Los Angeles Times - January 29, 1997
Last July, peasants took over a resort in Baja California,
saying it sits on land the government gave them. Their defiance
points up the conflicts in Mexico between local claims and the
need for outside money.
Mulege, Mexico -- The Hotel Serenidad opened to an elite
international clientele on the shores of the Gulf of California
nearly 30 years ago. Almost overnight, it transformed this
sleepy village on the eastern shores of Baja California Sur.
Complete with a new, 4,000-foot landing strip, the hotel drew
such regulars as John Wayne, Olivia Newton-John and other stars
and became an engine of progress and relative prosperity for
Mulege and its 3,000 residents.
It brought jobs, money and a class of tourism that spawned
restaurants, dive shops, sport fishing and kayak tours. Its
tasteful, palm-shrouded grounds were an oasis of elegance along
a desert coastline dotted with low-rent trailer parks. The
Hotel Serenidad was, in short, the kind of development that
Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has said the nation needs now
to help its economy recover from crisis.
Then, just after noon last July 14, three decades of serenity at
the Hotel Serenidad came to an abrupt end -- and much of
Mulege's tourist trade along with it.
It was a Sunday, and the hotel was packed with such regulars as
Superior Court Judge Robert C. Baxley of San Diego, when 94
local peasants invaded and occupied the hotel. These
ejidatarios, or peasants who own land communally, evicted
the owners and guests and seized the rooms, dining room, pool
bar and airstrip.
Peasants in cowboy hats have replaced well-heeled tourists
beside a pool now filled only with two inches of green scum.
The hotel's operators, Nancy Ugalde de Johnson, a
fifth-generation Mulege native, and her California-born husband,
Don Johnson, have spent six months in court trying to prove that
Nancy is the legal owner. Last month, the Johnsons said, a
federal judge in Mexico City ruled that they had legal title to
But the hotel is still shuttered, and the fight over who owns
land stands as a model of apparent contradictions in Mexico's
management of land, tourism and foreign investment through the
The land issue is a highly charged and emotional one in Mexico,
where communal ownership is a source of pride and identity for
the the nation's peasants.
Business people such as Nancy and Don Johnson, however, say the
government must find a balance between its commitment to
democracy and land reform and its policy of courting foreign
The ejidatarios, who were granted vast tracts of public
and private property by the Mexican government earlier this
century, insist that they have documents showing they own the
five acres that include the Hotel Serenidad. They are demanding
that the Johnsons pay them tens of thousands of dollars in rent
before they will end their siege.
Local and state officials in Baja California Sur, facing
elections this year in which they need peasant votes, have taken
no action to drive the peasants from the hotel grounds.
Similar peasant takeovers have occurred throughout Mexico.
Ejidatarios last year occupied the site of a planned
championship golf course and corporate retreat just outside the
nation's capital in Tepoztlan, for example, and seized the town
hall, which they continue to hold, running municipal affairs
through a people's council.
Elsewhere in the same state of Morelos, peasants forcibly
occupied a sprawling hacienda owned by a prominent family. And
there are occasional reports of smaller-scale seizures in other
Federal officials and independent analysts acknowledge that
such land conflicts are not uncommon, the result of decades of
helter-skelter land-management policies.
The Agrarian Reform Ministry is now attempting to determine the
real ownership of thousands of land tracts nationwide, all of
them collective lands.
"If the Mexican president is in Washington trying to promote
investments in Mexico, then what the hell are they doing to the
people here, to people like us who already have invested so
heavily in Mexico?" Don Johnson asked during a recent interview
in Mulege, where he and his wife continue to live. "This hotel
is the heart of this town, and now they've cut out the heart."
The Johnsons say they have put as much as $1 million into the
hotel since Nancy bought it from the previous owners in 1968 --
including the more than $100,000 she said she paid the federal
government for the land in 1982. The Johnsons had rented the
land for years from the peasant collective, until the government
told them that it had been expropriated.
And the couple's stake is far more than financial. In the 33
years since Don Johnson traded his previous life as a custom
tailor in San Jose for Mulege's sleepy tranquillity, married
Nancy and eventually took over the hotel, they have invested
their future in this town. Their three daughters grew up here
and helped run the hotel. And now that he is 70, Johnson said,
his only roots are here.
Johnson co-founded Mulege's Rotary Club chapter 25 years ago.
About the same time, he convinced Sam Yorty, then mayor of Los
Angeles and a Hotel Serenidad regular, to donate Mulege's first
fire engine, which Johnson drove across the border into Baja,
sirens blaring. Johnson was the U.S. consul in Baja Sur for 13
years, using his Mulege home as his base, and he gave up the
post only when the consulate was moved farther south to Cabo San
The Johnsons have stacks of old travel magazines with their
hotel on the covers, attesting to the wide appeal of the resort
and of the Johnsons themselves. The June 1981 issue of Desert
Magazine headlined a story on Johnson and the Hotel Serenidad
this way: "A Dream with a Purpose. The story of Don Johnson, a
man of two nations."
