Fresh Dispute Over Historic New Mexico Land Grant

ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — Trustees of an historic New Mexico land grant have sued a Colorado nonprofit, trying to void the 2003 transfer of more than 200 acres of community land.

The dispute is the latest in a centuries-old struggle over ownership of the Merced de Los Pueblos de Tierra Amarilla, which once was a 600,000-acre community-owned parcel established by Mexico in the 1830s to encourage settlement.

Tierra Amarilla is 92 miles north of Santa Fe, about 20 miles south of the Colorado line. The grant was guaranteed protections under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but became subject of controversy in late 1800s, when powerful Anglo attorney Thomas Catron began buying interests in it.

For decades, descendants of the settlers and activists have tried to reclaim ownership of the land, claiming that the community-held land was not individually owned and therefore could not be bought and sold.

In the 1960s, lay preacher Reies López Tijerina moved to Albuquerque, claiming to be inspired by a mystical dream in which he saw frozen horses melting in the sun. Tijerina founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (The Federal Alliance of Land Grants) to reclaim title to land grants which had been expropriated by the federal government and private landowners.

On June 5, 1967 Tijerina and his followers marched on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, to make a citizen’s arrest of the district attorney, after the group had been prohibited from holding a public meeting on land issues.

The protest escalated into a shootout in which a jailer and deputy were wounded and Tijerina and his followers kidnapped a deputy and a court reporter and fled into the countryside. The kidnapping led to the largest manhunt in New Mexico history. The hostages eventually were released and Tijerina was captured and tried, and sentenced to two years in prison for assault.

In 1988, a dispute arose over 500 acres of the Merced de Los Pueblos de Tierra Amarilla. The land was purchased by Vista del Brazos, an Arizona investment group, but also was claimed by Amador Flores, a local farmer.

Courts upheld Vista del Brazos’s rights and Flores spent 62 days in jail for contempt of court, but the court’s decision sparked a 14-month standoff in which the land was occupied by armed protesters who adopted the slogan Tierra o muerte — Land or death.

A civil lawsuit ended in a 1989 settlement, in which Vista del Brazos deeded 216 acres of the land to a community trust, El Consejo de la Tierra Amarilla Inc.

The trust held the land “for the common and beneficial use of the people.” But in 2003, the land was assigned by warranty deed to Al Frente de Lucha (to the Front of the Fight), a nonprofit based in Colorado, which describes itself as “an anti-colonial organization dedicated to the struggle for the self-determination and liberation of all oppressed people,” which uses the land to run a youth leadership program.

But according to the civil suit filed in Rio Arriba County Court on Wednesday, the people representing El Consejo de la Tierra Amarilla in the 2003 transfer were not elected board members and the board representing the trust did not approve the transfer.

So despite the fact that El Consejo de la Tierra Amarilla’s original incarnation was disbanded in 2006 and not reformed until 2017, the transfer of deed is invalid and ownership of the land must be returned to the reformed trust, the trustees say in the 16-page lawsuit.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the suit through his office. Balderas said in a statement that his office “will fight to preserve the history and culture of land grants throughout New Mexico. This land must be returned immediately, and placed in a trust for the benefit of Merced de Los Pueblos de Tierra Amarilla.”

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