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(506) 2223-1327       Published Thursday, June 11, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 114       E-mail us
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There are ways to protect against property theft here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Several would -be property buyers in Costa Rica expressed uncertainty Wednesday after reading about land invasions in the central Pacific resort areas.

Their concerns have merit, but A.M. Costa Rica has been publishing for years ways for expats to protect their property.

Physical invasion of the property is one threat, as property owners near Playa Herradura found out. Unless squatters are removed quickly, they gain certain rights that trigger years-long battles in the court.

Letters on land invasions . . . HERE!

Those who own prime undeveloped property in Costa Rica have to watch the land every day to spot invasion attempts. Or they have to hire competent guards. Air photos frequently are helpful to prove that a squatter community is new.

Some expats have been known to meet physical invasion with physical violence and have contact with gangs of thugs who can persuade squatters to leave. A.M. Costa Rica has never recommended this approach.

For the most part, those who own condos, single-family homes and commercial properties do not have to worry about physical invasion. Their concerns include crooked notaries, crooked lawyers and other crooks.

Gangs of white-collar criminals take advantage of flaws in the nation's property registration process to cloud legal titles. Some estimates of such frauds run to 30,000 to 40,000 active cases at any one time.

Most Costa Ricans cannot afford court battles, so the real numbers may never be known. Many pieces of property are lost to the crooks.

Only one crooked notary is needed to create false property transfers. When someone sells property here, they do not sign a warrantee deed as in the United States. Instead they appear before a notary, a special form of high-powered lawyer, and it is the notary who creates the document that eventually goes into the Registro Nacional reporting the sale.

Notaries use special paper, created in an effort to eliminate fraud.

The notary paper is double watermarked and bears special numbers in barcode format on the bottom. Some also include the name of the notary. The paper is available at only one outlet. Still, there have been cases of counterfeit notary paper.

A curious provision in Costa Rican jurisprudence protects innocent third parties. So if someone buys a house from a crook, the original owner can sue the crook if he can be found but the innocent buyer cannot be evicted. The chain of title means little.

Of course, many of these buyers are not so innocent, and thieves run stolen property through a handful of straw owners to wash them of the stains of crime.

An alternative scam would be to find a crooked notary who will prepare a document to allow a crooked buyer to cancel a valid mortgage and leave an expat wondering what happened to an investment.

The entire real estate process is fraught with danger for expats who are used to a more sedate system. There are no real escrow accounts here, and lawyers have been known to dip deeply into funds sent as purchase money. Even when the notary prepares a property transfer, there is no guarantee that the document will reach the Registro Nacional. If it does, perhaps some employee there will forget to file it, thus allowing the seller to market the property again and keep the first buyer's payments.

A.M. Costa Rica writer Garland M. Baker has
stealing a house

promoted the use of mortgage certificates that allow owners to protect their property. A.M. Costa Rica has called these certificates a surefire way to protect real estate.

These documents are like stock certificates and represent the value of the property for which they are issued by the owner.  Unlike a normal mortgage, the same person owning a property can issue them perfectly within the law, Baker has said.

If a crook steals a property either physically or by use of forged documents, the real owner can simply exercise his or her rights with the certificates and demand full payment. Lacking payment, the property can be repossessed. Of course, a notation that the certificate exists in the Registro records usually is sufficient for crooks to look elsewhere.

There are real estate services that will check on the ownership of a property daily or weekly. They alert the owner to any transfers. This is another option for owners, particularly absentee owners, who seek to avoid document fraud.

Despite the steady stream of property frauds, lawmakers and central government officials have not made any move in the last eight years to address the problem. There have been officials and lawmakers involved in shady property theft deals, but not a large percentage.

The facts are that the courts are overwhelmed, and investigators are overworked with more traditional crimes and avoid the complexities of property fraud. Expats frequently find that prosecutors do not want to act on such cases even though they are criminal. Some pursue criminal cases with their own lawyer.

And the crooks know that they sometimes can get off the hook by offering restitution to those victims who have filed against them.

