Legion of Christ: Invaders of Cancun’s Green areas
By Emiliano Ruiz Parra
In city block (Supermanzana) number 30 the Legionaries appropriated part of the park. They invaded it little by little. Seven thousand square meters of space had been allotted to the local community. They divided it in four: one for the pre-school, another for the elementary school, a third for the bandstand (kiosco) and the last was a green area. In the green area the Legionaries started building a small church (capilla). Whenever the padre –a Legionary of Christ- came to say Mass, one of the neighbors would open the gate for him.
One day, that neighbor, Mario Cortés, had to leave town and he loaned the keys to the padre; loaned them until his return. Mario never saw those keys again. The chapel passed into Legion hands and a year later so did the 1,000 square meters of green area it stood on.
The central location of the chapel attracted hundreds of people from the surrounding blocks. Surrounded by parkland it became one of the favorite places for weddings and baptisms. When Juan Ignacio, El Chacho, García Zalvidea became mayor of Cancun he attempted to legalize the Legionaries’ invasion, intending to grant the Prelature an “order to take possession” of the park.
This provoked a long drawn out battle between the Prelature and some of the locals. Two of them spoke with the reporter: Herminia Peña and Luz María Elguero, who live right on the edge of the park. With the go ahead from El Chacho, the Prelature began to fence “their” lot off. The neighbors, in turn, smashed down the concrete pillars. The Prelature sent in heavy machinery to excavate foundations; the neighbors blocked their access. The Prelature had local authorities on their side.
The Prelature sent in its workers during the night when people were asleep. They intensified their work during Holy Week and other holidays when people were away on vacation. One Wednesday in Holy Week the neighbors were on guard to prevent the pillars from being built. The police came along and arrested them. They were set free a few hours later. One person was always sniffing around block 30: Fernando García Zalvidea. The neighbors got used to seeing his Porsche SUV prowling around the building site.
When El Chacho became governor, the Prelature tried to gobble up another 4,000 sq. meters. They had plans and a model for a church, child care center, dorms and basements. The neighborhood president at that time signed the plans and with this approval the Prelature was able to finish enclosing the property and began the foundations. But then El Chacho fell from grace when he tried to join López-Obrador’s PRD leftist party and the mayors that followed were not as supportive of the Legionaries. One of them, Gregorio Sánchez of the PRD party, sought a quick solution: he cancelled the Prelature’s occupation grant but he left them the 1,000 sq. park meters.
The above is a summary of the events. But for Block 30 neighbors, most of them women, it meant hundreds of hours knocking on doors, getting signatures, standing in line in government offices, gathering complaints, reviewing stacks of obscure documents, studying laws and guidelines, phone outreach, meetings, etc. while having to put up with the priests’ ugly looks or their threats from the pulpit every Sunday accusing them of being possessed by the devil and planning to burn down the church.
City Hall gave in again on May 17th, 2013 when the director of public works, Humberto Aguilera, signed off on a permit to build with work number 66,231 as the Parish of the Holy Family, ordering the Prelature to finish it before November 16th, on 1,200 square meters.
In despair, the dissident neighbors lodged a criminal complaint: They accused Bishop Elizondo, impresario Fernando García Zalvidea and the cleric, Luis Alberto Chavarría, LC (the Prelature’s legal representative) of land invasion and crimes against urban development. The attorney general’s office received the accusation, opening case number 4819/13 on September 17th, 2013. The complaint sleeps peacefully in the attorney general’s office since then. No steps were taken to act on it.
The Prelature prevailed. They have a luxury high-vaulted church: mosaic altarpiece, two large flat screen TVs and twelve fans. The paths were widened –chopping down trees- to make way for a parking lot. One of the parking spaces is marked: “exclusively for clergy”.
Supermanzana 30 was not the only land to suffer under the Prelature. On September 22, 2014 the reporter visited the neighborhood called Hacienda Real del Caribe de la Region 2000. The neighbors showed him a lot which was planned as one of their green areas; car tires hung from the trees acting as swings for the kids.
First a cross appeared; then a fence and a sign announcing the “Chapel of Our Lord of Divine Mercy”. “If the kids break in to play, the church people kick them out” a woman from Mexico City who had moved to the neighborhood, told the reporter.
