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California and the West

Angry Americans Await Baja Eviction

Property: Retirees expect to lose their beach homes under Mexican court ruling that they can be seized without notice.

October 27, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA — Disbelief and uncertainty on Thursday shrouded a bay-side enclave of U.S. retirees who are caught in a Mexican property dispute that could force them from their homes without notice.

The expected evictions would bring to an end a 27-year dispute over the ownership of 250 beachfront acres on a peninsula 18 miles south of the Baja California port city of Ensenada.

Despite an eviction order Monday by Mexico's Supreme Court, there still was hope that the homes--representing the life savings of some retirees--would remain in the residents' hands.

"Politically, it's still possible," said Tom Christianson, a retired sheriff's chaplain from Mobile, Ala., who paid $100,000 for his home last year. But, he conceded, "it doesn't look good."

Christianson was among about a dozen U.S. retirees who stood watch for the arrival of federal authorities, even though their properties were not included in the eviction order. But many expect their land will be next to be confiscated.

The retirees joined members of an 89-member peasant collective who blocked an entrance to the peninsula with parked cars and a 5-foot sandpile while awaiting the arrival of authorities reportedly en route from Mexico City to carry out the eviction.

But none had appeared by late afternoon and there was word that officials from the federal Agrarian Reform Agency were in talks with property owners and U.S. residents on the disputed property.

Adding to the suspense was lack of certainty over which homes were included in the 45 acres covered by the recent court order.

The order applied to a portion of the disputed land, a slice including about two dozen homes and the Baja Beach and Tennis Club, a 96-room hotel at the center of the picturesque development.

The community of whitewashed, Mediterranean-style homes--many luxurious by Southern California standards--looked like a ghost town. The cozy cul-de-sacs were deserted, not necessarily an unusual sight on a weekday in the off-season. But the hotel was eerily empty, its pool abandoned, and a lone desk clerk declined to discuss the tense situation.

The barricade outside had turned one group of U.S. tourists into virtual prisoners in the beach cabana. "We can't leave. We've been trying to leave since 11 this morning," said Anita Ruiz of Las Vegas, who decided to spend the extra time tanning on the beach.

For everyone, the anxious wait marked the latest chapter in a long, tortuous saga.

The land was confiscated from its original owners and handed to the collective, called the Ejido Colonel Esteban Cantu, by presidential decree in 1973. The collective then leased land to the Americans, many of them from Southern California, who built more than 200 homes on an area called Punta Banda.

The eviction order was handed down in 1999 but not carried out after members of the collective blocked the entrance. Negotiations between the original landowners and U.S. residents went nowhere.

The new order is harder to ignore. The court said Agrarian Reform Agency officials face dismissal if the evictions aren't carried out within 10 days. Agency officials have said they will comply, but refuse to say when.

For the retirees, even those who did not stand to lose their homes immediately, the impending eviction represented but the first step.

"It will trickle down to us--a domino effect," said Kathern Haning, a retiree from San Diego. Haning said the house that she and her late husband began building in 1986 is "everything I have."

Bob Mitchell, a retired psychotherapist from Yuma, Ariz., said the eviction crisis had created an emotional upheaval for the residents, who range from the wealthy to those who live on fixed incomes.

Some residents are "beside themselves with anger and resentment," said Mitchell, 61, who said he bought property in 1989 after title research turned up no ownership problems.

"How would you feel if you popped $150,000 and somebody changed the rules?" Mitchell said. "Everyone came down here that I know of in good faith, thinking they had a legitimate place. They found out it isn't."

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