Translated by Jesús Ronquillo / Circuito Frontera
**This story is part of the Northern Border Investigative Journalism Hub, a project of the International Center for Journalists in partnership with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers**
The Diocese of Ciudad Juárez accumulated land valued at more than 43 million pesos, granted by the municipality in donations and bailments, and with an extension of 12 times the size of the Azteca Stadium. However, some of these lands, destined for religious projects, lie in disuse, despite the fact that the law requires a period of two years for their use. In addition, urban planners and academics questioned the lack of transparency in the delivery of these lands and the backlog of public spaces that are not being used.
During four municipal governments from 2002 to 2018, the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez received 13 pieces of land in donation and in bailment with an extension of 85 thousand 772 square meters, which is equivalent to 12 times the extension of the Azteca Stadium’s field, located in México City, which measures 7 thousand 140 square meters and where 87 thousand 523 people can fit.
Of this total, six properties (four in bailment and two in donation) accumulate a cadastral value of 43.4 million pesos, according to the table of values of 2023. However, the amount could be higher, since the City Hall did not provide the addresses of the remaining seven properties, which in total cover an area of 44 thousand square meters, so it was not possible to determine their cadastral value.
And although these properties represent an important territorial extension and cadastral value that is the patrimony of the people of Juárez, some of these lands were never taken advantage of and used for the purpose for which they were lent and are in disuse, as it was possible to verify in field visits.
Activists and academics questioned the abandonment of these spaces in a context in which areas such as the southeast of the city face problems of lack of urban equipment and public spaces to meet basic needs of recreation, education, health, among others.
“Public facilities such as parks, schools, hospitals and other services, play a crucial role in the welfare of society and the quality of life of citizens (…) The donation of land for any other purpose than this issue of public facilities, I think it should be taken into consideration”, said Vladimir Hernández Hernández, coordinator of the Doctorate in Urban Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Juárez.
Likewise, Abelamar Chacón, coordinator of the Social Comptrollership area of Plan Estratégico, warned about the lack of transparency in the delivery of these properties, since the lists of beneficiaries are not public, despite the fact that article 77 of the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information of the State of Chihuahua obliges the municipality to make them public.
“It is necessary to make the processes and the way in which public land is disposed of in Ciudad Juárez more transparent, clearer. I don’t know if there are some groups to whom it is given, maybe they already know the way. Let’s say, maybe the Diocese already knows and knows about these processes and goes and requests them”, commented Chacón.
Hernán Ortiz Quintana, coordinator of the group Ciudadanos Unidos por una Administración Pública (CIMAP), raises two concerns related to equity in the management of religious affairs and the use of donated land on a large scale, highlighting the need for clear and precise regulation to address these concerns.
“Is it being equitable with other displays of faith or with other religious expressions or is there favoritism or a preference or is there an analysis, of course? (…) The other point that should be considered, given that the amount donated is huge and there is no certainty about the use that is being given (to the land), it seems that there are even some properties that have been donated there for years and have not been used. It is necessary to regulate”, considered Ortiz Quintana.
For the calculation of the value of the four lands given in commodatum to the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez, the locations were taken into account, provided through the requests for information by transparency with folios 080155921000465 and 080155922001427.
While the cadastral value of the two properties donated to the Diocese was obtained from the location indicated in the Cabildo session of November 3, 2016 and the trimestral reports, corresponding to October 10, 2016 and February 9, 2017, presented by councilwomen Irma Celia Medrano Flores and Jacqueline Armendáriz Flores, both from the Land Disposal Commission, during the 2016-2018 administration.
The donation of municipal land to the Catholic Church of Juarez was made during four municipal administrations, headed by mayors Jesús Alfredo Delgado Muñoz (2002-2004), José Reyes Ferriz (2007-2010), Enrique Serrano Escobar (2013-2016) and Armando Cabada Alvídrez (2016-2018).
According to the request submitted by Transparencia 080155922001427 and Cabildo minutes, the Municipality donated a total of 32 plots of land, 11 of which correspond to religious associations. Of these, nine were destined to the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez.
