A.M. Costa Rica

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These stories were published Monday, May 3, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 86
Jo Stuart
About us
Property in Costa Rica
Possession is more important than ownership
By Garland M. Baker
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Owning property in Costa Rica is much more than just having a deed. Possession is nine-tenths of the law in this country.

Most people believe it is a simple procedure to buy a piece of land in Costa Rica. One just needs to have an attorney check to see if the catastro, or plat plan, exists in the Registro National, Costa Rica’s national registry of properties, and check to see if the property is free and clear of liabilities and other encumbrances, then sign a legal sales document to transfer the property from the seller to the purchaser.

In reality there is much more involved if you want to be sure your rights are protected.

First of all, catastros, plat plans, are sometimes wrong. They do not match the property being purchased. The reason being, most plats were made many years ago before instruments were readily available to surveyors so they could do a good job. Property boundary pins probably didn’t exist in those times, and the measurements were just stepped off from one point to another without too much consideration as to the latitude and longitude. 

On a small lot, this can be rectified without too much difficulty. But on a larger piece of land or 
farm someone else may have possession rights to a piece or to all of the land. 

It is important to verify if the parcel has a fence. If there is no fence, the buyer needs to ask the seller why there isn’t one. The buyer should walk off the entire property and do a personal survey of it. If the buyer is unable to 

do so, he or she needs to get someone honest 
and responsible who can. All the neighbors and campesinos, the country folk, should be questioned to see if they know of someone else who has used the land or improved it in any way. They should also be asked if they know the owners and who they think they are. If the answers do not match the people selling the property, the buyer needs to dig deeper and find out why.

Property is divided into two elements in Costa Rica: ownership and possession. Land can have a registered owner in the national registry but have someone claiming rights to the same area because they have used the property for as little as 12 months. 

If someone is on the property for more than a year, the owner can’t kick them off even if they start a legal action against them. After 10 years of uninterrupted public and peaceful possession, the occupants can obtain legal title that supersedes any other.

There are still many unregistered properties in Costa Rica, but others that fell into this category have been registered through the Ley de Informaciones Posesorias or the Law of Posession. These properties have liens attached to them called plazos de convalidación or confirmation periods in English. These properties can be sold like any other but can also be disputed during the validation period. 

No one should buy a property sight unseen. Just because someone can display a valid deed does not mean they have both of the requirements for true ownership, which are title and possession. 

Through a process called usucapión (believe it or not the same word exists in English) someone else can actually have more rights than the deed holder. The history of usucapion is an important fact in the history of Roman jurisprudence, and Costa Rican laws are based on Roman law. Usucapion is the acquisition of ownership by possession.

Before someone buys property in Costa Rica, he or she must do their homework because 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Some of the former Bambuzal residents make their case with signs on the steps of the Catedral Metropolitana. The photo was taken Friday.

Land invasions here
can be bloody events

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Battles over property rights sometimes are bloody affairs in Costa Rica.

A year ago a land invader died when Fuerza Pública officers cleared off the residents who had occupied illegally the Finca Bambuzal near Sarapiquí.

Some of the same individuals tried to return to the land after Easter, and were jailed. They then were ordered by a judge to stay off the land.

They moved into the Catedral Metropolitana downtown instead where they held meetings with top legal and church officials. The finca where they want the land is owned by the Standard Fruit Co., and the squatters claim the company has abandoned it.

Such land invasions are highly organized, and in some cases, particularly on the Pacific coast where land values have soared, owners claim some local officials have directed the land invasions.

neither the sales agents nor the attorney hired to protect the buyer will do it. 

If you have already purchased property and someone comes to roost on it without your permission, you have only three months to file a process called an interdicto, or an injunction, to regain possession. After that, you only have nine more months to fight for your legal ownership before the law gives stronger rights to the new inhabitant. 

Absentee owners need to have fences and people watching their land all the time. And something most of these absentee owners forget, they need to have a legal binding contract with the watchers because they, too, can acquire rights. The best contract is one that includes un acuerdo de mera tolerancia or mere tolerance clause so the watchers don't replace the owner as the one in possession. If the watchers are using the land, then the owner needs a contract called an esquilmo, a land-use or harvest agreement in English.

Again, a buyer should do his or her homework because no one else will do it in Costa Rica.

