<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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“Nothing but Dirt to Drink” in the Comarca Lagunera

In the Land of Pancho Villa, Fertile Communal Fields Have Given Way to Drought and Poverty, and Struggling Farmers Look Toward the Other Campaign for Hope


By Dan Feder
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Coahuila and Durango

November 8, 2006

COMARCA LAGUNERA, NORTHERN MEXICO: Carlos Salinas never forgave the people of the Comarca Lagunera. On the campaign trail in 1988, the presidential hopeful from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party arrived expecting adoring crowds throughout this mishmash of municipalities that make up Mexico’s eighth-largest urban area. Instead, as he entered the small city of San Pedro de las Colonias, he was met by angry residents throwing tomatoes, eggs, and even rocks, and had to be rescued by helicopter. Opposition candidate Cuahutémoc Cárdenas – widely believed to have won the fraudulent ’88 election that brought Salinas to power – received his first major burst of support here.

Such a spontaneous outburst of rebellion was not new for this, the birthplace and battleground of Pancho Villa. The memory of living on the front lines of the Mexican revolution and of the good years that followed it has led the Comarca’s residents to expect great things from their country. What they have gotten instead for the last five decades has been constant betrayal.


Foto: D.R. 2006 Martina Morazzi
When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in 1994 against the government of Salinas, the long-suffering people of the Comarca heard Subcomandante Marcos’ war cry loud and clear. And as Marcos toured the region November 3–5 as part of his nationwide tour of listening and laying the groundwork for the Other Campaign and what he promises will be a national uprising, the communities he visited told stories that were textbook examples of the damage done by the Zapatistas’ two greatest grievances, both products of the Salinas administration: the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the constitutional amendment privatizing the vast system of communal ejido lands that had been in place since the revolution.

Those ejidos once defined the Comarca Lagunera, today a sprawling conurbation. The fertile area was the largest of all the lands redistributed by Cuahutémoc’s father, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) divided up among communities throughout the region, which stretches across the border between the states of Coahuila and Durango. It soon became one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. Thousands worked land that was their own, without landlords or bosses, specializing in cotton. The government started a public agrarian university for peasant farmers to come to and learn new techniques. But the Comarca Lagunera that received Delegate Zero this weekend was one where water is scarce and under the control of the rich, and where the people are being swindled, parcel by parcel, out of their land.

“The countryside no longer produces anything,” said a farmer who took the microphone in La Hormiguera on November 3, the first of the three ejidos that the Other Campaign visited in the Comarca. “We are not even producing what we consume. They said the Comarca Lagunera would be a great center of agricultural production; it was a place where we grew our own corn and beans. Today, we eat everything out of cans. We buy food in big chain stores like Sam’s Club and Soriana that often aren’t even built with Mexican capital.”

The next day, at a meeting of “adherents” (people who have already subscribed to the Sixth Declaration and the Other Campaign and want to start planning the next steps) in Torreón (the Comarca’s largest city), several farmers from the ejido known as El Cambio spoke of how they are resisting a businessman’s takeover of their 750 acres of communal farmland.

“As ejido members, each one of us has a paper signed by President Fox, recognizing us as the owners of this land,” said one of the farmers. Nevertheless, they say, the 216 families that make up the ejido are persecuted by local authorities and seen as squatters on their own land, thanks to legal manipulations by dairy farmer Hugo Cornu Mainez. “There are arrest warrants out again 30 farmers, and two of us have gone to jail.”

Marcos and the rest of the Other Campaign caravan visited El Cambio the next day, where they were greeted by a crowd of hundreds of ejido members – old men in cowboy hats, young girls and boys running around their mothers. There, Marcos heard more details of the struggle to win back the use of their lands, now being exploited by others due to a contract signed under pressure by desperate people.

“How good that you have come,” one woman said to him, “so that this will be known on a national level: the frauds that hare happening here, and that the government doesn’t help us. They send us to the state capital, Saltillo, we go to Saltillo, they send us to Mexico City, we go to Mexico City. The people are now completely worn out, in terms of both morale and money. This is a great power we are up against: money. We know that money moves mountains, and we don’t have one cent aside from the security of our own land.”

The biggest insult of all, one farmer named Guadalupe Hernández Sandoval told the Other Journalism, is that the milk they buy is produced on their own land (rented from them at a measly $8 dollars per hectare per month under a contract they now can’t get out of) and sold back to them at prices they can’t afford.


Foto: D.R. 2006 Alice Serena
The dairy industry has come to dominate the Comarca Lagunera, now the top milk-producing region in the country. Giant tanks of milk from the Lala dairy company (Mexico’s largest) tower over the fields, most of which are now also used to grow the crops for the cows. Cotton was a crop that was easily compatible with the Comarca Lagunera’s small, communal farming model, but prices plunged in the 1950s and 60s with the introduction of synthetic fabrics. This began a long series of setbacks that culminated in Salinas’ neoliberal assault, especially the reform to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, privatizing ejido land and inviting all manner of capitalist speculators to start gobbling it up.

Now, with all the resources being invested in the big companies of the dairy industry, the region that had become known as “the Lagoon” (La Laguna) has run out of water. What were once wetlands are now dusty and dry, and the underwater aquifers don’t come close to supporting all the industry above them.