As mentioned before, it was not possible to know the value of seven lands granted in donation to the Diocese because the Municipality of Ciudad Juarez did not provide the information of their locations and this data is not public in its transparency section either. Although they did indicate that their extension was 44 thousand square meters.
Only in two cases the information is public in the minutes of the Cabildo session of November 3, 2016. According to the document, one of the lands was for an area of 10 thousand 270 square meters, located between Monte Trigo and Montes del Cantal streets, in the Urbivilla del Cedro subdivision.
The other municipal property, located between Paseo de San José and Boulevard Fundadores streets, in the Parajes de San José subdivision, has an area of 4,807 square meters. For a total of 59, 077 thousand square meters in the nine properties donated to the Diocese.
According to the 2023 value table, the value per square meter of the neighborhood where the last two lots mentioned are located is 1,100 pesos, so the properties have a value of 11 million 297,594 pesos and 5 million 287,953 pesos, respectively, for a total of 16 million 585,547 pesos.
While the other two properties that were donated to other religious organizations are: the National Council of the Assemblies of God AR, for a 500 meter lot and for the Light of the World AR Northern Jurisdiction, for a 4,89 square meter lot. Between the two, they only add up to 4,589 square meters, which is equivalent to 7.7 percent of the land donated to the Diocese.
The bailment is a free loan granted through a contract. In accordance with Article 2497 of the Federal Civil Code, the bailment is a contract in which one of the contracting parties grants the use of a non-fungible thing to another person free of charge, who has the obligation to return it individually.
The official web page of the Municipality of Ciudad Juárez explains that the bailment grants a municipal property to support the social purpose of civil associations and, in the case of individuals, to support their community objectives.
Under this premise, it is understood that the loan of a public space through a bailment is intended to generate a benefit for the community, since it is granted free of charge to the applicant.
In this tenor, the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez entered into contracts CM-182/2003, JUR/DG/1069/2008, CM-228/2014 and JUR/CM/401/2018 with the Municipality of Ciudad Juárez.
According to the information gathered, contract CM-182/2003 refers that the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez received a land in bailment for the construction of a green area and a botanical garden, in a land located at the intersection of Marcelo Caraveo and Prolongación Marcelo Caraveo streets, in the Ampliación Fronteriza neighborhood. Upon physical inspection of this site, no such site was located.
According to the table of values for fiscal year 2023, the price per square meter in this neighborhood is 400 pesos, which values this land at 809,084 pesos.
Under contract CM-228/2014/COMODATO-CM-09/2012, the Diocese received a 2,426.16 square meter plot of land, located on Avenida Henequén, starting at José Mateos Torres Street, in the Infonavit Solidaridad neighborhood, for the construction of a Catholic church. Although this space was not physically located either.
The value per square meter in this neighborhood is set at 1,100 pesos, so the value of the land is currently 2,668,776 pesos.
In another contract, JUR/DG/1069/2008, the Municipality lent land for the construction of a church, located at Río Amacuzac and Camino Viejo a La Rosita, in the Las Arcadas subdivision, with a total area of 5,646.53 square meters. In this case the property was located.
Currently, this space has a cadastral value of 6 million 775 thousand 836 pesos, with a value per square meter of 1,200 pesos.
Additionally, according to contract JUR/CM/401/2018, for the construction of a community center a land of 16 thousand 598.51 square meters was delivered in colonia Manuel Doblado. Although neither the streets nor the exact location are specified.
During a tour of the area, the community center was not located, in addition to the fact that the place where the temple would be built is a vacant lot.
This last land, according to a response provided by Transparencia, in the request 037122018, would have a cadastral value of 375 pesos per square meter, which would mean that the property has a value of 6 million 224 thousand 441 pesos.
However, according to the table of cadastral values of Ciudad Juárez, corresponding to 2023, in the Manuel Doblado neighborhood, the price per square meter is set at one thousand pesos, which values the current land at 16 million 598 thousand 510 pesos.
