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Shooting Dramatizes Fight For Land

April 29, 1989

BOCHIL, Mexico (AP) _ To peasants living in the folds of Mexico’s southern mountains, Sebastian Perez Nunez was a hero, the leader of their struggle for a piece of land.

To Roberto Zenteno Rojas, who wanted to build a ranching empire, Perez was a bandit.

As the sun dropped low on the Thursday after last Christmas, their confict came to a violent end.

Zenteno saw Perez in an old maroon pickup on the other side of the pump at the only gas station in town, got out of his white pickup-camper and fired at least 13 bullets into his enemy, authorities say.

Investigators said someone in the pickup fired back, but missed. Perez died. Zenteno went into hiding.

″The struggle that flooded from one and the sick rage of the other are accumulated expressions of the failure to find a solution to the problems,″ said Gov. Patrocinio Gonzalez Garrido of Chiapas state, who knew both men.

In remote southern Mexico, problems are rooted in land reform and justice, which have routes as circuitous as the curling mountain roads.

Zenteno, 49, and Perez, 38, were born on farms in Bochil county - Zenteno on land his grandfather owned and Perez on the big Llano Grande ranch where his father worked.

Perez grew up speaking Tzotzil, an Indian language. After finishing sixth grade in Bochil town, a two-hour walk from home, he became a bilingual teacher.

He looked for ways to help his fellow peasants, and the foundation of his struggle became the land reform acts that emerged from Mexico’s revolution in 1910-1920.

Those acts outlaw such large holdings as Llano Grande, and peasants can petition the government to give the land to them.

If the petition is granted, a peasant receives a grant called an ejido. The land it covers can be used and passed on to children, but not sold or rented out.

Entangled as it is in bureaucracy, the process takes years, even lifetimes.

Investigations of old deeds, challenges by owners, and conflicting previous decisions conspire with inefficiency to create a legal labyrinth in the agrarian reform system. The cases are not handled by courts.

″He started to see all the applications for ejidos that were 20, 30, 40 years old,″ said Perez’s wife, Manuela, 34, who lived with him since she was 14. ″The ones who first made the application had already died.″

″He began to see that the government said there was no more land, because land doesn’t stretch ... but he saw there was still land in the hands of caciques. They passed themselves off as small property owners but they had a great deal of land.″

The peasants saw Zenteno as a cacique, or rural boss - a man with land, wealth and clout.

Zenteno had run the family ranch since he dropped out of school in the sixth grade when his father fell ill. He raised cattle and sold smaller tracts of land to buy bigger, better ones like the Santo Domingo ranch, putting some in the names of his children.

He had houses on Santo Domingo, in Bochil, where he served a term as mayor, and in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital.

Perez started working for the peasants in 1980. About 35 tracts of 250-750 acres were turned into ejidos through his efforts.

Posters from his unsuccessful campaign for a federal Senate seat on the Socialist Party ticket last summer show him with a droopy mustache and beard. He had just finished a term in the state legislature.

Perez spent his last year on an ejido called Las Granjas with Manuela and their three daughters. They lived in a rundown two-story main house whose columned porch, now-dry swimming pool and palm-lined drive recall more opulent days.

Zenteno and Perez came to grips in 1986 when peasants petitioned for Santo Domingo, the Zenteno family’s prize holding, and two other tracts totaling about 1,000 acres.

Gonzalez, the governor, says the holdings were within legal limits, which vary depending on land use, availability of water and other factors.

The peasants disagreed and conducted a ″recovery,″ putting up shacks and planting crops while they awaited a decision. Zenteno and other ranchers called it an invasion.

″They looted, they stole what they found and left,″ said the eldest of Zenteno’s five children, Roberto. ″We had to be ready for this every week or two.″

Another son, Eduardo, was wounded two years ago in an ambush the family blames on Perez.

At the time of his death, Perez was named in 27 warrants on robbery and other charges stemming from takeovers. Gov. Gonzalez said landowners often fabricate charges against peasant leaders.

On Dec. 11, the younger Roberto Zenteno said, peasants took corn, some fighting cocks and sheep. Four bulls disappeared and squatters invaded the main house.

″We exhausted all the resources,″ said his brother Marco Antonio, a lawyer. ″We knocked door to door on the government offices. We felt impotent.″

Authorities ran campesinos off the ranch twice, and the Zentenos sometimes did it themselves.

Manuela Perez remembers sadness at Christmas. An anonymous letter had wished her husband and other peasant leaders ″A Bitter Christmas and Sad New Year.″

On Thursday, Dec. 29, station attendants told authorities, Zenteno was getting gas when Perez arrived in the pickup with his wife and two other people. An attendant began filling the maroon truck, they said, and Zenteno started shooting.

An autopsy revealed 13 bullets in her husband’s body, fired from close range.

Investigators said three shots came from the pickup. Paraffin tests indicated Perez had fired a weapon, but none was found.

A small, gray wooden cross marks the grave, the name lettered in black by hand.

Zenteno is wanted for homicide. Maybe he thought he could get away with it.

″Tradition in Chiapas has been that a crime is committed and in six months is forgotten or you have the guarantee justice isn’t going to function,″ Gonzalez observed in an interview. He said he is changing that.

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