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By Evan Wilson

How many times must David fight Goliath? That is something the people of the dusty neighborhood called Lomas de Poleo on the western outskirts of Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, Mexico have probably often wondered. Since 2002, the small community of at most four hundred families has been fighting for ownership of land where many residents have lived for more than twenty years. The original settlers petitioned the national Agrarian Reform Institute for title in 1970, and five years later, the land was declared “Property of the Nation” by then Mexican President Luis Echeverría. Perhaps that would have been the most interesting part of the story of Lomas de Poleo had the prominent Zaragoza family not claimed the land as its own. In 2002, it became clear that the land was in a key geographic location for the western expansion of Ciudad Juárez and its sister city in the United States, El Paso. With much money to be made and only Lomas de Poleo in the way, the neighborhood has been at the center of major human rights violations committed by the Zaragozas, the local Juárez government, and the Mexican government.

Much has been written about the struggles of the Lomas de Poleo people. Their grievances are too numerous to list, but include having their neighborhood surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, their privately installed electricity and water systems destroyed, their homes bulldozed and burned (some with children inside), and residents beaten, harassed, shot, and intimidated. The local government and police force have done nothing to stop the death and destruction in the neighborhood, and but for the involvement of international human rights groups and brave attorneys, the last twenty or so families would likely be dead or gone. Instead, with the assistance provided by the Mexican human rights law firm Tierra y Libertad and lawyers like Barbara Zamora and Digna Ochoa, the people of Lomas de Poleo have sought official recognition of their ownership of the land. A case for their claim is now before the Ciudad Chihuahua Agrarian Tribunal, and after years of delay and stall tactics, it appears that the Tribunal may soon rule in favor of the remaining families.

Still, on what seems to be the eve of victory, the violence shows no signs of abating. On December 4, 2009, Adelaida Plasencia Sierra, a resident of Lomas de Poleo, was shot in the doorway of her home after two masked men came asking for gasoline. The police labeled the event a “common robbery attempt” although nothing was stolen and the men never entered her house. This latest, seemingly random act of violence shows that even in the face of defeat in the Tribunal, the community, police, and the mayor of Ciudad Juárez continue to accommodate and embolden the Zaragozas. As the families of Lomas de Poleo are either intimidated or enticed away from the area, time is clearly on the Zaragozas’ side. If the international human rights community fails to keep pressure on the situation, there will be no families left to defend the community’s legal rights. Should that happen, the Zaragozas will have won and their tactics will have been reaffirmed. Few cases so well demonstrate the truth of the adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”