A U.S. landowner who was severely beaten along with his wife by six armed and masked invaders in their beachside vacation home may be the latest victims in a series of squatting cases on Costa Rica’s central and southern Pacific coast.
“I got 20 stitches in my head,” said Dominical resident Bruce Werner. “The police aren’t doing anything about it.”
In the complaint he filed with Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), Werner alleged that the invaders who beat him also stole some $80,000 in jewelry and cash from his residence in the Pacific beach town of Hatillo. He also claimed some of the attackers were wearing the type of boots, handcuffs and pistols that local police use.
State prosecutor Sergio Gutiérrez said the case is being investigated as a possible case of police corruption.
Werner, a 53-year-old from the U.S. state of Colorado, says a Costa Rican man has been illegally occupying a vacation home he rents when he is not around. The squatter, named Juan Carlos Bolaños, has also allegedly threatened Werner.
The real estate investor has brought attention to the case by making posts on the rental’s Web site with photos of his battered self after the June 26 incident, warning visitors, “Don’t visit Costa Rica!”
Werner’s case comes as the Osa Municipality has been ordered to probe a possible squatting case in Dominicalito, just south of the southern Pacific beach town Dominical, and three months after a squatting dispute led to a late-night shootout that left 21 injured in Herradura beach, on the central Pacific (TT, June 29, Aug. 10).
Investigators suspect that armed invaders who recently broke into the OsaMunicipality and stole 16 computers may have been linked to Werner’s case or the case in Dominicalito (TT, Oct. 12).
Squatting is nothing new in this tropical country where a flood of foreign investment in the real estate industry has created a huge market for real estate fraud and many unsettled land disputes.
In the late 1990s, conflict exploded over a squatting case in the south Pacific beach town Pavones in which 79-year-old U.S. ranch owner Max Dalton and a Costa Rican farmer were shot dead in an armed confrontation, straining relations with the United States. Another outbreak of violence a month later followed efforts to clear a squatter settlement from the beachside property of U.S. landholder James Popschella (TT, Jan. 9, 1998).
Though the U.S. Embassy said it doesn’t investigate cases like Werner’s, the U.S. State Department Web site says of Costa Rica, “Organized squatter groups have invaded properties in various parts of the country … victims of squatters have reported threats, harassment and violence.”
At the heart of the problem are outdated land laws that give squatters too much power and a market rife with absentee property owners, according to U.S.-Costa Rican real estate attorney Thomas Burke.
The first factor is that Costa Rican courts still largely operate in an agrarian law system that was modeled on a concept of de facto possession.
“It’s a legal loophole that basically gives people reason to occupy land with the hope of getting some legal rights,” he said.
Under Costa Rican civil law, those squatting on a property for 10 years or more have a better chance of acquiring rights to the property by petition. Likewise, new owners that haven’t lived on their land for 10 years are more likely to lose their land to squatters.
According to Burke a left-leaning political current in the 1970s in Costa Rica achieved only partial success in its attempt to reform property law in favor of squatters.
The results have confused that principle and in some cases trumped documentation meant to prove ownership.
Since the agrarian reforms weren’t comprehensive, but instead “patchwork” reforms, the country’s property law system now has what Burke called “unclear rules” that have given judges a lot of room for interpretation.
“Judges have a little bit of fuzzy law there to play with,” he said.
Even if land isn’t considered to be for agricultural use, squatters and the courts have stretched the meaning of agricultural land to apply to commercial or residential land, Burke said.
The other major factor contributing to squatting cases is that there are many absentee owners, foreign and Costa Rican.
“That’s why as an attorney I don’t advise people to invest in property and become absentee landowners unless they have some kind of security like guards,” Burke said.
Though Burke added that the amount of squatting cases seemed to have decreased in recent years – due to increased consumer awareness and the fact that more corporations have legal professionals managing property – the recent spurt of squatting cases suggests the problem is still alive and well.
What is yet to be seen, he said, is whether commitments under the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) will put enough pressure on Costa Rica to establish clearer rules for property owners, particularly foreigners.
Time and Effort
Resolving squatting cases can take years of time and effort, Burke said.
Since filing his June 28 police report, Werner filed a complaint against the case’s prosecutor, alleging the prosecutor wasn’t taking action due perhaps to fear. The case was turned over to Gutiérrez, but Werner complains that Gutiérrez isn’t doing anything either.
A Cortés judge has ordered both Werner and Bolaños not to enter the house as a temporary preventive measure. The order, signed earlier this month, still hasn’t been carried out, Gutiérrez said.
“It still has to be executed. I’m currently busy with a cocaine trafficking case.
There’s things you have to give priority,” Gutiérrez told The Tico Times in a phone interview last week. He said perhaps the order would be carried out this week or next, though The Tico Times wasn’t able to contact him this week to confirm whether it was executed.
Several months ago, Werner returned to Costa Rica from the United States to find Bolaños inside of his Hatillo residence.
Werner had been letting Bolaños stay in his guesthouse, after Bolaños claimed to have had problems with his lover.Werner suspects Bolaños stole his keys to enter the house.
Bolaños allegedly threatened to kill Werner if he didn’t leave the house.
“(Bolaños) is back in my house every time I leave, within hours,”Werner said. The Tico Times hasn’t been able to contact Bolaños for comment.
Though Werner bought the house nine years ago, he still hasn’t been awarded a coastal concession, which he applied for in 2001. Gutiérrez said it’s up to the municipality to decide whether to award him a concession.
“The problem is that the constructions shouldn’t exist in the Maritime Zone,” said Osa Mayor Jorge Alberto Cole. “The other problem is that he’s been beaten.”
Cole said though Werner may have thought he bought his residence legally, it may be an illegal construction, though he said the municipality is still evaluating the case.
Further complicating the matter, explained Gutiérrez, is that Werner was assaulted in his Hatillo residence but it’s his San Martín de Dominical residence that is allegedly being squatted. The two residences lie in different jurisdictions, so the Quepos and Cortés prosecutor’s offices are trying to coordinate to investigate the squatting case and the beating, which Werner and Gutiérrez suspect are related.
Soon after the confrontation with Bolaños, Werner returned to Costa Rica June 26 to his nearby Hatillo residence and six armed and masked men were inside the house. They kicked Werner, beat him with their pistols and forced his wife Diane, also a U.S. citizen, into the bathtub while demanding she tell them the combination to the couple’s safe. They eventually left along with what Werner estimates was some $80,000 in gold chains, Rolex watches, diamonds and cash. Werner’s wife has been living in the United States since the incident. “She can’t handle the stress,” he said, adding that she has a sensitive medical condition.