The Barrio Land Grab

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

The volunteer work I do here is in a barrio of Lima called Villa el Salvador. It is the largest shantytown development in this city with slightly fewer than 400,000 residents. It’s received many accolades and is considered a model of urban social development in Latin America. But sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that when I am there. I have attached some photos of people's homes.

Villa el Salvador was started in 1971 when a group of 200 poor families living in inner-city Lima slums decided to "invade" a tract of desert land on the outskirts of the city. In less than two days, 9,000 people joined them.

The government reacted violently to the land grab, sending in troops to evict the invaders. After several people were killed in the standoff, the government tried to resolve the conflict peacefully and offered the families a massive plot of land 12 miles further south of metropolitan Lima. The land was on a large sand dune and had no water, electricity, sewers or access roads. Nearly 7,000 families relocated there in May 1971, and Villa el Salvador was born. It was officially incorporated as a district of Lima in 1983. All the residents there own their land (which was given to them by the government) and live in houses built by their own means.

Years of protests by residents have resulted in running water, electricity and even some paved roads in the more established sectors of Villa el Salvador. In newer sectors, water can be purchased from a "water truck," which comes twice a week to fill whatever type of water container the homeowner provides. However, in some of the newest sectors, many of the homes have no running water, no electricity and dirt floors. The houses are made of such flimsy material that it looks like the walls would collapse from a mere gust of wind.

These are the homes of the people that I visit weekly.