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Column 030606 Emmond

Monday, March 6, 2006


Ongoing Borderline Disputes in Southeast Mexico


By Kenneth Emmond


Nations quarrel about their boundaries, as do private landowners – especially in countries that have not developed sophisticated land title registries. Sometimes lives are lost in both types of landownership altercations.


These days it’s rare that a dispute arises over a boundary between states within a nation, but it does happen. Right now there’s a major tussle over borders involving three states in southeastern Mexico. It’s been festering for decades in the jungle lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula.


At stake is a narrow sliver of land that extends north from the Guatemala border between the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche, then doglegs northeast between Quintana Roo and Yucatan.


Maybe “sliver” isn’t the right word, since it’s almost 400 square miles – or about one-fifth of the total area of Quintana Roo.


Quintana Roo is claiming this area, and to no one’s surprise Campeche and Yucatan are contesting its claim.


The borders were never made clear back in 1862, when Campeche and Yucatan were designated Mexican states while sparsely populated Quintana Roo remained a territory. It achieved statehood in 1975, and that’s when the boundary became a legal issue.


That same year, Yucatan governor Victor Pacheco unilaterally issued a decree establishing a borderline that favors his state. In 1996, Campeche Governor Jorge Salomon created the municipality of Calakmul as an entity of his state within the disputed territory.


In 1997 Quintana Roo argued before the Supreme Court that both these actions constitute incursions into what should be its territory.


One would think a dispute like that would be settled within a few months, or a couple of years at the most, but it hasn’t worked out that way. After years of dithering, the Supreme Court ruled that under a constitutional amendment passed last December it was not competent to render a decision. As spelled out in the amendment, a two-thirds majority in the Mexican Senate must decide the issue.


Why anyone would believe a boundary decision made by partisan politicians is preferable to one made by judges on the basis of law remains a mystery beyond the understanding of this columnist, but that’s what the legislature decided and the administration decreed.


Carlos Sosa, one of the judges presiding over the case, commented unofficially that the judges were tilting in favor of the case presented by Quintana Roo. He said the court should finish the job because it was already considering the case when the constitutional change was proclaimed. “No law can be applied retroactively,” he said.


In 2004 the court called on representatives from the three states to appear and defend their arguments, but the timing was unfortunate. No one showed up.


In Quintana Roo, the state that initiated the case, Governor Joaquin Hendricks was distracted by corruption allegations within his government. Campeche was in the midst of a change of government, and Yucatan Governor Patricio Patron decided not to bother.


By the time the governors were ready to follow up the court had decided to pass the buck.


With Quintana Roo demanding a court decision, and the other two states hoping it goes to the Senate, the stage appears set for several more years of wrangling.


Whatever the final outcome, the real losers in this jurisdictional crapshoot are the people who live in this political no man’s land.


While governments fight to win control of the area, no one is willing to take responsibility for providing services to the people who live there.


A case in point is the village of San Antonio Soda, in or near Campeche, depending on the outcome of the legal battle. It badly needs a supply of drinking water.


However Juventino Castillo, the municipal coordinator of the Potable Water and Drainage Commission, says the Campeche government should solve the problem. But Campeche won’t spend money on infrastructure in an area that might one day be part of Quintana Roo.


There are other similar problems, but you get the point.


The Yucatan Peninsula isn’t the only region of Mexico with border disputes. In 1998 a dispute arose over the border between the states of Jalisco and Colima. In 2004, Zacatecas raised complaints about its borders with Durango, Jalisco and Nayarit.


These disputes involve less territory and so in theory should be easier to resolve than the situation in the southeast. But, as nations and individuals have demonstrated over many years one should never underestimate the level of emotion behind a territorial dispute.



Kenneth Emmond, an economist, market consultant and journalist who has lived in Mexico since 1995, is also a columnist with MexiData.info.  He can be reached via e-mail at Kemmond00@yahoo.com.