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Estafos In Paradise, An Important Word In Spanish



By Gene Kira, March 25, 2002, as published in Western Outdoor News:

When shopping for real estate in any foreign language, probably the most important phrase you should learn first is "shaft-job."

In Mexico, the proper word is "estafo," which comes from the Spanish verb meaning "to swindle" or "to defraud," and in our Baja California playground it might as well be translated as: "to sell to an American." (If you ever had a desire to learn Spanish, this word might be a good starting place.)

Estafos take many ingenious and subtle forms--some of them perfectly legal--and there seems to be an endless demand for them from starry-eyed Americans who've fallen blindly in love with the seductive mistress called "my little piece of paradise."

Most Baja estafos, there's that Spanish word again, involve Americans too impatient, naive, or bargain-intoxicated to check for defective or nonexistent land titles (did anyone say, "Punta Banda"?)--but not always.

I once knew a guy named Walt, who bought a super low-priced lot near Mulegé, and started to build his retirement house, using cheap labor and materials supplied by his very good friend, the former owner.

Work proceeded quickly, and before long you could see the outlines of Walt's dream house rising beneath the palms. But gradually, things became more and more expensive. Just before completion, it became ruinously expensive, despite the frantic efforts of the owner, who explained that inflation and a local labor shortage were to blame.

Finally, with great sadness, Walt gave up and sold the land back to the disappointed owner, who promised to reimburse him for the cost of the nearly-finished house as soon as he could find another buyer. The next time Walt drove down Mex 1, about three months later, he saw his house all finished--with his friend, the owner, living in it.

Ding! Dong!

But that's just small patatas.

You may have heard about an impressive scandal that just hit the fan in Cabo San Lucas, involving an American real estate agent accused of selling properties to several buyers at once, in her own personal interpretation of a "multiple listing" service. A private investigator recently showed me a two-page hit list of names and amounts of money lost, and I can tell you there were enough zeros involved to pay for a nice villa in Argentina, plenty of servants and cars, and the private army this American lady will need if they ever find her.

In Baja's convoluted past, so many big-time estafos have gone down, you could fill books about them. One particularly historic story happened at one of Baja's best known fishing resorts south of La Paz. When the American "owner" of this place died many years ago, his widow was telephoned from Mexico City and told never to set foot in Baja again, or she would be thrown in jail "forever." Fortunately, she had other money and was able to walk away from a property that is worth millions today.

Farther north, of course, Bill Alvarado's famous Hotel Punta Chivato is now in other hands, after being confiscated by the local ejido, and the legendary Don Johnson of Mulege's Hotel Serenidad escaped the same fate only by hiring a super-sharp lawyer who uncovered a defect in the ejido's title, and the matter was quickly and quietly dropped. Touché!

In an effort to discover an easy method of avoiding Baja land estafos, I recently interviewed a man who is one of the biggest of what I call the "Big Mexicans." These are guys who have President Fox on their cell phone speed dialers, and drive around in brand-new, chauffeured Suburbans with half-inch-thick window glass and steel plates welded into the doors and undercarriage.

This particular Big Mexican flies regularly to Japan and Europe in a private jet, and he controls title to enough Baja real estate to start a small country, including what I would estimate is about 30 miles of ocean front property. I figured this guy to be bullet-proof.

"Don Eduardo," (not his real name) I asked in Spanish, "You have bought and sold so much property in Mexico, tell me, what is the secret to avoiding problems?"

In perfect English, except for a slight New York accent, he shook his head thoughtfully and said, "Gene, I really don't know. To tell you the truth, even I get screwed regularly."

Oh well, at least I'm pretty sure I own my camper.

(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")