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Ownership fight erupts over Maya ruins

A dramatic rise in tourism ignites a debate in Mexico: Should a private family own an archaeological treasure?

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This ancient city, once the most important center of the Maya world, has stood in the jungle here for more than 1,000 years. Scattered across 100 acres, the remains of stone temples and a crumbling observatory offer an imposing glimpse into the innovative Maya civilization, which recorded the annual solar cycle with Swiss-watch precision.

Today tourists gape as they walk past Chichen Itza's most-recognized site, the 80-foot Temple of Kukulkan pyramid, where during the spring and fall equinoxes the sun casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent. They walk across the Great Ball Court, the largest sports venue in Mesoamerica, where losing players were believed to be decapitated.

They also happen to be – unwittingly – walking on private property.

Over the last half century, the land within this archaeological site has belonged to the Barbachanos, a wealthy and powerful family in the state of Yucatán. The family purchased the grounds from an American diplomat, who excavated here in the 1900s but fell out of grace with Mexico for shipping artifacts back to the US.

It's an ownership issue that few Mexicans have known about or even cared about. Until now. This summer, a global contest to rename the Seven Wonders of the World brought renewed tourism and a corollary of unwanted curiosity to this ancient corner of Mexico. Now, suddenly, federal legislators are seeking to take over the land. Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) covets it, too. The Barbachano family is divided over what to do. And locals, most of Maya descent, claim it should be theirs.

In a country where property rights helped ignite a revolution, where peasants distrust large landowners and large landowners distrust the government – especially when it encompasses ruins that lie at the core of national identity – this has erupted into one of the most significant and sensitive property disputes in Mexico.

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