** Originally published in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
By Daniel Hernandez and Cecilia Sanchez
ISLA HOLBOX, Mexico — Separated from the Yucatan Peninsula by a lagoon, this pristine island has streets of sand, iguanas that roam among humans, and a police presence best described as casual. In the tiny town on its western tip, golf carts are the primary mode of transportation.
"It's like out of movie, isn't it?" said a chuckling Ramon Chan, a 41-year-old vendor who on a recent day was hacking away at fresh coconuts from a cart on the beach.
In recent years, however, Isla Holbox (pronounced "holl-bosch") has sat at the center of a complex legal dispute pitting powerful developers seeking to build a high-end resort against a group of longtime residents who say they were cheated out of their rights as holders of revolutionary-era communal lands, known as ejidos.
The fight illuminates the growing practice of transferring communal ejidos — which make up slightly more than half of the national territory — to private hands, a practice that was authorized in 1992 but remains a legal twilight zone.
In separate cases, nine islanders allege that Peninsula Maya Developments offered to buy their individualized ejido parcels in a 2008 deal to which they agreed. But in the process, theejidatarios allege, the developers also persuaded them to unwittingly sell their permanent, constitutionally guarded titles to the Holbox ejido at large.
Because Mexico's agrarian law refers to "inalienable" titles toejidos, the islanders are asking courts to nullify the dual sale of their parcels and titles.
In response, the company said the sales were legal and clear and suggested in a statement that the ejidatarios are trying to shake them down for more money than the original price of about $388,000.
The developers contend that the ejidatarios are challenging the deal through loopholes in the ejido laws, which established strict codes meant to protect the rural peasant class from abuse by private interests. The suits over the $3.2-billion development plan are working their way through Mexico's agrarian tribunals, with one awaiting a hearing before the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the island simmers with discord, and the eastern end, where La Ensenada resort would be built, remains untouched.