Tulum: Expelled From Eden at the Point of a Baton

The New York Times dropped by the Mexican resort town of Tulum recently, to report on the pitiable story of a group of French and American expatriates who were in June thrown out of the beach villas and private hotels they thought they owned by armed men. Tulum, baptized a kind of antediluvian Eden of healing centers and beachfront palapas in a recent Times feature, is on Mexico’s Yucatan coast not far from the border with Belize.

Although the shell-shocked foreigners in the Times story, still stumbling around in their pajama bottoms months after their eviction tell him they are stunned at what has happened to them, a survey of Mexico’s local and national press indicates that if this is the case, they must have been keeping their heads pretty deep in the pearlescent beach sand over the past few years.

Reporting by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal suggests that the outgoing governor of the state, Roberto Borge, may have used the power of his office to seize much of the best beach land in the area on behalf of powerful businessmen in exchange for bribes. “He’s doing all this before he leaves office, because he doesn’t want to lose all the money that they already paid him for this beach,” one hotel owner told Universal in the aftermath of the June seizures.

Although Borge and his wealthy associates may be behind the biggest land seizures, the value of the land has sparked the ambitions of smaller-time entrepreneurs as well; the Yucatan press in recent years has been rife with stories of armed takeovers of houses and hotels by swindlers bearing dubious legal documents. Occasionally, they are even women, as in the case of Dora Xix, christened “Dora the Defrauder” in the local press (where the Spanish phrase rhymes neatly with Dora the Explorer).

Xix, a former local politician herself, spent time in prison for numerous land swindles in the nearby city of Playa del Carmen; after her release, she headed to Tulum to resume her business on fresh shores. In May of 2015, Por Esto! noted, she and a crew of armed men knocked on the door of Raymond Stewart and his Mexican wife; they pushed their way inside, waving a piece of paper claiming ownership of his house. Stewart and his wife spent some days barricaded in the upstairs before finally being ejected from their home. The Mexico City magazine Proceso wrote in a later feature that Xix may have been operating on behalf of a wealthy out-of-town businessman.

Not all land seizures in Tulum are corrupt land grabs, however: in the free-for-all building boom along these Caribbean beaches, foreign and local developers have violated Mexican environmental protection laws to an occasionally preposterous degree, closing off beach access, building unlicensed jetties into the ocean, and destroying ecologically protected zones. In May, Proceso noted that federal environmental authorities had seized a recently constructed beachfront house in Tulum which had encroached on a thousand square meters of federally protected dunes and beachfront jungle. It was the fifth such seizure in Tulum in the past year, according to Proceso.

With tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in property at stake, the upheaval along the beaches of the Yucatan is a very serious business. In Tulum, most of the land in dispute was sold or leased from the communal property of the Pino Suarez ejido. Writing in September of 2015, an investigative journalist for Aristegui Noticias noted that the struggle over ownership of the ejido’s land dates back decades, with numerous instances of false or forged sales documents, assaults on landowners by suborned policemen, and attempts by out-of-state businessmen to lay claim to the communal land. Ejido shareholders have been imprisoned and tortured for asserting their claims. In 2012, the lawyer for ejido landowners was executed by unknown gunmen in his law office.

In the end, it seems unlikely that any naïve French or American yoga instructors will hold onto their Tulum property. And after all, in spite of what they may think, the land can never really be theirs: the Mexican constitution prohibits foreigners from owning land within 60 miles of a beach; at best, a foreigner can only obtain a very long lease.

Jack Brown