By Meagan Drillinger
July 18, 2016
Moses Berkson

On the morning of Friday, June 17, more than a dozen boutique hotels across Tulum came under siege. Nearly 500 self-proclaimed government officials, private security guards, and movers stormed across sugary beaches and flooded hotel lobbies, according to Mexico News Daily. Pepper spray was used to deter anyone from interfering—and tear gas was reportedly used against those who did. Hoteliers were dispossessed, and guests were forced to leave.

Mexico’s Tulum, on the Caribbean coast, is known for its laid-back, bohemian, mañana mentality. Though close to Cancun, it has a hippie-hideaway vibe and a following of celebrities and tastemakers. But with the seizure of 16 hotels—including some that first drew the stylish set to this low-key beach outpost—restaurants, and rental villas, a murky underpinning of corruption and a longstanding government land dispute were revealed.

Moses Berkson

An article by Riviera Maya News identified Cabañas Balam, Utopia Yoga Retreats, Adama Boutique, Iguana Blue Hotel, KM 33 Boutique, Hotel Parayso, Coqui Coqui, Casas Privadas Cocodrilo, Hotel Azucar, Casa Gemenis, Samasati, Uno Astrolodge, Villa Las Estrellas, and Playa Morena del Mar as some of the hotels, shops, and properties shuttered. All of them remain closed.

One evictee told Mexico News Daily that officials falsely accused the hotel owner of failing to pay rent, and others said there had been no legal proceedings or documents. “The alleged court order has not been shown,” and “there never existed…previous notice of summons or subpoena,” Coqui Coqui said in a release.

Moses Berkson

Most of the people Travel + Leisure contacted refused to comment for fear of retaliation. One shop owner who asked to remain anonymous said, “It’s a long story of powerful businessmen. It’s a few rich guys from Mexico and a few politicians who are trying to get away with it.”

The roots of this incident are documented by Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, and date back to the 1970s when Quintana Roo was granted economic independence from the state of Yucatán. The Mexican government decreed that Quintana Roo needed 80,000 inhabitants to remain a separate state, and the the country’s Department of Agrarian Reform encouraged people to settle in what was largely untamed jungle. Residents were promised that they would eventually be granted ownership of the land they developed. But crooked politicians and businessmen have been finding ways to evade the contract ever since. Cacho’s reporting shows that for at least 30 years, people have been illegally seizing hotel land with fraudulent leases: land titles have dubious signatures and unclear owners. Many hectares of land were distributed with little more than an oral agreement.

An eerily similar event took place in the region in December 2009. Ken Wolf, a principal investor in the 22-room boutique hotel Ocho Tulum, told Travel + Leisure, “a phony lease [was created]. Like the June raids, state police troopers made all of my guests leave, and took everything off my property.”

Twitter became an important source of eyewitness accounts of the recent raid. “Authorities were milling around as we left for breakfast at 8 a.m. By 9 a.m. our belongings were packed by staff,” tweeted @FlovisMcGee, who claimed to have been a guest at Coqui Coqui.

Guests and supporters of the hotel—one of the original establishments on this stretch of the Mayan Riviera—started a Twitter campaign after the raid, calling people to #freecoquicoqui. According to Mexico News Daily, a hotelier in Tulum is accusing Quintana Roo Governor Roberto Borge of orchestrating the seizures. Wolf agrees, but there is no proof of these allegations. Neither the Mexican Tourism Board nor Governor Borge responded to requests for comment.

Moses Berkson

Meanwhile, regional papers cite mass cancelations of hotel reservations after last month’s evictions, meaning there will likely be tempting deals and discounts. Of course, travelers must use extra caution when visiting a destination caught in so much legal turmoil. Travelers with existing reservations should confirm that their hotel or villa has not been impacted by the seizures. Those who haven't should seek out large resorts and chains. Even long-established, well-known independent properties such as Coqui Coqui remain at risk until these loopholes in Mexico’s land laws have been sealed.