Armed Raids, Crooked Cops, and the Wild Battle Over a Breathtaking American Hotel in Tulum

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast, Getty, El Pez
Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast, Getty, El Pez

TULUM, Mexico—Mexican police officers arrived at the American-owned beachfront hotel called El Pez, just outside the high-end resort town of Tulum, at about 3 a.m.

Some 20 officers in body armor and carrying assault rifles entered El Pez and began going from room to room, pounding on doors, forcing sleepy guests out into the street at gunpoint. According to hotel staff, the officers also began dismantling the hotel’s security cameras, apparently because they feared being recorded on the premises. Because some of the officers were in plain clothes and driving unmarked vehicles, some of the staff initially mistook them for cartel hitmen.

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“I thought there was going to be a confrontation between [rival drug gangs],” said the concierge who was on duty that Oct. 1 night, who we’ll call Rolando, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I thought I would never get out of there alive.”

El Pez sits on a pristine, flour-white stretch of beach near the town of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It’s known as a luxury boutique hotel valued at almost US$20 million. Traditional thatched roofs outside, but with up-scale decor in the rooms. Balconies that look out over palm groves and the sea. All situated a few minutes from some of the most iconic Mayan ruins in the country. Not the kind of place where well-heeled guests expect armed men to throw them out in the middle of the night.

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

When questioned by hotel staff, the cops allegedly said they had received an anonymous tip from a guest claiming shots had been fired on the beach outside the hotel. But, strangely, according to Rolando, none of the other guests or staff had reported any gunfire.

“Neither I, nor any of the security guards heard anything,” Rolando said. “At that moment I communicated with [the guards] by radio and the answer was negative and it is a very quiet area where it would be easy to distinguish [gun shots].”

The officers claimed to have recovered small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, as well as a revolver and ammunition from one room, according to Mexican news outlet ContraRéplica. They also reportedly took one of the guests into custody, without saying why.

“The whole thing was a set-up,” Rolando said. He believes the drugs were planted and that the man who was arrested may have been a “sacrificial sheep” intended to give a bogus raid the air of authenticity. “He wasn’t even in handcuffs when they took him out,” Rolando said. “Meanwhile the officers were… acting intimidating and pushing us around.”

Rolando’s fears of police malfeasance and the potential threat to life and limb are well founded. Mexican cops are notoriously corrupt, and often work together with organized crime groups. They’re also known to participate in extrajudicial killings—sometimes on a massive scale. Given the state of policing in Mexico, it’s not a stretch to say that the raid that night could have turned deadly at any moment.

“[The officers] never identified themselves and they were evasive every time we asked what they were doing and why,” Rolando said. “They used their firearms to frighten the staff even though we had nothing to do with the situation.”

Before the officers left that night they cordoned off the hotel, and, as of this writing, El Pez remains closed. That is in stark contrast to other establishments in the region that have been the scene of fatal shootouts between warring cartels, yet are then allowed to open up again almost at once.

“We have seen that justice has been selective,” said Marybel Villegas, who represents Tulum’s state of Quintana Roo in the nation’s congress. “Sometimes when a criminal act is committed we see property seizures, while in other cases where crimes are also committed, the place is only secured for one or two hours. We view with concern the accusations of corruption made by hotel businessmen,” Villegas said.

Among those accusations, Villegas added, is that dirty cops and prosecutors sometimes use their power to extort from business owners, refusing to re-open establishments until they’ve been paid off. The Quintana Roo office of the Fiscalía General del Estado (FGE) declined to be interviewed for this article.

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

​​Tulum has become the most celebrated of the resort towns along the beautiful Mayan Riviera. The former fishing village turned hippy pit-stop is now a high-end destination that welcomes the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jared Leto, and Heidi Klum to recline on its idyllic sands. Danish Michelin-starred restaurant Noma recently opened a $600-a-head pop-up restaurant here, and beachfront villas can run to thousands of dollars a night.

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

El Pez is owned and operated by a U.S.-based company called Colibri, which also maintains several other properties in Tulum. Like Rolando, Colibri owner John Kendall believes the raid was staged under false pretenses. He cites the rapid deployment of non-municipal officers—specifically those from FGE, which serves in a capacity akin to state police aiding attorneys general in the U.S. instead of local beat cops who would typically investigate an anonymous tip—as evidence of crooked policing.

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“The FGE are based in Cancun,” which is about two hours from Tulum, said Kendall, a U.S. citizen who lives in Nicaragua but travels frequently to Mexico. “To arrive a few minutes after the fake report of gunshots at 2:30 a.m. simply indicates the FGE were already waiting to take illegal possession of El Pez.”

A public tourist official in Tulum, who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity, agreed with Kendall that the timing and presence of FGE officers was odd.

“It’s strange that just minutes after [the report of gunfire] the police arrive accompanied by the state prosecutors to search the hotel and find contraband in one of the rooms,” the official said. “It seems to me that the prudent thing would have been to seize the room and not the whole business.”

There have been other reports of the FGE seizing other properties in the area “under unusual circumstances and without any due legal process,” Kendall said, adding that this “appears to be a straight up land robbery staged by state officers... on behalf of a third party.”

For his part, the tourism official said there was a culture of “tremendous impunity” in Tulum. “It is regrettable that the prosecution allows itself to be used for issues of this type.”

Kendall, who is originally from New Zealand and has been investing in the Tulum area since 2003, claimed to know just who that third party is: Luis Alegre, a radio tycoon and aspiring gubernatorial candidate, who will in fact be running against Congresswoman Villegas in the upcoming governor’s race. Alegre reportedly owns property worth some $18 million adjacent to the El Pez real estate.

