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California and the West

Eviction Order Carried Out in Mexico

Land: Mostly American residents have little time to pack as 400 police move in to seize disputed beach property for former owners.

October 31, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA — Mexican federal authorities moved forcefully Monday to begin evicting U.S. retirees from homes built on beach property at the center of a long-running land battle.

Backed up by more than 400 police officers, officials of a federal land agency went door to door to carry out an eviction order handed down last week by Mexico's Supreme Court to settle the ownership dispute.

Residents, many from Southern California, were in some cases given only a few minutes to abandon their homes, on a scenic finger of land about 18 miles south of this port city.

"It's like somebody dying and you have to say goodbye," said Guadalupe Limon, tears trailing under her sunglasses.

Limon and her husband, Juan, had to decide swiftly to pack up their belongings and leave the two-story house across the street from the beach where they lived part-time for 12 years. As movers loaded appliances and furniture into a van, the Limons planned to return to their other home in La Verne.

"I'd have felt better for a tsunami to blow it away than for another human to take it," Guadalupe Limon said.

The eviction had been feared for a week, after the court's ultimatum to land agency officials to give the disputed land to former owners. Officials at the agency, the Agrarian Reform Ministry, said Monday that they planned to transfer ownership of nearly 200 acres settled largely by American retirees.

Efforts to block the officials' arrival Monday morning were short-lived. Police arrived dramatically, about 8 a.m., in a caravan that included busloads of unarmed police, ambulances, a tow truck and equipment to move cars and a sand pile that had been put in the way.

A phalanx of 60 officers had to push through a blockade of Americans and local members of a peasant cooperative who locked arms in unity against the evictions. The peasants group, the Ejido Coronel Esteban Cantu, insisted that it owns the property and has leased it to the Americans.

"Don't move!" shouted Warren Ovadia of San Diego, whose mother owns one of the homes, as the police prepared to move in.

But it took officers only seconds to force their way through the crowd. There was minor scuffling between the officers and members of the peasants group, but no injuries. No Americans were arrested.

The evictions created a strange tableau: clusters of Mexican police in gray jumpsuits moving in military style through the tidy cul-de-sacs while residents emptied homes as if fleeing a disaster. The soundtrack was provided by the surf's steady wash.

As the land officials, joined by representatives of the new property owners, moved through the stylish beach houses, a few residents refused to leave.

Maurice and Rose Erickson, a couple from British Columbia, Canada, who moved into their home in January, said they planned to hold out. "We'll see what they're going to do," said Rose Erickson.

But three hours later, there was no sign of the couple and a document conveying the home to new owners sealed the front door.

Agrarian Reform Ministry officials said that although the Americans were required to move out immediately, they would be allowed to store their belongings inside for 30 days--time to attempt to negotiate new lease terms with the new owners. Some of the U.S. citizens already were talking with the owners about how much they would pay to retain use of lots for which they had paid up to $90,000 for a 30-year term.

Marlowe Harms, 78, of Riverside said he and his wife were allowed by the new owners to remain for six months in hopes of working out a new contract. The question was how much that would cost. Many of the residents complained that the evictions left them little room to negotiate.

Others faulted the Mexican and U.S. governments for not coming to their aid to preserve their use of land they long believed they occupied legally. Representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana were on hand to monitor observance of the American residents' rights as evictions took place.

"This is the worst thing I've ever seen. This idea that the police can walk down the street and take your house is absolutely unforgivable," said Leigh Zaremba, vice president of the homeowners association. The group has appealed the evictions under terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement protecting foreign investors.

The disputed land was ceded as a communal land grant to the peasants collective in 1973 by presidential decree. The group then leased the land, allowing development of a 96-room hotel--the centerpiece of the Baja Beach and Tennis Club--and more than 200 homes in the club and along the peninsula nearby.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the land, in fact, belonged to several private companies that had gone to court to seize it. Representatives of one of those firms, Purua Punta Estero SA, on Monday took control of the hotel and began evicting homeowners.

"They've had more than five years to deal with us," Gerardo Limon, an investor in the company, said as officials served eviction notices. "This simply is in accordance with the law."

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