Eden of Iniquity

Costa del Este
Panama City, Panama 

More News - Bocas del Toro: Eden of Iniquity by Allene Blaker

Originally posted in the Bocas Breeze


I am posting the entirety of this article publishsed in the Bocas Breeze because the each edition of the Breeze is published online in one single "page" and for people with slow connections, scrolling down and waiting for everything to load can be very tedious, and there's no way to link specifically to this particular article, which is in this month's Breeze at:

Bocas del Toro: Eden of Iniquity by Allene Blaker

The lure of Panama, with its two oceans, cool mountains, stable government, fashion and trade centers, fishing, surfing and natural beauty has brought thousands of tourists to the country and, not surprisingly, many have chosen to stay.

For years, Panama has opened its arms and welcomed foreigners with enticing investment and retirement incentives. Pensionado and forestation visas are extremely attractive and relatively easy to obtain.

In the last decade, Panama has seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreign residents, mostly from Europe, the United States and Canada.

Outside of Panama City, the most desirable properties are in Pacific coastal developments, areas surrounding the mountain village of Boquete, and the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

Bocas del Toro is the province farthest from the nation's capital. Though a mere hour's plane ride away or an all-day journey involving buses, taxis and water taxis, the island group may as well be a country of its own, and on its own. It's like the Frontier, back in the days of the Wild, Wild West: Whoever pins on the badge is in charge, makes the laws and enforces them with little or no regard for national government rulings or legislation.

Corruption, which is rampant in Panama anyway, appears to be the norm in Bocas. The fatter one's wallet, the easier it is to get what one wants. Naturally, it's the foreigners who have the hardest time learning, understanding and coping with this type of culture. And they end up suffering the most.

Ten years ago, Dave "Kiwi" Gillingham and his wife Lin bought a parcel of land on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro. Kiwi, a native New Zealander, and Lin, originally from England, are highly respected members of the community, known for their generosity to locals and foreign residents alike, for their uncompromising work ethics, outstanding quality of workmanship, and recently, for the public opening of their beautiful botanical garden Finca Los Monos.

Incredibly, the Gillinghams are now under siege by a wealthy Panamanian family that is making attempts to take their home, their garden, and everything they have worked for this past decade.

As part of their defense, the Gillinghams and their attorneys drew up a petition to Panama's Supreme Court entitled Stop the Harassment of Legal Land Ownership in Bocas del Toro, Panama. It can be found online at http://www.petitiononline.com/9828987/petition.html

Within days there were nearly 1200 signatures on the petition, many by foreign residents in Bocas who are experiencing the same illegal maneuvers as Kiwi and Lin, and often by the same officials.

Some petition signers left comments, a few of which are inserted here, in italics. Names are withheld, but can be found in the original public petition.

If unlawful taking of land is allowed because Panama has wealthy connected families, the entire Panamanian real estate market will suffer for a long time due to distrust of officials and lack of protection of those who invest in the country. D. & D. N

After spending several years as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa and Central America, Willy and Karan Schreiber decided to settle in Bocas and bought titled property in 2004. They built a comfortable home with an excellent across-the-bay view of Bocas town and Isla Carenero.

One day last year, while they were drinking coffee on their veranda and enjoying yet another peaceful morning in paradise, a vehicle pulled into their driveway. Several men stepped out, donned rubber boots, unloaded surveying instruments and other paraphernalia, and began walking in various directions.

When confronted, the surveying crew said they were just doing their job. They were ordered off the property but soon returned with an edict signed by a circuit judge saying they had the right to be there.

Through their lawyers, the Schreibers discovered that a new, and very large, U.S.-based corporation had recently come to Bocas and was intent on obtaining a particular part of Isla Colon, which included their own titled property.

They had no choice but to spend thousands of dollars proving their clear titled ownership and eventually won their case. But they were so disheartened by the ordeal they put the entire place up for sale and are now residing in Boquete.

We ask that the Honorable Judges of the Panama Supreme Court come to Bocas and review this and other land disputes over which this circuit judge has presided. We believe there have been many irregularities in both procedure and rulings which are inconsistent with Panamanian law. We ourselves were victims of such irregularities. While Bocas is far from Panama City, the laws regarding land ownership and entry are the same. It is imperative that a Title issued by the Public Registry have validity. If title means nothing, the Registry system should be closed. Please give the same justice to Bocas Province as you do to the rest of Panama. K. S.

Besides signatures of foreign residents, the petition contains many by Panamanians who are also fed up with the greed and corruption which many believe to be so blatantly obvious in Bocas del Toro. Hundreds of the Gillinghams' local friends promise to be in the crowd of protesters when and if the judge, claimant and surveyors appear to mark their illegitimate boundaries, an act which has been scheduled and postponed many times.

