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The United States Promises to Respect Land Grants

From the 1680's until the United States occupation in 1846, first Spain and then Mexico issued grants of land in New Mexico to individuals, groups, towns, and Indian pueblos. Discussions of the land grants typically divide these grants into two types: "individual grants" and "community land grants." Community grants were modeled on European feudal towns, in which the crown granted lands adjacent to small towns for common use by all town residents. After achieving independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico continued this policy. In 1846, the U.S.-Mexican War began, and New Mexico was occupied by the United States Army. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexico sold its northern territory, including the present day states of New Mexico and California, to the United States for $15 million.

The treaty provided protection for the property of Mexicans in the conquered territory. Specifically, Article X addressed land grant protection. However, U.S. President James K. Polk objected to the provision, as it was likely to exacerbate land disputes in Texas. As a result, the Congress struck Article X before ratifying the treaty. Subsequently, in 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Protocol of Querétaro, which clarified certain aspects of the treaty, including Article 2, in which the United States stated that the exclusion of Article X in no way meant that it planned to annul the land grants. In 1853, the United States purchased additional land from México for $15 million, including the southwest corner of the present state of New Mexico, known as the Gadsden Purchase.

The Promise is Broken

In 1854, Congress established the Office of Surveyor General of New Mexico and required individuals or towns and other communities to prove their claims to grant lands. After reviewing the land grant documentation, the surveyor general recommended to the Congress which grants should be rejected or confirmed. In this manner, Congress directly reviewed land grants until 1891. In that year, the Congress established the Court of Private Land Claims to adjudicate the outstanding claims. In United States v. Sandoval , 167 U.S. 278 (1897), a case on appeal from the Court of Private Land Claims, the Supreme Court held that Mexico, not the local community, had title to all common lands in community land grants issued before 1848. Consequently, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico had transferred ownership of these communal lands to the United States. As a result, almost one-third of the State of New Mexico is now owned and managed by the federal government.

To put that in perspective, New Mexico comprises an area of 121,593 square miles (314, 926 km2). The 40,000 square miles owned and managed by federal agencies is bigger than Scotland (@ 30,000 miles2) and not much smaller than England (@50,000 miles2).

Poverty v. Wildlife

Most scholars today criticize the reasoning in Sandoval as a misunderstanding of Spanish Colonial land grant law. Nor was Sandoval the only erroneous decision in the handling of Hispanic land grant claims. Land grants were frequently stolen away by unscrupulous lawyers and land speculators. For example, courts failing to understand the community nature of some land grants would "partition" and sell them to pay the debts of a single land grant heir, as if the grant was an Anglo-American tenancy-in-common.

By the mid-Twentieth Century, New Mexico Hispanics found it increasingly difficult to pursue the traditional livelihoods of grazing and agriculture. Their difficulties were compounded by the conservationist movement, which sought to protect wildlife and natural habitats by barring hunting and grazing on federally owned land. (There is considerable controversy concerning the New Mexicans' stewardship of the land. Their track record appears to be as bad as any European settlers in the Americas. While some of the desertification and environmental destruction in New Mexico can be blamed on Anglo cattle operations from Texas, the fact remains that land in the vicinity of old Spanish settlements was severely degraded and eroded.)

In the meantime, while New Mexico has experienced some economic development, and a few Hispanics had political power, the vast majority of native Hispanic New Mexicans suffered from both poverty and discrimination and a disappearing culture. In the 1950's and 1960's, this lead to radical political organizing. Some were influenced by the Marxist and/or "Chicano" rhetoric of the day, which embraced the Mestizo/Native American/Mexican heritage of Hispanics. The movement in New Mexico, however, was sui generis.

The Courthouse Raid

Restrictions on sheep grazing led to a brief, armed occupation of the San Joaquin Valley in the Carson National Forest, supported by a semi-legitimate claim to communal land appropiated by the Sandoval decision, and a somewhat more fanciful notion that "sovereignty" could be established by squatting. This wasn't anymore successful than a similar attempt to "occupy" Santa Catalina Island or Alcatraz in California.

In 1967, efforts by law enforcement to interfere with organizing by radical groups met with retaliation in the form of an attempted "citizens arrest" of the sheriff who had been making unlawful arrests. In the attempt to "arrest" the sheriff, armed men took over the Rio Arriba County courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, in northern New Mexico. In what came to be known as "the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid", four law enforcement officers were shot and injured, though amazingly enough, no one was killed. (One of the officers, after testifying against the raiders in court, was later found beaten to death). A panicky lieutenant governor called in the National Guard, and troops with tanks were dispatched.

Tensions remained high for years. A large sign was erected in Abiquiu, New Mexico, visible from the highway. It read Tierra o Muerte: Land or Death.

The Assassination of the Black Berets

By the early 1970's, law enforcement was using tactics pioneered by the FBI's COINTELPRO operations to ensure that radical activists met with "Muerte". In 1972, a police informant infiltrated the Albuquerque "Black Beret" group, a Hispanic self-help, self-defense organization inspired by the Black Panthers, which had hitherto engaged in such subversive activities as starting a medical clinic. The informant convinced Rito Canales and photojournalist Antonia Cordova to steal some dynamite from a construction project, for possible use in the service of la causa. Waiting for Canales and Cordova were officers from the New Mexico State Police, Albuquerque Police Department, and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department. Cordova and Canales were shot in the back and killed while trying to escape.

In 1996, the informant, Tim Chapa, confessed his role in setting up the assassination, and admitted that he commited perjury in the civil rights case brought in 1973 by Canales' and Cordova's families. The judge assigned to the case in 1999, however, refused to allow it to be reopened and re-tried.

Current Status of the Land Grant Struggles

Petra Jimenez Maes --one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the federal civil rights trial in 1973 in which Tim Chapa committed perjury-- was recently chosen to be the Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. She is the first female Hispanic Chief Justice on that court, or any similar state appellate court in the United States.

For decades after the Courthouse Raid, all of Rio Arriba County's legal matters had been handled in the state district court in the capital city of Santa Fe. In 2001, however, the State of New Mexico finally reopened the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. Also, in 2001, the General Accounting Office, at the behest of New Mexico's congressional delegation, has issued a report finally taking a look at "community land grant" claims and acknowledging that mistakes were made by the United States government in the handling of community land grant claims in the nineteenth century.

While these developments are promising, in 2002, after the United States Forest Service ordered 275 holders of grazing permits to remove their cattle from the Santa Fe National Forest, due to overgrazing, the Tierra o Muerte sign got a fresh coat of paint.


GAO "Exposure Draft" report on Community Land Grants in New Mexico: http://www.gao.gov/guadalupe/bckgrd.htm

Federal appeals court opinion affirming ruling that politically-motivated police assassination and perjury is not a "grevious injustice": www.kscourts.org/ca10/cases/2001/02/00-2164.htm

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