May 1, 2017

Historic land fight grips famous Mexican resort

Disputes over ejido lands in Zihuatanejo continue.
(File photo 2016/Diario ABC de Zihuatanejo)

Land fight grips famous Mexican resort

Special to the Digie Zone Network
Kent Paterson/Correspondent

Forty four years and counting is a long time to wait for a check. But that's precisely what more than 100 families have endured in the Mexican coastal resort of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Guerrero.

But patience has its limits, and members of the Ejido of Zihuatanejo, a collective land owning unit under Mexican law, have recently staged low-key but pointed protests in the glitzy hotel zone of Ixtapa demanding resolution of a long-running conflict with the Mexican federal government's National Tourism Fund (Fonatur).

Passing out leaflets that explain their movement, the ejido members wear t-shirts with bold black words printed on one side in Spanish and the other in English so both the Mexican and foreign tourists visiting Ixtapa get the message: 

The paradise stolen from the
Ejido of Zihuatanejo by FONATUR

“Some were indifferent. Some were supportive. Frankly, some were surprised..”  Jorge Luis Reyes, the ejido's comisario, said of the varied reactions to the protests. Mostly, the visitors had no inkling the ejido’s long struggle but some like a group of young women from the United States were so sympathetic they wanted to help publicize the cause to the wider world, Reyes said.

A busy man these days, Reyes holds a job that is equivalent to president or director of the ejido. In interviews, Reyes and a former comisario, Danilo Valencia, dated the conflict back to 1973, the year when the administration of then-Mexican President Luis Echeverria ordered the expropriation of lands belonging to the Ejido of Zihuatanejo for the new mega-resort that was soon to become Ixtapa, a rolling, enticing stretch of sand located on the Pacific a few miles up jungle hillsides from the older, bayside settlement of Zihuatanejo.

The Zihuatanejo expropriation was one big dig in the white gold rush sweeping Mexico at a time when glittering, sandy beaches like Ixtapa's were viewed as a cash cow for a developing nation in the new, jet-borne era of mass international tourism. 

To carry out its development strategy, Mexico’s federal government first enlisted the National Bank of Public Works and Services (Banobras) as the financing arm before formally establishing the National Tourism Fund (Fonatur) in 1974.

Besides overseeing infrastructure development and luring investment, Fonatur plunged into the real estate business, hawking off plots of paradise to private buyers. Devising the model of integrally planned resorts, Fonatur was the motor that drove Ixtapa, Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco, and other new tourist destinations.
In Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, part of the expropriated land was also put under the purview of another new trust fund, Fibazi, which was charged with developing infrastructure and dividing up and selling off properties on the Zihuatanejo side of the expropriation, a government taking also affecting two other ejidos, Agua de Correa and El Rincon.  In 1992, management of Fibazi was transferred from the federal government to the Guerrero state. government

Time has no mercy  

In return for their land, the members of the Eijdo of Zihuatanejo were promised government compensation in the form of two lots each and 20 percent of the net profits from overall property sales. Reyes and Valenica said the ejido's legal claims with Fibazi were eventually settled, but a legal conflict with Fonatur over alleged, long overdue payments has dragged on since 2000 when the ejido filed a lawsuit in federal agrarian court against Fonatur and six other government institutions demanding compensation for its expropriated lands.
The dispute revolves around 480 hectares in the heart of upscale Ixtapa, 60 percent of which has already been sold, according to Reyes.
On one visit, Valencia showed the reporter the specific land in question- prime real estate built up with expensive condos, the star brands of transnational corporate hotel chains, a marina with luxury yachts, pricey stores offering imported Norwegian bacalao fish, and big homes belonging to Mexico's rich and famous. "And not a cent for the ejiditarios," he quipped. "We don't want everything. We want something we could develop."

With the years marching on, only ten of the 110 original ejido members remain alive, Reyes estimated. "All of them have died without seeing the law fulfilled, and they've been replaced by children and grandchildren,” he said. This is a new government strategy: kill off the people without murdering them.”  

"The time that is passing is an injustice," Valencia added. Now 58 and recovering from a stroke and heart surgery that left him hospitalized in Mexico City this past winter, Valencia said he felt much better but must watch his stress levels.
Elian Medrano, spokeswoman for Fonatur in Mexico City, told the reporter her agency was unable to comment on the specific issues contested by the Ejido of Zihuatanejo because of the pending litigation. “We can’t give out information until the court case is over. Once it is finished, there is the possibility of giving an official version,” Medrano said.

A missing judge

In good part, Valencia and Reyes blame their legal limbo on the lack of a fulltime judge assigned to Agrarian Tribunal 52, the federal court that hears ejido cases in the Costa Grande of Guerrero state and part of neighboring Michoacan. Despite an earlier ruling favorable to the ejido, the case is stalled.
"There's (court headquarters) but no judge," Valencia lamented.