U.S. Embassy officials have failed to take on the problem. A recent Web site update resulted in the elimination of a 1998 news story about property fraud. The State Department country report urged the use of a good lawyer but does not address notary fraud. It does say this about squatters:

"Organized squatter groups have invaded properties in various parts of the country.  These squatter groups, often supported by politically active persons and non-governmental organizations, take advantage of legal provisions that allow people without land to gain title to unused agricultural property.  Local courts may show considerable sympathy for the squatters.  Victims of squatters have reported threats, harassment, and violence."

Every time a new ambassador is appointed, he has gone before a congressional committee and promised to protect U.S. citizens here. But once in Costa Rica these diplomats end up on the cocktail party circuit, sometimes with the very same people who are engineering land invasions and property thefts.

So absent official action and alert prosecutors, mortgage certificates seem to be the best solution.

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Drug call from school
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By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Responding to an anonymous tip to the school director, anti-drug police, complete with a sniffing dog, descended on Liceo Samuel Sáenz Flores in the center of Heredia Wednesday. But no drugs were found.

The school director, Marjorie Rodríguez Hernández, told officers that students had complained that drug vendors would beat them if they did not buy their products.

Students lined up with their backpacks to submit to inspection by the drug-sniffing dog. Absent drugs, the visiting policemen gave a demonstration to the youngster on how the canine inspections work, said the Fuerza Pública.

The school director blamed the drug problems on two students who left school after failing to pass seventh year. They seek to involve students in their drug operation, she said.

Pineapple packing plant
allowed to resume work

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo, the environmental police, has authorized Del Monte to reopen its pineapple packing plant in Siquirres de Limón, but with conditions.

This is the plant that was closed because inspectors and scientists said that agricultural chemicals were leaking into nearby ditches and rivers. The reopening was conditioned on the company not letting wash water be discharged into the river or near a nearby source.

The company is constructing water treatment and holding facilities, but they are not yet ready for use.

The tribunal ordered that the pineapple plantation and packing plant be shut May 12. A few days later, the tribunal said that the agricultural fields could be used but not the packing plant where wash water containing agricultural chemicals was detected.

The tribunal rejected a Del Monte proposal to throw out the restrictions. Also ordered was two years of monitoring, and Del Monte will have to remove pineapple cultivation from locations that are said to be too close to the downslopes to ditches and streams.

Swine flu total up to 104,
but most cases called light

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The country now has 104 confirmed cases of swine flu, health officials said Wednesday. Some 10 more cases are probable, and more than 100 cases are being studied, they added. Costa Rica ranks eighth in the world in the number of cases, although the United States, which ranks first, has more than 13,000 cases.

The Costa Rican numbers include those who have become ill since April 24, so many are well over the illness by now. The Ministerio de Salud said that most cases have been light and that as of Wednesday there were no cases classified as grave, although a man, 80, was hospitalized this week.

Exhibit on Tico plants
begins trips in San Ramón

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Museo Regional de San Ramón will inaugurate Friday an exposition put together by workers at the Herbario Nacional of the Museo Nacional that showcase plants and their uses.

The exhibition will remain in San Ramón until July 9 when it will begin a tour of six other regional museums in Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Cartago and San José, said the Museo Nacional in a release.

The Herbario Nacional has a 122-year history of research and propagation of Costa Rican plants, and this is an outreach program of its efforts. The program received money from the government of Norway.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 11, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 114

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Police quickly catch suspect when minister's phone is stolen
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The former housing minster, Fernando Zumbado, was having a pleasant breakfast with family members in a restaurant in Granadilla, Curridabat, Wednesday morning.

He and his son put their cell telephones on the table. That was enough to attract the attention of a young thief who grabbed them and took off running.

Even former ministers get respect when they call police, so the Fuerza Pública was sweeping the neighborhood within minutes. They located a 17-year-old youth and took him into custody. Although police had a suspect, they were
unable to recover the cell phone, which probably contains an assortment of private phone numbers of the powerful.

Zumbado was forced to quit as minister of Vivienda last July when complaints arose that some $1.5 million donated by the government of Taiwan was not used for its intended purpose: better housing for residents of the Rincon Grande de Pavas slum. Instead the money went to some 39 persons or companies, including one that had been founded by Zumbado. Not much has been heard of the subsequent investigation.

The stolen cell phones were worth about 300,000 colons about $525, said the Fuerza Pública.