Garland M. Baker is a 32-year resident of Costa Rica who provides business services to the international community. He can be reached at info@crexpertise.com. Mr. Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica. Lic. Allan Garro provides the legal review and can be reached at crlaw@licgarro.com. Content use, linking, and reprint information should be directed to the editor@amcostarica.com

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Youthful protestors unhappy with free trade
Government party maintains control of assembly
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Self-styled anarchists and opponents of a proposed free-trade treaty with the United States stoned the Asamblea Nacional Saturday. One individual spray-painted a lawmaker.

The rowdy protest was the highlight of an International Labor Day march through the downtown organized by unions but attended by a multitude of groups with axes to grind.

Meanwhile, inside the legislative building, the free-trade treaty got a leg up when a member of the government political party, Partido Unidad Socialcristiana, won election as assembly president. He is Gerardo González Esquivel, a 38-year-old lawyer. He won with an unexpected alliance with the Moviemento Libertario and the Bloque Patriótico, two smaller parties.

Juan José Vargas of the Bloque Patriótico became vice president as part of the same deal, while other supporters gained lesser offices.

The control of the legislature is key to eventual passage of the free-trade treaty which the government supports. The pact is expected to be signed in June and submitted to the legislature for ratification before the end of the year.

Libertarians pledged their five votes in exchange for a promise that the legislature would look into the monopolistic aspects of the law creating the 

revisión tecnica, the vehicle inspections that are now handled by just one firm. The Costa Rican constitution forbids such monopolies. The government quickly issued a statement opposed to tinkering with the vehicle inspection law.

The voting took place while the protestors, mostly youngsters, were breaking through police lines outside to throw rocks at the building.

One legislator, Rodrigo Alberto Carazo, of the Partido Acción Ciudadana, a known opponent to the free-trade treaty, came out of the assembly building to talk with protestors. But his political position did not stop a young protestors from spraying him with black paint. Most of the paint ended up on his left hand.

After the legislature was organized and most of the protestors went home, President Abel Pacheco arrived for his state of the nation speech. The upbeat talk, some 16,000 words in 66 pages, was filled with statistics.

His key point was that more than 21,000 Costa Ricans have escaped poverty during his administration, that the economy had grown more than 5 percent and exports are up 16 percent.

The talk was so optimistic that Federico Malavassi, the Libertarian leader, said later that Pacheco must be living in a country called Pachecolandia and not in Costa Rica. Others thought the government should do more.

Trial starts today
in sex crime case

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A U.S. citizen who was living in Rohrmoser goes on trial today charged with sex crimes involving minors.

The man, Thomas Scott Cochran, was detained Jan. 19, 2002, and investigators said they found more than 1,000 photos of nude minors in various pornographic positions. Also seized were videos and a computer, agents said.

Cochran was the object of a two-year investigation prompted by complaints from Casa Alianza, the child welfare agency.

The Poder Judicial said that some 27 witnesses are expected to testify during the trial. A Costa Rican named Pérez also is accused in the same case.

Cochran originally lived in Barrio Dent where he was the subject of complaints from neighbors due to the number of boys he brought to his home, agents said. He later moved west to Rohrmoser. He also maintained an office in Sabana Sur, which also was raided.

Monge’s car found
but it needs work

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police chased the stolen car of an ex-president early Saturday and arrested the driver when he rolled the vehicle.

Former president Alberto Monge Alvarez, 74, was the victim of a carjacking in Heredia April 24. The former president, his driver and a female companion were forced from the vehicle at gunpoint while robbers drove it away.

Police had been on the alert since and received a tip late Friday that resulted in setting up two roadblocks in the Pérez Zeledón area in southern Costa Rica. They were in Las Juntas de Pacuare on the Interamerican Highway and at Barú de Dominical.

About 3:30 a.m. police said they spotted a vehicle similar to Monge’s gray Toyota Prado. They gave chase, and the driver lost control in Mercedes de Cajón, Pérez Zeledón. Although the vehicle carried different license plates, officers quickly identified it.

The driver was detained after a short chase through a coffee farm. Police had the advantage because the driver suffered injuries in the crash. He was identified by the last names of Blanco Pérez. Police said he was 23 and a resident of Paso Ancho in the Central Valley.

The driver was carrying a radio that intercepted police frequencies. So when police in Dominical stopped another car a short time later, they noticed that the two occupants had the same type of radio.

