January 22, 2002

USD prof reaches way back for justice

Works on task FDR began 61 years ago


WASHINGTON -- University of San Diego School of Law
Professor Jorge A. Vargas is trying to finish a job that President
Franklin D. Roosevelt started more than 60 years ago --
obtaining millions of dollars for Mexican-Americans whose
ancestors filed claims after the 19th century Mexican-American

In recent months , Vargas has flooded the U.S. State Department and Mexico's Fox administration with letters and appeals after reviewing dusty legal briefs, treaties and agreements.

Among the most prominent document is an obscure 1941
covenant that Roosevelt signed with Mexico to sort out complex
legal claims arising from the bloody, two-year Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848.

As a result of that decades-old agreement, the United States paid its debt to landowners, but Mexico still owes millions of dollars, according to Vargas, an expert in Mexican and international law.

Vargas is serving as a private attorney for a group of 1,500
Mexican-Americans, seeking about $193 million in damages.
The holders of the claims are heirs or descendants of the
Mexican families whose properties -- lands, houses and other
assets -- were lost as a result of the war, which ended with the
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The group, known as the Texas Land Grants Association, based
in Edinburgh, Texas, has been organized since 1978. The group
stepped up its effort to obtain the money after Vicente Fox
became Mexico's president last year.

Other heirs include residents of California, New Mexico and
Arizona, according to Vargas.

"There has been denial of justice by the Mexican government
against the legitimate interests and rights of these families,"
Vargas said.

Since he's made his appeals, Vargas said he's had mixed
responses from United States and Mexican authorities.

Mexican officials so far have denied any obligation to pay the
money, but are continuing to review the matter.

A U.S. State Department official wrote to Vargas that the United
States is reluctant to interfere with a Mexican domestic issue;
yet Vargas said he has received encouragement from others in
U.S. diplomatic circles.

Yolanda Martinez, 55, a member of the Texas group, said she
was encouraged by Vargas' role in the long-running case.

"We've been in the fight for so long," Martinez said. "I think the
United States should have done more, have intervened. We just
lost our land, little by little. Our belief is that a great injustice
was done."

Some Mexican newspapers have been sympathetic to Vargas' bid
for a new look at the claims.

If he goes to court, Vargas said he would make legal arguments
that rest on the 1941 agreement Roosevelt signed with then
Mexican President Avila Camacho.

As the United States edged closer to World War II, Roosevelt
tried to enlist Avila Camacho's cooperation with the allies by
promising that the United States would pay its own share and
then some -- amounting to double what Mexico owed.

Avila Camacho enacted a decree in 1941 formally acknowledging
that his country would repay the debt, according to Vargas'
review of the records.

Then it never happened, Vargas said.