Through these agreements, the religious organization received in loan four plots of land: one of 2 thousand 22.71 square meters in 2003, another of 5 thousand 646.53 square meters in 2008, one of 2 thousand 426.16 square meters in 2014 and a last one of 16 thousand 598.51 square meters in 2018. Together, they total 26 thousand 693.91 square meters with a cadastral value of 26 million 852 thousand 206 pesos.
Controversy generated by the granting of land to the Church
This last piece of land in the Manuel Doblado neighborhood, granted on loan free of charge to the Catholic Church, generated controversy during its vote in Cabildo, during the 59th Cabildo Session, on December 26, 2017, as at least four aldermen of the City Council positioned themselves against it.
There were even those who accused the then municipal president, Armando Cabada Alvídrez, of benefiting the Catholic Church through these contracts, since a year and a half after starting his first administration he had given them two pieces of land in donation and one more was under discussion to be given in Bailment.
Councilwoman Janet Francis Mendoza Berber voted against the proposal because, although she said that her family has always professed the Catholic religion, it “called her attention” that during the first year of the administration of the then mayor, Armando Cabada Alvídrez, this was the third time that the Diocese of Juárez was “privileged” with a piece of land.
“The two previous occasions, a year ago, were donations and, this time, it is the third time in Bailment (…) I believe that what should be stipulated is that all religions should be given the opportunity. Ciudad Juárez is made up of people of different beliefs and religions. Then, all other religious associations should be given the opportunity (…) but I think we are going too far. It would be the third municipal land in favor of a religious association”, he commented.
Meanwhile, Councilman José Alfredo González Quintana, pointed out that a gratuitous bailment contract is for an indefinite period of time, so it is as if it were a donation.
“When are they going to pass (prove) what is built on that property if it is for an indefinite period of time? We have to locate very well what is being done and we cannot donate land just for the sake of donating it, even if it is to religious institutions (…) It is very different to grant land to a civil association”, he said.
“I consider that the Catholic Church can pay for a piece of land and thus contribute to our society that is so needy (…) We are a poor municipality. They (Diocese of Juárez) can contribute with us to improve the city. And if you look at it, it is a Catholic community center, it would not be open for everyone”, said on that occasion the councilwoman and coordinator of the Disposal Commission, Irma Celia Medrano Flores, who voted against.
During this session, Councilman José Ávila Cuc, recalled that at the beginning of this administration (2016-2018), a piece of land had already been donated to the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez, for an area similar to 16 thousand square meters.
This land is in an area, where a calculation of commercial appraisals would conservatively cost 12 million pesos”, he stated.
The councilors who spoke against the proposal questioned the municipal president about the probable favoring of the Catholic Church. However, finally the proposal was approved by majority vote.
Municipality may revert donations; unused land is being investigated
Francisco Rodríguez, former head of the Department of Alienations of the Municipality, explained in an interview at the end of last year, when he was still in office, that one of the requirements for the donation of land is that the benefited associations and organizations have a term of two years to implement the project for which the land was granted, otherwise the Municipality may revert the donation.
This requirement is stipulated in Article 78 of the Property Law of the State of Chihuahua.
“The maximum term within which the use of the real estate must begin shall be set, otherwise, it shall be understood that the term is two years”, the law states.
Rodríguez explained that the donations, for the most part, are destined for charitable and non-profit purposes, such as schools, civil associations and support for vulnerable groups, but in order to carry it out, the organizations must comply with other requirements such as presenting an executive project describing the works to be carried out on the land and demonstrating their economic solvency for the execution of the same.
The Municipality’s website also lists other requirements such as submitting a certified copy of the articles of incorporation of the civil association requesting the land, a certified copy of the legal representative’s identity, an original cadastral plan of the municipal land and identification of the properties.
The law also states that once the donation request is submitted, the Cadastre Department performs a cadastral appraisal and a request for disincorporation is submitted to the Municipal Office; the Municipal Land Disposal Commission of the Municipality of Juárez reviews and issues a report, which must be approved by the City Council.
