Welcome to The Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter

Writing by Stan Gotlieb and Photos by Diana Ricci

THE OAXACA / MEXICO NEWSLETTER
Volume 8, No. 17: October 15, 2003
CONSUMER ADVISORY: This issue of the Newsletter is not a happy, upbeat one. Some days you happen on a spontaneous fiesta, and some days, you step into the doggy doo-doo. Even so, in the midst of all the bad news, we are settling nicely into our new home, and getting used to being motorists. Hopefully, things will be more up-beat next time. Meanwhile, for a little relief, we have included “proud parents” pictures of our new digs, a work in progress, starting with me turning the tables on the famous photographer. You can tell she likes taking pictures of others better than she likes having them taken of her...


FEAR AND LOATHING IN SAN PABLO ETLA

On or about the seventh of October, Oaxaca state police invaded the home of Russell Ames, a 40-some-year resident, and arrested three occupants, all U.S. citizens. John Barbato, poet and painter, Mary Ellen Sanger, translator and writer who contributes regularly to Mexico Connect and The Mexico File, and Joseph Simpson, who is in the last stages of terminal cancer, were hauled off to the local hoosegow where they were to be held for five days without bail.

The garden is beginning to come together. We got to the vivero (nursery) for herbs and flowers, but there is nowhere to buy vegetable sets, so we are going to scrounge some from friends, and grow others from seed.

Here is the background, as I understand it:

Many years ago, Russell and his wife Jean bought a large parcel of land in San Pablo, Etla. The Ames decided that when they died, their property should go to the University, for building a place of higher learning and culture; and Jean, the sole owner of record, signed a will to that effect. Three years ago, she died.

Over the years, they sold off a large piece of the property to other gringos (and that piece was twice divided, so at present there are three separate properties on that piece). This was before they signed the bequest to the University. Unfortunately, when the bequest papers were filed, they were based on the original deed, to the land in entirety, instead of a modified deed reflecting the true status of the land. It is that mistake that is the basis for all the legal hassle.

Russell is 92 and in poor health. Mary Ellen, and another person who was not there at the time of the raid, lived on the Ames property and took care of Russell. John and another person paid rent on a small dwelling near the house. Joseph was a guest, formerly the gardener and handyman.

To really appreciate our new, spacious, easy to clean bathroom, you had to have known our old one.

After the bequest was signed, the U of A went through a split. One part moved to Cholula, outside Puebla. The other part remained in the hands of Dr. C. Alejandro Gertz Manero, who now holds a cabinet position in the Fox government approximating our “Homeland Security” czar. Word reached the several residents who had built on the originally deeded Ames property that Gertz was intent on capturing the entire enclave, based on Jean Ames having died without changing her will to give Russell a life tenancy, and on a trumped-up theory that the various sales were illegal since she had already pre-deeded the entire property to the University. The houses on the subdivided part of the property are all in the luxury class by Mexican standards.

Russell managed to fight off the University and is in possession of his home until he dies. The others are in legal limbo. They had been reduced to barricading themselves in their homes until their lawyers got a federal “amparo” (something between a restraining order and a habeas corpus ruling). The legal status of their properties may be in limbo for many years.

While most disputes of title are civil matters, Gertz had the hapless innocents jailed under laws forbidding three or more persons from “conspiring” to steal the property of another. This is a serious charge, normally used by big landowners to punish peasant farmers from doing a little belated freelance “land reform”.

On Saturday, I attended a “community meeting” of gringos, which was addressed by the Special Consul Mark Leyes, and a representative of the U.S. Embassy, assistant consular officer Patrick Henneberry. In no uncertain terms, we were told that the whole business was a land grab, that Gertz had the co-operation of the highest levels of Oaxaca state government, that the judge was so clearly bought and paid for that it was mind-boggling (she had denied the filing of several necessary papers, refused to take testimony as to character – a key defense against “squatting” – and in general was railroading the defendants).

The best thing about our house is all the windows. There is always as much sunlight inside as there is outside.

Henneberry, an “ex law enforcement person", was extremely plausible, telling us that the new ambassador was “personally outraged” and determined to end this situation quickly, and hinting at all sorts of dire consequences which the U.S. government was prepared to apply if our friends remain long in custody, always qualified with “of course, I am not at liberty to say exactly, for fear of upsetting delicate negotiations”, or “I'll deny this if you repeat it”. It was a slick performance, that left this reporter very unsatisfied, although he did say that we should go to the press and our congresspeople – an unusually extreme position for a diplomat, since one of the things legislators like to do is put the screws to bureaucrats.

We were told that they had laid on a big press conference for Saturday night, but I looked in vain for any mention of the affair in either Noticias or Imparcial, Oaxaca's two largest newspapers, on Sunday. Nor was there any mention in either paper on Monday.