Landowners who lost access with autopista also lose appeals
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two individuals who lost access during construction of the Calder-San José Autopista del Sol struck out in the Sala IV constitutional court.

The first, a woman with the last names of Biolley Araya runs a block manufacturing operation in Santa Ana. She brought a case against the Ministerio de Obras Públicos y Transportes.

The woman said that she has had access to the highway for 20 years, but March 6 the ministry send heavy equipment to eliminate her access.

She is one of a number of business ooperators along the highway, mostly between Santa Ana and Escazú who have been landlocked or nearly so when a concessionaire made
changes in the road. The ministry claims many were not officially registered and permitted, but the businesses have been there for years.

Planners apparently made no provisions for service roads or other access before signing the contract with the concession holder.

The second case was similar.

A man with the last names of Flores Lara in Tivives brought a case against the Nacional de Concesiones and said that two roads have been closed for more than 30 days due to highway construction. There were no alternate routes, he said.

In both cases, the court declined to take any action, according to a decision released Wednesday.

Contract killers get 45 years each for triple murder in 2007
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A criminal court has found three adults responsible for the contract killing of three men in Tejarcillos de Alajuelita in 2007 for reasons that still are not clear.

The three were each sentenced to 45 years in prison. A juvenile who also was involved got a 10-year sentence in an earlier proceeding. They have the last names of Quant Chaves, Zúñiga Segura and Mora Santos.
The three victims are believed to have fled the Limón area and may have been involved in the theft of drugs.

The trio convicted Wednesday entered a home in Alajuelita Oct. 24, 2007, and executed Carlos Araya Solano, Yeiner Aburto Ocampo and Luis Fernando Barret Alterno, according to the Poder Judicial. The killings were the product of a decision by other members of the killers' gang, investigators suspect. A jailed gang leader testified in their defense.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 11, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 114

Readers comment on land invasions and property thefts
Expat's greet gets blame
for invasion of his land

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

As a resident of Jacó/Herradura and a retired Louisiana attorney, I have happily made a transition to life in Costa Rica and was saddened by your June 10 article of what you referred to as "land theft" and problems which can be faced by U.S. expatriates seeking to retire here. 

As civilized humans we must always abhor violence, respect our laws and educate our people against vigilantism, always an immoral choice.  What bothers me about reporting of this incident is the complete lack of objectivity.  In my mind, the title is correct. Proper identification of the thief may be the issue.  At the time of eviction of the "squatters," most of whom lived in their homes on this property for over 13 years, I was living in Los Sueños and bore witness to these helpless families being forcibly removed from these homes.  This was seen and reported as victory of the rule of law over the rights of squatters. 

What I have never seen reported is the history of these properties which years ago were sold in parcels to California investors as fruit farms, having little or no value at the time.  These farms to a large extent were never inhabited or even used by the rightful owners, and, over time, Costa Rican citizens began to live on and build houses on them.  Had this particular property not have become valuable, this story would never have transpired.

These are the salient facts as I understand them.  The present owner who lies hospitalized acquired one of these homes from a Costa Rican family and lived peacefully with his new neighbors until he devised a plan to acquire the property from its titled/rightful owner, who had died.  It has been reported the present "owner" acquired his rights from a California succession proceeding for a few thousand dollars.  We do not know what he represented to the succession representative, but it is reasonable to assume he did not represent the value of this property close to Los Sueños, the preeminent Central Pacific Costa Rica property. 

It now appears the new landowner may be paying the true price of his unbridled greed as he lay immobile in a San Jose hospital.  Armed with "legal" title, this man succeeded in obtaining eviction orders of the very neighbors he lived amongst.  After living here for some time, we must wonder what would motivate a group of Costa Ricans to this level of violence aimed at one man.  Armed with machetes these hapless and misguided individuals sought vengeance; all at too high a price.

The law is not perfect. However these  people do have a legal remedy which none of them has likely sought.  Had the California succession representatives known either the value of this property or the plan of this greedy man would they have acted differently.  There is still time to find out. 

