Saturday, September 8, 2018

Lawlessness and disorder in Mexico: A real-life soap opera with several nasty episodes, Part 2

It all began ten years ago, when the surveyor marked the boundaries of our newly purchased land so the fence guy could get to work. The young surveyor—the son-in-law of the old rancher who sold us the land—advised us to leave a setback fifteen meters wide in front, in case the state wanted to widen our access road in the future. A couple of years after we bought the land, the surveyor died in a car accident while driving intoxicated.

So for several years the strip of land in front sat unfenced, but clearly marked as ours in the escritura. Then one Saturday afternoon, about ten weeks ago, a young guy appeared at our gate accompanied by a fidgety, sweaty older character in a three-piece suit, who handed me a notarized document and a handwritten note attached to it.

It was a sales contract and the attached note informed me that this chunk of land had been "purchased" from the old rancher, and the new "owner," a land developer with a subdivision scheme in mind, would decide—at his pleasure and convenience—where to relocate the ramp and entrance gate to our ranch.

Have a nice weekend.
Stew and I were stumped: What the hell is this? The following Monday we hired a lawyer recommended by one of the neighbors who'd sued the old rancher for trying to condemn a dirt road leading to her ranch so he could sell the land it was on.

On Tuesday, a caravan of vehicles, including a white Chevy Suburban, two pickups with chain-link, posts, barbed wire and other fencing supplies, along with four installers, and two smaller cars carrying three thuggish bodyguards, showed up in front of our ranch.

When they tried to begin fencing in the disputed piece of land, we tried to block the road with our two vehicles, an Audi and an old Nissan pickup.

A man in the Suburban ordered his guys to "remove" the Audi by trying to rock it and turn it over. Stew got in the car and drove it into the ranch. Meanwhile I got into a heated argument with the ringleader and when I reached out to tap him on the shoulder, one of the bodyguards got in the middle, thrust his forearm on my throat and told me he'd beat the hell out of me if "I weren't an old man."

Félix called the police who arrived twenty minutes later, walked around and said this was not a dispute they wanted to get involved in. With that, they reversed the patrol car and left.

While this was going on, I spoke with our lawyer two or three times who ultimately told me to back off and not provoke any further confrontation and possibly get hurt.

With the fencing crew busy putting up posts and chain-link with lightning speed, the rest of the developer's crew, including the bodyguards, drove to our lawyer's office in town where they were met by three or four of their lawyers from out of town.

As our lawyer remembers it, this charade was a gross attempt at intimidation, something out of a B-grade Godfather knock-off.

Ironically, the attempt to rattle our lawyer seemingly backfired. I suspect the theatrics offended his sense of pride and machismo, and he decided he wasn't going to get rolled over by a bunch of hoods in suits.

The developer's legal team presented an eight-page "agreement" that was a dense legalese soup, for us to sign, in the spirit of sign-this-or-else.

Although we Stew and I initially were too scared and confused to think straight, over the next few days we realized the so-called agreement was nothing but a bald-face attempt at land theft and extortion.

What the developer offered was to give back half of the fifteen-hundred square meters he'd "purchased"—land that was legally ours—in exchange for a strip of land of similar size along the east side of our ranch—that was also legally ours—and which he needed to put in an access road to an otherwise landlocked parcel he'd purchased behind us.

It became clear he didn't much care for the land he'd "purchased" from the old rancher in a sham deal for a tenth of what the land was worth. It was the pie-shaped strip inside our ranch that he really wanted—and he was using the land he'd forcibly taken in order to force us to cede him the second piece, in a farcical "even trade."

Cease and desist, you said?
Then our lawyer, who's turned out to be crafty beyond our dreams, offered us this sage advice. Don't talk to anyone, particularly the other side's lawyer if he calls you. Don't say anything. Calm down. Don't panic. Just bide your time. Don't let anyone stampede you. Let them wait.

For our side, Stew and I also decided we would not give in to extortion and intimidation.

Our lawyer's reasoning was straightforward once we understood it. The "sale" of the land in front was null and void from the get-go because the old rancher could not sell the same piece of land twice, first to me ten years ago, and now to another person. Only I, as the legal owner, could sell that land now. And besides, the developer could not build on that land or sell it to anyone unless he had legal title to it.

In Spanish, the developer's plan is called a despojo or dispossession, or plain land theft.

During the next four weeks neither our lawyer nor us took any calls from the developer's lawyer. We kept driving in and out of our ranch through an opening the fencing crew had thoughtfully left in the six-foot high chain link fence, with three strings of barbed wire on top, that encircled the rest of the stolen land.

Meanwhile, our busy lawyer visited personal contacts at the municipal Department of Urban Development and Zoning, to obtain an Obra Suspendida order, the equivalent of a cease-and-desist order to the developer, on the grounds he didn't have a permit to do any fencing or other clearing work.

This was a clever Catch-22. Our lawyer knew full well that the developer would not be able to pull a permit because he didn't own the land.

Bright orange cease-and-desist notices were posted the entire length of the fence and we thought that would buy us some time.

Beginning of a stone wall to block our access to our ranch.
Not so. The next morning, before sunrise, a construction crew with heavy equipment, loads of rocks, cement and other materials and about ten workers showed up and began building a stone wall along the inside border of the disputed land, including across our entrance.

As an added act of contempt, the crews ripped up the orange Obra Suspendida and threw them on the ground.

We were essentially trapped inside our three-hectare ranch.

More to come: A break in the wall, two kittens found on the highway and a message of support from our Mexican neighbors. 
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