Detained there was a man with the last names of Pereira Castillo of Purral and Villalobos Sánchez of Guadalupe de Goicoechea, said police.

Monge’s vehicle is not a total wreck but it does have body damage mainly on the driver’s side, top and hood.

Child trafficking raids
free one youngster, 5

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Six persons have been detained in the greater San José area as investigators conducted raids in a child trafficking case.

One of the raids set free a 5-year-old Ecuadorian child, officials said.

The raids were in San Sebastián, Guadalupe, Desamparados and Colonia Kennedy, said investigators. They took place Wednesday and into Thursday morning, but were not made public until Friday.

Two men hold Dominican citizenship. Three persons, two men and a woman, are Peruvian. The sixth person is a Costa Rican female, investigators said.

The child was likely enroute to adoption in the United States or Europe. Agents said the arrested adults face allegations of falsification of documents and use of false documents.

Investigator dies of cancer

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Wilmer Paniagua, chief of the Nicoya subdelegation of the Judicial Investigating Organization, has died of stomach cancer in a hospital in Alajuela, the agency announced. He had worked for the investigative agency for 23 years.

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Torrijos wins election in Panama's presidential race
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Martin Torrijos, the son of the former Panamanian military strongman Omar Torrijos, won the presidency of his country Sunday.  He easily defeated former president Guillermo Endara.

Opinion polls before the Sunday voting showed Torrijos leading Endara by nearly 20 percentage points, so the outcome was not a surprise. Torrijos accumulated nearly 45 percent of the vote, according to an informal count. Two other candidates also were running.

Torrijos' father negotiated a 1977 treaty with the United States that led to the 1999 U.S. handover of control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Endara came to office after the 1989 U.S. invasion of 

Panama that led to the removal and arrest of military ruler Manuel Noriega. He served until 1994. 

Both candidates have promised to court investment, negotiate free trade accords and take a tough stance on corruption and crime. Torrijos replaces current president Mireya Moscoso and will have to find a way to finance a planned expansion of the canal.

In addition to a new president, voters elected national legislators.

Saturday, a team of observers from the Organization of American States certified that there are sufficient safeguards in Panama to ensure fair and free elections.

Venezuela rejects criticism coming from U.S. on terrorism
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela - The government has rejected a U.S. report claiming it has failed to fully cooperate with other nations in combating terrorism.

Foreign Minister Jesus Pérez said Friday the U.S. report was based on inaccurate press reports and called the charges "nonsense."

Pérez dismissed a claim that Venezuelan officials have failed to defend the country's border with Colombia against incursions by Colombian rebels.

Pérez also said Venezuela is awaiting a reply from U.S. officials about a request to extradite two 

former military officials that Venezuela considers terrorists. The two are accused of detonating explosives in the capital, Caracas.

The U.S. State Department issued its report Thursday, saying Venezuela's commitment to international anti-terrorism efforts last year were, "inconsistent."

It says President Hugo Chavez has voiced criticism of U.S. counterterrorism policies, and says there is "limited cooperation" on anti-terrorism efforts between the two countries.

The report also says Venezuelan security forces have been ineffective in stopping the flow of arms to rebel groups in Colombia.

Péru posts $50,000 reward to stem Shining Path comback attempt
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Péru — The government says it is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of a top leader of the Shining Path guerrillas.

The Interior Ministry posted a wanted poster of Comrade Artemio on its web site Friday, saying he is the leader of the final remnants of the Maoist group.

Earlier this month, a man claiming to be Artemio 

warned a television station of new violence in the country. Accompanied by several armed men, he said the government must begin negotiating the release of jailed members of the group.

The Shining Path, called the Sendero Luminoso, was responsible for a campaign of terrorist attacks and political assassinations during the 1980's and early 90s.

Peruvian officials say its numbers have steadily declined since the 1992 arrest of Shining Path founder, Abimael Guzman.

Has rebel leader been murdered or is it a scam to avoid jail?
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Reports from Colombia say the co-founder of one of the country's most feared right-wing paramilitary groups has been murdered, but government authorities insist they have yet to see proof he is dead.

Reports quote members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, as saying that Carlos Castano was hanged by his own people after his bodyguards were involved in a shootout on April 16. Some of Castano's aides say he was killed because he was bargaining for reduced jail time in the United States in return for information on drug smuggling.

