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Don Manuel lives where the border fence ends, in the mountains east of Tijuana. He's heard about the murder of the police chief, about the execution of the lawyer who represented the man allegedly behind Tijuana's drug cartel. But Don Manuel is 86 years old and 2000 feet above the city. And here, where horses are for transport and pigs are for eating and cactus fields are for harvesting and candles light the night, he has a more immediate problem: people have bulldozed his neighbor's houses. Now they're selling lots on a triangle of the land that he and Don Gabino Moreno Santana, the president of their land association, say is theirs.

Tonight a district attorney for the state of Baja California has come to hear their story. Everyone gathers around a fire on the dirt floor of the community hall, which took them a decade to build. They talk while Señora Alma barbecues carne asada and heats tortillas on a metal rack. This meal is a thank you to the DA for his efforts. The smoke curls up and out through the space in the brick wall where a window will be. There's still no electric light or windows or floor, so Don Manuel draws a map in the dust with a stick. "The bulldozers from the ejido [government-granted group-owned lands] down the hill just came one day and destroyed our homes," says Isabel Félix. "No warning. They destroyed the furniture, everything. They even smashed the water tank. It was a good thing the people were at work, otherwise they wouldn't even have their clothes and tools."

Licenciado "Pérez" (who asked that his real name not be used) eats his carne asada and tortilla and beans, sips from a bottle of Tecate beer, and listens. A Baja California state district attorney, he has made the hour-long journey, half of it over rocky, unpaved steep gully roads, to find out about this group's claims.

"Alma wrote a complaint against the people," says Isabel. "The [municipal] police came. But they just looked and left. Don Gabino went to private lawyers, gave them money. Nothing happened! Then he asked people where he could go to get justice. And they told him about the licenciado and the Unidad Orgánica Contra Despojos [the (state) unit against real estate land theft]. He didn't expect much. He is so happy that the licenciado actually came up to us, to see. Licenciado Pérez, he is like a god!"

She laughs, but she means it.


Pérez's day started around 9:00 this morning, like most of his mornings at the downtown Tijuana office that he shares with four other attorneys of the Ministerio Público, the state police and district attorney headquarters, near the bullring.

It's difficult to find the cinderblock house, tucked behind the main building. This is where most Tijuana murders and robberies are investigated. Blue vans pull up and disgorge handcuffed felons. Plainclothes state cops stand around in the sun with square black pistols stuffed into their jeans. Some snack on papaya and cottage cheese and honey from Pedro's fruit stand. Appellants approach public writers -- escritorios públicos -- to help them fill out forms. Smooth-suited defense attorneys in jackets and shades bustle up and down the sidewalk, looking out for their clients.

Among the day's clump of people gathered outside the garden of the Unidad Orgánica Contra Despojos, Don Gabino and a worried-looking woman (who identified herself only as Margarita) wait for Pérez with armloads of papers and plans. Like everybody else, they're here to complain of land invasion. In a city where only 25 percent of the population is satisfactorily housed and 80,000 new settlers arrive each month, this is one of the busiest sections of state law enforcement.

Pérez sits in the back office hearing the denuncias, accusations, by traditionally dressed people from the edge of town.

"This is my work. I sit here and listen to landowners come in and denounce squatters," says Pérez. "If our research backs them up, we enforce. We give the squatters on their land 72 hours to move."

It's rarely as simple as that.

"This is nothing like it was," says Pérez, a quick, short man who enjoys people. He says that back in the '80s there were literally tens of thousands of squatters. It was out of hand: People with no money coming north for work, some of the 26 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty and 40 million who are considered poor (according to Mexican-government figures quoted by Reuters). They may have had jobs in the maquiladoras but nowhere to live.

"The problem with land in Mexico, mostly on the borders, is the great number of immigrants from inside Mexico," says Pérez. "Too many people; not enough housing for rent and so few houses for sale. And the ones that are average $2000 -- too expensive for these immigrants from little towns with no money.

"So these people started to organize in the early '70s. They went up to the empty hills and claimed the land for themselves, saying that the nation should give [land] to its people, because the constitution guarantees that right to Mexicans -- education, good health, and a place to live with dignity.

"Then the state [counteracted by] approving new laws, including this despojo felony law to try to stop the illegal invasion of land. But for the government it was very difficult to try to grab these thousands of people and put them all in jail. Complete families. It became a conflict between the law and a social problem the government had to deal with."

As he talks, Pérez signs court orders and correspondence with a swirling signature. He says the state eventually created a less stringent law. Squatters would still be tossed off the land, but state and federal agencies would offer them government land to buy at rock-bottom prices -- say, $700 to $1000 -- with low or no-interest drip payment.

"If they leave within 72 hours, we don't prosecute," he says. "And the government is working on their case to provide land for them. A big part of Tijuana is growing because of these kinds of settlements."

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