February 2, 2023

Bloody property disputes a dark side of Mexico real estate

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — A grisly pre-Christmas killing of two young men and their uncle at an early 1900s house in Mexico City cast attention on the dark side of the capital’s booming real estate market, fed by a lack of legal documents and gangs that illegally seize properties.

Actor Andres Tirado, his musician brother Jorge Tirado and an uncle whose name was not released were found dead Sunday, all with their throats slashed. Prosecutors said the apparent motive was an ownership dispute over the property.

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In another case, a young woman on Tuesday posted a desperate video on social media from a rooftop on the city’s south side in which she can be heard screaming: “Police! Help! They have kidnapped me!”

Police said the woman told them relatives had erected a metal door to prevent her from leaving her home, trapping her inside with four children. Police said a dispute over property ownership was behind the alleged abduction and that an investigation was underway into the illegal takeover of the property.

Authorities have known for years there are armed, violent gangs that specialize in taking over houses. The trend is enabled by the fact that many properties — perhaps as many as one-fifth of homes — have no legal papers or have titles listed in the names of dead people who left no will.

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According to a 2021 report by the city government’s public policy evaluation agency, the percentage of homes in the capital that are occupied by squatters, that have ownership in legal dispute or that had owners who died without a will rose from 10.9% in 2010 to 19.9% in 2020.

Mexico has a costly, inefficient, antiquated and corruption-riddled legal system.

In 2019, Mexico City prosecutors said in some of the 311 active property-seizure cases that year, notary publics, lawyers or real estate firms had falsified papers to force out legitimate owners.

Because it costs so much to have a will drawn up in Mexico, many people do not do so, often leaving those who inherit homes with problems in protecting their rights.

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That appears to have been the case in the killings of the Tirado brothers and their uncle. The elderly brother of the uncle’s wife died recently after a long illness, but his nurse who had cared for him continued to live on the ground floor of the house in the thriving Roma neighborhood, made famous by the Oscar-winning 2018 movie “Roma.”

Prosecutors gave the following account:

The nurse tried to claim the house was hers based on her supposed romantic relationship with the deceased man. The man’s sister moved into the upstairs to prevent the nurse from seizing the home.

The Tirado brothers came to live with their aunt and uncle in August, in part to protect them. The nurse had brought her daughter and son-in-law to live on the ground floor, and the Tirados apparently feared they could become violent.

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What followed was a tense, five-month coexistence, with one family downstairs and one upstairs.

The downstairs family “began to act in such a manner that it progressed to this type of violence,” prosecution spokesman Ulises Lara said.

The nurse, her daughter and son-in-law have been ordered jailed pending trial on kidnapping charges. One of the men who may have carried out the killings — also believed to be related to the nurse — has been arrested on drug charges, but is under investigation in the case.

In other cases, gangs have simply forced their way into a property and kicked the occupants out. The city estimates there are 23 home seizure gangs operating in Mexico City, some of them linked to drug gangs and others to quasi-political groups.

“A problem we have in practically the entire city is the problem of property takeovers,” Mexico City prosecutor Ernestina Godoy said in 2019.

In 2016, for instance, a police operation evicted a violent group of squatters from a house in the upscale Condesa neighborhood that the group had seized years before. After the building was recovered, police found underground bunkers and tunnels dug beneath the structure. Weapons and stolen goods were also recovered.

The building was so badly damaged it had to be torn down, in the midst of rising prices and rents and a housing shortage in the city.

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