Once the donation is granted, Rodríguez explained, they establish a six-month term for the land to be deeded in the name of the beneficiary association.
The former official emphasized that the Municipality is responsible for verifying the physical progress of the works and verifying that they comply with the terms agreed in the donation contract signed by both parties.
He informed that during his administration, until the end of 2022, they had cancelled a donation to the Red Cross and another to an association dedicated to chastity.
He stated that the associations fail to comply with the terms mainly for economic reasons, although these reasons must be backed up with proof of economic solvency.
Regarding the donations made during the current municipal administration (2021- 2024), Héctor Rafael Ortíz Orpinel, secretary of the City Council, acknowledged that, at times, the abundance of documents becomes an obstacle for making informed decisions and, therefore, they are working on the schematization of the information.
“Look, what we have tried to do is an organization and, above all, the schematization of the documents that exist, because many times you have all the documents, but perhaps they are not in an order as they should be. We have been working very much in accordance with the new National Archive Law, where we have to see how to manage all the documentation and we are trying to align all our activities to that end”, he commented.
He said that he was aware of donations made to civil or religious associations, but there were some cases in which the deadline granted by the Cabildo had already expired.
“What is being sought are those two points: One, to see if they are being given the destination that corresponds, and two, in some cases they are granted a time to be able to build or generate the condition for what the object for which they requested the land. There were cases in which that time had already elapsed and the land was alone, then the Municipality has opted for a figure that is the reversion, that is to say, that the land is returned to the municipal patrimony”.
However, he stated that in some cases the non-compliance with the donation contract was due to the pandemic, so that, in due course, the associations had to stop or halt construction or contract stipulations and extensions were granted.
On this point, the Secretary pointed out that the decisions on land donations or concessions are not arbitrary or personal, but follow a meticulous procedure, where the Urban Development, Civil Protection, and Sindicatura Departments participate, which culminates in the Disposal Commission and finally in the city council, where the final decisions are made.
He mentioned that his knowledge up to that moment was that during the present administration, three properties had been reverted, without specifying to which organizations they had been donated. He added that they were investigating other lands that were left unused and abandoned.
Finally, he explained that the difference between donations and “comodatos” is that donations allow the property to pass completely to the name of the beneficiary association for its free use and “comodatos” keep the property under the domain of the Municipality and any construction on these lands is done for the benefit of the community.
Although for this investigation we also looked for the Government Director Oscar Murillo Delgado, who assumed his position last February 2023, and is the one who keeps all the documents of the Municipality of Juárez, his secretary referred us to the Secretary of the Municipality.
While the current head of the Department of Municipal Disposals, Iván Solorio Gallardo, refused to give an official statement and referred us to the Secretary of Government.
Councilwoman Ana Carmen Estrada García, coordinator of the Municipal Land Disposal Review Commission, received us in her office, but requested time to gather information, however, she cancelled the date of the interview.
Likewise, we requested an interview with the Municipal Trustee Esther Mejía, through her spokesperson, by means of messages and phone calls, without obtaining a response.
In the case of the commodatum contracts, Enrique Torres Valadez, councilor of the Municipal Land Disposal Review Commission of the 2021-2024 administration, indicated that when a property is granted in commodatum for an undetermined period of time, they are given a term of up to two years to start operations.
When they are made for an indefinite period of time, a term is established, precisely so that they can carry out the constructions, so that they can carry out their entire project, and if it is not working within the estimated period of two years, then they are required precisely to give an explanation in this respect and, if necessary, initiate the procedure for reversion of the same,” he said in an interview in December of last year.
While, in Article 25 of the Property Law of the State of Chihuahua, concessions on state and municipal real estate, except for exceptions provided for in other legal provisions, may be granted for a term of up to 50 years, which may be extended once or several times, at the discretion of the concessionaire public entity, without exceeding the aforementioned term, taking into account both for its granting and its extensions.
