In the Mexico City resort, squatters take a stand against developers

A phrase that reads in Spanish “SOS M. AMLO. We are under attack. Help!!!’ covers a street in the October 2 squatter colony in Tulum, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Thursday, August 4, 2022. The message was written by the squatters, addressed to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after local officials tried to evict them from a stretch of public land that was sold by city officials to largely foreign developers.(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press

TULUM, Mexico (AP) — Unchecked development has hit this once laid-back beach town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast so hard that developers are now eager, even desperate, to build condominiums and hotels in a slum.

As police try to evict squatters so towering condos can be built next to wooden and tar paper shacks, locals are fighting back, saying they’re tired of foreign investors excluding local people from their homes. own coast.

In the latest clash on July 27, police accompanying a backhoe fired tear gas and attempted to topple the homes of some squatters in the shade of a new balcony condominium building. The attempt ended when the wind blew the gas back onto the officers, who retreated under a hail of rocks.

The contrast between rich and poor is striking. Shiny white four-story condos with vaguely Mayan-sounding names and English slogans like “Live in the Luscious Jungle” and “An immersive spiritual experience” stand next to shacks made of poles, packing crates, tarpaulins and sheet metal roofs.

On a coast where uncontrolled resort development has already closed off most public access to beaches – there are only a few public access points on the 80-mile stretch known as the Riviera Maya – residents of squatter camp may have reason to wonder if poorer Mexicans will be allowed here at all.

Quintana Roo state officials have pledged to relocate or evict approximately 12,000 residents of the 340-acre October 2 Settlement. It was founded in 2016 on very valuable, formerly public land a few blocks from the town’s main street and about a mile and a half from the shore.

Such land invasions are common throughout Mexico. Many are quickly eradicated. But others are gradually integrating into their cities. Up to 250,000 people are thought to live in squatter communities on the outskirts of Cancún.

Officials say the “invaders” have created a semi-lawless enclave that has worsened Tulum’s reputation for growing violence and threatened the vital tourism industry.

Squatter leader Jose Antonio León Méndez, a welder who has lived in Cancún and Tulum for about three decades, says he was tired of knowing he could never afford a home in increasingly crowded cities. strangers.

“How can a Mexican be an ‘invader’ in his own country? That does not make any sense. It’s like saying someone steals something that belongs to them,” said León Méndez. “These people are not thieves. They are the workforce of Tulum.

“We don’t have any personal problems with foreigners, but they must respect our rights,” he said, adding that October 2 represents a final battle for Mexicans who are being deported from their own coast.

The settlement is part of a larger 500-acre stretch of public land that was sold by city officials to largely foreign developers in the 2000s.

Condos on the edge of the camp – and some well inside – now sell for between $100,000 and $150,000 and are advertised in US dollars, as are entrance fees at many resorts. Around Tulum, $20 a day is considered a good wage. So it would take decades of wages for the average Mexican worker to buy one.

Quintana Roo’s attorney general, Oscar Montes de Oca, vows to evict the squatters. “We even have the eviction orders from the court,” Montes de Oca said. “It’s just that every time we tried, they all immediately got together and blocked the roads.”

Many of these roadblocks remain: mounds of stones, tires and scrap wood piled up in the streets, ready to be set on fire.

Mateo Cruz, who rents a room for himself and his two children in the settlement, shows the angry bruise on his thigh where he says he was hit by a police tear gas canister.

“They came and said we had to go out and take our stuff with us,” Cruz said of the July 27 eviction attempt. The land where he lives is directly under a new four-story condominium building.

“What were they thinking, throwing tear gas among so many people? said Cruz.

Montes de Oca says officials plan to relocate the squatters. “We are going to offer them land away from this area, provided by the state government,” he said. “Businessmen will bring money to build houses.”

“It will push 70% of these people to leave voluntarily, with the certainty of having decent housing,” said Montes de Oca. Asked what would be done with the remaining 30%, he replied: “Other means will be applied”.

León Méndez rejects such an offer.

“We are not going to allow them to continue selling the land to foreigners while they send us locals, who have lived in Quintana Roo for 15, 20 or 30 years, living 20 kilometers (12 miles) away in the woods. “, he said. “It’s not negotiable.”

Considering the cost of taxis and tourist bus routes, the journey from a new settlement could cost workers a quarter of their daily wages.

But officials have another argument.

Street-level drug trafficking is the source of many murders in the October 2 Camp, just like in the rest of Tulum. In October, two tourists, one an Indian-born Californian travel blogger and the other German, were caught in the crossfire of rival drug dealers and killed in a restaurant on Tulum’s main avenue.

Lucio Hernández, the state police chief, said government security cameras detected that many drug dealers in Tulum were using the squatters’ camp as a hideout.

Squatter leader Rafael Hernández Juárez acknowledges that the area has become more violent, with drug deals and murders occurring from time to time.

“We try not to meddle with them,” the affable former tourist shuttle driver said, noting that it would be dangerous for him to report drug dealers.

Victor Reyes, a Tulum resident who works in real estate, estimates that about 70% of condominium investment comes from foreign developers, and condos are priced in dollars “because they have to recoup their investment in dollars.” “.

It reflects the suspicions that some residents have about the squatters. “Their groups have become mafias,” Reyes said. “These organizations bring people together…and use women and children as cannon fodder” to avoid deportation. “They won the lottery” by squatting such valuable land, he says.

The squatters are obviously a political group – currently aligned with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party – and in a sense many see their humble shacks as lottery winners.

Many have built second sets of rooms and rent out their original cabins to locals. Some squatters sold their spacious 10 by 20 meter plots for $8,000 to $12,000. Apparently, they invest all the money they have in building rooms – sometimes brick, sometimes wood – gradually, as they save enough for materials.

But none have running water or sewer hookups, though condos built in the same camp all have them – some of the condos even have pools. The squatters rig their electrical connections and make do with primitive wells and septic tanks drilled into the rocky ground, the combination of which is problematic.

For the vast majority of squatters, even though they live in expensive real estate, daily life remains a struggle.

Lenin Solís Vega, a construction worker, builds his own house one block of cement at a time. He has been evicted twice from previous lots in the settlement, one of which is 20 yards from his current home and where a new condominium is to be built.

“Now they say, ‘Why are you building?’ and they want to deport us,” he said. “But how? We are Mexicans and we have nothing.

Some of the squatters have even taken advantage of wealthier neighbors, who come to buy cheap meals for the residents.

Lorena, from the state of Campeche, has spent years cooking for tourists in hotels and restaurants where she was once forbidden to speak her native Mayan language. She asked that her last name not be used to avoid problems with the authorities.

And since she built her cabin out of wood and tarp – she planted trees and built a goldfish pond out back – she was able to set up her own street food stand in front of her house.

She even learned to recite in English the menu of the “beef, chicken, pork” empanadas that she sells to tourists who walk around from the condos.

“All investors are welcome,” Lorena said, “but they can’t discriminate against or look down on us just because we’re poor.”

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