DOäA ANA COUNTY, N.M. - Felix Ledesma stares out at the border shantytown where his family now lives and he shakes his head: "We moved here because New Mexico is the land of opportunity."
But Ledesma's children play nearby
in muddy pools, and around them rise an odd assortment of homes -
cinder block shacks, school buses and worn-out trailers with scrap
wood additions. The few modest frame houses seem palatial and out
This is a colonia, a settlement thrown
together and as poor as anything in the Third World. A power pole
stands at one dwelling, with orange extension cords strung off it
leading to several trailers. Next to other homes sit rusted,
second-hand Mexican propane tanks which lack safety devices
required in this country.
Residents flush sewage
into open cesspools and homemade septic systems. Sometimes they
pour sewage into shallow trenches, allowing it to seep into soils
only a few yards from a shallow well. Even in places where a safe
water system has been installed, bacterial contamination continues
to be a problem.
New Mexico health oficials say
dysentery, shigellosis, hepatitis A, tuberculosis and other
diseases sometimes reach epidemic proportions in the colonias. But
firm data do not exist because many residents use free clinics or
travel to "farmacias' in Mexico for
"Now," says Ledesma, "I got some
information from the court that all these places are illegal, that
there weren't supposed to be any houses here."
Ledesma is not alone in feeling abused by the
developers who sold him land. Outside Las Cruces, N.M., 5,000
Hispanics live in five rural colonias lacking adequate sewer,
water, road and utility improvements, and not one of these
ramshackle developments was ever reviewed by land-use planners or
health department officials.
How could this
happen? Loose land-use laws and unscrupulous developers, say the
New Mexico Attorney General and the Doûa Ana County
Commissioners. In state court, they have alleged that 19 locally
prominent developers illegally created the Mesquite, Vado, Milagro,
Las Palmeras and Joy Drive colonias, and they've charged the
defendants with conspiring to circumvent the New Mexico Subdivision
Act by platting hundreds of unimproved lots with no approval from
the county planning board.
State law allows
landowners to divide their property into four lots every three
years without county review. In each colonia, a group of
individuals working in concert divided adjoining lands into smaller
and smaller tracts, the lawsuit charges. But each person only
divided their chunk into four parcels to avoid county review.
In one portion of the Vado colonia, the lawsuit
alleges that a 42-acre tract was split into 28 lots in less than a
month. In another case, developers platted 200
The plaintiffs also argue that the
developers sold the property without accurately explaining to
buyers that no provisions were made for sewer/water systems,
improved roads and other infrastructure.
Heck, a Las Cruces colonia developer, maintains the subdivisions
fill a need. "We've sold the property very inexpensively," Heck
says. "It is usually no money down and small monthly payments, $100
to $150. That's about the same price these people would have to pay
in a mobile home park to rent. This makes it affordable for people
to finally own something and not be a tenant forever."
Heck warns, "If we have to put in these very
expensive roads and other requirements, people cannot afford the
land. They just don't have that kind of money."
The numbers don't back him up. In Doûa Ana
County, the average cost of a lot in an approved subdivision that
includes proper roads and utilities and approved sewer and water
systems is about $14,500. The average cost of a lot in one of the
county's colonias is about $13,100 - no improvements included.
Developers pocket the money which should have been spent on
Most people in the colonias have
incomes far below the poverty line and they say they'd never get a
bank to loan them money. This makes them extremely vulnerable to
Typical terms for
colonia lots involve little or no money down, 10-18 percent
interest rates, and a contract lasting 20-30 years. But a family
may end up actually spending more than $40,000 for a patch of sand
to put a trailer on; failure to pay means they lose it
So who will pay for necessities such as
roads and potable water? The Environmental Protection Agency has
allocated $10 million for wastewater treatment facilities in
Doûa Ana County, but agency officials say even $10 million
probably wouldn't get the job done. Ron Curry of New Mexico's
Environment Department says the cost of installing wastewater
treatment systems in the Mesquite colonia alone would be $3.6
If the state and county prevail in the
lawsuit, however, developers may have to pay a maximum of $5,000 in
restitution to each lot owner. The court also has the power to
impose even stiffer penalties.
lawsuits are still in the discovery phase, according to Doûa
Ana County Attorney Kevin Elkins, but thus far the news is not good
for residents. Judge Jerald A. Valentine has ruled in favor of the
developers on portions of the case heard so far, and Doûa Ana
County recently dismissed six local defendants from the suit.
Meanwhile, after threatening a veto, Republican
Gov. Gary Johnson signed into law April 7 an amendment to the New
Mexico Subdivision Act that will close many of the opportunities
for colonia formation. The measure says landowners can only avoid
county review if they split their land once every five years,
instead of the current four times every three years.
A last-minute concession to the real estate
industry delays the bill's implementation until July of 1996, says
Kay Roybal of the state attorney general's office. The time delay
could set off a boom in subdivisions, she says, and some counties
have contacted her office to ask about implementing subdivision
moratoria until the law goes into effect.
more information, contact the New Mexico attorney general's office
The writer is a former
land-use planner who now teaches at New Mexico State University in
Las Cruces, New Mexico.