"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."
Pérez points to a distinguished-looking older man in a big hat waiting outside. "That gentleman has been in jail because he took land and profiteered from the migrants. Líderes sociales like him manipulated immigrants into invading land and then, in effect, making them pay protection money."
But times are changing. "Land invasions are down 80 percent since the 1980s, but there will be new waves. The government has got to find new ways to provide land to the people."
The unusual thing about Pérez's office is that, unlike most bureaucracies, he and his colleagues don't just sit and read files. "Paper is cruel," Pérez says, "and sometimes deceptive. I like to look into people's faces, see the land, find out what's going on."
Half an hour later that's exactly what he's doing. He swings off the highway to Rosarito and up a pitted road to a housing development. Building appears to have stopped halfway through construction. Margarita is here, sitting up front with Pérez. She points to certain houses. "Eighty houses," she says. "That's what the teachers' union was supposed to get. But they've taken over 100, including mine. They're living in them!"
Pérez pores over plans until he finds one house that's occupied. He stops, marks the place on the plan, tucks his gun into the back of his trousers, and goes to speak to two people working in the small garden.
"I'm afraid you are going to have to leave," he says. "Seventy-two hours."
"But I'm a federal-education employee," says the man.
"And I'm a state-education employee," says the woman, Dulce. "And it was the state developer of this project who told us, 'Move in!' "
"The best thing," says Pérez, aware of the lives he is turning upside-down, "is not to wait the 72 hours. Come see our office with your papers."
An hour later we are bumping through the northeasternmost colonia of Tijuana, Las Torres. This is Rinconada Dos. The road is like a potholed rollercoaster ride. Rinconada Dos is one of Tijuana's newest settlements. Four years ago it was empty land. Snaking down into the gully, we ease back up the other side while a blue-and-white bus labeled El Dorado comes lurching by. Plywood shacks dot the hillsides, a few houses too. But it's rough and mostly dirt-scrabble.
"You work out how long it would take a patrol car to come here to [a crime scene]," says Pérez. "Can you imagine? It makes it so easy for a criminal to go hide. And you wonder how big-time criminals start? There are no parks here. There are no places for the kids to enjoy themselves. All these things create an impact on the growing child. They hear songs on the radio saying how well paid a drug dealer gets to be. And they see drug-dealers driving new cars. Then they see their father working in a maquiladora and not improving [his income]. The message is clear: Keep going on the right way and end up living like this, or risk a little and live like a king."
Gustavo Hernández, who's been sitting in the back, directs Pérez up a steep, empty hill to a flat space on its shoulder. Don Gabino and Héctor Villalvazo come to meet Pérez, then escort him to the land they believe has been stolen from their property, the Granjas Familiares [Family Farms], "División del Norte."
"División del Norte was Pancho Villa's famous division, right?" Pérez asks Villalvazo. "Right," answers Villalvazo.
What we see is not exactly a war zone, but concrete slabs where small houses once stood dot the slope. Fences have gone up, lots marked out, a few houses constructed. The siege mood is deepened by the sight of the rusty international border fence dividing the hill beyond. Don Gabino points to a small house painted with signs in the distance. "Oficina Ejido Matamoros," says the main sign. "Nueva Dirección."
Pérez says he'll have to research this issue before acting. Gabino asks if we'll come to the "community hall."
The hall stands unfinished beside a school that went up with the help of San Diego's Rotary Club. Inside the hall, coals glow and smoke rises. Gradually you can make out the men and women gathered here to thank Pérez for taking an interest; since the problem started two years ago, this is officialdom's first recognition. They hand out beers and start cooking the carne asada.
Don Manuel wants to talk about his cactus patch, which gives him "50 to 60 cases of nopales every week" to sell. But Pérez wants to talk business.
"Don Manuel, hear me: Have you been living here for 14 or 15 years? You know how things are?"
"Who had the land fenced? Who are the owners of the land they say has been invaded? Is it these [people] here?"
"Were the lands fenced?"
"And then the [other] ejido showed up?"
"And they tore down fences?"
"And they tore down houses?"
"That's what I wanted you to tell me. How long ago was it that they did this?"
"About two years ago."
"Two years ago."
"When can you come and [make a deposition]? Tomorrow?"
"Whenever you want."
"Then tomorrow, the others will bring you [down to Tijuana] so you can make a statement. Let's go."
"He'll make one of the strongest witnesses," Pérez says half an hour later, as we bump back down toward the valley of lights that is Tijuana. "Even if the people from the other ejido have their own maps, it won't help. Because they took the law into their own hands. They destroyed other people's shelter. They should have come to us."