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Bullets flew at courthouse in land grant fight

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Former New Mexico Governor David F. Cargo in 1988. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Former New Mexico Governor David F. Cargo in 1988. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

It had been nearly 40 years, but the images were still etched in former Gov. David Cargo’s mind. The day was June 5, 1967, and a caravan of New Mexico National Guard trucks and tanks was headed down Interstate 25, capping a bizarre day that thrust the obscure mountain village of Tierra Amarilla in northern Rio Arriba County into the national spotlight.

Some two dozen land grant activists had taken control of the courthouse, shot up the place, critically wounded a couple of law enforcement officers, and kidnapped a journalist and another officer.

By that evening – as Cargo was flying back into New Mexico from Michigan – the state had sprung to action. The lieutenant governor had mobilized the National Guard and a massive manhunt was underway to capture the raiders.

“We came in over Santa Fe,” recalled Cargo, who was governor at the time. “You could look down on La Bajada Hill. As I looked down, I saw all these trucks and some tanks, and I thought, what in the hell is going on?”

Tuesday (June 5, 2007) will mark the 40th anniversary of Tierra Amarilla’s infamous day – the day tensions over lost land grants boiled over into a blaze of bullets, spilling the blood of a State Police officer and jailer.

The activists – called the Alianza Federal de Mercedes – believed huge areas of land around the Southwest awarded as land grants by the Mexican or Spanish governments had been wrongfully taken away after the region became part of the United States in the mid-19th century.

Participants say the raid brought the injustices to light and helped spawn some changes. Forty years later, land grant activists are still fighting, but they’re now appealing to Congress to right the wrongs.

It was a rainy Monday afternoon when the land grant activists stormed the courthouse in their quest to make a citizens arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez.

Three days before the raid, Sanchez blocked a meeting of the Alianza in Coyote. Eleven members of the group were arrested near Canjilon on various charges. Eight of them were slated to be arraigned on the day of the raid.

Alianza members – led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, a charismatic former evangelical minister – wanted to arrest Sanchez for violating their rights.

But Sanchez was 92 miles away in Santa Fe fielding telephone calls from villagers warning that something was about to happen and coordinating with law enforcement officials in an effort to head it off, Sanchez told the Journal during a recent interview.

The Alianza sent a few members to scout the courthouse. After getting the OK, about two dozen Alianza members crammed into a truck, a station wagon and a car and headed to it.

Tijerina wore a white handkerchief over part of his face as he and others invaded the courthouse, said Baltasar Martinez, one of the raiders.

Eulogio Salazar, a jailer, was shot in the face and chest as he tried to jump out a courthouse window. State Police officer Nick Saiz was hit in the left arm and chest while inside the courthouse.

Both men survived the wounds, but Salazar was later murdered, 10 days before he was to have testified against Tijerina. Tijerina has denied any involvement in Salazar’s murder, which remains unsolved.

Those in the courthouse were rounded up in the County Clerk’s Office. Among them was then-United Press International reporter (and later Albuquerque Journal editor and columnist) Larry Calloway. He recalled being taken at gunpoint through the courthouse halls that were spattered with blood.

After realizing that the district attorney wasn’t at the courthouse, most of the raiders fled. But in the chaos, Martinez and another raider were left behind.

They took Calloway and a sheriff’s deputy hostage, putting them in a pickup truck and driving through calm streets shooting up police cars, Calloway wrote soon after his ordeal. Both men eventually escaped their captors.

The raiders fled into the mountains.

State Police from throughout northern New Mexico rushed to Tierra Amarilla. A State Police helicopter with two shotgun riders aboard swooped in and out over the hills around Canjilon.

And National Guard troops on tanks scoured the countryside looking for those who had shot up the courthouse.

Tijerina and other raiders were eventually nabbed or turned themselves in. Tijerina ended up serving two years in federal prison for an Alianza takeover of the Echo Amphitheater in the Carson National Forest near Abiquiu.

In the aftermath of the raid, Cargo and Sanchez would point fingers at one another, Sanchez saying Cargo encouraged the group by coddling them and leading them on and Cargo saying Sanchez forced the standoff through his hard-nosed actions. A reflective Cargo said conditions were probably ripe for the raid. “Everything just came together,” he said. “You had the war in Vietnam. You had unrest all over the country. You had assassinations. You had everything going on, a lot of unrest.”

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