Crime sends chills through retiree oasis in Mexico

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2011 

AJIJIC, Mexico — More than a half-century ago, Americans began flocking to the shores of Lake Chapala in central Mexico, which Life Magazine once extolled as the ideal place to "live and loaf."

Some 15,000 Americans and Canadians still call the lakeside region home — basking in constant spring-like weather, occupying homes that cost a fraction of the ones they left behind and enjoying bargain-basement medical care.

This town, whose name sounds like a hiccup (ah-hee-HEEK), has a thriving social calendar with 150 clubs and a dozen English-language houses of worship.

"It is the most tranquil, peaceful, loving, happy place I've been in my life," said Linda Fossi, a transplanted real estate agent. The social life is so active that "you have to stop answering the phone sometimes."

But in the last month, violent crimes have deeply rattled expatriates living here. "For Sale" listings have soared, and some foreigners feel fazed and anxious.

A good number, tapping into a "can do" spirit, also are working to find solutions to security problems. They've set up a reward fund for those who turn criminals in, organized an anonymous tip line and hired a sketch artist to draw likenesses of hoodlums.

"I don't think the expats are going to let this die. It's just too important," said Sandy Minto, a retired nurse from West Palm Beach, Florida, who's lived in Ajijic with her sister Sharon Dockins for four years.

A robust crowd of more than 1,000 people, mostly foreigners, turned up for a massive outdoor meeting Dec. 7 with the mayor of the municipality of Chapala and officials from Jalisco state, both of which surround Ajijic, to offer ideas about how to improve security.

"The attitude was, 'We're upset about this. We thought about what to do. We've got six solutions,'" said Mikel K. Miller, a 68-year-old visitor to Ajijic.

"I like the attitude of this group, which is, 'Let us help develop solutions and let us help pay for it," added Miller, author of "I Love Baja! Pursuing the Dream of Retiring and Living in Mexico."

Among the surprising suggestions: raise taxes.

"I have a huge house up on the mountain," said Kim Everest, a Canadian who runs Number Four, a restaurant that employs 27 Mexican workers. "I pay $500 a year in taxes. I'd be willing to pay $1,000."

Several foreign and Mexican business owners who banded together to form a "community safety initiative" sent a mass email last week that higher taxes could be a way to raise funds for fighting crime.

"Our property taxes are so low now, it's an embarrassment. You could NEVER own a home in the U.S. or Canada and pay what we pay now, so even if it is raised by 100 pesos or so a YEAR, that is NOTHING," they wrote, describing a sum of about $7.20.

While a battle against organized crime — and fighting between drug gangs — has raged in Mexico for half a decade, leaving close to 50,000 fatalities, the bloodshed has taken place far from Lake Chapala, leaving this idyllic village to revel as a tropical mirror of a small fictional town made famous in 1960s U.S. television.

"This has been 'Mayberry' for a long time," said David Truly, an expert on retirement migration to Mexico who left a job in academia in Connecticut to move to Ajijic.

"Now we've had our blip of crime."

If it were a cinematic treatment, what has unfolded on the shores of Lake Chapala could be "Mayberry R.F.D." meets "Goodfellas." Whether the gung-ho volunteerism reminiscent of small towns north of the border can keep at bay the underworld crime lashing other parts of Mexico is yet to be seen.

The incident that sparked the greatest alarm occurred Nov. 29 at 11:15 a.m. A Brooklyn lawyer and his psychotherapist wife were unloading groceries from their car along one of Ajijic's cobblestone streets when a man came up and tried to take the wallet from the lawyer's back pocket.

When 69-year-old Stephen Christopher Kahr swung around to confront the aggressor, he received a single shot to the chest, dying almost immediately.

Nearly as troubling were two violent home invasions that occurred Nov. 19 and 21 in which armed men awoke residents in their beds, held guns to their head and demanded bank PIN numbers, cash, jewelry and electronics. In one invasion, assailants threatened to cut off a woman's fingers with scissors to get her rings, then threw her so hard against a toilet that it broke.

In a separate attack in late October, burglars taped the hands, legs and face of their expatriate victims. In another, gunmen broke into a home where foreigners were playing poker at dusk.

It isn't clear if independent hoodlums were responsible for the violence or if it was associated with organized crime. Guadalajara, a metropolis 35 miles north, has seen a spike in mobster attacks. On Nov. 24, gangsters abandoned three vehicles stuffed with the bound bodies of 26 men.

On Internet bulletin boards about Lake Chapala, news of the attacks in Ajijic spread rapidly. Queries poured in from people in Canada and the United States who had planned to move here.

Typical was a post on the website of the Guadalajara Reporter, an English-language paper: "We were considering Lakeside for retirement but have changed plans due to the increasing insecurity there."

Business for restauranteurs is sagging, even collapsing.

"We've been real quiet. We're down about 60-70 percent from where we should be," said Everest, the Canadian restauranteur.

Property brokers wince. Through Dec. 7, real estate firms had only sold 182 units, a sharp drop from record years like 2007 (341 properties) and even worse than 2009 (229), previously the slowest year. Property experts told authorities that they estimate the Lake Chapala region would lose $19 million a year because of foreigners moving out or not visiting.

Some expat residents profess optimism that Mexican authorities will look at such numbers and beef up security for the relatively high-spending foreigners.

"If we go away, this city dies," said Bill Tillman, a retired purchasing agent for Dresser Industries in Houston.

In the heart of town is the leafy compound of the Lake Chapala Society, the half-century-old hub of the expat community, where retirees gather to play bridge, walk the gardens, attend lectures, watch musical acts and get medical services.

Some of its members are quirky, modern-day versions of the Beat generation writers who once rubbed elbows here with Bohemians, heiresses and adventurers. Such luminaries as writer D.H. Lawrence, playwright Tennessee Williams and LSD researcher Timothy Leary all spent time on the lake.

"The ones who've come here historically are well-educated. They are professors," said Truly, the geographer.

In more recent years, those arriving include a fair number of retirees trying to stretch limited pensions by going abroad.

"Honestly, you can go see a doctor here for the amount of your co-pay in the States," Truly said.

Already, more than two dozen security cameras are going up around the town, and Ajijic residents in the past few days have ponied up some $3,500 for reward money to catch criminals and another $5,600 to pay for additional security measures.

Like many residents, Tillman has ideas for how to spend the money, from having more patrolmen on foot or bicycle to fixing nonworking streetlamps. He said foreigners should stick it out around Lake Chapala.

"The Mexican people need some help. We have to be part of the solution," he said.

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