Memo From Mexico | Americans In Mexico: Turnabout Not Fair Play

I don't always defend Americans who get into trouble in Mexico. Some of them deserve it. But other Americans come here with good intentions and wind up getting a raw deal. Nothing much is ever done to help them – despite George W. Bush's celebrated claim that the U.S. and Mexico have "common values and a shared culture."

A recent example: American married couple Glenn Wersch and Ellen Jones, who just lost their eco-ranch, worth about half a million dollars, in the eastern Mexican state of Chiapas.

As Ellen put it: "We just had our lives destroyed, our home taken from us, our business ruined and our life saving evaporate." ["Zapatista Supporters Take U.S.-Owned Land," By Alejandro Ruiz, Associated Press, Feb. 28]

In 1993, Glenn and Ellen, having completed a two-year Peace Corps stint in the Dominican Republic, moved to Chiapas. They used their life savings to purchase and develop Rancho Esmeralda, a 26-acre spread they converted into an eco-ranch with 10 cabins. (See photos here and here.)

By all accounts, the couple was popular with the locals, some of whom they employed. And their ranch was classified by the Lonely Planet Mexico Guide  as one of the 10 top places to stay in Mexico. It was beautiful: visitors could stay in a cabin surrounded by tropical flowers, coffee plants and macadamia trees. Nearby excursions included whitewater river trips, Mayan ruins and horseback riding.

Zapatista peasant activists, however, were not pleased. So in December 2002, they began a blockade of Rancho Esmeralda, calling for the couple to abandon their property with all its improvements.

Welcome to the murky world of Mexican property law. This problem is certainly not unique to Rancho Esmeralda. All over Mexico, the squatter mentality reigns. In urban areas, squatters called "paracaidistas" (literally "parachutists") take over vacant property, hook themselves up to electrical lines and settle in. Eventually the municipal government legalizes the property. I've seen it happen.

The Mexican Constitution is not much help on property rights. Article 27 states that

"The property of the lands and waters included within the limits of national territory belong originally to the Nation, which has had and has the right to transmit their control to private owners, constituting private property."

("La propiedad de las tierras y aguas comprendidas dentro de los limites del territorio nacional corresponde originalmente a la Nación, la cual ha tenido y tiene el derecho de transmitir el dominio de ellas a los particulares constituyendo la propiedad privada.")[full text - in English ]

In other words, according to the Mexican Constitution, private property is considered an indulgence granted by the "Nation", i.e., the State.

You may recall the case of the evicted gringos in Baja California. They thought they had rented their property from the rightful owners. They sank retirement money into building homes. Years later, they were told that those they had rented from were not the rightful owners. In 2000, they were forcibly ejected from the homes they had built - with nary a peep from either government.

Needless to say, this sort of thing is also a problem for Mexican landowners, and an impediment to Mexico's prosperity.

In the state of Chiapas, since the Zapatista uprising began, hundreds of thousands of acres have been appropriated, i.e. stolen, and turned into communal-property "autonomous communities." From 1994-2000, 2,700 ranches, with a total of 617,500 acres were grabbed. The government has let them keep most of it, about 2000 ranches totaling 494,000 acres. It's a cowardly way of land reform, in other words.

Nearly all of these properties were taken from Mexican owners. But now it was the gringos' turn.

From mid-December 2002 to mid-February 2003, the Zapatista peasant mob blockaded the entrance to Rancho Esmeralda. They threw rocks. They disconnected water and power lines. They made it clear in no uncertain terms they wanted Glenn and Ellen to abandon their property.

The land-grabbers also threatened the ranch's Mexican employees. They detained employee Ernesto Cruz. Like the activists themselves, Cruz is a Tzeltal Indian. But he's an unPC Indian, not a Zapatista activist. So he was detained for 6 hours, and according to Cruz, beaten.

The Zapatistas claim to be a movement fighting for indigenous rights. To the activists though, some Indians are more equal than others.

They also captured - and extorted money from - a group of French and Canadian kayakers. (Among some anti-Yanqui Mexicans, Europeans and Canadians are considered "good white people." What complicates the matter – and ticks off some Canadians – is that ordinary Mexicans don't distinguish between Americans and Canadians, calling them both "gringos.")

They sent a message to Glenn and Ellen that read:

"We don't want you here anymore."

Zapatista spokesman Gerardo put it this way:

"We don't want any more gringos. They treat us like animals in their country."

And another spokesman for the land-grabbers summed it all up when he said that

"No queremos turistas estadunidenses...No queremos ningún turista." ["We don't want American tourists. We don't want any tourists."]

Hmmm – isn't that xenophobia?

Perish the thought! The Zapatistas, you see, are indigenous people defending their home and way of life from foreign encroachment. So they're justified in taking property, making threats and roughing people up.

But when American citizens oppose immigration that threatens their way of life, they are called "racists" and "xenophobes".

Go figure.

After two months of this treatment, Glenn and Ellen abandoned their ranch. At the entrance to Rancho Esmeralda, the Zapatistas put up a picture of a menacing machete-wielding personage, his head covered in a ski-mask, with the slogan "Land cannot be bought or sold because it's our patrimony and we will defend it."

When the end finally came, it was almost anti-climactic. On the morning of February 28th, 150 machete-wielding Zapatistas entered the ranch, evicted the two remaining employees and took possession at last. The police drew near to the ranch, but did nothing - because they had received no orders to do anything!

Despite everything, Glenn and Ellen wish to stay in the area and start up another business, in town this time.

I wish them well.

Of course, the whole ugly business is a blow for the Mexican tourism industry - one of Mexico's biggest revenue-earners. Mexico is a tourist bonanza - every kind of natural ecosystem you could imagine, spectacular pre-Hispanic ruins, exquisite Spanish colonial architecture, great beach resorts. I live in Mexico, and try to visit other regions every chance I get.

But I haven't made it to Chiapas yet. And given the situation there, I probably won't in a long time.

And notice the contrast between the two governments. The U.S. government did speak up, rather mildly, in behalf of the American couple. The Mexican government did nothing. Fox never mentioned the situation. The Chiapas governor first blamed the Americans themselves. More recently, he and the state secretary general claimed that the Chiapas government couldn't act alone, since any issue involving Zapatistas requires federal participation.

Meanwhile, in the U.S.A., our officials bend over backwards to accommodate Mexican illegal aliens.

American citizen Allan Wall lives in Mexico, but spends a total of about six weeks a year in the state of Texas, where he drills with the Texas Army National Guard. His VDARE.COM articles are archived here; his FRONTPAGEMAG.COM articles are archived here. Readers can contact Allan Wall at allan39@prodigy.net.mx