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The American expats breaking up indigenous communities on the Mexican ‘Riviera’

As property developers edge closer to the home town of 5,000 Cocas, the community has appealed to the government for help

Machetes in hand, the indigenous Cocas are climbing the steep scrubby hills that overlook their territory. Young boys climb alongside elders while a trusty donkey carries their camping equipment. Other groups man outposts beside the entrances to Mezcala, the lakeside town their forefathers founded in the late 13th century, over 200 years before the Spanish arrived in Mexico.

Theyre heading out on a unique voyage – bringing the community together to discuss their tactics against displacement.The men and boys will spend the night huddled around ceremonial bonfires, telling stories about their heritage, before descending upon the sacred Isle of Mezcala the next morning to discuss with a larger group how to defend their land and way of life. Based in the western state of Jalisco, the Cocas go back more than 700 years and have had to fight off waves of invaders over the centuries.

The latest threat to their land? A wave of American retirees heading south – pretty ironic, given President Donald Trumps demonisation of Mexican immigrants. Thousands of American and Canadian retirees have settled in the neighbouring towns on Chapala and Ajijic in recent decades to take advantage of the cheap living costs, year-round sunshine and stunning views of Mexicos biggest lake.

Weve always had invasions by people who want to take control of our land, says Manuel Jacobo, a 30-year-old Coca activist Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian

Now known as the Chapala Riviera, the area is brimming with boutique hotels and gated communities. Foreigners are driving the growth, having spent more than twice as much as locals on housing and tourism in 2015. An estimated 7,000 expats live there all year round, with up to 10,000 snowbirds joining them each winter. Expat community leaders say their population could double within five years.

Property developers have long coveted nearby Mezcala, the home of 5,000 Coca people. With poorly paved roads and crumbling houses, it is noticeably less developed than Chapala and Ajijic. But after witnessing what happened to the original residents of those towns, the Cocas have reason to fear outsider-led development.

Santiago Bastos, an anthropologist who has spent eight years studying Mezcala, notes that (pdf) the arrival of foreign retirees and wealthy Mexicans from nearby Guadalajara saw indigenous residents ousted, often illegally, from prime plots of land, while prices shot up, making the lakeside area unaffordable for many locals.

Senior citizens have flocked to Ajijic, attracted by great weather, cheap real estate and the quaint cobblestone streets of the town. Photograph: MCT/MCT via Getty Images

Weve always had invasions by people who want to take control of our land, says Manuel Jacobo, a 30-year-old activist with a punk-inspired appearance. We inherited it from our forefathers who fought and gave their lives for it. Our grandfathers used to tell us the myths and legends. We dont want future generations to lose [the land].

Were not against progress, adds Vicente Paredes, a Coca spokesperson. But if theres urbanisation then let it be carried out by our community, not outsiders. Weve seen the problems that happened in Chapala and Ajijic, where the original inhabitants have been forced to move into the hills and live as third-class citizens.

There have already been some unwelcome attempts to develop Mezcalas 3,602 hectares (8,900 acres) of communal land, which were not only formally recognised as belonging to the Coca people under a 1971 presidential decree but also in viceregal deeds dating back to 1539.

Since 1999, the Cocas have been locked in a series of legal disputes, still unresolved, with Guillermo Moreno Ibarra, a wealthy local businessman who built a hillside mansion on 10 hectares (25 acres) of their land. The townspeople claim Moreno seized the land illegally, diverted a local stream, sent armed men to intimidate them, and falsely accused several locals of property damage.

Moreno, whose family owns a mining firm and has shares in exclusive housing developments along the Riviera, denies the accusations. His lawyer, Jos Soto, says he built the property in partnership with a local resident in a sustainable manner that doesnt affect the community in any way. The locals are upset, Soto says, because theyve never wanted socioeconomic development.

This is not true, the Cocas say. They want to see investment in health, education and communications infrastructure. Mezcala has an infinite number of needs, Paredes affirms, describing how theyd like funding for programmes to combat poverty and marginalisation. Mezcala residents have also had to begin patrolling their territory to defend their forests and water from illegal logging or pollution.

The town of Mezcala is home to 5,000 Coca people. Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian

They need government support on these issues, though, and that remains lacking. The Cocas, according to their state government, dont meet the criteria for indigenous people as they have no traditional dress or dialect. And without this formal recognition, Mezcalas residents are ineligible for additional funding that could give them greater control of their destiny.

Theyve been trying to gain recognition from the state for some time in order to gain access to the funds assigned to indigenous communities, notes Fela Pelayo, the head of Jaliscos congressional committee for indigenous affairs.

But even formally recognised indigenous groups have little control over the administration of public funds in their communities, as local governments rarely consult them before deciding what the money is spent on. As a result of structural, systematic and historic discrimination, the National Council Against Discrimination found that Mexicos 15.7 million indigenous people have substandard access to health and education and suffer unjustifiable levels of poverty and marginalisation.

The Mexican government is trying to make changes. The current administration says it has invested a record 21.5bn pesos (917m) in infrastructure for indigenous peoples, issued 8,000 birth certificates to unregistered indigenous children, and provided legal support for 4,100 indigenous people who were found to have been wrongly imprisoned.

There is still a way to go though. Last August, Pelayo proposed changes to state law to give Jaliscos indigenous groups greater control over the use of public funds for development projects in their communities – but it was blocked in February.

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