Cuernavaca's historic center. Cuernavaca's historic center.

Cuernavaca: a former hot spot for expats

It is not the city it once was, writes a longtime resident

Cuernavaca used to be one of the “hot spots” in Mexico for American and Canadian retirees, followed by not a small number of British. But it’s no longer as attractive as it was once.

For years it was the home of an English-speaking community center that presented plays and a host of events for artists and musicians. There was a small but vibrant Episcopal Church, St. Michael and All Angels’, which even became a parish and established a rectory for its priest and an English-language library. No small task.

Helen Hayes could be seen sweeping the sidewalk in front of her home on Nezahuatcoyotl. Robert Brady would be host to who knows how many of the Hollywood rich and famous.

There were also those who made business work here like Katie Hatch with her writing and reporting, Barbara Waugh with a big time real estate firm and Marguerite Osorio with her American English Club. There were many more.

The English-speaking community reached some 5,000 people at one time with those who lived here permanently and those who would come and go, a significant number for a place that had a total population of 50,000 to 100,000.

There were even schools that catered to their children. Among them was that of the unforgettable and unsinkable Joan Werner with the branch of the American School in Cuernavaca.

The 60s and 70s saw a heyday of activity in the growing city, which went from some 50,000 to almost half a million in those two decades. The industrial park known as CIVAC attracted still more English-speaking investors and specialists in everything from automobile manufacturing to pharmaceuticals.

Cuernavaca seemed destined to be Hollywood South, or at least a subtropical Florida retirement center, easily beating its then-competition, San Miguel de Allende and Texas’ “The Valley.”

So what happened?

First, the late 70s and a new socialist mood in the Mexican presidency that did not sit well with some Americans, although it was beloved by others. It did not do well for business in Mexico, though.

Then came the economic debacle after the worldwide drop in oil prices. In Cuernavaca you could buy petroleum bonds, Petrobonos, at the rather posh Nafinsa office downtown. That office is now a pozole restaurant. That says it all.

In Morelos the 90s did not help tourism or residency in the state. Then governor Jorge Carrillo Olea was unable to finish his term because of the first wave of kidnappings.

The brother of well-known notary public Hugo Salgado was kidnapped as was Dr. Vesta Richardson, head of the Children’s Hospital and sister of Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico.

Most of these kidnapping were not reported or investigated by the press. The list is long.

Real estate prices plummeted and an investigation led to charges against several in the governor’s administration as part of the organized crime groups instituting the crime wave.

Kidnapping became a popular crime as it was difficult to prosecute and the victims and witnesses were frightened to appear in court. One famous kidnapper from that time was “Mochaorejas,” or “The Ear Cutter,” as he would send body parts to prove that the victim had been taken a la Aldo Moro.

Supposedly Mochaorejas had been a follower of kidnappings for some time and this was how he learned this technique. He is now serving several 30-year sentences but most of his kidnappings were never prosecuted.

The criminal code was changed so that kidnappings, rape and a number of violent crimes were to be prosecuted whether the victims came forward or not. The victims would be subpoenaed to appear in court and treated as “hostile witnesses” if necessary.

This received a positive reaction from political parties but did little to stem the growing fear in the state.

The early years of the second millennium allowed for some breathing room for the English-speaking community. Still, it had not recovered from significant losses of its membership, those who had moved away due to the crime situation. And it was receiving fewer newcomers as retirees decided to live in San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, the Yucatán or one of the numerous port cities with English-speaking populations.

There was a murder at the posh and well-known Rancho Cuernavaca owned by Mark Nixon, no relation to the ex-president but a top decorator in Beverly Hills. His male partner, Mark Miller, was accused of and jailed for the crime.

He was later released after marrying his lawyer, Avelina de Águila, who in turn was noted not to have studied law at all. Ms. de Águila currently is the chancellor for what remains of the Anglican/Episcopal presence in the state.

This odd contradiction was seen by the English-speaking community as an insult to their concerns in the matter. The release of Mark Miller under such dubious circumstances led to a general sense in the community of not being protected by the legal system in Morelos when it came to violent crimes. The good years were never to return.

From 2010 on the state of Morelos and Cuernavaca in particular have been plagued with still more kidnappings. These range from the run-of-the-mill “express” kidnapping, a type of telephone extortion usually for lesser amounts of money which may or may not involve the actual holding of the victim, to rather violent well-planned kidnappings apparently led by gangs that are related to the growing presence of drug trafficking in the state.

The other problem for English-speaking persons doing business in Cuernavaca and Morelos is the protection racket, “insurance” or “royalties” paid to avoid having one’s place of business attacked or destroyed or the owner or family members killed.

The smaller communities outside of Cuernavaca — Temixco, Jiutepec and Xochitepec — are rife with this activity.

The current governor, the Democratic Revolution Party’s Graco Ramírez, has vowed to reduce the crime rate, especially the high homicide rate.

More than anything else the administration has simply decorated its definition of what a homicide is: it must include “clear evidence” such as a witness that it was a murder. Most of the homicides related to organized crime do not have this characteristic.

Some argue that the daily homicides do not affect the English-speaking community. It is true that the crimes are not committed against its members. But they make headlines almost every day in the local newspapers, creating a sense of quiet fear that has most of Cuernavaca at home and locked in by early evening.

The one nearby community that seems to have escaped much of the violence and crime is Tepoztlan, an indigenous village to the north of Cuernavaca. However, its rapid growth and poor street and water systems are not favored by most.

So is Cuernavaca still a viable place for retiring? Perhaps.

If one has a special love for the city, which is no longer “The City of Eternal Springtime” due to the rapid and unplanned growth, it has very reasonable real estate prices and bargains can be had.

It is definitely a buyers’ market. However, it would be wise to consider the difficulty of reselling the property if one decides to move. Rentals are also readily available but prices tend to run a bit high.

There are alternatives such as Tepoztlan, less than half an hour away, but the same caveats apply, plus the fact that the town has serious infrastructure problems.

As far as doing business in Cuernavaca or Morelos, as most already know business anywhere in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. The crime factor should also be considered.

The great variety of places for English-speaking persons, retirees or those wishing to simply settle in Mexico might make a number of other locations more attractive.

The writer has lived and worked in Cuernavaca for nearly 50 years.

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