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Column 110507 Thompson

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mexico’s Claim to California Islands – A Never-ending Story

By Barnard R. Thompson

This is a story I get to rewrite every triennial or so, about modern day claims that California’s Channel Islands should still belong to Mexico.  This insofar as during most Mexican congressional periods some legislator laments the loss of territory to the United States following the Mexican-American War (1846-48), and cites the fact that the eight Channel Islands were not specifically named in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the war ending peace contract that also delineated the United States-Mexico boundary.

Largely twaddle for pretext and show rather than genuineness, this time out the claim is being heard from a historian, Ricardo Melgar, a Peruvian working for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

According to Melgar, who spoke at the XI International Congress of Regional History in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on October 19, “the Mexican government must once again demand sovereignty over seven [sic] islands in the Pacific Ocean that were occupied by U.S. troops during the Second World War and never returned.”

Saying that the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente are historically Mexican, Melgar asserts that with the outbreak of WWII the islands were taken over by the 11th Naval District of San Diego, for strategic security reasons.

The problem is the historian left out about 100 years of history and most facts, as well as an entire island.

In 1542 several of the aforementioned Channel Islands (for some reason Anacapa Island was omitted from Melgar’s list) were discovered during the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, which he collectively called the Islas San Lucas.  In 1769 members of the Gaspar de Portola expedition claimed the islands for the King of Spain, under the Laws of the Indies.  And in 1793 British naval captain George Vancouver gave the islands the names we know today.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 California and the islands were part of the package, and during that Mexican period governors of Upper (Alta) California granted several of the islands to individuals.  (In view of my own history, disclosure must be made that Juan Bandini, who laid grantee claims to the islands of Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz, was an ancestral grandfather.)

However Mexican land grants gave conditional ownership, and to maintain the title a grantee had to use the land.  Yet in the case of the eight offshore islands, the issues went mute with the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and California statehood in 1850.

While the Channel Islands were not named in the Treaty, they are clearly shown on the official map.  And the Disturnell Treaty Map, which delineated the boundary between the United States and Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War, leaves no doubt that the islands are north of the border.

As to the Treaty itself, Article V states in its first paragraph: “The boundary line between the two Republics shall commence in the Gulf of Mexico … thence across the Rio Colorado, following the division line between Upper and Lower [Baja] California, to the Pacific Ocean.”

It continues, “…  And, in order to preclude all difficulty in tracing upon the ground the limit separating Upper from Lower California, it is agreed that the said limit shall consist of a straight line drawn from the middle of the Rio Gila, where it unites with the Colorado, to a point on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, distant one marine league due south of the southernmost point of the port of San Diego….”

Article V concludes: “The boundary line established by this article shall be religiously respected by each of the two republics, and no change shall ever be made therein, except by the express and free consent of both nations, lawfully given by the General Government of each, in conformity with its own constitution.”

Getting back to INAH expert Melgar, he said that the sovereign demand for the seven Mexican islands is a task for civil society, insofar as Mexicans “need not assume ownership of something that is already theirs.”  And he concluded: “To debate islands is to debate borders, it is to debate identity, it is to debate laws.”

For those who might like to read on, and to get an idea as to what took place (in part at least) during the last congressional discussion of the matter, the following is my column on the subject published in March 2003.

A Mexican Claim to California’s Channel Islands

Like clockwork, a federal deputy has submitted a resolution in congress calling for President Vicente Fox Quesada to initiate immediate legal action against the U.S.A., so that the Channel Islands of California can be returned to Mexico.  Furthermore, this time around Labor Party (Partido del Trabajo) deputy Víctor Antonio García Dávila (Sinaloa) is demanding compensation from the U.S.A., for the privilege of having used the islands since 1848.  The congressman’s initiative was sent along to committee on March 12.

Longtime Mexico watchers will recognize this as a cyclical play to the gallery, as similar legislation seems to be brought to the floor every three to six years.  The claims, nonsensical as they may appear, are that the Channel Islands were not included in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the 1846-48 Mexican War, and as such the islands still belong to Mexico.

But García Dávila has added some new twists to the mix, making one wonder if he might possibly be crafty or is he simply unenlightened?  One might guess the latter.

There are eight Channel Islands off the southern California coast, islands that are generally segregated into two groups.  The four northern islands are Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel.  The southern four are Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente.  As well, there are several islands south of the U.S.A.-Mexico border that at times (among the English-speaking) are referred to as the “Mexican Channel Islands,” starting with the four-island grouping of the Islas Coronado.

In part the proposal by García Dávila states: “Since our days in elementary school we have followed the history of our country, the heroic deeds of many valiant compatriots who gave their lives for the fatherland, but too we sadly know of the dispossession of February 2, 1848, when those who since that time would want to own the world, the U.S.A., snatched away half of our territory.”

But then his history and geopolitics go from a Mexican point of view to a stretch of the imagination.

In mentioning a series of supposed errors and miscalculations with respect to the boundary agreement of 1848, García Dávila points out that “the Archipelago of the North, a group of eight islands off southern California and that, according to the list of concessions and the border maps of that time, is not listed in the treaty.  In other words, legally they still belong to our country (with) usufruct (use) by the North Americans since then….”

The eight California Channel Islands are located well north of the border, and while they may not be specifically listed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo they are clearly north of the boundary line that was drawn in distinctly on maps attached to the treaty.  Looking in the other direction, there is no doubt that the Islas Coronado lie below the line of demarcation and belong to Mexico.

But the congressman seems to be seriously confused with geography.  Or maybe the aforementioned Archipelago of the North (a geographic term that appears to be quite modern in origin and without historic precedent) includes more islands and extends further south — or maybe it moved.

“The Archipelago of the North, or Islas Coronado, is in front of Tijuana and San Diego, and today it is a tourist center with casinos and beaches, that is also used as a U.S.A. naval base.  The North Americans snuck in, and since then it has been in their possession,” his proposition reads.

It would seem that García Dávila is confusing and/or mixing the Islas Coronado with San Diego’s Coronado Island, and its Naval Amphibious Base Coronado and Naval Air Station North Island.  As to beaches, those on Coronado Island are lovely but the few coves with beaches on the Islas Coronado are off-limits to anyone who might like to go ashore.  Moreover, has the congressman ever seen what is left of the Los Coronados Yacht Club, built mainly as a casino in the 1930s on Mexico’s Isla Coronado Sur — if that is what he is talking about?  As of this date, if there are any gambling casinos on Coronado Island the general public does not know about them.  Or might García Dávila mean the Catalina Island Casino, assuming he knows what that casino is and where Santa Catalina Island is located?

As to sneaking in, the congressman might want to avoid the immigration debate.


Barnard Thompson, editor of MexiData.info, has spent 50 years in Mexico and Latin America, providing multinational clients with actionable intelligence; country and political risk reporting and analysis; and business, lobbying, and problem resolution services.  He can be reached via e-mail at mexidata@ix.netcom.com.

Disturnell Treaty Map, The Library of Congress