“On the morning of January 20, 1974, the police came. The neighborhood’s name was Tierra y Libertad, ‘Land and Liberty.’ The police marched right into the neighborhood. Perhaps they were state police. I’m not sure. They came in and arrested several people, the leaders of Tierra y Libertad, the people who’d really organized the neighborhood. Others were arrested at work or wherever the police could find them. Worse was to come.
“At around 4:30 or 5:00 that afternoon, as people started returning to the neighborhood from work, coming home, they heard about the arrests. There was a bit of a panic. Someone organized groups to go down to the access road to the Tijuana airport. They kidnapped three buses and an electric company truck and a number of fancy vehicles. They also kidnapped a couple of soda trucks and brought them back to the neighborhood. People went wild and drank the sodas. You can imagine. These were very poor people. A soda was a treat. To be able to drink many sodas was incredible. But they kept the soda bottles. They didn’t break them. There was a reason why they kept the soda bottles. They’d been instructed to keep the soda bottles.
“The people of the neighborhood also kidnapped two policemen and a reporter. They put the police in the bus and threatened to set the bus on fire. By that time the neighborhood was encircled by police and soldiers. Nobody could get in or out. The neighborhood’s leaders were in jail. The people were improvising. They were following these hard-left-wing radicals. Two young men from an extremist left-wing group called the 23rd of September Communist League had taken control. The people had no idea what to do. The two radicals weren’t of much help. The neighborhood was surrounded by police and soldiers. As night fell, the people didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even know they had to wait up in shifts. Everyone just stayed up all night together. They were exhausted. The next morning before daybreak, the army moved in and caught them by surprise. Most people had fallen asleep.
“By this time, of course, the two young Communists had fled. They’d run off long before the police and soldiers arrived. The people of the neighborhood ran around looking for them, but the young Communists had run away because, I later learned, they thought it was more important that they save themselves ‘for the revolution.’
“These two radicals had organized these people for a resistance they couldn’t win. They’d instructed the people of the neighborhood to save the soda bottles. They showed them how to make Molotov cocktails. But they never even told the people they had to light the Molotov cocktails before throwing them. The people, of course, had no experience in this sort of thing. They didn’t know what they were doing. When the army moved in, they just threw the unlighted Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.
“The army rounded up everybody. There must have been at least 5000 people rounded up. They were told that the governor of Baja California was in downtown Tijuana and wanted to meet with them, to speak with them. The soldiers forced the people into cargo trucks. The trucks headed out to Tecate and to Ensenada. Of course they weren’t going downtown to meet the governor. At different points, the trucks on the way to Tecate and Ensenada veered off and headed way up into the hills. At gunpoint the soldiers forced the people off the trucks. This was how they dispersed thousands of people in the hills on the far outskirts of Tijuana.
“Meanwhile, the army moved into Tierra y Libertad with flamethrowers. They burned Tierra y Libertad to the ground. They burned the place to the ground. The homes, you know, were simple shacks made of cardboard and scrap lumber. They burned quickly.
“A baby inside one of those shacks was burned to death. Her grandmother was one of the leaders of the neighborhood. When the baby’s mother was put on the truck, she was afraid of what the soldiers might do. She gave the baby to her two little girls and told them to run and hide inside the family’s shack and not come out, no matter what. The soldiers moved in with their flamethrowers. The little girls panicked and ran out of the shack and left the baby behind. The little girls later told us how amusing the soldiers found it when the little girls ran out. The soldiers were laughing and chasing dogs and pigs with flamethrowers.
“For the next two to three days you’d see people streaming down from the hills. The thousands whom the soldiers had dumped way up in the hills. You’d see them walking down the roads back to Tijuana. When they finally made their way back to Tierra y Libertad, all they found was ashes.”
Forty-nine-year-old Professor Jorge Mancilla, an Ensenada native, studied neurobiology at ucsd and at England’s University of Cambridge. He taught at ucla’s medical school. He now works in Los Angeles as a union representative for professors. When he talks about the events he witnessed firsthand 30 years ago, emotion overcomes him.
“I haven’t thought about these things for a very long time.
“I was young. I was at ucsd. I dropped out for several years because I felt I needed to help my native country. I needed to do something politically to help my native country. What had happened was that in 1973, the governor of Baja California and the mayor of Tijuana had launched an effort called Todo por una Nueva Tijuana, Everything for a New Tijuana. They meant it literally.
“For decades there had been this squatters’ neighborhood in the Tijuana riverbed right up near the border. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of shacks of the poorest migrants. It was called Cartolandia (also known as Cartonlandia), ‘Cardboardland.’ Most of the shacks were made of cardboard boxes. Well, for a ‘new Tijuana,’ this was intolerable. The land was very valuable. It was flat and there was little flat land in Tijuana to build on. There was this plan to cement in the riverbed and put in flood control. So in November 1973, the government went in with bulldozers and soldiers and wiped out Cartolandia. Leveled it to the ground. The refugees from Cartolandia went a little east and took the land that became Tierra y Libertad. That’s the story. Part of what was Cartolandia is where the Tijuana Cultural Center now stands.”