Mexican standoff: the battle of Chichen Itza

Since being named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, the Mayan temple has been the focus of an ownership dispute between a local family and those who want it to be returned to the people. David Usborne reports from Yucatá*

Even before the sun has begun to heat the pale stones of the Temple of Kukulkan pyramid and the adjacent Great Ball Court, the daily invasion of the Chichen Itza, the archeological jewel in the heart of Mexico's Yucatá* peninsula that – 1,000 years ago – was one of the largest city-states of the Mayan world, has begun.

They traipse in not via the visitors' entrance but via litter-strewn paths through the surrounding woods. By the time the actual tourists arrive, either from their rooms in the few nearby hotels or on day-trip buses from the beaches of Cancun two hours away, this first human onslaught will be complete. They are the hundreds of vendors who every day erect their stalls all across the site, hoping to scrape a living selling so-called handicrafts which, in fact, are mostly kitsch souvenirs made in China.

Even the barely aware visitor will sense that all is not quite as it should be at Chichen Itza. Its 100 acres can, on some days, feel like a seething bazaar of hawkers and child beggars. Serenity is elusive as you try to conjure in your mind the magnificence of what once stood here, or appreciate the ancient skills involved in placing the temple in direct correlation to the rays of the sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes, or in erecting the El Caracol Observatory to track the movement of the stars. The problem is partly one simply of Chichen Itza struggling to cope with its newfound fame.

It is four months since it was designated one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a global competition that invited people to vote via the internet. The other sites to win the honour included the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The Chichen Itza archaeological park is now at risk of being overwhelmed by a new influx of tourists – and of vendors hoping to lighten their wallets.

What most visitors do not know is that beneath the crisis of the vendors is a far more profound struggle over who is actually in charge of the park. As they file through the turnstiles, they are setting foot not on government property but on land owned by the Barbachanos, a prominent Yucatá* family. Since the results of the Seven Wonders vote was announced in July, Chichen Itza has been plunged into a dispute over its ownership, pitting the Barbachanos against the federal government. The row is as bitter as any Mexico has seen in decades, and echoes the raw class warfare that triggered the national revolution of 1910.

The story of Chichen Itza's guardianship is already long and tangled. Barely 100 years ago, it was little more than a cattle ranch. True, the wider world knew of its special significance thanks to the US archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens and the British illustrator Frank Catherwood who, in 1843, stumbled on the ruins – then mostly buried in the jungle – and published a book, Incidents Of Travel In Yucatá*. But it was only in 1894 that Edward Thompson, the American consul in the city of Merida, bought the land and began concerted excavations, sending treasures to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

Thompson soon found himself accused of illegal smuggling and the Mexican government summarily expropriated his home, the Hacienda Chichen, and all his land on which the temples stood. Years later, after Thompson had died back in the US, a new government dropped the original charges and returned the property to his heirs. They, in turn, decided to sell it in 1944.

The buyer was Fernando Barbachano Peon, a grand-nephew of a former governor of Yucatá*. His commitment to opening up Chichen Itza to the outside world, which included building two hotels just beyond the limits of the site, earned him a reputation as the first pioneer of tourism, not only in Yucatá* but across Mexico. His legacy, you would think, would earn the whole family the eternal gratitude of the nation.

However, that is far from the mood today. Within days of the Seven Wonders vote, the secretary of the parliamentary culture committee, the left-winger Jose Alfonso Suarez del Real, publicly demanded that the land be returned to the people. He even used the toxic word expropriation. "This has unleashed a national polemic," he said recently. "We are all asking, 'How can a Wonder of the World have owners?'"

It is a battle to which the outcome is uncertain. On one side is the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which for years has overseen the management of the site as a tourist destination, as well as continuing excavations. On the other are the various heirs to the Barbachano's estate at Chichen Itza, who originally celebrated its designation as a new world wonder but now find themselves under siege as a direct result of it. Their choices are bleak: agree to sell the land to the government for a deflated sum, accept a land-swap deal or see their property simply seized without compensation. It does not help that the different Barbachanos cannot agree on what to do.

