This story originally appeared on Fronteras Desk, a regional network of NPR stations in the southwest.
People living in the Juárez Valley southeast of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, allege that land speculators preparing for the start of oil and gas production have spurred a land grab that’s forced what some claim is an exodus of local residents.
People interviewed for this story claim that they or neighbors have been burned out of their homes and that many others have been murdered.
They all live in a string of towns along the Rio Grande in an area slated for energy production and rapid infrastructure construction.
One of those towns is Guadalupe, a few minutes from the U.S. border across from Fabens, Texas, but a world away in terms of security. Construction on a superhighway and a state-of-the-art international border crossing is underway here.
According to Mexican census rolls, nearly 10,000 people lived here in 2005. The mayor – who declined to be interviewed – claimed in local media that this year only about 1,000 people remain.
One man, who like others asked not be identified for fear of retribution, explained what’s happened.
“The government sends people here to pressure landowners to get out of here, to say, ‘go away, we don’t want you here,’ ” he said in Spanish, a charge vehemently denied by Chihuahua’s government.
The man said wealthy buyers then show up to grab the vacant land.
Analysts suggest buyers are arriving because Mexico’s state-owned oil company PEMEX is exploring for oil and gas in Chihuahua, with an emphasis on northern Chihuahua. The region shares geologiocal characteristics of the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, the highest-producing oil field in the United States.
“Obviously this land is being re-consolidated in the hands of a few,” said Tony Payan, Director of Rice University’s Mexico Center in Houston. “Many of these politicians will have interests in the shale development in the future and will likely get ahold of that land no matter what.”
With oil and gas development and plans for pipelines, desert land no one cared about is now valuable. Chihuahua’s Secretary of Public Works told a Juárez newspaper in September that he won’t reveal the exact routes for new roads because the government doesn’t want to fuel land speculation. We asked another person about that.
He laughed derisively.
“It’s always about power and money,” he said in Spanish.
He alleged that bureaucrats and politicians are now in the real estate business, acting at the very least as a middleman to sell land to investors.
“They are using, it is quite clear to me, that information for themselves in a way that they can position themselves as a political class to profit from this industry in the future, oil, gas and the pipelines themselves,” Payan said.
Back in Guadalupe, physical evidence suggests that someone doesn’t want people here: burned houses, shattered glass, very few people on the street.
The narrative in Mexican media is that the violence is a consequence of turf wars between cartels. But some residents are skeptical. They sense, but can’t prove, that outside investors are working with organized crime to terrorize people into fleeing, leaving their land to be scooped up. The state can legally seize land and homes for unpaid property taxes.
“The valley is a lawless place,” another man said in Spanish. “It’s the sad truth.”
Mexican authorities cited in media reports say at least 300 people have been killed in Guadalupe since 2008 — mayors, police, city councilors, business owners and human rights activists. People are learning hard lessons about real estate. Julián Cardona is a photographer from Juárez.
“You know the rule. Location, location, location,” he said.
He’s watched a slow-motion depopulation unfold here. He said that residents tell him that authorities do nothing.
“Every time there was a killing, every time there was a burning house, the soldiers were a block away,” he said. “They didn’t stop the killers or the people burning the houses.”
Pipeline companies in Texas are historically granted the right of eminent domain to seize private land because the transport of energy is deemed to be in the public’s interest.
“In the United States, it’s a lawful eminent domain. In Mexico it’s outright violence,” Carlos Spector, a lawyer in El Paso, said. He represents 250 former residents of the Juárez Valley, many from Guadalupe, now seeking asylum in the US.
“Investors are getting very aggressive,” Spector said, founder of Mexicanos En Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile.
“All they have to do is get a list from the mayor of a small town, who is under their control, as to who hasn’t paid the taxes,” he said. “And if they can match up who hasn’t paid the taxes to where the gas and the freeway is coming, then you go after that property. It’s very, very scientific.”
People who remain in Guadalupe say that former neighbors who’ve fled are anxious to sell their now abandoned land for cents on the dollar because they’re too frightened to even contemplate coming back.