The succession in California and/or anyone to whom these rights are sold can utilize a little known provision of the Napoleonic Code (the law of both Costa Rica and Louisiana) to restore order and peace to this troubled community, the goal of any legal system.  This succession, its heirs and/or assigns maintains the right to sue in Costa Rica to rescind this transfer which was obtained from them by fraud/lesion.  As I wrote herein above; who is the thief here?  It is never right to take the law into our own hands.  If competent lawyers handled this matter on behalf of the squatters, I must ask: What were they thinking?  What we need is more lawyers committed to justice instead of simply lining their own pockets.  Sincerely,

Robert C. Lowther Jr.

Well-placed manipulators
behind property thefts

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am the owner of a property in Herradura and have been fighting in court for more than 10 years to reclaim the land occupied by a rich rancher. Costa Rica claims to be the Switzerland of Central America, but a more reliable and honest body, the World Bank, ranks Costa Rica near the bottom -— No. 164 out of 181 economies alongside Iran, Senegal and Haiti. It is evident to me that all this theft of private property is manipulated by the wealthy and well-connected who are organizing all this epidemic of usurpación. To be brutally honest, it is a highly controlled racket and could not continue were the government to seek to eradicate this blight on Costa Rica's name. So we must ask ourselves why this is allowed to continue.

Who profits from the value of this land? It is not the people, not the guests in the country. It is not even the campesinos or the real squatters. It is the well-placed manipulators and their toadying allies, and we can all speculate who they might be. As for the authorities it is time to weed out those who benefit from this organized crime spree.

History  teaches us that the breakdown of law and order starts with the breakdown of property rights. I note that you are the only news organ to be reporting on this travesty, and for that I applaud you. All the rest evidently belong to what Kipling so aptly referred to as "lesser breeds without the law.

Henry Shiffner, baronet
Valencia, Spain.  
One of the victims blames
organized criminal gangs

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I read your article about land theft with more than a little interest. We are currently in litigation as defendants (See Forbes Magazine article Oct. 22.)  and I am the British expat referred to in that article.

Since that time, four of our contiguous properties have had our signatures forged and the titles changed to "new" owners at the Registro Nacional.  This all happened at a time when each of the properties was in litigation.  In spite of this, we have had ourselves to file criminal charges against the notaries and their co-conspirators.  In the case mentioned by Forbes Magazine, the plaintiff, a board director of a major bank has now daringly accused our lawyer of criminally forging my signature, which, if shown to be without merit, is in itself a criminal offense.

The bank that employs the plaintiff has declared that their director's actions  to be a private matter.  I suppose such behavior should be considered a private matter.

We have been in litigation for many, many years, and I must admit I am impressed by the resilience of these professional carpetbaggers. However we, too, suffer from indignation and a sense of gross injustice and will continue to press for justice.  I grieve for those suffering from 20,000 victims of userpación currently filed with hopelessly backlogged courts. The vast majority are Ticos themselves who may not have the stamina and monetary wherewithal to continue to fight for justice as we do. Surely it is time for the government to put a stop to this organized criminal endeavour, for to continue to tolerate such criminal behavior is to only encourage these criminals' pursuit of easy, no-risk money.

Your paper is to be commended for bringing such stories to our attention, It gives those of us who continue to suffer a little encouragement. And I ask: where are the rest of the media?  More importantly where is the government? This was a serious and provocative escalation — an invasion and physical abuse of a man and his home. This squalid and dangerous incident may well be a precursor of things to come, and then God help us all.

Sheldon Haseltine
New York

Pseudo-socialist country
lacks will to just take land

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

The A. M. Costa Rica account of the violent attack by squatters on a land owner in Herradura isn't something new, and it certainly isn't a surprise. Costa Rica is a pseudo-socialist country whose government doesn't have the fortitude to just go out and SEIZE land for redistribution to the poor like a pure socialist country might, so they opt instead to look the other way as they've been doing for years while the poor/the rich/the property thieves invoke their own grass roots redistributions and outright thefts.

Even if these cases get to court, those responsible for the thefts will seldom, if ever, be brought to justice. If the landowners get their property back, they have nowhere to turn to recover their legal costs.

A. M. Costa Rica reported a while back on a case here in Manuel Antonio where the wife of the mayor of San José purchased an expensive, ocean view property from a shaved ice vendor, (who promptly disappeared until after the trial), for a fraction of its value, then expressed SHOCK when she learned that this poverty stricken beach denizen wasn't the real owner of the property. The owner got his lot back, but lost $30,000 in legal fees defending himself against what was obviously a conspiracy by very powerful people to steal his land.