Bocas del Toro is in dire need of law enforcement and equality in the eyes of the law. Our community is disintegrating and almost in a state of anarchy. I am happy to see that Panamanians and foreigners are joining together to protect their rights. If we are heard, this will be a monumental step towards a safe, sound, and prosperous community. J. K.

In 1998, my husband and I visited friends on Isla Colon who had been residing here for several years. We bought a small parcel of land from them at the time and moved to Bocas del Toro several years later.

We cleared and fenced our property, put in a driveway, built a small house, planted hundreds of fruit trees and put in several large vegetable gardens.

In the last couple of years, two members of an otherwise respectable Panamanian family have been trying to regain a family farm that was lost decades ago due to non-payment of taxes. While the original farm had no waterfront, these men understand the value of coastal property in the archipelago and therefore have produced documents in which they seek to procure not only their original holdings, but all the properties between it and the sea, which includes our land and home and that of fourteen of our neighbors.

Collectively, we have spent more than $100,000 in attorney fees to fight these two would-be usurpers. Two years ago, the federal government ruled against them. However, just last month eviction notices against all of us were posted in the mayor's office. How it got to that point is anyone's guess.

We purchased property in 1998. It is amazing to me that Panama receives such good press about being a retirement haven. We have had legal fees and hassles for ten years because of corruption and the inability of the government to enforce the law. Thankfully, there are some property owners onsite in Bocas on a permanent basis that have spearheaded the fight. R. M.

We have appealed to the mayor, Eligio Binns; the provincial governor, Esther Mena Chiu; and the Minister of Tourism, Ruben Blades, none of whom have responded to our requests for investigation into this and other matters involving land grabs and contestion of land ownership.

We, too, have been victims of the Bocas del Toro procedural irregularities. What the law says and what happens in Bocas are seldom the same. We urgently need judicial oversight in Bocas. H. W. S.

In 2006, Isla Cristobal resident Scott Hedrick bought an oceanfront building in Bocas town. The paperwork, according to the Panamanian attorneys handling both the sale and purchase, was immaculate, with generations of ownership of the property in perfect order. Scott and his wife ran a successful and popular boutique and artisan shop there until February 2008, when they were handed an eviction notice. Their attorneys scrambled to prove that the Hedricks' deed was valid but the circuit judge (the same one involved in the Gillinghams' plight) ruled against them. They were given only a few hours to empty their store and vacate the property. Appeals have been fruitless.

Scott wrote an article about the incident in the July 2008 issue of the local newspaper, the Bocas Breeze (www.thebocasbreeze.com), asking all those in the area who had similar property issues to come forward with their own stories. Within a week he had a manila folder two inches thick with complaints by dozens of local and foreign residents.

I don't know anyone in Bocas who has not been confronted with this same type of scandal. There is a certain breed of pirates who will stop at nothing. These cases go on for years. This business is called piracy. I have been a landowner in Bocas since 1970. C. S.

Real estate agents in Bocas del Toro are almost unanimously outraged by the local government's failure to stop (and even abet) the land grab scams occurring in the area. Owners of the popular agencies (Century 21, Buena Vista Realty, Beyond Bocas and Bocas del Toro Realty, among a few others) know the laws regarding the buying and selling of property here and abide by them. They use reputable Panamanian attorneys and every step of the way insure safe acquisitions. Why, then, are there so many land dispute cases cropping up in the archipelago?

The corrupt government in Bocas del Toro has cost many of us thousands of dollars to try to protect land rights which should never have been questioned. Please put an end to it. W. W. L.

Again, it seems to be almost entirely a matter of pure, unchecked corruption. In Panama, it's very easy for someone to submit a claim of any sort. The person who has been served then has the responsibility to refute, deny, prove, contest and condemn the claim, but this costs money. And the attorneys on both sides win in every case.

I have been a property owner in Bocas Del Toro, but left due to the fraud and corruption of the local and country government agencies. Everything is done by a bribe and there is no law against land grabs. K. J.

Residents of Bocas del Toro, whether born-and-raised or foreign, are fed up with the injustices here and disheartened at the lack of federal response to their pleas for help. The Gillinghams' case may be the one to finally attract the attention it sorely needs.

This type of problem causes me to reconsider my choice of retirement homesites. If this is not settled fairly many people around the world will give second thought to investing or living in Panama. C. W.

We would like to purchase property in Bocas del Toro. We hope Panama's court system will stop this injustice, so everyone can regain confidence in investing in this beautiful country. J. S.

Meanwhile, those of us who have invested here, live here, love it here and don't want to be anywhere else continue to believe that justice matters.

We only hope that justice will eventually prevail.

If our cries for justice are ignored by the federal goverment, we will be forced to protect our rights and our land through violence. We pray that the government will soon respond not the medical establishment. C.P.

(Allene Blaker is the owner/editor of the Bocas Breeze monthly newspaper in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and a landowner in Bocas since 1998.)


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