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Baja California Information Pages
Standoff at the Hotel Serenidad
by Mark Fineman, Times Staff Writer

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 the land.

But the hotel is still shuttered, and the fight over who owns the land stands as a model of apparent contradictions in Mexico's management of land, tourism and foreign investment through the decades.

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 investment.

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 states.

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 Lucas.

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 the hotel.

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 'transparent' border."

Local business people in Mulege have been even more vociferous in their support for the Johnsons -- and in their anger over the hotel's seizure.

"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 Mexican Revolution.

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 for years.

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 ejido.

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 there.

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 Americans.

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 in town.

"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 gone."

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