--June 27, 2008 (My commentary is interspersed in this font style.)
The lawyer working for residents of the Lomas de Poleo community in regards to their land dispute was shot and killed in Chihuahua City June 20. Police said the investigation was ongoing, they have no suspects, and the motive is unknown. [We already knew this.]
Carlos Javier López Avitia, 42, was in a red Ford truck when he was fired upon by armed men driving in a Jeep, according to various accounts in El Diario and El Heraldo de Chihuahua. The men used an AK-47, among other weapons, in the attack. [Describes a typical Borderland-style assassination. Common occurrence these days.]
The death was not widely reported in Mexico, being just one of 10 that day in Chihuahua. But the news spread through Lomas de Poleo and through a community of activists in the U.S. who have been advocating for Lomas residents and following developments in the land dispute.
Father Bill Morton, who was ordered to leave Mexico because of his activities in support of the residents, said what was reported described a terrible violence. [10 murders--ho hum, just another day in Chihuahua, the state in North Mexico to which Juarez and Lomas belong. Also: N.B. that Morton was expelled from Mexico.]
After leaving a hearing at the Agrarian Court in Chihuahua City, Avitia’s vehicle was followed by a Jeep Cherokee.
"He was shot 19 times with an AK 47 in the head and neck and his head was nearly shot off," Morton said. "Two cabdrivers were also killed, but it appears that they were bystanders.
“They let him lay there (in the street) for quite some time. It seemed to be a message to those connected to Avitia. By the time the police arrived, the crime scene was contaminated. People were picking up souvenirs.” [...just when I think I'm beyond being shocked]
“Even in death you become a curiosity,” said Morton, his voice filled with emotion. Avitia, who was married and the father of four young sons, had represented residents of Lomas de Poleo for about three years. [Morton: courageous Catholic priest. Unusual man. Inadvertently he was a factor in my resettlement to El Paso, a story for another time.]
Background on the story ensues. You already know most of this:
The dispute pits a dwindling number of residents of Lomas de Poleo, a small community on a bluff overlooking Anapra, Juarez, and Sunland Park, N.M., against the wealthy industrialist Pedro Zaragoza Fuentes.
The Mexican constitution allows homesteaders to claim of up to 20,000 square meters per family, provided that federal agrarian authorities regulated the settlements, and the residents claim that they have proper title to the land. But Zaragoza claims that his family held title to the land, and that the residents of Lomas de Poleo moved in illegally.
Over the years, a small community grew in the area, with federally registered schools being built in 1980. These two primary schools are still registered, and the Corpus Christi Parish helps the spiritual needs of the Lomas residents.
Something else also built over the years -- tension between the settlers and Zaragoza. With the nearby Santa Teresa border crossing being approved and opened, the value of the land skyrocketed as did the legal bills, violence, and accusations on both sides.
In 2003, workers from the Mexican Federal Electric commission dismantled the power system that had just recently been set up, because of a federal court order requested by the Zaragoza family, which has claimed that many of the residents were new arrivals hoping themselves to speculate on the land.
It was also about this time that the first ‘goons’ were hired to intimidate and bully the residents of the mesa. Not long after, barbed wire fences and guard towers were built around the community, forcing residents to pass through gates.
Incidents of violence were reported in Lomas de Poleo, with several deaths occurring and two children perishing in a house fire, with both sides blaming the other. A number of bodies of young women also have been found, victims of the ongoing femicide that has gripped Juarez for years.
The court system has been busy with lawsuits and injunctions filed by both sides, and until recently, 62 of the landowner disputes filed against Zaragoza were being handled by attorney Avitia. Several other suits are being handled by Barbara Zamora Lopez, a well known human rights lawyer based in Mexico City. However, in recent months, speculations about Avitia’s activities concerned Lomas residents. [Wishing Barbara the very best...]
[The following controversy was news to me:]
According to a story published in April at www.arrobajuarez.com, 57 of the 62 cases Avitia was working on had lapsed.
Jon Williams, a professional photographer and documentarian who has been following the Lomas del Poleo dispute, said that Mexican agrarian law requires that any case that involves land must be followed up on and brought up to date every four months.
“The LDP Alliance (one of several local activist groups that are working on the issue) met on the Monday after Avitia was killed. They were confused and upset, and were trying to piece things together, and the question was raised about whose side he was on,” Williams said.
But, said Williams, “(Avitia) was in Chihuahua City following up on one of the cases" when he was killed.
[according to Paso del Sur website: Avitia was killed two blocks from "the agrarian state courthouse where he had just filed two cases that morning related to Lomas del Poleo."]