After the hotel and its airstrip were seized, the local Roman
Catholic priest spoke on the Johnson' behalf in his Sunday
sermons. And the Johnsons have collected a thick volume of
testimonials from the family's loyal clientele, many of them
sent to Mexican consulates and urging the government to liberate
In a July 29 letter to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego
protesting the hotel seizure, for example, California Superior
Court Judge Baxley praised the Johnsons and their hotel as "the
principal employer of citizens in the region" and condemned the
seizure as an "unlawful action."
The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Assn., or AOPA, which is based in
Frederick, Md., and represents 340,000 U.S. pilots, wrote to the
Mexico Government Tourism Office in Washington: "Don and Nancy
Johnson have established a unique and trusted reputation in the
general aviation community.
"The takeover of this valuable tourism facility is particularly
disturbing since AOPA has participated in Operation Amistad
[Friendship] meetings in both Mexico and the United States for
several years, working diligently to foster and promote a
Local business people in Mulege have been even more vociferous
in their support for the Johnsons -- and in their anger over the
"They have done incredible things for the community," California
native Roy Mahoff, who has run a kayak-tour business in town for
the last six years, said of the Johnsons. "Emotionally, this
has taken an incredible hit on this community."
As for business, Mahoff said sales of his Baja Tropicales kayak
tours have been down as much as 50% in the months since the
seizure -- a trend matching those described by Mexican business
people in town, who agree that tourism has been all but dead
here since the Hotel Serenidad was shut down.
That, said the ejidatarios' elected leader, Rafael Garcia
Espinoza, was never the peasants' intention. They were merely
asserting their basic rights, he said.
"The reason the ejidatarios are inside the hotel is
because the hotel is the property of the ejido
[collective]," said Garcia -- a toothless, articulate peasant --
in an interview outside his one-room plywood shack in an unpaved
part of town.
The ejidatarios' claim dates to 1924, when the federal
government gave the local peasants title to more than 45 square
miles of land that included the town of Mulege. The gift was
part of a massive land redistribution nationwide after the
Then, in the 1970s, the government expropriated thousands of
acres of ejido land nationwide to promote tourism and
other development. Among those parcels were about 150 acres of
the ejido land in Mulege. The government subsequently
"regularized" ownership of the land it expropriated, selling
titles to people who wanted to invest in Mexico and to those who
had already been renting the land from the ejidatarios
The government promised to reimburse the ejidatarios for
the expropriated land. But through neglect or mismanagement or
lack of funds, it did not begin to do so in Mulege and many
other places until last fall -- 20 years after taking it.
Compounding the problem in Mulege was the question of whether
the expropriated land included the Hotel Serenidad's five-acre
plot. The Johnsons say it did.
But Garcia insisted that the Johnsons' property title is
illegal, that the expropriated lands stopped short of the hotel
and that therefore the hotel remains on the property of the
He acknowledged that the Johnsons paid the ejidatarios a
fair rent for it throughout more than a decade -- until 1980,
when Nancy Johnson began the two-year bureaucratic process of
purchasing the land. But he insisted that they must pay rent
for the last 16 years and for years to come if they want to stay
When asked if his group will honor the court ruling, Garcia said
flatly: "No. It's just a judge. Only one person."
Garcia conceded the severe damage his group's seizure has done
to Mulege's economy, but he added: "What would you do if you had
a shop with large profits and you received nothing, and the
store is yours because you can prove it? Would you let these
people get richer while you go without eating?"
Most Mulegeans are poor farmers, like Garcia, but are not
starving. However, there is a great disparity here between rich
and poor. The wealthier Mexicans and the Americans live in the
paved part of town, while Garcia and the other
ejidatarios live in shacks on its muddy outskirts.
"We have fought a lot for this land," Garcia said. "We can't
let them take something that we can prove is ours, whether they
be Mexicans or foreigners."
The ejido leader said he sees the conflict as a clash
neither between rich and poor nor between Mexicans and
Still, when asked about his own background, Garcia -- who was
born in the far-off state of Guanajuato and moved onto the
ejido lands in Mulege in 1954 -- said, "We are much more
Mulegean than those criollos [descendants of Europeans].
"The rich don't want to mix with us because we don't have money.
That's a problem," he said. "But we aren't pointing the finger
at anyone because they have money. The rich live off the poor,
and the poor live off the rich. We both need each other."
Garcia and the Johnsons alike characterized the Hotel Serenidad
situation as "a standoff." But both sides also said they are
willing to open face-to-face negotiations.
Local business people like Mahoff said their futures and that
of their town remain uncertain.
"I wish I had a crystal ball so I could plan my own future," he
said. "I love this place. I love the people. I love so much
about it. But I hate this undercurrent. I just cry inside when
I think about how it's affecting the Johnsons and so many here
"And personally, I don't know if Mulege will ever really, truly
be the same again. It just seems like so much of the trust is