In my neighborhood here in Manuel Antonio, dozens of my neighbors acquired their small lots illegally during a mass land invasion that was triggered more than 15 years ago when a Canadian who owned a huge section of the neighborhood passed away. Once the word of his death got out, hundreds of people, including local officials, rushed to the area to stake their illegal claims to his property.

His family fought the Costa Rican government for years to get the land back, and at one point appeared to prevail when the courts ordered the squatters removed and their shacks leveled. The families were moved to the nearby church, and a bulldozer was called. But when the tractor operator saw what was happening, he turned tail and headed back down the hill, never to return.

The families praised God and the bulldozer driver, left the church and returned to their shacks where they've been ever since. Now they own the land free and clear. I have no idea if the former owner's family is still mud wrestling with the government over their lost land.

The worst aspect of this issue is the twisted sense of ENTITLEMENT that squatters have come to feel towards foreigners' lands, a sensibility they have acquired by way of the government's abdication from its responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of land owners. It's nothing short of a infectious, social psychosis.

Dean Barbour
Manuel Antonio

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This is a brief users guide to A.M. Costa Rica.

Old pages
Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each week day.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.

The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.

A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.

Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

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House OKs U.S. budgets
expanding diplomatic efforts

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The House of Representatives has approved legislation authorizing U.S. foreign assistance programs and other spending for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. Lawmakers debated a range of global issues before the 235-to-187 vote approving the measure.

The legislation is part of an effort by Howard Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to reform foreign assistance and strengthen the diplomatic and other resources the U.S. deploys each year.

The United States, Berman says, faces a range of threats while grappling with economic difficulties. "The U.S. now confronts the most complex array of threats in many decades, if not [in] the entire history of our nation. Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran [and] North Korea, terrorism [and] nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and climate change. All pose major challenges to our national security. And we must confront these threats in the midst of a global financial crisis with enormous ramifications both at home and around the world," he said.

Among other things, the measure requires the president to present a national security strategy for U.S. diplomacy and development every four years, modeled on a similar review produced by the Pentagon.

It authorizes more than $18 billion for the State Department in 2010, including 1,500 new Foreign Service officers and 700 diplomats at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and expands the Peace Corps, one of President Barack Obama's priorities.

Provisions improve oversight of U.S. security assistance, support international peacekeeping operations in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad, and strengthen State Department arms control and nonproliferation capabilities.

The measure also pays for U.S government-funded international broadcasting activities, establishes permanent authority for Radio Free Asia and extends the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

In the Western Hemisphere, the measure broadens the Merida Initiative with Mexico, and other Latin American and Caribbean countries to combat drug trafficking.

House consideration brought debate on familiar issues such as U.S. policy regarding abortion, and contributions to the United Nations.

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A.M. Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, June 11, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 114

Latin American news digest
Nicaraguan U.N. president
being replaced by Libyan

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

A three-time Libyan ambassador to the United Nations will take over the job as president of the General Assembly in September. He replaces Miguel Brockmann D’Escoto of Nicaragua, who held the job for a year.

The new president is Ali Abdessalam Treki, who is his country's minister of African Union affairs. The vote this week was by acclamation.

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, praised the work of  Brockmann D’Escoto, who said that he encouraged the new assembly president to press for the revitalization of the General Assembly as it seeks to restore its authority and leadership on the world stage during these perilous times.

Proposals studied to control
marketing of credit cards

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A legislative committee has two proposed laws that would regulate the marketing of credit cards in the country. But no decisions have been made yet.

The committee is the Comisión Permanente Ordinaria de Asuntos Económicos, and chairman Carlos Pérez said that the committee still has to evaluate both proposals. It can decide to reject both. The likely outcome will be a fusion of both proposals.

Homes damaged by storm

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The national emergency commission said that it found 33 damaged homes in the vicinity of Tayutic de Turrialba as a result of heavy rains late Monday and early Tuesday.

Most of the damage was caused by a river and a drainage ditch running out of their banks due to the heavy downpour, the commission said.

Three bridges also were destroyed leaving several smaller communities isolated, the commission added.

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