The land problem: Luis Terrazas, the laws, and latifundia during the Porfiriato

Learn how landowner Luis Terrazas alienated tens of thousands of acres in Chihuahua by employing these policies during the Porfiriato.

The land problem: Luis Terrazas, the laws, and latifundia during the Porfiriato
The rules and the establishment of the latifundia during the Porfiriato. Image credit and text: AGN, Artistic and Literary Property, inventory number 1752.

The consolidation of the large estates during the Porfiriato period took place under the protection of the advantageous laws that the old regime established on uncultivated and colonized lands. Discover how the landowner, Luis Terrazas, used these policies to alienate thousands of hectares in Chihuahua.

During the Porfiriato, some of the worst things that happened were the project to mark uncultivated land and the colonization of land. This allowed large landowners to get together and, with the help of the law, take thousands of hectares of land from the most vulnerable people.

We can point out that the antecedent of the Porfirian policies on uncultivated land dates back to the mid-19th century when the liberal government sought to strengthen the Mexican State in the face of the clergy and the army. These two groups had been in charge of the country's power and wealth for a long time, especially the Church, which had become one of the most important institutions during the Viceroyalty and kept its privileges after the independence process.

The reactionary attitude of the clergy towards any form of government that would affect their interests and privileges was one of the substantial reasons that led the liberals to establish important reforms to Mexico's economic, political, and legal systems, to achieve a secular, liberal, and republican state.

The lands that the clergy kept in their hands under usufruct served to supply their coffers. When their interests were threatened by the government, they used their wealth to foment "fratricide" among Mexicans, as they financed groups to create revolts. For this reason, the establishment of a secular state was placed as the main issue in the framework of laws and reforms promoted by the liberals, and thus the Lerdo Law of June 25, 1856, the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Property of June 12, 1859, and the Decree on Occupation and Disposal of Vacant Land of July 20, 1863, were born.

As for the latter law, its main objective was to reactivate the country's economy through the colonization of uncultivated land as well as to avoid land speculation in the hands of a few; that is, to regulate the price and regulate all property titles that were defective or lacked them.

To strengthen this policy, on May 31, 1875, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada issued the Decree on Colonization. Its articles entrusted the task of colonization to private companies with the support of the state, and also promoted the creation of the incipient delimitation companies, which would obtain a third part of the delimited lands.

These norms were the basis and antecedents that gave shape to the policies of the Porfirian period on colonization, alienation of uncultivated lands, and delimiting companies. In this context, the Decree on Colonization and Delimiting Companies was promulgated on December 15, 1883. Unlike the decree formulated during the government of Benito Juárez, this one sought, in the first instance, to strengthen the delimitation companies in their tasks of "delimiting, measuring, dividing, and valuing vacant or national property lands".

In the decree, some rules said no more than 2,500 hectares could be divided, and the land to be divided had to be occupied and used.

However, these obligations were abolished with the enactment of the Law on Occupation and Alienation of Vacant Lands of March 26, 1894, Article 7 of which established the cessation of the obligation to have the land populated, enclosed, and cultivated, while Article 8 repealed any legal provision that invalidated alienations of more than 2,500 hectares without the possibility of being claimed by the State.

As a result of these new norms established during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the rapacity of companies and individuals increased and accelerated to concentrate large amounts of land, which resulted in a notable increase in the number of cases that went to the district judges to determine the disposition of the hundreds of vacant lots that were denounced.

Likewise, when comparing figures of the total amount of land surveyed during the governments of Benito Juárez and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada concerning the government of Manuel González Flores and the first mandate of Porfirio Díaz, we realize the abysmal difference. In the first two governments, only about two and a half million hectares were demarcated, while in the other two governments, by 1885, the exorbitant figure of fourteen and a half million hectares was demarcated, of which five million were given to the demarcation companies as payment.

Among the landowners who benefited greatly from the interpretation of the laws was Luis Terrazas from Chihuahua, who managed to obtain thousands of cleared hectares. The AGN preserves a few property titles that were given to Terrazas by the President of the Republic, among them the title granted on July 26, 1887, for a land extension of 20,104 hectares. This was part of the Hacienda de San Miguel Babicora, owned by Terrazas, but it was considered surplus. As it had already been occupied and worked by the landowner, the decision was made to sell this land to him for 20 cents per hectare.

Porfirio Díaz also granted other lands located in the municipality of Casas Grandes, District of Galeana, Chihuahua, to the landowner Terrazas. These were considered vacant lands and had been demarcated by the Valenzuela Demarcation Company in 1894. This land had an area of 23,124 hectares and was sold for a total of 41,623 pesos, at a value of $1.80 per hectare. This final value gave its new owner the right to use any mineral or hydrocarbon resources that could be found.

To summarize, land demarcation intensified during the Porfiriato period; however, they incubated their destruction by dealing a hard blow to the peasant class and indigenous peoples, who would end up swelling the revolutionary ranks that would put the old Mexican regime to death and demand agrarian reform from the new government, as well as initiate the distribution of land that had been concentrated.