At the center of the controversy are non-Hispanic farmers—white-skinned Menones as they are often called in Mexico, or Mennonites, who are actually Mexican citizens as well, having transplanted to the region many years before. This stoic group farms the northern regions under a protected agreement with the Mexican federal government that dates back to 1921, when a large contingent of the sect fled their Canadian farms in protest of laws there that required them to send their children to government schools and to serve in the Canadian military, both of which are requirements prohibited by their fundamental religious beliefs.

Mennonites, who trace their origins to the late 16th century during the early Christian reformation in Europe, claim they are Anabaptists who have been searching for a home to call their own in what many of them refer to as "an escape from Babylon," an effort to flee from modernization and progress to pursue a more simple life. These fundamentalists have long refused to marry outside their ethnic community and do not interact socially with non-Mennonites.

While many are fluent in Spanish, communications among their sect is limited to a Low German dialect. Reflecting this tie to the Old World is evident in their attire of traditional black and white clothes that appear to belong to a previous age. In addition to their clothes, also absent of any color are their personal belongings, their farm houses, schools, barns and warehouses, all in various shades of black and white.

Upon arriving in Chihuahua in the early 1920s, the Mennonites struck an agreement with Mexican President Alvaro Obregón. In exchange for settling Mexico's least populated state, the Mexican government granted the settlers a Privilegium, an agreement between the settlers and federal authorities that protected their right to farm in perpetuity, utilizing whatever natural resources were available in the region. That agreement has been honored by Mexican officials to present times.

What has transpired through the decades is a Mennonite population expansion that now numbers near 85,000 members strong by many estimates. As a result, the group has also had to expand aggressively by purchasing more arid rangeland across the region through the years to accommodate their growth. While families in the sect have been encouraged to have as many children as possible to facilitate communal growth, they have, in recent years, been forced to contract with mostly Canadian water well companies to dig deep into the desert floor, reportedly to depths of 1,200 feet in an effort to reach water in the subterranean aquifer below.



Read Part II of the series