Although Agrarian Tribunal 52's offices are staffed, a fulltime judge has not been present for several years now, Reyes added. Instead, like a game of courtroom musical chairs that has no stopwatch, the federal agrarian judicial system dispatches interim judges who handle cases for weeks at a time, though none dares to tackle a matter of the "magnitude" of the Fonatur lawsuit during the short spells they are in Zihuatanejo, Reyes said.

(The federal government) is playing around with the law," Reyes contended. "They're doing it legally, but they're playing around." In the Mexican political system, it's the responsibility of the Mexican Senate to appoint agrarian judges- something senators have not done for Agrarian Tribunal 52, he said.

The absence of a permanent judge for the regional court has impacted members of other regional ejidos, who are increasingly speaking out in the local press demanding a judge and  resolutions to legal disputes over right-of-way and  monetary compensation claims pitting landowners against the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT),  the federal department in charge of highway construction which is finishing this year a bypass of Acapulco designed to whisk more tourists over to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo ; Telmex, Carlos Slim's private telephone monopoly; the Federal Electricity Commission; and Megacable, a local cablevision provider.

"This is an important social problem since there is no judge from Tecpan (Guerrero) to Lazaro Cardenas (Michoacan), where there are 40 ejidos," Valencia said. "But we are beginning to organize ourselves, 40 ejidos, because there are issues."

Ixtapa: Whose Pot of Gold at the End of the Pacific Rainbow?

For the Mexican government, the importance of Fonatur and its offspring like Ixtapa is evidenced by the historic roster of key players in the tourism development business. For instance, as a representative of the federal tax and budget department in the 1970s, future President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-88)  was directly involved in the creation of Fibazi.

In 2001, Fonatur was put under the control of the Secretariat of Tourism, whose current head, Harvard graduate Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, is the son of the man who  helped guide Mexico’s modern tourism industry and watched Ixtapa grow from an isolated, picturesque ribbon of sand to the latest hot spot in global tourism. 

The roll call of Fonatur’s 17 directors (16 men and 1 woman) since 1974 reads like a who's who of Mexican politics, law and business. The luminaries include prominent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politicians Alfredo Mazo, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell and Emilio Gamboa Patron, as well as Miguel Gomez Mont, son of a founder of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Gomez Mont’s younger brother, Fernando Gomez Mont, served as Interior Minister for part of the PAN administration of President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) and was previously  associated with a Mexico City law firm with a reputation for defending officials charged with corruption and other serious crimes such as Raul Salinas de Gortari, ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s brother who was eventually absolved of murdering his brother-in-law, former Guerrero governor and PRI leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

Miguel Gomez Mont has deep roots in the banking and housing development worlds, whether on the administrative council with the Spanish bank BBVA Bancomer or as an executive with GEO Corporation. 

On the business side, John McCarthy Sandland also stands out. Steering Fonatur during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) McCarthy's associations have included Raintree Resorts International, Club Med, Pacifica Resort Ixtapa and BBVA Bancomer, among others.

Perhaps epitomizing the fusion of tourism dollars, media control, image making and elite governance bar none, Mario Moya Palencia was Fonatur's director from 1979 to 1982.
Moya was Mexico’s Interior Minister during the administration of President Luis Echeverria (1970-76), a time of political turbulence and repression that included a dirty war against suspected guerrillas and dissidents.

The year prior his 2006 death, Moya and nine others were indicted by President Vicente Fox's special prosecutor for crimes against political and social movements of the past for their alleged responsibility in the June 1971 massacre of dozens of protesting students in Mexico City carried out by Los Halcones, a government-supported paramilitary group. The federal courts, however, invoked the statute of limitations and the case did not proceed, according to Mexican press accounts.

During the Calderon presidency, Fonatur underwent a frequent turn over of leadership after Fonatur Director Miguel Gomez Mont lost his job following the release of videotape that showed his participation in an altercation at a  soccer match in South Africa.  Filling out the remainder of Calderon’s term, Gomez Mont was replaced by Francisco de la Vega, Adriana Perez Quesnel and Enrique Carrillo Lavat. 

In 2008 Greenpeace Mexico, which criticized several Fonatur projects as ecologically and economically unsound, cited Mexico’s national auditor as determining that Fonatur sold real estate below market value in Ixtapa, Cancun, Huatulco and Litibu, Nayarit, while Gomez Mont was at the helm of the federal tourism fund.

Saying he was unfamiliar with the audit in question, ejido activist Jorge Luis Reyes added that the agrarian court had previously stated it did not have all the necessary paperwork documenting Fonatur’s financial dealings in Ixtapa.