Castano's death could deal a blow to peace talks his organization has been holding with the Colombian 

government, although Wednesday the AUC said in a statement that it wanted the peace process to continue. 

A day earlier, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe threatened to destroy the AUC, unless the paramilitary group abides by a ceasefire and accused it of plotting to kill him.

In its statement, the AUC insisted it has never done anything to compromise Uribe and condemns any actions that would endanger the Colombian president's life.

The AUC is supported by drug traffickers and some segments of the Colombian military. The group has also been involved in an illegal war against Colombia's Marxist rebels and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

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British get yet another warning on EU constitution
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

European Commission President Romano Prodi has warned that Britain will pay a heavy political price if its voters reject the proposed European Constitution.

The chief of the European Union executive body told British television Sunday that a "no" vote on a basic charter for the EU would have serious political consequences. Prodi said this is particularly true because the new constitution is the product of lengthy and exhaustive negotiations, and its rejection "is not the same thing as saying 'no' to a treaty written in one night."

The constitution is aimed at streamlining the decision-making process in the European Union, which expanded Saturday with the admission of 10 new members. All 25 EU member states must ratify the charter for it to come into force. 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last month that it would be up to Britons to decide whether to accept a European constitution. Opinion polls suggest a majority of British voters would reject ratification.

The issue is expected to come up in several days, when representatives from EU member countries 

resume negotiations on the constitution. Previous attempts to hammer out a document have fallen apart because of disagreements over members' voting rights.

Ireland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, says it wants a charter completed by mid-June.

Another sticking point has been the proposed constitution's reference to a common Christian heritage in most of Europe.

Pope John Paul, the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics, supports inclusion of such a reference, which some members oppose.

The pope today hailed the new EU members, including his native Poland. Speaking at the Vatican to tourists and pilgrims gathered at St. Peter's Square, he said "the soul of Europe" refers to what he called "common and Christian values."

The European Union now stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Russian border, with a population of more than 450 million people. The new members are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Their membership marked the bloc's largest expansion since it was created in 1950. All but Cyprus and Malta are former Communist states.

U.S. jacks up fees for immigrants and citizenship
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Potential immigrants to the United States are paying higher fees for a range of services provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as of last Friday. In one case the increase is 236 percent.

First announced earlier in the year, the fee increases vary for the wide variety of services, said the U.S. State Department.. The cost of renewing a permanent residency card goes up $55 to $185. The application for becoming a citizen is $320, an increase from $260. In addition, applicants for many services will also have to pay a $70 biometric fee to cover the cost to make an electronic record of the applicant's fingerprints. 

The fee increases are the latest step in a transition process at an agency that has changed significantly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

A statement Friday by immigration service Director Eduardo Aguirre said the higher fees are necessary to cover the costs of new procedures introduced into the agency's services as concerns have risen about maintaining secure borders and open doors. The higher fees also will allow more timely service to customers, his statement said. 

"While we have made some progress on reducing the backlog, the new fee adjustment will also ensure that this progress can continue as we explore new ideas on how to tackle this decade-old problem," said Aguirre.

Husband and wife team admit massive U.S. visa fraud conspiracy
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Following a two-year multi-agency investigation led by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, two American citizen employees of the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, pleaded guilty last week in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Calif., to charges related to their involvement in a large-scale visa fraud and alien smuggling ring.

The pair, Acey R. Johnson and Long N. Lee, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U. S. Government through bribery and visa fraud, bribery of public officials, and honest services wire fraud, said a release from the U.S. State Department.

Johnson and Lee, a husband-and-wife team who spearheaded a visa fraud operation during their assignment in Colombo, will each serve a minimum of at least five years in prison and will forfeit $750,000 in personal assets to the U.S. Government, according to a plea agreement, the 

department said. Also, Johnson and Lee both agree to cooperate with the government in its investigation. Sentencing will be in 10 weeks.

Five of Johnson and Lee's co-conspirators previously entered guilty pleas with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California and are currently cooperating with the government. Three defendants remain in this case, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento expects their trial dates to be set shortly.

The scheme involved the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars by people in Sacramento and elsewhere to Johnson and Lee in exchange for the issuance of visas to various foreign nationals, primarily from Vietnam and India.

The bureaus of Diplomatic Security and Consular Affairs work together to detect, combat and prevent visa fraud or other criminal activities that threaten the integrity of U.S. visas and passports, the department said.

Jo Stuart
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