End to a Mexican standoff

Two years, two months and eleven days after it began, the legal wrangle over a piece of land abutting our ranch ended with the two opposing parties signing an agreement to essentially split the disputed parcels. 

In a most unceremonious signing ceremony on the sidewalk in front of the civil courthouse—closed to everyone except lawyers and court functionaries because of the pandemic—the other side and I, and the two witnesses, all wearing face masks, sealed the deal with a fist bump. 

The fight over the land was occasioned by an error on the part of the topographer, which led us to put our rear fence 15 meters back from where it should have been, when we bought the ranch 12 years ago. 

That left us technically trespassing onto someone else’s land in the back, and leaving 15-meter-wide strip of land in the front, which was clearly in our deed, unfenced and up for grabs. The chunks of land in dispute were a considerable 3300 square meters each.  

I’ll skip the tedious legal details, except that these two-plus years of litigation—which included, among other incidents, bouts of intimidation, extortion and even an attempt to block the entrance to our ranch with a hastily built stone wall about a meter high, in addition to multiple lawsuits and countersuits—have been among the most stressful in our lives for Stew and I, and very nearly poisoned our decision to live in Mexico. We seriously considered just packing up and getting the hell out of here, when it felt as if we were living in a state of siege. We talked about hiring security guards. 

Remains of a battlefield. 

One central piece of advice I offer to any expat facing the prospect of a land dispute in Mexico is: run. 

I know of Americans who have been fighting over land for as long as seven years, and such battles almost always end badly for the gringo side. When this rumble began, I remember fellow blogger Felipe Zapata, and several other folks, both Mexican and expats, offering the same advice I offer now. 

We’ve learned that corruption—payoffs and bribes, side deals, forged documents, false testimony, and other tricks of the trade—is the lubricant that keeps the Mexican judicial system going, such as it is. It’s not a game inexperienced out-of-towners can play and hope to win. 

Long before our legal problems, I remember an informal conversation Stew and I had with Dr. Armando Palacios, at that time our ophthalmologist, during which he told us that legal and governmental systems of Mexico are so corrupt that instead of complaining about it, he’d just come to marvel that the country functions at all.

We hired a scrapper of a Mexican lawyer to whom we are indebted for getting us through this debacle, sometimes by calling in favors from friends working at City Hall, and other times, casually suggesting that we might need money for “propinas” (“tips” that were in fact bribes). 

Propinas, anyone?

A couple of times we agreed to give him the money for propinas, while we played the dumb gringo card, rolled our eyes and pretended we were making donations to a local charity. 

Early on we caught on to the fact that the the guy on the other side, a land developer from Querétaro in his forties—fully accessorized with aviator Ray-Bans, slicked-back hair, designer jeans, a gleaming Chevy Suburban and one or two bodyguards always in tow—wasn’t really interested in getting the land in front of our ranch per se, but rather using it as a lever to force us to cede constantly changing pieces of our three hectares elsewhere. A pie-shaped slice on the north? An L-shaped chunk at the other end? Move our entire property 30 meters to the west? The guy didn’t know what he wanted or couldn’t make up his mind. 

And so on. As we remained firm—we could not reasonably compromise the only entrance to our ranch by turning over the land in front to a third party—the “proposals” became ever more ludicrous. And as the months turned into years, we came to suspect the fellow with the Ray-Bans just wanted to solve the disagreement one way or another, and move on with the rest of his housing project.

The dispute, essentially over which of the two contending deeds for the land in front was valid, finally went to trial four months ago. We lost, though the judge ruled that we had a legal claim to a right-of-way dissecting the disputed land, the width and location of which to be determined later. 

What sunk our case, I’m sorry to say, was my stumbling performance during a key deposition: My command of Spanish legalese simply was not sufficient to understand some of the questions. I was not allowed to bring my lawyer to explain the questions, but I should have at least brought a translator. I could not have even lied convincingly, if I’d wanted to. 

About a month ago, our lawyer suggested that we offer to keep the land in front in exchange for a piece of land of equal size, centimeter for centimeter, in the back. 

We could have appealed the local judge’s decision to a state court in the capital of Guanajuato, and embroiled ourselves in months, possibly a year, of further legal expenses and aggravation. And if we lost at the state level, take it to a court of appeals in Mexico City, for the matter to continue, ad nauseam, per secula seculorum.   

Ron Stephens, a non-lawyer friend but a sharp cookie in his own right, over dinner put a positive spin on our “losing” the case: “Listen, you’re getting back the front piece of land, which you must have to get into your ranch, in exchange for the land in back, which wasn’t in your escritura to begin with.” 

“Ah so, Kemosabe!,” Stew and I exclaimed. 

The fence people are moving fences right now, and an architect is coming in a few minutes to talk about building a formal stone entrance in front. 

Félix is all excited, and has already enlisted his friends Juan and José, to help clean up the mess in the land in front, which will involve hiring a backhoe and a truck to haul away the remains of the stone wall that went up to keep us from entering the ranch, and which remained in place for only a few days, after our lawyer managed to get it removed.

We’re not only relieved this is over, but looking forward to planting some trees and get on with our lives, such as they are, living in de facto house arrest because of the pandemic. But that too shall pass, we hope faster that this legal nightmare.

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