera two years ago, when they campaigned for him. But now, Herrera is languishing in La Mesa Prison, charged by state officials with smuggling drugs, while Soto is organizing marches and meeting with state and federal officials in an attempt to obtain her husband’s release.

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The couple and their followers have received the support of some Tijuana newspapers, which at the beginning of the crisis reported that Leyva Mortera, a former Tijuana mayor, played down the group’s actions because squatters are so commonplace in Tijuana.

Although the PRI leadership has refused to support Herrera and Soto, the group’s size, which Hernandez claims includes more than 5,000 voters, has nevertheless made it a force to be reckoned with. This factor and the extensive coverage given by the local press to the group’s dispute with Leyva Mortera have prompted party leaders to quietly urge the governor to find a solution to the problem.

Meanwhile, Leyva Mortera’s political opponents, including one newspaper that is calling Herrera a political prisoner, contend that Herrera was jailed on phony charges in an attempt to minimize the political damage to the governor. But all are watching gleefully as the PRI, which has never lost a race for president, governor or senator in Mexico since it was founded in 1929, deals with an internal dispute that, among other things, led to the resignation of a Tijuana police chief.

The crisis has also led to confrontations with the local press. One reporter was detained for allegedly interfering in Herrera’s arrest after she discovered that the state judicial police had arrested him and nine of his followers in Tijuana but jailed them in Rosarito, a town 20 miles south of Tijuana. A photographer for another paper was arrested by Tijuana police in June while covering a bloody confrontation between 800 Grupo Mexico members and police at the border. The demonstration, in which 15 demonstrators and nine police officers were injured, led to the resignation of Chief Gerardo Sosa Olachea, a Leyva Mortera appointee who was criticized for the way police handled the protest.

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“Roxanna and her husband are victims of the man they helped to elect,” said a socialist party spokesman Perez Canchola. “Grupo Mexico was founded solely to get Leyva Mortera elected. But as it grew, it was impossible for the PRI to control the group. But what embarrasses the governor more than anything is that his own followers are telling him what we have argued all along, that the government is not doing anything for its thousands of poor citizens.”

Although the houses at El Camino Verde are being built illegally, Torres said that any plans to force the squatters off the land is “out of the question.” And it would be incorrect to picture all of the squatters as poor, uneducated campesinos and all of the houses as shacks. While most of the houses being constructed are tar paper shacks, some sturdy concrete homes are also being built and some landscaping is under way.

Most of the residents hold blue-collar jobs in Tijuana but say that they cannot afford to buy a home. Some are professionals, such as Carlos Espindola, a civil engineer who moved here from Mexico City two years ago. Espindola said the group includes a doctor and several educators.

“We’re an unusual mixture of professionals and laborers, but we have one thing in common,” Espindola said. “We cannot afford to buy a home, and because rents in Tijuana are paid in U.S. dollars, it’s becoming increasingly hard for us to afford housing. Before we moved here, some of us were working two weeks out of the month just to pay the rent. The remaining two weeks of work would pay for food, utilities, clothing and transportation. That’s no way to live.”

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While the crisis at El Camino Verde remains unresolved, Tijuana city officials have assumed some responsibility for providing limited water service to the squatters. City water trucks drive into the settlement once a day to fill hundreds of 55-gallon containers that line the roads. Water from the containers is used to wash and bathe. Drinking water is purchased in five-gallon bottles from private water companies.

Residents say they are waiting for the state to provide them with utility services and to purchase the lots from the two owners, Ernesto Gabilondo and Ernesto Elis, so they can be resold to the squatters at below-market price. Therein lies the problem, said Torres, who argues that to do so would establish an unacceptable precedent.

‘Different Situation’

“Normally, providing land for these people would be no problem,” he said. “But here we have a different situation. In all other cases, the government either purchased the land and developed it or, in the case of public land, the state developed it before selling the lots. But in this case, these people took over private land and are asking us to purchase and develop those lots for them. That’s not how the government’s land allocation problem is supposed to work.”

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He added that during Leyva Mortera’s six-year term, which ends in 1989, the state hopes to develop and sell 120,000 lots to the poor at an average price of about $200 per lot. If the government agrees to purchase El Camino Verde, “what’s to stop other groups in the future from invading private land and then demanding that the government purchase it, develop it and then sell it to them, cheap?” Torres asked.

According to Torres, landowners are required by law to fully develop land that is sold for residential purposes. The government assumes development responsibilities only when it buys land that is intended to be sold to the poor.

Hernandez said that state officials have asked them to buy the lots directly from the landowners.

“But then, nobody will be able to afford the land,” he said. “After the owners pay to put in the roads, electricity and sewage, the price will be beyond everybody’s reach. We’re already here. We feel that the governor should keep his promise and order the state to do all this.”

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Torres said that the owners, who could not be reached for comment, know that the squatters will not be able to afford to buy developed lots. The owners, Torres said, have been pressuring the state to buy the property. He said the state has begun negotiating with the landowners to see if both parties can reach agreement on the price and resolve the issue.

However, Torres denied that Leyva Mortera has agreed to negotiate because he is being pressured to end the dispute.

“The governor has not been pressured or embarrassed into negotiating,” he said. “Nor is he acting in accordance to Roxanna’s wishes. He merely wants to find a solution to the problem and see that those deserving families get a plot of land. It’s too bad this thing has dragged on so long.”

He said the issue should be settled before December.

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