The tourist port of Avalon, on Catalina Island, is the largest town in the archipelago.
For three weeks in September 1972, a Mexican flag flew high above Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California (USA).
“We are being invaded. Mexican soldiers are claiming the island!” exclaimed a secretary from the government office of the island town of Avalon, according to the Los Angeles Times at the time.
They were not soldiers, nor a formal invasion.
But there were some uniformed men from the Boinas Cafés group, made up of Chicanos (Americans of Mexican origin) who were claiming for Mexico the islands of the Northern Archipelago (known in the US as the Channel Islands).
Although it was a symbolic protest to make visible the struggles for the social rights of Chicanos, the claim was based on a key episode in the history of the US and Mexico.
And it is that Santa Catalina, together with the two dozen islands and rocks located off the coast of California, were never mentioned in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which put an end to the US invasion of Mexico.
The pact forced Mexico to cede 55% of its territory to its northern neighbor, but did not include those islands.
“Although the Mexican claim is politically unfeasible today, for some Mexican law is still in force,” international law expert Juan Carlos Velázquez told BBC Mundo.
The academic, who has analyzed the case in a book (2007), explains that the Mexican government never paid attention to the sovereignty it could have over the islands after signing the treaty.
And when he wanted to do it, almost a century later, it was already too late.
The Northern Archipelago is made up of 10 islands and 12 rocks whose extension adds up to about 1,000 square kilometers.
In themselves they were never a key territory, but they were within the great objective of the United States to take over the coast of California.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, the rising North American power was looking for ways to access the Pacific, historian Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach explained to BBC Mundo. But that territory belonged to New Spain and then to Mexico.
“There were many attempts, including those to buy Alta California, to buy Baja California,” says the academic, who worked for 10 years at the US Library of Congress, where she had privileged access to historical documents on this issue.
William Shaler, a US diplomat and government agent, had tried to “bombard San Diego in 1803 and couldn’t take it,” Jiménez explains.
“In his diary he goes on saying where it is easy to land, in such a cove, in such a place, how many ships can be taken and how many troops. And in the end he says that Spain will never be able to defend this. You can take the entire peninsula [of Baja California] and Alta California.”
Jiménez also reviewed documents that speak of attempts to purchase the territory. When Mexico became independent in 1821, Agustín de Iturbide, the country’s first ruler, and his successors were offered a purchase agreement.
“But no government accepted the sale,” explains the historian.
The situation, however, changed with the invasion of Mexico that the United States undertook in 1845. Their superiority in weapons and the weakness of Mexico due to internal political disputes, led to the capture of Mexico City in September 1847.
After almost five months, the Mexican government agreed to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848 in exchange for 2.3 million square kilometers of territory, including Alta California.
Mexico was “compensated” with US$15 million, that is, US$6.5 per square kilometer.
What did the Treaty say?
The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Definitive Settlement, as it was formally called, had a very general wording when it indicated the new border limits between the two countries, explains Juan Carlos Velázquez.
Article V states that the “dividing line between the two republics will begin in the Gulf of Mexico, three leagues out of land” in front of the Rio Grande (called Grande in the US). When the river reached the city of El Paso (Texas), the border would run west in a straight line.
“It will continue later through the middle of this branch and the Gila River until its confluence with the Colorado River; and from the confluence of both rivers, the dividing line cutting the Colorado, will follow the limit that separates the Alta from Baja California to the Pacific Sea”, he concludes.
In the wording of the treaty, the islands of the Northern Archipelago are not mentioned.
“The treaty points towards the continental part, not insular. By extension it is understood that what derives are the islands, but at that time there was no convention on the law of the sea or clear rules of how far the domain of an island or an exclusive economic zone is, ”explains Velázquez.
The islands were left in limbo at a time when international law was different. The area of domain that is given by extension towards the sea was three miles, and did not reach the islands of the archipelago.
Mexico at that time could claim the right of sovereignty over them.
Could they be Mexican again?
After the war, the United States took control of its new territory, including those islands off the southern coast of California. And there were threats on the Baja California peninsula, where Washington troops maintained their presence months after the signing of the Treaty, explains Jiménez.
“They saw it as highly strategic, but the Mexicans managed to keep it,” he adds.
In Mexico City, meanwhile, the government’s position was greatly weakened. The struggles for power continued between liberals and conservatives, in addition to fears of a new US intervention: “In Mexico we have had governments that are very weak against the United States,” reflects the historian.
It was not until the 1890s that the issue of the Northern Archipelago generated debate again when the Mexican geographer Esteban Cházari made a case study to gain access to the country’s Society of Geography and Statistics.
Cházari set out the reasons why the islands should be claimed, based on what the treaty said. However, his work did not have an echo in the Mexican government of the time.
Four decades passed until in 1942 -almost a century after the war with the US- President Manuel Ávila Camacho ordered the formation of a commission to analyze the “nationality” of the islands based on Cházari’s work.
The Commission determined that there were no elements to be able to claim sovereignty for Mexico, despite the fact that there was never an explicit cession of the islands in the 1848 Treaty, explains Velázquez. In fact, he continues, the treaty itself is not specific about the territories, although there was a subsequent agreement.
“From the point of view of international law, the islands were ceded to the neighboring State based on the 1848 treaty and its 1853 complement,” explains Juan Carlos Velázquez.
“It seems evident that the government of our country has shown signs of recognizing that it was lost in 1848, assuming that it was lost to the United States,” he adds, since from the beginning it was understood that Alta California was made up of a territory that included the islands and that was ceded in the agreement that ended the war.
In the end, Mexico never filed a formal petition. There was an “inexplicable absence of claims from Mexico,” says the expert.
“On several occasions, the Mexican authorities were required to proceed, by society, scholars, and academics. But the governments of the different times were passive.
In international law, it continues, there is a figure called animus domini, the will to dominate, which is “a manifestation that a State must make over a certain territory,” he explains.
“Just as a right can be obtained, the opposite is derelictio or abandonment of rights. In the case of Mexico, there was never a direct claim or request to the United States to claim these islands ”, he considers.
To top off the case, in 1978 both countries reached an agreement on their maritime limits that clearly states that Mexican waters are out of reach of the islands of the Northern Archipelago, which buried any minimum (or “unreal” in realpolitic, as Velázquez considers) of some claim to sovereignty.
“As valid as Mexico’s reasons for filing a claim over the archipelago would have been in their day, under current conditions they have no chance of success,” the expert concludes.