Here comes da (Mexican) judge

The six-month legal battle to keep someone from stealing a strip of land in front our ranch has been instructive. It’s taught us patience, that legal wrangles take time to resolve anywhere, and that pulling out your hair in desperation while waiting for a resolution is only going to get you bald spots. Also, it’s been a crash course in the ways and means of the Mexican judicial system, which compared to the American counterpart is not necessarily better or worse, just different. Very different.

Justice Central

We had to delay our annual sojourn to the beach last week when our lawyer told us, at the last minute, that the judge assigned to our case had convened a series of audiencias  and interrogatorios of witnesses. These court appearances turned out to be not as Perry Mason-esque as they sounded at first. Our lawyer gently warned us, though, it wouldn’t help our case to ask for a continuance so we could go to the beach.

In addition to bureaucratic space, the civil courthouse, a modern building on the way to San Miguel, houses several unimposing, windowless rooms, perhaps 15 by 20 feet, reserved for audiencias, or what we would call courtrooms, though there were no two-ton chandeliers hanging from 20-foot-high ceilings, or walls paneled with acres of dark wood. I don’t recall seeing even a Mexican flag.

The light-gray walls were decorated only with the logo of the State Civil Court, or Poder Judicial. The medium-quality office furniture was nondescript, the matching chairs upholstered a dark blue. At the horizontal head of the room there was an equally modest metal and Formica-top table, about five feet long, reserved for the judge, and a computer table to the left, where a stenographer would perch and type up the proceedings. Two smaller tables faced the judge, to accommodate opposing counsel, and behind them two rows of chairs for visitors. What served as a witness stand was a lone chair wedged between the judge and the stenographer. There was no seating for a jury: In Mexico, judges make all the calls, including the verdict.

Stew was scheduled to testify first but his testimony was postponed because our side hadn’t brought a “court-approved” translator. Then came Félix, who turned out to be the star witness.  He remained unflappable no matter how much the opposing lawyer tried to trip or confuse him with repeated questioning. Félix wouldn’t budge and insisted the land in front was ours and had been so during the nine-plus years he’s worked for us.

I could have warned the other side not to underestimate Félix, that his dark skin, indigenous features  and modest attire didn’t make him a country bumpkin. He is one of the smartest persons I’ve ever met, and I will feel forever sad that, because of poverty and a chaotic family, he didn’t get past the sixth grade. He could have been a contender in any profession of his choosing.

Stew was excused again the next day, because the court-appointed translator didn’t show up. He never got to testify. But both he and Félix warned me the judge was a no-nonsense, stern person.

The next day was my turn on the stand, and I was knocked out when the judge came in: She was a diminutive, beautiful woman, no older than 30 years old, with long brown hair, fashionable oversize eyeglasses, no black robes, but wearing the five-inch stiletto shoes most Mexican women seem so fond of. I was expecting a cranky Judge Judy. Was that a sexist assumption on my part?

She asked me a few times if my Spanish was sufficient to understand and answer the questions, and gave me two additional instructions. I was supposed to answer the questions posed by the opposing lawyer only “yes” or “no,” and at all times keep my eyes on her. That entire exercise lasted about 15 minutes and that was it.

Next up was Don Lucas, the dodgy old farmer who sold us the ranch in the first place and is largely responsible for this whole legal mess. Stew and I decided to attend the hearing just out of curiosity.

Lucas is 94 years old and slow-moving, and claimed he couldn’t hear well. I don’t trust him; I think he’s crazy as a fox, as the cliche goes. He didn’t answer any questions, didn’t even remember my name and was generally useless for either side. His son Rafael, about 50 or so, tried to whisper answers in his hear but the judge kept cutting him off.

Rafael gave me several angry looks. This audiencia was a waste of time except I learned that Rafael is as dumb-looking, and dangerous, as an angry cow, and that he doesn’t much like me—not at all. In fact, a few days after his appearance, Félix called me to say the night before someone had stolen a fancy “Rancho Santa Clara” sign we had planted by the gate. Thanks, Rafael.

One way to build up your patience.

At the next hearing date, the opposing side brought two witnesses, one of them a beefy body guard working for the guy who’s trying to take the land from us, and the other one a fence installer who originally fenced it off.

But alas, the two witnesses were a few minutes late, my lawyer objected to their unconscionable tardiness, and the judge agreed and ruled out their testimony. Bang. One lesson I’ve learned from this young judge is to look at her in the eye and also show up as punctually as a Swiss train. Nothing in Mexico may run on time, except her courtroom.

Coming up next are three more land surveys—one ordered by us, one by the other side, and one by the court. That will make it about eight different land surveys and photographs of our ranch.

Then, more waiting.

Our lawyer says a verdict is not likely before May. Stew and I will just have to keep working on our patience. And there isn’t a better place to do that than we are: At a beachfront bungalow, a cool breeze constantly blowing.

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