On Sunday, a very unusual day for holding hearings, the Judge ordered the prisoners to remain in jail an additional 15 days, while more evidence was gathered: in Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent (Napoleonic law). They were moved into the general prison population from the special rooms in which they had been held, and it is feared that they will be subject to extortion and beatings. The lawyer resigned, saying the defendants didn't appreciate him enough. This left the people in jail without representation. On Monday, they hired a lawyer associated with the Casa de Mujer.

The whole thing seems to have broken down into some sort of factional dispute, with the majority of the landowners intending that the money so far collected be used to pay the previous lawyer, and leaving the folks in jail with no money. At this same “secret” meeting of some of the gringos, a “secret” testimony was given to Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post.  There has been no attempt to form a phone tree, or otherwise involve the community in general.  In my case, I have repeatedly asked to be contacted, but have not gotten a reply.  As is usual when some people take over what should be a public effort, support is flaking off.

The kitchen is roomier, and better finished than our old one, but the real joy of it is the counter, in the foreground.

Meanwhile the prisoners are locked up, hostages to the greed of Gertz Manero, in hopes that their dire situation will force the land owners to capitulate. As usual, the U.S. consular services have proved useless. If you want to help, contact the press and your congressional delegates, particularly chairs of committees and subcommittees giving out money to Mexico.

Sorry to have to harp on this, but it really needs repeating: people who buy rural property in Mexico risk losing it or, at the very least, paying a lot of money to lawyers to keep from doing so. The vast majority of rural land sales are secure, and bargains are certainly available in less-developed locations, but those who run afoul of wily and greedy officials are going to pay an often unacceptable price; and the quicker you jump into a deal, the more likely it is to go sour on you. Mexico is a lawless country with a legal system that makes Kafka's “Trial” look like simple justice, and there is little the U.S. government can – or is willing – to do for you.


LIBRARY REDUX

About a week before the scheduled “special membership meeting” to cast a meaningless “no confidence” vote in the Board, the meeting was canceled. No explanation, leaving the field wide open for speculation. Not being able to resist, here's my guess: the whole thing was a power grab by the Chairman who wanted to get rid of two of the four most bothersome dissenters (two had resigned previously), who voluntarily resigned, making a meeting unnecessary.

It is indicative of the bizarre level to which Library politics have sunk that no-one bothered to point out that there is NO mechanism for canceling a “special membership meeting”, which, once called, must be held. I went to the Library and asked around. No-one would tell me how the cancellation occurred.

One member has been going around suggesting that “we” hire lawyers and sue “them”, an idea that anyone who knows anything about the debacle at the library in San Miguel de Allende, where members of both factions ended up jailed, would reject immediately. Fortunately, nobody seems to be listening.

Meanwhile, the rummage sale did happen after all, on October 5. It earned upwards of 13,000 pesos: a success by most measures, considering that there was no postering in the neighborhood, and that the space required a smaller sale than previously.

Famous author in the act of creation. Our "second" bedroom is actually larger than our own, so that's where we stash the office.


NARCO NEWS IS GOING OUT OF BUSINESS:


Unable to scrape up enough funding to continue operations at a meaningful level, Al Giordano has made the decision to stop operations, beginning the 18th of this month. After 3 and a half years of dedicated journalism in the interest of the rest of us, he is no longer able to pay salaries and provide a sufficient level of protection for the heroic journalists that have made the site – in my mind – one of the most important news sources in this hemisphere.

Spin-off sites such as salonchingon and bigleftoutside will still operate, and the entire Narconews site will remain in archive form.


MORE ON MEZCAL

As reported in an earlier edition of this Newsletter, adulteration of Mezcal using cane liquor and other more dangerous substances has resulted in the closing of 90% of all palenques (distilleries) in the Matitlán area, home to much of Oaxaca's mezcal industry. There are now 300 employees left from the 3,000 that were working five years ago.

Last week, according to Noticias, the government agency in charge of overseeing truth-in-labeling awarded it's seal of approval to seven brands of Mezcal, out of 130 that it examined. Needless to say, in a lawless country like Mexico, this has not deterred the practice by non-conforming mezcaleros of putting “100% Agave” on their labels.

This weekend, an article in “Tiempo”, another Oaxaca newspaper, said that the bureau of standards of the state secretariat of the economy had failed to find a single brand that qualified under the new standards.

Either way – seven or none – it's a shame and a pity…


WE'RE OFF

We're getting in our trusty Tsuru in a couple of weeks, and going off to visit daughter Tamar and her husband in Pensacola, Florida. We'll be stopping in Tlaxcala, Ciudad Victoria, Corpus Christie Texas, and Lafayette and New Orleans Looeesianuh.

Expect a big travel issue from Pensacola, around the 5th.