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http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object.cfm?key=35&gkey=100&objkey=5961
Tierra o Muerte, bytegirl24, flickr
It was a sunny weekend morning about fifteen years ago. Here in Rio Arriba County, northern New Mexico, occasional bombs were still going off in remote mountain villages. Every now and then, a stolen, charred, formerly pale green US Forest Service truck turned up by the side of the road as a reminder: Tierra o Muerte.

Land or Death.

These were the last of the Land Grant skirmishes.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed in 1848, the US pledged to honor Spanish Land Grants, and the communally held land within their borders.

Of course, that didn't happen. In Rio Arriba, much of the communally-owned land wound up in the hands of wealthy Anglo land barons or the Forest Service. Various all-Anglo environmental groups were waging lawsuits, keeping indigenous Hispanic and Native American subsistence farmers from grazing small flocks of sheep or cattle on allotments their ancestors had worked for centuries. Hence, the sporadic property damage.

I worked for Rio Arriba County, a hotbed of land grant activism.

It was a weekend. And my phone was ringing.

My House
My House
My former landlady was on the line. I had purchased my house from her. She was the daughter a of land baron. Her family had more money than God, and owned half the real estate in the Valley (not to mention, gravel, pumice and various  extractive substances lurking under people's farms). Kelly's family was not particularly concerned subsistance ranching. They had carcasses of their own to pick with the Forest Service mainly related to their mining concerns. But she was always happy to pass along helpful bits of information supporting the County cause.

"Hey!" she practically shouted. "You're right down the road! Did you hear it when it went off?"

"Hear what?" I asked.

"You're kidding?" She sounded disappointed. "It was right down the road from you! Are you deaf???"

"Umm, when did it happen?" I asked. "When did this noise actually occur?"

"Last night."

She lowered her voice and whispered dramatically. "A bomb went off in the Forest Service building in the middle of the night. The ATF and the FBI are in town investigating. They're gonna be knocking on County doors in the morning asking you people all kinds of questions."

Everyone knew that a number of potential persons of interest were employed by the County of Rio Arriba. Reformers had established a local branch of La Raza Unida to protest corruption in the Democratic Party. Unsatisfied, they infiltrated the Party to organize a reform faction, Democrats for Progress, with the goal of strengthening agricultural traditions indigenous to the area. Democrats for Progress had just won control of the County Commission, and assembled an eccentric team of visionaries, activists, and relatives of commissioners as their new government.

Pinch Penny Wash-o-Mat
Having no buildings of their own, and being unwilling to rent from the previous Patron, they crammed most of their staff into the Pinch Penny Wash-o-Mat (minus the washing machines). The Finance Department was set up in cells in the defunct jail.

Nobody was sure where to put me, the only Anglo. My direct supervisor and I turned his car into a mobile office. We shoved our file folders into boxes in his trunk and drove up and down the County meeting with community leaders in their homes. We were Rio Arriba's Economic Development Department.

"Don't tell anybody," Kelly warned me. "It's a secret! The FBI wants to take them by surprise. I only know because I own the building."

"Oh, that explains what the FBI was doing!" I exclaimed. "I was out last night with Rich and the kids, and when we got home, there were a bunch of ATF agents out in the street waving flares at everyone and blocking off traffic. I wondered why they were there!"

Then I thought about my friend, Lori Osterstock, who ran the USFS Española District. She was a short, spunky redhead. Lori tended to view the occasional truck torchings as the cost of doing business in Rio Arriba. She usually responded by announcing a $10,000  reward for information leading to capture of the culprits. She'd leave the notices up for awhile to make it seem like she was engaging in a serious investigation.

I had taken her, along with a group of ranchers, environmentalists, county employees and land grant activists to Gunnison, Colorado in a county-owned school bus to observe a Resource Roundtable. We spent a week watching former enemies developing mutually acceptable solutions to problems. "This is great!" Lori enthused one night over dinner in Gunnison. "Let's go for it! Let's start up a Round Table in Rio Arriba!"

"Was anybody hurt?" I asked, anxiously.

"Nah," said Kelly. "It was the middle of the night so the building was empty. But they blew a hole in the wall. They used eight sticks of dynamite!" She lowered her voice for emphasis.   "Don't tell anybody. Only the FBI's supposed to know."

"Cross my heart and hope to die," I promised.

I started punching buttons the instant the receiver hit the cradle. If I was going to be entrusted with a secret, I damn well was going to insure the County Manager knew about it, especially if Feds would be knocking on his door asking questions.

"Hello?" inquired a voice I assumed to be his wife.

"Is Lorenzo there?" I asked.

Unlike the majority of his employees, Lorenzo Valdez was prudent. He was the kind of man who maintains his authority by knowing more than everyone else and proposing sensible solutions to problems. He responded to most of my suggestions by gazing skeptically over the rims of his bifocals without uttering a word. I retaliated by ignoring him.

"No," said the voice. "Can I take a message?"

"Don't tell this to anybody but Lorenzo," I directed importantly, carefully enunciating each syllable for emphasis. "This is Lauren. Somebody blew up a bomb in the Forest Service building last night. They used eight sticks of dynamite. Nobody was hurt. The ATF and FBI will be in his office Monday asking questions."