According to Kendall, the October raid wasn’t the first time the Alegre family has allegedly used cops in an attempt to seize control of Colibri property. Luis’s father, Gastón Alegre, has been accused of employing the same tactic back in 2008, using local cops and hired security guards to shut down El Pez in an attempt to drive Kendall out of business.

“The Alegres have publicly stated they own land where El Pez is located, and they tried 10 years ago to take and keep possession,” Kendall said.

Kendall said the Alegres “covet” his hotel and grounds because it “is oceanfront and if combined with the other side it increases the value of [Alegre’s holdings]. This would be a strong motivation to try to [take] the El Pez land.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

Luis Alegre, however, told The Daily Beast that the property on which El Pez sits has been in his family for almost three decades. “Those lands belong to us, to my dad. With us there are no previous buyers or irregularities, the Legal Estate of the Government of the State of Quintana Roo sold it to us directly in 1994.”

At that time, Alegre said, the land was undeveloped. “There was nothing there then. It wasn’t until after 2006 that John Kendall arrived with a palapa and the invasion began growing.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

It’s easy to see why both men want to claim the same slice of paradise. There’s a reason why people come here from all over the world and pay more than a thousand dollars a night for a hotel room. Entering the cove on which El Pez sits is like stepping into another era. Not the hard and fast Tulum where ravers party until dawn—the only sounds are of waves and chirping birds as sea turtles crawl up the beach at night to lay their eggs in the sand.

Standing here, it’s easy to feel one with the ocean. Unless, of course, you’re a millionaire doing battle for ownership rights, in which case maybe all you see in the vast beachscape are dollar signs.

Alegre invited The Daily Beast to his office in Cancun on a Wednesday in mid-November, just after finishing his morning radio broadcast. The media mogul—who has been accused by his wife of endangering her and two of their young children during a domestic dispute involving the police back in March—is a big man of middle age. Polite, but imposing. His office was lined with framed pictures of his father, Gastón, standing next to former presidents of Mexico or famous people like Fidel Castro.

During the meeting, Alegre offered the property documents in question for inspection, but was emphatic in not allowing photographs or hard copies to be shared, claiming to fear that could jeopardize his ongoing legal dispute against the Colibri corporation.

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

Alegre claims that he owns the land on which El Pez sits, and he produced a land title registered for Lot 54, as well as maps that appear to show that plot number corresponding to El Pez’s geographical location. The title Kendall shared with The Daily Beast was for Lot 29. Because the numbering system for coastal lots runs in ascending order from north to south, it is impossible for El Pez to be situated on Lot 29, according to Alegre. That location would put it in the protected zone of the Tulum National Park Reserve, where hotel construction is prohibited by law.

<div class="inline-image__credit">El Pez</div>
El Pez

“What they are doing is using the same property title to occupy both lands,” said Alegre, who told The Daily Beast that he was responsible for having seen to it that El Pez has remained closed since the raid last October. “The prosecutor’s office cannot give the property back to people who do not own it, that’s why it is still closed,” said Alegre, though he denied being behind the raid itself.

As to the apparent discrepancy between the title for his deed plot designated Lot 29, in the Natural Park, and Alegre’s Lot 54, which matches the geographical location for El Pez, Kendall said: “Rubbish. Our titles are registered in the public registry and on the cadastral maps.”

The Alegres and Colibri have been deadlocked in a series of ongoing lawsuits over El Pez dating back to at least 2009. But in early January of this year, a federal judge in the Fifth District Court, Alonso Robles Cuétara, issued a stay of execution against the FGE’s seizure of the hotel. In the court document, Robles Cuétara orders that El Pez shall be returned to Colibri on a provisional basis, while the litigation between the two sides is resolved.

“With this, the petitioner shall be able to enjoy, but not dispose of, the property, until such judgment rendered in the main proceeding [...] becomes final and conclusive,” the judge wrote.

“During the handover, a detailed assessment of the El Pez hotel will be undertaken,” Kendall said. “It is known that the hotel has been looted while in possession of the FGE and additional lawsuits are expected to be filed for damages, loss of income, and the theft that has been permitted by the FGE.”

Alegre did not respond to The Daily Beast’s invitation to comment on this turn of events by the time of publication. However, an article in Turquesa, a Mexican news outlet that is part of Alegre’s media empire, ran a story charging Robles Cuétara with being part of a “network of corruption” and facilitating “land grabs left and right.” The article cited some 30 instances of alleged malfeasance on the judge’s part, stating that “[most] of these cases are registered in the municipality of Tulum.”

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The Turquesa article accuses the judge and an accomplice of having a “modus operandi” that involves “alter[ing] files of land litigation to favor a group of lawyers who act in a criminal manner.” According to the article, a petition to have Robles Cuétara removed has been filed with Mexico’s Supreme Court and the nation’s president, among other high-ranking officials.

The court order had set the date for the handover of the property for Jan. 25—117 days after the hotel was closed. But that date came and went without the FGE allowing Colibri to take possession, apparently setting up a feud between state and federal authorities.

“[T]he prosecutor said that they could not give us possession because another prosecutor from another district in Cancun had now sealed the property,” Kendall said. “Even though we are sure that the [power] of the Alegres and the state prosecutor reaches to the Governor of Quintana Roo, no one can outrank or overturn the resolutions and orders that come from a federal judge.”

So it seems the battle for El Pez might be far from over.

“I don’t know who has the genuine titles, or who is in the right in the dispute [between Kendall and Alegre],” said the Tulum-based tourist official. “But I do know that what the state prosecutor’s office did to close down El Pez was wrong.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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