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Americans evicted in Baja Mexican federal order insists Punta Banda land revert to original owners By Sandra Dibble UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER October 31, 2000

PUNTA BANDA, Mexico -- Hundreds of Mexican police arrived at this bay-side enclave of Americans yesterday morning to enforce a federal order that the land be returned to its original owners.

Many of the Americans left their homes immediately, their cars hurriedly crammed with clothes, picture albums, file cabinets, computer equipment -- anything they could carry.

Others tried to negotiate with their new landlords so they could stay in the houses they had built. Some are worth as much as $1 million, while others are more modest, $50,000 structures.

The arrival of the convoy of federal, state and municipal police closes a tumultuous chapter in a land battle that for the past 14 years has enveloped this sand spit south of Ensenada, about 100 miles from the U.S. border.

"All I know is that this is not right," said Gary Giannini, a retired grocery warehouse checker from Whittier, as he gazed at the crashing waves outside his window.

"This house has been my dream. We've put 11 years into this place, and they won't even let us spend the night here."

On Oct. 23, Mexico's Supreme Court gave the Agrarian Reform Ministry 10 days to return the land to a group of claimants who had been fighting since 1987 to regain the properties. The court's order cannot be appealed.

Although 180 acres are involved in the Punta Banda dispute, the Supreme Court order singled out one 44-acre section which includes the 100-room Baja Beach and Tennis Club and about two dozen surrounding homes.

But Agrarian Reform officials said yesterday they would enforce the law on the entire parcel, which is divided among a half-dozen private owners.

Early yesterday, as a stiff wind whipped in from the bay, topographers, lawyers and landowners roamed the streets, consulting maps to determine the boundaries of each plot.

Gray-uniformed members of Mexico's Federal Preventive Police stomped past white bay-side houses adorned with bougainvillea blossoms. The police stood by as Agrarian Reform officials went from house-to-house telling the residents to leave.

Most were told to be gone within five or six hours, although they were given 30 days to return for any remaining possessions or to negotiate with the new owners for permission to stay. Officials said they expect to have visited every house by midweek.

Though U.S. State Department officials monitored the evictions, they could do nothing to prevent them.

"We cannot intervene in a Mexican legal proceeding," said Steve Morisseau, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and one of a half-dozen State Department officials in Punta Banda yesterday. "We're here to do what we can to watch out for their well-being."

The tension that had mounted for a week peaked shortly after 8 a.m. when 60 police officers, armed with clubs, charged through a barricade set up by the Ejido Coronel Esteban CantC:, the local land collective that claims to own the property. The police plowed past a dozen members of the collective and about a dozen Americans standing behind them.

Jorge Cortina del Valle, a Mexico City resident whose father first bought property in Punta Banda in 1964, was among the original owners who had come to take possession of their property.

"Justice is being served," Cortina said as he watched government officials knock on the doors of the houses on his land. "This gives us a chance to develop something correctly."

The Americans, who over the past two decades have built about 300 homes on the disputed 180 acres, have been caught in the middle of this fiercely fought battle.

Foreigners cannot own coastal residential property in Mexico. So the Americans who built houses in Punta Banda rented the land from the collective. Or they spent tens of thousands of dollars to purchase land trusts through Carlos TerC!n, a local developer working with the collective.

Mexico's courts ruled those arrangements invalid after finding that neither the collective nor TerC!n had any rights to the land.

There have been dozens of property disputes involving Americans in Mexico in recent years, but none has commanded as much attention as this scenic curl of coastline overlooking Todos Santos Bay. The other disputes have involved fewer people and less land, and most of them have been resolved more quickly.

Throughout the day yesterday, stunned Americans carried possessions to their cars. Many had doubted this day would come.

"We feel angry, we feel disappointed, we feel frightened," said Leigh Zaremba, a 58-year-old travel consultant from Orange County and vice president of the Baja Beach Homeowners Association, one of the residents' groups.

"There is no Mexican government help for us, and the homeowners are here just as legally as the landowners," he said.

Zaremba and some of his neighbors were trying to negotiate a joint settlement with their new landlords. But some said they couldn't afford what one owner was asking: $125,000 per lot.

The Supreme Court has said that the rights of third parties, such as the Americans, don't override the rights of the legally recognized owners.

The case has raised touchy questions of official negligence and past corruption in the Agrarian Reform Ministry, drawing into question guarantees over private property rights.

And at a time when Mexico is eager to entice outside investment, the case has brought to the forefront the problems foreigners can confront when buying land in Mexico.

"A lot of people do less than they should in terms of getting good, sound advice," said Jose Manuel Palli of World Wide Trade in Miami, one of a handful of companies that sells title insurance in Mexico.

But many of the Americans who bought land in Punta Banda insist they received assurances from the Agrarian Reform Ministry. Alex Sanchez, a retired 68-year-old banker from Yuma, Ariz., said he diligently hired an attorney and checked property records.

"We were doing what we thought was proper at the time," said Sanchez, who spent $60,000 to build his house and has been paying $1,320 a year in rent to the collective.

Sanchez, who is recovering from a kidney transplant and depends on a fixed income, said Sunday that he and his wife were hoping that at the last minute something would happen to save them.

"We're grabbing at straws," he said.

But by yesterday afternoon, the government had sealed his house with tape and Alex Sanchez was gone.

-- K (, October 31, 2000

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