I left my phone number and hung up, pleased with my efficiency.

Unfortunately, I had been speaking not with Lorenzo's wife, but with his thirteen year-old son.

***********************

Lorenzo
Lorenzo
Later that afternoon, when Lorenzo returned home from moving his cows and patching his fences, his son met him at the door. "Special Agent Lawrence called," he informed his father. "He's from the FBI and he's seeking you for questioning. Someone blew up eight sticks of dynamite in the Forest Service office and they think you did it.

"Special Agent Lawrence will be at your office Monday morning. Is he going to arrest you?"

It's hard to imagine Lorenzo committing a crime more serious than filching an extra sugar packet for his coffee from the Long John Silver he'd occasionally patronize to avoid the histrionics of his staff. After listening to his son, Lorenzo would probably have exclaimed, "¡A la vercas! I'm not waiting till Monday morning for those pendejos to arrest me! I'm going over there right now to clear this thing up!"

He would have put on a clean pair of jeans, some cowboy boots, his grey blazer with the brown courdoroy elbow patches and western piping, and an engraved silver and turquoise bolo tie. He would have checked in the mirror to make sure his salt and pepper beard was neat, and perhaps pushed a discreet lock of combover into place.

He would have hopped into his pickup and driven quickly (but within the speed limit) to the intersection the FBI and ATF had commandeered.

Three or four agents would have been standing in the middle of the road in reflective ATF vests ostentatiously confusing motorists.

Lorenzo pulled up and jumped out of his car, approaching the Agent-in-Charge. "I'm Lorenzo Valdez," he declared in his near baritone voice. "I understand you're seeking me for questioning in connection with the eight sticks of dynamite planted in the Forest Service offices."

Several startled agents promptly shoved him into the backseat of an unmarked vehicle climbing in after him. Somebody jostled him roughly.

"Who are you?" they barked. "What's your connection with these terrorists?"

Lorenzo was annoyed. "I'm here to answer questions."

"Obviously you're connected with the terrorist ring that planted this device," responded the agent brusquely. "Otherwise how could you know about the eight sticks of dynamite?"

"I know about the eight sticks of dynamite," explained Lorenzo calmly, "because Special Agent Lawrence of the FBI called my home and left me a message that he's seeking me for questioning in regards to them."

"There is no Special Agent Lawrence," replied the Agent-in-Charge.

"There must be," insisted Lorenzo, "because he called me and left this number." He handed the Agent-in-Charge a slip of paper.

The agent examined Lorenzo's son's chicken scratch, reluctant to forgo the rare opportunity to collar a criminal mastermind in the hinterlands of New Mexico. He left Lorenzo in the back seat of the vehicle under the supervision of an armed agent while he convened several colleagues.

"Come to think of it," mused Lorenzo out loud, "that number looks familiar."

The agent pocketed the slip of paper upon returning to the front seat. Maybe Lorenzo could serve as bait to reel in bigger fish. "This is a communication from the terrorists," he warned. "They're playing some sort of game with you. I want you to call me immediately if they make further contact. Don't try to play FBI hero. They're dangerous."

Lorenzo ambled back to his truck, still puzzling over the number. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He spun around.

"Say!" he called to the Agent-in-Charge. "I have a feeling I know who rang me. It wasn't a terrorist at all. It was probably Lauren. She works for me." He paused a moment, stroking his beard. "She does some crazy stuff now and then, but she's only dangerous when you act on her messages."

The agent wasn't placated. "She must have some sort of connection to the terrorists," he advised Lorenzo. "Keep clear of the ring till we've rounded it up."

Lorenzo called me later that afternoon and related the story. "Now they're gonna be in your office asking questions Monday morning," he informed me. "You better be prepared."

"I don't have an office," I reminded him. "The laundromat was full. They'll have to track me down in Norman's car."

On Monday morning, a team of FBI agents assembled the staff of the Forest Service to report on their progress. "We have a suspect," announced the Agent-in-Charge. "We believe this individual to be a member of or to have a connection with the terrorist ring responsible for bombing this office."

Forest rangers glanced nervously at one another. Was the FBI going to escalate the conflict by actually arresting someone? "Maybe we should issue a $10,000 reward for information," suggested Lori. "See if anything surfaces."

"We have a suspect," repeated the Agent-in-Charge. "We believe Lauren Reichelt is a member of the terrorist ring behind the recent string of bombings."

The announcement met with a stunned silence followed by a burst of guffaws. "You gotta be kidding me!" gasped one of the rangers, slapping his thigh.

The Agent-in-Charge was defensive. "How else could she have known about the eight sticks of dynamite?" he demanded. "Or even have known we were here?"

"This is a small town," answered Lori. "You just busted one of the Queen-Pins of a Gossip Ring!" More laughter filled the room.

Meanwhile, I passed the time while waiting for Lorenzo by entertaining his staff with tales of his weekend crime-fighting exploits, engendering a great deal of mirth. When he finally walked into the Pinch Penny, he received a standing ovation.

His face turned as pink as his shirt. "El perro ladra y la caravana pasa," he muttered, repairing to his office.

Originally posted to TheFatLadySings on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 01:59 AM PST.

Also republished by New Mexico Kossaks.

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