By Liam Dillon / Voice of San Diego
On a late Friday afternoon in February 2011, dozens of police officers carrying assault rifles arrived at Sempra Energy’s $1 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
The officers, dressed in ski masks and body armor, cut the chains on the plant’s gates. Once they had broken in, the police put their own seals on the gates.
The cops drove down a winding road through brown, brush-filled hillside. Just before reaching the facility’s entrance, the officers passed a swath of land that looked as barren and uninhabited as its surroundings.
That piece of property wasn’t as innocuous as it seemed.
Five years earlier, Sempra had purchased title to the land. The transaction was one of the final pieces to build its plant, a facility that would allow the company to pump imported gas to millions of homes and businesses on both sides of the border. But a rancher believed the land was his and accused Sempra of knowingly buying a fake deed to steal it from him. He was fighting to get the land back. The mayor of Ensenada had listened to the rancher’s complaint, and eventually sent the city’s police force to storm the Sempra plant.
At first glance, this looks like your typical David-vs.-Goliath tale: a large American company against a lone Mexican landowner. But it’s not that simple.
The rancher who took on Sempra had a Goliath of his own: José Susumo Azano Matsura, an heir to a Mexican development empire, defense contractor, high roller and political wheeler-dealer. For reasons that are still unclear, Azano agreed to finance the rancher’s legal battle against Sempra – and perhaps do much more than that. Just weeks before the raid, according to Sempra officials, Azano had threatened to drop a “Hiroshima bomb” on the company.
The incident was just one major blowup in the feud between Sempra and Azano, a fight that’s lasted years and led to countless allegations, counterclaims and investigations involving the highest levels of the U.S. and Mexican governments.