Mar 7, 2018

Mexican Landowners Renew Protests at International Resort

Mexican Landowners Renew Protests at International Resort

Kent Paterso/Correspondent
Photos by Hercilia Castro

Protesters in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Guerrero
As February crawled to a close two parades were held on Mexican Flag Day in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Guerrero. In the first event, handsomely-dressed school children with musical instruments filed through Zihuatanejo's downtown headed for an official ceremony.

Meanwhile, a few miles up the road in the popular international tourist destination of Ixtapa, about 150 landowners and their supporters marched in front of swank hotels and upscale shops. Passing by curious Mexican and foreign tourists snapping photos, the marchers carried protest banners and sported tee-shirts with strong messages.

"Tourist Friends, you are walking on lands robbed by Fonatur." "The Ejido of Zihuatanejo demands payment from the federal and state governments for our expropriated lands," read a pair of banners.

"What does the ejido want? Justice!," Justice!" rose a chorus of chants led by Jorge Luis Reyes, the ejido's president.  

The content of the messages, also reproduced on tee-shirts and on a bilingual Spanish-English audio recording summarizing the protesters' story that was played from a Volkswagen accompanying the marchers, referred to demands stemming from the Mexican federal government's controversial 1973 expropriation of lands belonging to the Ejido of Zihuatanejo and two other local ejidos for tourism development.

In return for the 1973 expropriation, the administration of then-Mexican president Luis Echeverria promised Zihuatanejo’s landowners two parcels each and 20 percent of the profits from the sale of about 1,000 expropriated acres where glitzy lodgings, golf courses, trendy shops and the luxury homes of Mexican millionaires and billionaires were built.  At the federal level, the land sales were directed by the National Tourism Fund (Fonatur).

Since the 1970s, millions of foreign and national tourists have visited Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, dropping their cash in hotels, restaurants, bars, boutiques, massage outlets, and car rental and tour agencies, many of which are part of international corporate chains. 

But Zihuatanejo Ejido members say Mexico City never fully complied with its end of the expropriation, despite years of patient waiting, some initial discussions and litigation that's dragged on since 2000. "Nothing has been resolved, the court blocks everything," said Danilo Valencia, former Zihuatanejo ejido president.

"More than anything else, (the protest) is for justice," said Victor Manuel Espino, another ejido member and grandson of one of the ejido’s founders in 1938. 

"(The federal government) expropriated lands and hasn’t paid us. Almost all the ones who were alive then have died. Very few are alive. Almost everyone involved in the struggle now are second or third generation."

Similar to the old New Mexican land grants, or las mercedes in Spanish, an ejido is a collectively owned land unit.  And like the New Mexican land grants, old grievances still boil in Zihuatanejo and are passed down from generation-to generation.  

Protesters march with banner
 In a separate interview, Jorge Luis Reyes described how ejido members, known as ejiditarios in Spanish, staged multiple protests in Ixtapa last year, reaching out to federal and state authorities for talks aimed at resolving the landowners' long-standing demand for just compensation.  

Despite initial positive responses from officials like Rene Juarez Cisneros, former federal deputy interior minister who resigned earlier this year and later reemerged as a campaign coordinator for Jose Antonio Meade, the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a proposed negotiating roundtable never happened, he said.

"It's worse than last year because neither the state government nor the federal government has taken responsibility," Reyes charged. "We're going to continue the protests while not ignoring the court case."

The politics of development and historic debt

Ejido attorney Pedro Larumbe told this reporter that he filed papers in February requesting the agrarian court hearing the landowners' case force Fonatur and Fibazi, a Guerrero state government agency that's also tasked with developing and selling a portion of the expropriated lands, to speed up the submission of essential documents presumably held by the government institutions. "This is a way of fomenting pressure," Larumbe said.

The Acapulco-based lawyer said he hoped the agrarian court would rule on the ejido's request within the next three months or sooner.

Although ejiditarios are frustrated by years of legal and political delays, they confront more waiting in a year when Mexicans will elect a new federal administration that's likely to change the top management of Fonatur.  If the ejido's lawsuit with Fonatur is not resolved before the departure of President Enrique Pena Nieto next December, the  conflict will continue as just one of many lingering land disputes kicked over to the incoming administration. 

At the state level, political complications likewise come into play. The current Guerrero state government of PRI Governor Hector Astudillo is under increased pressure to control spiraling insecurity, protect political candidates threatened with violence (According to the Guerrero daily El Sur, at least 15 aspirants for political offices up for grabs across the state in this year's elections have been murdered since last April), and help ensure secure and fair state, local and federal elections next July 1.

Nonetheless, Astudillo's government has not lost sight of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. The locality is envisioned as part of a Special Economic Zone (ZEE in Spanish initials) planned for a slice of the Costa Grande of Guerrero state and the port of neighboring Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, where development will be geared with the Asia trade in mind.

On February 16, Astudillo and and Michoacan Governor Silvano Aureoles signed a joint agreement in Zihuatanejo guaranteeing security for investors.

According to El Sur, Guerrero state and Fonatur officials present for the event later outlined more than $23 million in combined public investments designed to promote tourism and improve infrastructure in both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. No mention was made, however, of the debt controversy with the Ejido of Zihuatanejo. 

Reyes argued that both the federal and state governments have an obligation to not only hear out and settle the ejido's case but redesign their historic relationship to the landowners. "It is very vertical, yet we are equal," Reyes said. "We have the right to oblige respectful and well-intentioned answers."

Reyes added that Fonatur Director Miguel Alonso Reyes (no relation to the ejido leader) remarked to a reporter last year that a debt was indeed owed to the Ejido of Zihuatanejo but pointed the finger at Fibazi.  He regarded the statement as "historically important," even though Fonatur's chief did not accept institutional responsibility.

Fonatur did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

Uniting the ejidos

Zihuatanejo's ejiditarios, meanwhile, are attracting support for their struggle from other regional ejidos. Representatives of three neighboring ejidos, Coacoyul, Agua de Correa and El Zarco, participated in the flag day protest. Fernando Pineda, representative of the Ejido of Agua de Correa, said the Mexican federal government also expropriated nearly 1800 acres of the "best" of his community's lands in 1973 for the Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa tourism development, including prime beach properties.   

In Agua de Correa's case, the ejido is still negotiating with Fibazi for compensation, Pineda said. Ten years ago, the state agency returned a little more than 100 acres to the ejido but more indemnification is still owed, he said. "They're mainly paying us with land and not money," Pineda added.

According to the land rights activist, Agua de Correa's struggle is the same as the Ejido of Zihuatanejo's. "They still owe us. We have to be on the alert. If (Zihuatanejo) wins, we win."

Pineda said his 102-year-old father-in-law is the last living original member of Agua Correa's ejido, which like Zihuatanejo's, was founded in 1938 during the land reform program of President Lazaro Cardenas. 

Seeing common cause in land rights and other issues, the Ejido of Zihuatanejo is banding together with upward of 40 other regional ejidos from the Costa Grande. A non-partisan, non-profit foundation has been established with the goal of developing rural economies, promoting environmental education, and supporting health, cultural and education projects in a region threatened by insecurity, poverty and environmental degradation. The plan, Reyes said, is to bring "tranquility and harmony to the communities."

Reyes likened the decades-old land dispute with Fonatur to a contest between government-conjured fatigue and grassroots-driven fortitude.

"The Ejido of Zihuatanejo has historical memory and isn't going to stop," he vowed. "(Government) is betting on us forgetting but we are wagering on justice and memory."


Author-Journalist Kent Paterson is former editor of Frontera NorteSur and is a contributor-correspondent for The Digie Zone Network.