The applicant must present the amount of the investment, the amortization term of the investment made; the social and economic benefit for the region or locality; the need for the activity or service to be rendered; compliance by the concessionaire with the obligations of the concessionaire and the provisions of the specific laws by which the concession was granted, as well as the amount of the reinvestment to be made for the improvement of the facilities or service rendered.
While it is the responsibility of the mayor and the City council, according to Article 29, section XXVII, of the Municipal Code for the State of Chihuahua, it is the responsibility of the municipal presidents to “administratively declare the nullity, expiration or termination of contracts, permits or licenses and administrative concessions; as well as to enforce the right of reversion of municipal land, when the purchasers fail to comply with the obligation to build within the term and for the value indicated”.
They ask for transparency and to attend to the backlog of public spaces
Activists, academics and public officials interviewed agreed on the imperative need to regularize and make transparent the management of municipal lands, in order to provide legal certainty to citizens regarding the destination of public lands.
Article 77 of the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information of the State of Chihuahua states that the obligated subjects must make transparent the donations made to third parties in money or in kind, the catalog of disposition and guide of documentary archive, in addition to the minutes of ordinary and extraordinary sessions, as well as the opinions and recommendations issued, as the case may be, by the advisory councils.
Also the concessions, contracts, agreements, permits, licenses or authorizations granted, specifying the holders of such, specifying their purpose, name or company name of the holder, validity, type, terms, conditions, amount and modifications, as well as whether the procedure involves the use of goods, services and/or public resources, according to section XXVI.
But the administrations do not make this information transparent and it is still not in the public domain.
Abelamar Chacón, coordinator of the Social Controllership area of Plan Estratégico, emphasized that the main concerns lie in the lack of transparency on the part of the municipality, and that there is no guarantee that public land is used for the benefit of the entire community, in a context where the demand for public spaces remains unsatisfied.
“Here the problem is that the government is disincorporating municipal land so lightly when there is such a backlog of public space. The fact that the Municipality has public land, with municipal land that is not for sale, is for the Municipality to use for the benefit of the people of Juarisco, with necessary equipment (…) However, here we rarely see new parks, sports areas or plazas”, he stated.
“There is an important backwardness in areas such as the southeast, however, as a consequence of the historical mismanagement that continues today, the mismanagement of public land, the bad administration of public land and its alienation and disincorporation for the benefit of individuals”, he commented.
He spoke about the importance of complying with current legislation and being totally transparent to avoid “favoritism”.
“It would seem that municipal administrations end up being like a real estate office, squandering public land and leaving no space for the people of Juarisco”, he added.
Vladimir Hernández Hernández, coordinator of the Doctorate in Urban Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Juárez, reiterated his position to use municipal land to address the backlog in urban equipment that exists in Ciudad Juárez and use these spaces in other needs of the community in general such as education, health care or recreation.
Hernán Ortiz Quintana, director of the Citizens for a Better Public Administration Project (CIMAP), said that even though there are laws on the procedures for the donation and provision of land, it is necessary to establish regulations and clear criteria for the allocation of land to religious events to avoid discretionality and opacity in the process.
He added that, although the right to freedom of faith is established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 1 of the Mexican Constitution and the cession of land to the Diocese of Ciudad Juarez can be understood as an exercise of that right, he questioned whether this action by the City Hall is equitable with respect to other manifestations of faith.
“The other religious manifestations, as it can be from Christianity, Protestantism or even the cult of Santa Muerte will not have access to it? Because then it is not being seen with the same criteria to all faiths and it is failing, let’s say in guaranteeing this freedom of creed”, he commented.
Finally, he considered that there is a lack of certainty about the use of the donated lands, since some of them could have been in the hands of the religious manifestations for years without an apparent use.
On the other hand, some local voices have questioned this type of agreements, highlighting that the commodatum, in practice, is equivalent to a donation, which raises doubts about the equity and the need to regulate these actions.
“It is practically a donation”, stated by the then councilor of the City Council of the 2016-2018 administration, José Alfredo González Quintana.