Under the Enrique Peña Nieto administration, Fonatur's directorship stabilized. Hector Martin Gomez Barraza, another lawyer and seasoned veteran of the political system, was at the driver seat for nearly four years before Miguel Alonso Reyes, the outgoing PRI governor of Zacatecas, took over late last year.   
At an April ceremony in Mexico City celebrating Fonatur’s 43rd birthday, Tourism Secretary Enrique de la Madrid and Fonatur Director Reyes praised Mexico’s recent rankings in world international visitor destinations and Fonatur’s contributions to a national tourism sector accounting for 8.7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and nine million jobs, according to De la Madrid. 

Also speaking at the same celebration was former ex-Fonatur director Romarico Arroyo Marroquin.

“The tourist sector did not exist 40 years ago. There was an incipient business class in the sector, and there were no regulations or institutional arrangements that encouraged national tourism,” Romarico was quoted in a government press release. “Investments in hotel infrastructure, amenities and installations that detonated the interest of the private sector in the different tourist centers of the country were achieved thanks to the expansion of Fonatur’s powers.” 

For the historical record, the popular pre-Fonatur getaways of Veracruz, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta might take exception with Romarico’s analysis. Yet it’s clear that Fonatur’s hand has shaped lands from the Caribbean to the Pacific, scooping riches onto beaches that rise into moneyed sandcastles- at least for some. 

A Light at the end of a Legal Sand Tunnel?

Visibly frustrated by the legal process, Valenica and Reyes said they had contemplated taking their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights but, ironically, could not do so because internal Mexican judicial avenues had not been exhausted as the international court requires.

Convincing Guerrero state political leaders to lobby on behalf of the Ejido of Zihuatanejo Ejido has proven another difficult task, the two ejido activists added. On March 30, however, the Guerrero State Congress passed a resolution, or “exhortation,” supportive of the ejido.
Sponsored by state lawmaker Maria del Carmen Cabrera Lagunas, the measure calls on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to intervene with Fonatur, and urges Governor Hector Astudillo to convene and coordinate a negotiating roundtable involving ejido members, Fonatur and other relevant government agencies.

Cabrera said the resolution was motivated by her commitment to the ejido as well as “an elemental sense of justice.” Added Cabrera:  “How can one explain that a conflict of this nature has lasted 44 years? How can the authorities explain the persistence of this conflict without presupposing the existence of a tangled net of corruption?” Cabrera noted that the since the expropriation of the Ejido of Zihuatanejo Mexico had lived through eight presidents and 12 Guerrero state governors.

Viewed from a broader historical perspective, the expropriation occurred when Richard M. Nixon was the U.S. president, the Soviet Union still existed, the U.S.-China opening was just getting underway, and the African nations of Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique were all Portuguese colonies. Cell phones did not exist, typewriters were still pecking away, vinyl was king, Juan Gabriel was at the beginning of his career and Elvis Presley was alive.

Reyes said the state legislature’s resolution had not yet yielded any concrete results, but viewed it as a helpful step in encouraging possible meetings with other government officials.
Although a meeting with Fonatur Director Reyes (no relation) was cancelled the last week of April, a recent conversation with Rene Juarez Cisneros, former Guerrero governor and current deputy minister of Interior, ended on a positive note in that the Peña Nieto administration official agreed to participate in the search for a solution to the lengthy conflict between the Ejido of Zihuatanejo and Fonatur, he said. “These are talks. We can’t let our guard down,” Reyes cautioned.

Fonatur’s Elian Medrano said she did not know about upcoming meetings between the agency’s director and ejido members.  Meantime, the Ejido of Zihuatanejo is sharpening its legal strategy and examining how to circumvent the local agrarian court in favor of higher judicial authorities. “This is what we plan with the new strategy,” Jorge Luis Reyes added. “If not, the situation will continue.”  

In a 2015 interview with the reporter before she passed away, 84-year-old Aurora Palacios Avila recalled Zihuatanejo "when there were few people who lived here." Reminiscing in a family restaurant enlivened with photos of a very small town whose residents mainly earned a living from agriculture or fishing, Palacios was proud to be a member of the Ejido of Zihuatanejo, which owes its existence to the  land reform enacted by the government of President Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s. 

"I felt good. Father died and left me as the survivor. I can't do (ejido business) now. I let my son do it," she offered. "It's sad. Our ancestors have gone now. They had the wish that the money would be for their old age. But there is nothing until now." 

Like many others, Aurora Palacios died without witnessing a satisfactory end to the conflict with Fonatur.  “(Palacios’ father) died without receiving compensation. His daughter died receiving compensation. I hope his grandson doesn’t die without receiving compensation,” Reyes mused.


Kent Paterson, author-journalist based in New Mexico, is an expert on Mexico and U.S.-Mexico border issues. He former editor of Frontera NorteSur.