18 de Ago de 2022

Nacional

The retirees and the developer

BOCAS DEL TORO. When Willy Schreiber retired from the German auto maker BMW, he and his wife Karan joined the Peace Corps.

BOCAS DEL TORO. When Willy Schreiber retired from the German auto maker BMW, he and his wife Karan joined the Peace Corps.

They went to Africa and later to Panama, where (like so many others) they fell in love with the country.

In 2003 they returned to Panama to stay. They bought titled land, inscribed in the Public Registry, on Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro.

"We worked hard for years," Willy told the Star. "Clearing and draining the land, leveling it and planting lawns and trees, building a house. Some say it's the prettiest on the island. We invested our lives and our savings. Then they tried to take everything we have."

One morning in November 2007, men with rubber boots and surveying equipment showed up. Without saying a word they went on to the Schreibers' land and began walking around in different directions.

Willy ran them off without incident, but in a while they came back with an order from Circuit Judge Manuel Garcia. On pain of arrest, it said, the Schreibers were to let them come in and do their job, to delimit and mark on their plot of land a plot of land belonging to someone else.

Judge Garcia declined to comment on cases to the Star.

A CORPORATION “PURCHASE”

The someone was a US corporation, Six Diamond Resorts International, that meant to do a development on the island.

It had bought, through a subsidiary, a seven-acre plot numbered 1880. Now it had requested, and the judge had ordered, a "Non-Contentious Delimiting and Marking" action to see if it might legally locate its land in a place which the Schreibers thought theirs and to which they had title.

This process normally occurs among neighbors. The requester and each of his neighbors exhibit titles and appoint surveyors. The court names one as well. Since the process is "Not-Contentious," the parties assume that their interests are not opposed.

If and when the results are not accepted by all, the process becomes contentious, and boundary lines are defined through litigation.

In Bocas del Toro, a variant or perversion is practiced. The owner of a plot of land finds an accommodating judge and initiates a delimiting and marking action in order to fix the location of his property.

He may have a map or a deed, but the key point is that the judge orders surveying without considering property titles or registered maps that coincide with the area being measured. Sometimes neighbors are not even cited. When handled this way, a supposedly "Non-Contentious" process is an act of predation.

LEGAL BATTLE

For Willy and Karan Schreiber it was "a nightmare of harassment and worry". They spent thousands on lawyers before the case went to the superior court in David and the corporation desisted. Nonetheless, the Schreibers are leaving Bocas.

"You can't trust anything," said Willy. "The system is incurably corrupt. You have to go by the courthouse every day to check whether someone is claiming your land. That's the only way the court communicates, and if you miss the deadline for filing an objection, your land is gone. This has shortened my life by ten years, I can't risk any more."

For Richard Kiibler, a Six Diamond executive, it was business as usual. "We'd bought land next to where the Schreibers were living. We wanted to buy them out too, but our lawyers said their title wasn't authentic.

They'd been sold the wrong land. So we bought the plot that corresponded to where they were living and tried to delimit it and take possession."

Why did they desist? Given the worldwide economic crisis, said Mr. Kiibler, the corporation is rethinking its projects. The case will be reopened sometime in the future.

It's worth reporting that the Schreibers have a great many friends, and that they picketed Six Diamond's office, causing an abundance of bad publicity. Besides, Señora Minerva Blacaneaux of David told the Star that when she sold plot 1880 to the firm's subsidiary, the buyer "knew that there were problems associated with it".

The sale took place in October 2007. The price was one thousand dollars.

En 2005 Señora Blancaneaux sold another plot in the same region for $12 a square meter. At that price, 1880 would be worth in excess of $300,000. The fact that it went for only one thousand suggests that its problems were serious.

At the same time, to spend a thousand dollars for a claim that might be worth three hundred times - that isn't necessarily bad business. The titling situation in Bocas del Toro is so incoherent that Mr. Kiibler may be right that the land where the Schreibers lived belongs to his corporation. Furthermore, crazy claims have prospered where rightful owners lack the means to resist.

What's happening in Bocas? A local explained the situation for the Star.

"In Panama land titling is a mess, especially on the coasts and islands. Much is left to the discretion of officials. Out here it never mattered. Until recently the land here had no value. Then suddenly it went way up. That honey attracted flies and tempted officials, and this has always been a laid-back place."

After three months of poking into real estate matters in the islands of Bocas, the Star agrees with Willy Schreiber: "You can't trust anything."

Confusion + Relaxed Standards + Money = Zero Juridical Security.