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West Texans' Experiences Highlight Concerns Over Land Rights

Ojinaga, Chihuahua (WikiMedia Commons)

Some West Texas residents are fighting legal battles across the border to maintain their property rights in Mexico, and their experiences highlight a larger concern about possible land rights violations.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1917, the government gave out millions of acres of land grants called ejidos, collectively owned community land. But the paperwork for supporting claims to this land isn’t easy to come by.

Uvaldo, who asked we only use his first name, is a resident of Presidio, Texas, and part owner of ejido land in neighboring Ojinaga, Chihuahua, but he doesn’t know if he will be for long.

Uvaldo's part of the land was left to him by his grandfather, who acquired the land in 1936, after the Mexican Revolution.

At his house, Uvaldo pulls out a binder of carefully organized paperwork. He says other ejido land owners are claiming that his land isn't actually his, and they want to sell the land to a Mennonite church.

"They’re telling pure lies in order to take my part," he says. "We just want to take back what the government gave us."

US AID is a United States agency that has weighed in on the issue. Ejido land cannot be subdivided for inheritance, they say, so land ownership can’t officially pass from parent to child.

Grenville Barnes is a professor at the University of Florida and the author of a report about ejido land for the United Nations. According to Barnes, some ejidos function very well and everything goes through their assemblies in a transparent process. Others, however, can be dysfunctional, and there are people who take advantage of that to sell land.

Uvaldo’s lawyer is Miguel Rodriguez, in Chihuahua City. Rodriguez says that there are many, many violations of ejido land owners’ rights, and that it's common for private land owners to also have their rights violated.

Marie Abila, a resident of Marfa, Texas, is one of these private land owners experiencing problems.

When her family went to pay taxes for their land in Ojinaga, they found they were already paid for the year— by someone else. That marked the beginning of a legal battle for land that they claim is being unrightfully taken from them. Abila traces it back to a run-in that her sister had with an Ojinaga political candidate who was campaigning for election.

"He went to my sister’s house. Next to her house is unused land that doesn’t belong to her," Abila says. "He said to her that if he was elected, he would distribute these unused lands to the people. All she had to do was plant a tree on the land, and if it went five or so years untouched, the land would be hers."

Abila and her sister found it strange that the politician was offering them land that they knew already had an owner. And they suspect that the person who eventually paid those taxes was given a similar offer.

"The lawyer that is defending us says that this isn’t the only case, that there are many similar cases," Abila says. "People buy land, then go and work in another city until they are able to go back and build a house or whatever else. But another person will show up before this happens, build a house or plant a tree, and then claim that the land is theirs."

David Beebe is the Justice of the Peace for Presidio County, Texas. He recommends  that the first thing to do when dealing with land encroachment is hire an attorney that’s connected with the Mexican government.

And although Professor Barnes can’t confirm whether Abila's situation is the same as the ejido owners, he is suspicious, saying, "The whole land and property registry thing is very smelly in terms of whether things are functioning well. Why aren’t they functioning well? Is it in some people’s interest for it to not function well?"

Abila, like Uvaldo, says that she has all the paperwork to prove her family’s ownership, and she hopes that other people who face problems with land will also fight for their rights, saying, "I ask that the people who are experiencing the same don’t allow this to keep happening, because it really is a robbery."

It could be a long, legal road ahead for both Uvaldo and Abila.

- Katherine Rae Mondo