Mexican college, American at odds over land

Man, 91, is threatened with eviction, friends jailed

November 02, 2003|By Hugh Dellios | Hugh Dellios,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAN PABLO ETLA, Mexico - In 1959, when they were middle-aged newlyweds, Russell and Jean Ames came to Mexico and built their home in the Oaxaca Valley. In a gesture of charity, they deeded the land to a local university with the understanding that they could live there until they died.

Now, 44 years later, Russell Ames, at 91 a frail widower, has been threatened with eviction, and three of his American friends have been jailed in a nasty dispute with the university, which is trying to force Ames off the land.

The university's rector is one of President Vicente Fox's Cabinet ministers. Among those arrested is a tongue-cancer patient, 71, a friend who lived on the Ameses' land for 15 years and is guarded by two Mexican police officers at a hospital.

"They are playing as hard as they can," said Ames, an Indiana native and former college professor who struck the deal with the university in 1988. "When my wife first saw the view from here, she said: `This is for me. This is for us. This is forever.'"

The land dispute is a case of the best intentions and romantic dreams being spoiled in a less-than-perfectly planned foray into the high-stakes, hardball world of justice and land ownership in Mexico.

Inadvertently, the Ameses' faulty legal papers omitted Russell's right to continue living on their land after Jean died in 2000, and the university wants to establish its ownership. But Ames and his defenders accuse the school of heartlessness and bad faith.

Lawyers from the two sides are locked in negotiations under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, which has expressed unusually public criticism of the way the three jailed Americans were treated by the Mexican justice system. The arrests have also been condemned by several members of Congress.

The three, all of whom were living at the Ameses' place - one caring for Russell Ames for more than two years - were suddenly arrested early last month on accusations that they had invaded the property. A judge denied them access to witnesses and a translator when she jailed them in a rushed weekend hearing. They face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza has become involved by twice contacting the university rector, Alejandro Gertz Manero, Fox's federal minister of public security, to complain about the intensifying standoff of threats and legal maneuvers.

"We felt the process by which the three were charged and [jailed] fell short of fair treatment under the law," said James Dickmeyer, the U.S. Embassy spokesman.

Gertz, who is on leave from his school post, said he has nothing to do with the case. But the dispute erupted in the spring when Ames was served with eviction papers as he and others were talking to Gertz about buying the property back from the university.

The 20-acre property includes several tile-roofed houses and other buildings on a hill above San Pablo Etla, an agricultural village of 3,000 about a half-hour drive west of the famous tourist center of Oaxaca.

Russell Ames spent his schoolboy years in Evanston, Ill., and later wrote a number of books on philosophy and folklore. Jean Ames, who was born in France, was a concert pianist. They built their Mexican home from scratch in the 1960s, when water still had to be trucked in.

It has since become the center of a small community of 15 to 20 American expatriates who have either retired there, spend winters there or live there year-round off the tourist trade.

Short on cash, the Ameses made their land a "deferred gift" to the Mexico City-based University of the Americas in 1988 in exchange for a small annuity while they lived their last years there. The deal was consummated at half the land's assessed price.

Afterward, the couple discovered errors in the legal documents, which gave only Jean Ames the right to live on the property until she died because the land was in her name. The couple spoke to the university about getting the problem fixed, but it was never done.

After she died, Russell Ames began to have second thoughts about leaving the property to the private school, which had changed ownership. He made several overtures to Gertz to buy back the property, now assessed at $250,000. University officials said that Ames is living illegally on their land and never approached them for permission. They said they have delayed their plans to develop the property for three more years, continuing to pay taxes on it as they have done since 1988.

The dispute got serious in March, when the university filed eviction papers against Ames and demanded $38,000 in rent.

Ames' attorney then discovered that the legal papers were so shoddily prepared that he said the sale to the university would be thrown out in court. Ames then filed suit against the university, asking a court to nullify its ownership of the land.

Alejandro Elizondo Leal, the university's acting rector, blamed Ames for how ugly the dispute has become. He said the "foolish" countersuit was seen as a threat to the university.

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