Lawlessness and disorder in Mexico: A real-life soap opera with several nasty episodes

We bought the three hectares of land for our ranch, about ten miles outside San Miguel, from an old character we initially regarded as an unvarnished local rancher, with a folksily reticent, soft-spoken manner who during the real estate closing, a little more than ten years ago, signed his name with the laboriousness of someone with limited education but seemingly good intentions.

A few months later he approached us on the other side of our newly installed fence, astride an impressive Palomino with a fancy saddle to match, for what we thought was some “welcome to the neighborhood” chit-chat. He had a proper rancher’s hat and a holstered pistol dangling from his belt. The get-up struck us as either a flashback from of Old Mexico or a comic aside in a Taco Western.

Since those few amiable encounters ten years ago, this old guy, now in his mid- to late-nineties and reportedly wheelchair-bound, has proved to be anything but a rural naif.

Indeed he’s quite the sharp, wealthy—and cutthroat—land owner with a wide reputation for shafting most everyone he deals with, or at least trying to, almost as if for sport.

Bucolic dreams: Early morning view from our back terrace.

Among the residents of the nearby village of La Biznaga del Jaral, he is a local legend of a bad kind: Everyone seems to know who he is but no one has a kind word to say about him, including Félix, who calls him “un viejo canijo,” Mexican coloquial that roughly translates as “an old motherfucker.”

Someone to be wary of. Notice that I don’t use his name in this blog post.

One recent stunt, even at his advanced age, was  threatening to cut off one of the access roads to the village, claiming it’s on land he owns. The locals sued.
For the first several years, as the tales of this old rancher’s “exploits” mounted, Stew and I kept a safe distance. We even considered ourselves lucky—or perhaps too smart—to be scammed by this old grifter.

That was a cavalier assumption on our part: This character has been at this rodeo far longer than we have and knows well the slipperiness and malleability of Mexican law regarding land ownership, particularly if your prey doesn’t have the money or experience to fight back.

Don Vicente, the rancher at the foot of the hill from us, is another crusty local character, his handsome face deeply lined by an endless struggle to squeeze a living growing corn and beans on the muddy patch of dirt he owns.

He has his own stories about this wheeler-dealer trying to steal some of his land. Vicente won those rounds, but the old guy, in a final act of spitefulness, dumped a truckload of rocks to block one of the entrances to Vicente’s ranch. The old man doesn’t forgive or forget.

Don Vicente: Don’t mess with me. 

Another time an expat couple who’d bought four hectares directly behind our ranch, got taken when the rancher upped the sale price by ten thousand dollars a hectare, right at closing time, take it or leave it. The buyers were furious but caved in, unwilling to let a possible deal of a lifetime slip away.

Over the past ten years he has sold chunks of his land in hectare-size multiples to foreign buyers—including us—with visions of a peaceful, bucolic life in the Mexican countryside.

He made promises of access roads and other amenities that evaporated as soon as the ink dried on the signatures on the escritura, or property deed, and money changed hands.

What you thought was a guaranteed right-of-way to your ranch would vanish when the rancher got a better offer and sold the land to someone else. Suddenly the impressive entrance gates you’d installed led nowhere.

During the past two or three years San Miguel has been in the grip of a mad land rush, as literally dozens of residential subdivisions, with hundreds of new units, with exotic names such as Nubarró, Zirándaro, sprout everywhere.

Ten years ago most of the new housing developments catered to wealthy Mexican or foreign buyers and offered championship-caliber golf courses, equestrian trails and other upscale amenities, and were going up on the other side of San Miguel, along the highway to Dolores Hidalgo.

The subdivision frenzy now has infected the areas around us, with far more modestly priced townhouses geared to weekend visitors from Mexico City or Querétaro, and spreading fungus-like over former farm land.

The rancher and his equally enterprising son were ready to cash in, and began selling land immediately around us, including one-third of a hectare in front of our ranch that he had already sold to us and was so marked in our escritura. 

Duh—selling a piece of land to two different buyers is against the law in most all places, even Mexico. No matter.

But that was but the opening shot in a guerrilla campaign of intimidation that began ten weeks ago when we objected to the developer’s illegal land grab and hired a lawyer.

Since then we’ve been subjected to threats of physical assault and an attempt to flip over our nearly new car by a team of bodyguards-cum-thugs hired by the developer as part of a brazen attempt at intimidation and extortion to force us to see things his way.

A chain-link fence went up around the disputed piece of land which measures fifteen meters wide by approximately two-hundred meters long.

We were initially terrified as we tried to figure out a response, particularly when we found out that the San Miguel police force, which we summoned twice, was worse than useless.

After a few weeks of unalloyed fear and indecision, Stew and I formulated a response: We would not give in to land grabs, or attempts at intimidation and extortion. We filed civil and criminal lawsuits and obtained cease-and-desist orders against the developer to get him off our land.

He then turned the hostilities up a notch by showing up before sunrise with heavy equipment and a group of construction workers to dig up a four-foot-deep trench along the entire front our property and block our entrance with a stone wall.

For three days we were essentially held hostage in our own ranch and forced to enter and exit by driving our four-by-four pickup through a hole in the fence on the other side of the land and and through a neighbor’s property.

Then the other side blinked.

Next episode:  A legal shoving match that yielded some results, at least for now. We’ve hired a night watchman with a gun, just in case. 

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