SAN PABLO ETLA, Mexico -- The jailings of three Americans over a land dispute between an elderly, retired US writer and a Mexican university has sent a tremor of fear through the long-established expatriate community in this picturesque southern Mexican village.
US Embassy officials appear to be close to negotiating a deal to allow Russell Abbot Ames, 92, a writer and retired professor, to stay in his home despite an eviction order.
But a woman and two men who cared for Ames remain in jail, and dozens of expatriate Americans who live in San Pablo Etla now fear the dispute over the Ames estate means none of them is safe from eviction threats and legal action.
Ames, a former professor at City College of New York, and his wife, Jean, moved to this town of 3,000 people just outside Oaxaca City in 1959, lured by its visual charm and local culture.
They donated thousands of dollars to help build the village elementary school, and eventually decided to leave their property to a Mexican private college, the University of the Americas, after their deaths, Ames said last week.
Ames said his wife died in February 2000, and he received an eviction order this spring giving him nine days to vacate the property and demanding $3,400 in back rent. The order stated that the university owned the property from the moment of his wife's death, given that the house was in her name.
Ames enlisted the help of Oscar Jarquin, a local attorney and professor of law, and battled the eviction in court. He believed he was winning the case.
But on Oct. 6, State Police arrested his three live-in helpers -- Americans Mary Ellen Sanger, John Barbato, and Joseph Simpson -- for invading and looting the property, charges that carry prison sentences of up to 14 years. They were denied bail.
Police returned Friday to forcefully evict Ames, but backed off when nearly 40 villagers blocked their way.
At 92, Ames is healthy but moves with the aid of a walker and needs full-time assistance. The author of several books, including "The Story of the American Folk Song," he said he wanted to give his estate to the university out of a love for education.
But first he wants to be able to die peacefully in his home.
"This has been a very painful experience," he said, "but I will not give in to this."
The first eviction order, dated March 27, lists Alejandro Gertz Manero, public safety secretary in the Fox administration, as the rector and representative of the school. In an interview Friday, however, Gertz said that he is on a leave of absence from the university and that the situation was being handled by school lawyers.
"I hope the law is applied correctly," he said.
Attorneys representing the University of the Americas in Oaxaca refused repeated requests for comment.
Gertz also said he has discussed the situation with US Ambassador Tony Garza. Witnesses said the embassy sent two representatives to investigate last week.
People close to the case said on the condition of anonymity that officials were negotiating a deal to let Ames remain in his house.
In return, Ames would have to drop a countersuit in which he not only refuses to leave but withdraws his offer to donate the property to the university after his death, the witnesses said.
Embassy officials would not comment in detail on the extent of their involvement.
"The embassy is concerned with the welfare of these elderly citizens being put in jail," spokesman Jim Dickmeyer said.
All three of Ames's caretakers were being held in crowded jail cells in the nearby village of Ixcotel.
Simpson, 71, is dying of cancer. Barbato is 57. Sanger, 45, sleeps on a stone floor in a cell with 45 other women.
"It's still unbelievable that I'm inside here," Sanger said during an interview in the prison courtyard. "I try not to think about sentencing. I believe the truth will come out."
Simpson spends most of his time in the prison hospital. Prison authorities refused to let a reporter visit Barbato on the same day Sanger was interviewed.