Along with the neoliberal reforms of the Salinas era came the famous maquiladoras, the sweatshops that have proliferated throughout Mexico under NAFTA. Nearly every ejido now has a maquiladora of some sort in its territory. As making a living or even surviving off the land in the Laguna becomes more and more impossible, those who don’t leave for bigger cities or the U.S. go to work in the local maquiladora. The ejidos in the Comarca, product of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa’s revolution (the latter’s son, Don Jesús Villa, was in the audience at the last meeting in the Comarca, along with his own grandson, Pancho’s great-grandson, still struggling), have been transformed to the point that they are practically company towns.

In the ejido Lequeitio in the town of Las Mercedes, on the night of November 4, a group of four women maquila workers from the community stood together at the Other Campaign’s public meeting, listening to their fellow and sister Laguna residents speak of the hardships they have faced.

“There is a maquiladora here that pays us 200 or 250 pesos a week, we all work there making pants,” said one of the women (as usual in the breakneck pace of Delegate Zero’s tour, it was impossible to get anyone’s name in Lequeitio). That’s less than five dollars a day, up here in “prosperous” northern Mexico where the cost of living is especially high.


Don Jesús Villa (right), son of General Pancho Villa, with Don Juan Chávez of the Indigenous National Congress in Gómez Palacio, Durango.
Foto: D.R. 2006 Anna Mauri
Two men spoke of the increasingly difficult conditions in the Comarca Lagunera that led them to risk their lives crossing the border to find work in the U.S. One woman spoke of how impossible it had become to continue farming her land or even live decently.

“I want to tell you that we have no water on the ejido where I live; there is no water at all. The ‘small property owners,’” she said, fighting back tears, “water their alfalfa crops, their own corn, everything they have, and we don’t have even one drop of water. I live in the San Juan de Uruay ejido, whoever wants to can come and see if they can get a drop of water from my house. We’re drinking dirt, nothing but dust, because that’s what it rains here in the Comarca.”

The term “small property owners” has a very broad definition, being used to describe almost any landowner that does not own a large corporation. At one point, an ejido farmer spoke of a “small property owner” whose family controlled 250 wells, while entire communities are lacking even one.

“Right now,” said Martín Contreras, a farmer from the ejido La Pinta clearly well-versed in the ideas and terminology that Marcos and the Other Campaign have been promoting, “they give us a miserable amount of water, that comes from above… We must organize ourselves, not by flags and political parties, but by our need, the common fact that we can’t take any more of this. The aquifers are being exploited by the small property owners, by those with the money. Leaders come here, but it is just to satisfy their ego. I think it is time that we united.” Contreras explained that his ejido is currently fighting the National Water Commission, because the rights to their well were sold to a small property owner without consulting the people. “Wherever you look, you will find some shameless person willing to do such things, but God willing, you can help us, Subcomandante Marcos.”

As Marcos took the stage and spoke, the four women to the right of your correspondent held each other closely, looking up at the pavilion where he spoke with eyes full of tears and hope.

“Chiapas is far from here, but we remember that when we rose up in arms, people from here in the Comarca also mobilized to support us, first to stop the war, later to send humanitarian aid to the Zapatista communities, and later, in 2001, when we held the march for indigenous dignity to demand that the government recognize indigenous rights and culture.

“We have heard of a lot of pain here in the Comarca. A pain that was not known. In the rest of the country, it is said that the Mexican North is living well, that it is just in the south where there are problems. What we have heard, and what we have seen has demonstrated to us that there is no difference between the North and the South. Nor is there any difference between the ejido farmers and the Indian peoples, no difference between the students, the youth, the women, the elderly, the children, the maquila and urban workers, the small merchants. There is no difference because we are all below.”


Maquiladora workers at the Other Campaign meeting in Lequeitio.
Foto: D.R. 2006 Martina Morazzi
Politicians, said Marcos, only notice places like Lequeitio when it is election time, and once they get to power, they forget about the people. “The problems continue. The light, gas, and water bills go up. There used to be water to farm the land with, but now there isn’t. Those who have the wells now are, in reality, middlemen, coyotes as we call them, that let the big companies come in and take the water to make big profits, like the Lala milk company, which we now know makes its milk on the blood and dispossession of the ejido farmers in the Comarca Lagunera.

“…Together, we are going to rise up, and make another January 1, 1994. Not with guns and bullets, but with the people taking what belongs to them, taking the land, taking the wells, taking the factories, taking the banks, the businesses, toppling the politicians, everybody, organizing to live the way we need to, with dignity… It seems like it’s not happening, but the day is coming, I come to let you know, no more. Everyone has to make the decision, if he wants to sit around waiting to see what happens, or if he wants to participate.

“Felipe Calderón is going to fall, he will not finish his six-year term. Maybe some of you are thinking that we speak of something that is going to happen many years from now. But even the oldest people here are going to see it. They are going to see it, we promoise this. And those up above, who are so happy right now dividing up the bones amongst themselves, thinking that they are going to rule forever, in just a few years they are going to have to look at the prison from within. Or they are going to have to see Mexico from another country, because here, they are not going to fit.”

Marcos promised to take the story of the struggles in the Comarca to the rest of the country, to let others know that people just like them were up against the same forces here.

“It was very good,” said one of the maquiladora workers after Marcos stepped down into the cheering crowd. “God willing, it will become a reality, and improve all of this. Like the girl up there said, here we are drinking nothing but dirt.”

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