The disputed landed is divided between three Barbachano heirs. They are Fernando Barbachano Herrero, owner of the smartest of the nearby hotels, the Mayaland; Hans Thies Barbachano, who inherited the largest chunk of the site from his grandfather; and Carmen Barbachano. She is the current owner of the Hacienda Chichen, which these days is a charming 20-room hotel on the edge of tourist park. She had expected to pass it to her niece Belisa Barbachano, who manages the property.

Seated in a flowing white dress as the evening sun casts shadows on the front terrace of Hacienda Chichen, Belisa professes ignorance as to the exact negotiating positions of her relatives, with whom, she says, she communicates only rarely. For her, however, the thought of the INAH and, therefore, the government taking her home away, for money or not, is offensive in the extreme.

"I would think for anyone in Mexico this would be trulyunacceptable and not just for us," she says. "The land has been sold over and over and over again. We are not asking to keep something that we got in some kind of dubious manner."

The insult is made worse, she argues, because of the love shown by the Barbachanos in looking after the land over the years. She describes the efforts she and her husband have made to restore the ecology of the property with a massive tree-planting programme, and her social work with the neighbouring Mayan communities. And what, she asks, have the Barbachano family ever done to bring detriment to the ruins? "We have always respected the site. We have never engaged in anything inappropriate as regards our responsibilities," she says. "We could have built 2,000-room resorts here like in Las Vegas but we have not."

Indeed, the family has done nothing to violate a 1972 presidential decree which made clear that, while land at historical sites across Mexico may be in private hands, any archaeological treasures situated upon them belong to the government and are therefore controlled by the INAH. Quickly, the conversation turns to the current conditions in the park and, in particular, the daily overrunning of it by vendors. "For my guests, going there can be an exhausting experience because of those people, pushing, asking for money. Really, it is a disgrace," she says. But if Ms Barbachano blames the INAH for failing to control the vendors and to better look after the park, the officials see it rather differently.

Closeted in a tiny room down a dark corridor from the main visitors' entrance, the director of the INAH's Chichen Itza field office, Eduardo Perez de Heredia, protests that with talks under way, polemics from either side are not going to help. "We want things to be solved for the benefit of everybody and we want to find common ground," he suggests diplomatically. "The situation is very difficult. It's not about good people and bad people".

But when it is suggested to him that the Barbachanos have indeed done a good job of looking after the ruins, he harrumphs: "They are not looking after it. We are looking after it. The Barbachanos are not specialists in looking after antiquities like these. We are."

The problem of the vendors is for him a symptom of the muddled ownership question. He says that transferring the land rights to the INAH "will help with the vendors issue but it is about much more than that". He adds: "At least we won't have any more confusion of responsibilities. Everything will be much easier if everybody knows who owns it."

Suggest, however, that successive governments have not perhaps had the best record when it comes to balancing a hunger for tourist dollars with a respect for the land and the environment – think of the over-concentrated development of Cancun, or the wrecking of the reef off Cozumel – and he looks briefly puzzled, saying: "The government can do atrocious things sometimes but private owners can do atrocious things too."

However strenuously they might argue that they have been good stewards of Chichen Itza, the Barbachanos know politics and popular sentiment still lingering from the revolution are not on their sides. Listen, for example, to Guillermo Canul, a Mayan guide in the park for 30 years, who describes the Barbachanos as "friendly" and adds that "everything the government controls is not so good, because corruption is bad". And yet he is clear about what should happen here. "The government should have this land," he says. "Otherwise it is the same old story: the rich have the land and kick the poor people from it."

As for Belisa Barbachano, she is unwilling to predict whether this time it will be her family that gets kicked off by the government. "They may or they may not, it's in God's hands," she adds. "I cannot live my life in fear of what comes next."

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