(2003) JLP 48: 163-183




Monique Nuijten




After the Mexican Revolution (1920-1920) large landholdings were expropriated and handed over to the rural population formally organized in communities known as ejidos. The Agrarian Law stipulated that ejidatarios (members of ejidos) acquired only usufructuary rights to the individual plots allocated to them, and were not empowered to sell or rent them, nor to retain land which they ceased to work. Transactions concerning plots of ejido land, illegal until 1992, were studied in the ejido of La Canoa, a small hamlet in Jalisco.


It was found that many ejidatarios migrated, usually to the USA , for periods of years, and rented out their land while they were away. They ran the risk of having their land taken away on the occasion of the periodic Investigation of Use of Plots (IUP) by the Ministry of Agrarian Reform (SRA). However, by putting a relative in charge of the land, and by paying the small annual tax in person, the ejidatario could often avoid this. Other ejidatarios would normally follow the strategy of not raising objections. Sales of land to other ejidatarios also occurred. Although they often disapproved for social reasons, others again found it preferable not to interfere. The ejido assembly would approve such transfers under the pretence that they were ‘voluntary transfers of use rights’, that the land had been abandoned and allocated to the purchaser, or that the purchaser was the vendor’s heir. Officials of the SRA were paid not to make problems, and no sale was ever cancelled. When in 1992 a new Agrarian Law was enacted allowing sales, ejidatarios began to engage in sales in the ‘new way’, through the use of documents drawn by lawyers. Although the measuring and registration of plots, required by the Law as a condition for sales, had not yet occurred, they were confident that the sales would not be cancelled.


It is seen that the negotiation, bargaining and execution of illegal transactions were carried out in a discursive context formed by the formal agrarian legislation. The SRA lacked the capacity or information to exercise detailed control over land, and so long as the ejidatarios were not divided among themselves, they could ‘keep the law at a distance’. Governmental techniques were re-enchanted: thus the IUP turned into a procedure for the legalisation of illegal or formally defective transactions; documents such as tax receipts became ‘proof’ of continued residence in the ejido. ‘Shadow procedures’ were created to conceal illegal transactions. It is argued that these illegal land transactions became established in a patterning of processes which may be best understood not as based on a normative order but as a force field in which the patterns emanated from conflict and competition.