Not far away in Supermanzana (Block) 117, the Prelature carried out another land invasion. The same method: first a cross, then four wooden stakes in the ground supporting a nylon cover, and finally bricks: St. James Apostle chapel encroaching on the park facing the Raza de Bronce elementary school.
Once more this invasion provoked reactions in the community: Lourdes Ibarra and Alicia Vázquez headed the group opposing the takeover. Other neighbors supported the padres. The first leaders were Evangelicals. The second pair were Catholic. Both were in agreement about one thing: this was an invasion of a public space. They partially agreed with the Legion’s move because now the vacant lot was cut and clean.
We have just described three examples of public land invasions by the Legionaries of Christ. By the time PRD member Julián Ricalde became mayor of Cancun the number of invasions had risen to thirteen. According to Tulio Arroyo, it is hard to find a Catholic church in Cancun which is not the result of an invasion. The Legionaries have created their own modus operandi: identify a vacant lot and make it theirs using priests, Masses and fences.
Tulio Arroyo is a man on a mission: to defend Cancun’s green areas. His stance has put him on a collision course with the Legionaries of Christ who are accustomed to getting their way in Quintana Roo state. Mr. Arroyo is an engineer specializing in alternative energy. A native of Mexico City with studies in New York, he became the defender of the environment when city hall planned to cut down the last green area in the center of Cancun. The park was called The Green Belly Button (El Ombligo Verde). The mayor of Cancun, PRI member Magali Achach, planned to donate a lot to the Prelature for a cathedral.
Mr. Arroyo-Marroquín and his wife, Bettina Cetto, spearheaded the Defend the Green Belly Button movement. They became experts in administrative law and supported the first protests sprouting up here and there against the church invasions. Arroyo helped them organize press conferences, write communiques and navigate the complicated legal system. He was able to save the Green Belly Button from total deforestation. But he could not prevent the Legionaries from building their cathedral. Ironically, Tulio and Bettina lived opposite the park. The cathedral began to take shape literally under their very noses.
Notre Dame of South East Mexico
Legionaries love the grandiose.
Their network of schools is called Semper Altius (Latin for “higher and higher”), with names such as The Heights”, Himalaya, Everest, Alps, Highlands, etc. The Cancun-Chetumal Prelature (the translator notes that the prelature began as the “Chetumal Prelature” but this was eclipsed by its later title which underlines Cancun as the bishop’s place of residence) is no exception to the Legion’s grandiose dreams. It plans to build the most impressive religious monument in South East Mexico, the Basilica of Blessed Mary of Guadalupe of the Sea (La Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe del Mar); its cross will rise to an impressive 110 meters; the church will seat 1,500 worshippers and the total cost is estimated at 12 million dollars.
Once more the Legion’s good intentions are met with “misunderstandings”. This time it’s the ecologists. The cathedral would face onto Laguna Nichupté, a mangrove area hosting many endangered species. One of the opponents is Pedro Canché, a native Maya who spent nine months in prison accused of sabotage. The false accusation was just a way to shut him up. The Quintana Roo authorities had to release him because he became a freedom of speech symbol.
According to Canché –in a document addressed to city hall- the Tajamar Project (of which the proposed basilica is part) would represent an “imminent ocoside devastating flora, fauna and wetlands (…). Going ahead with the building would devastate one of Cancun’s natural and invaluable fresh air lungs.”
As usual, there are two sides to the story. The official LC story is that the Mexican government tourist development agency, Fonatur, already donated 10, 000 sq. meters to the Prelature. This brings up a very sticky question: Why and how would the Mexican (lay) government donate public lands to the Catholic Church? Why not donate another piece of land to Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and even Cancun’s atheist community?
Fr. Pablo Pérez’ unofficial explanation is more sinister. These 10,000 sq. meters would be former president Vicente Fox’s payback to the Legion for getting him a Vatican divorce from his first wife so he could marry his second, Marta Sahugún, [Tr., a supporter of the Legion’s Regnum Christi lay movement!] As a very prominent public figure, Fox’s request would have to go through the Roman Rota, a pontifical tribunal. Once divorced from his first wife, Lilian de la Concha, Vicente Fox married Marta Sahugún and the religious ceremony was presided over by Legion of Christ priest, Fr. Alejandro Latapí. [Translator’s note: in 2003 Marta Sahugún’s first marriage to Manuel Bibriesca was annulled by the Vatican].