Out of Control Land Theft
While BI Police Focuses On Violent Crime, White Collar Crime Undermines Confidence in the Islands’ Growth

July 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk


One of the "problem parcels" on the north shore of SGM

One of the "problem parcels" on the north shore of SGM

Bay Islands, and especially Roatan and Santos Guardiola (SGM) Municipalities have been plagued with growing land dispute problems, and the crisis has escalated as property values soar. While Bay Islands police and ZOLITUR security commission has focused on keeping in check island’s violent criminals, dealing white collar crimes, especially land thievery, has been left for later.

For years island property owners, realtors and investors have been left to their own devices in their struggles to assure their property rights. They are caught in a circle of corrupt officials, failed property registration and cadastral structure and inefficient legal system. Land disputes, land document falsifications, moving of fences and changing property lines, issuing false land titles and land invasions are just some of the ongoing and growing problems with land that islanders, foreign investors and realtors face. The people that benefit from the chaos at the land registry and cadastral offices are land pirates and lawyers.

Fausta Elwin, an island business woman from French Harbour, has been caught in a legal battle trying to keep two of her inherited properties in Santos Guardiola. When she came Oak Ridge to pay property taxes for her Fidler’s Bight property she found that the five acre lot was divided amongst five people and registered in their names. “I was trembling when I found this out,” says Elwin. “It’s a property that was in my family for generations.” Elwin’s Port Royal property has been tied in another legal battle over land titles for years.

While islander families struggle to keep what is theirs, foreign and mainland investors are at the mercy of competent real estate brokers and lawyers. On Santos Guardiola, Cathy Thompson, a city council member, has pointed a finger at two people: Ernan Acosta, the current SGM vice-mayor, and Carmen Cartagena, a SGM cadastral director who worked at the SGM cadastral office until December 2007. “They took out the cadastral survey program onto their laptop and were changing the land boundaries at home, bringing it later to the municipal office,” said Thompson, who believes that over a hundred properties in Santos Guardiola could have a boundary problem.

“There are many more land problems here than at Roatan Municipality,” concurs vice-mayor Acosta about the cadastre problems. Due to personal conflicts at the Municipality, Acosta has been sidelined from performing his duties as vice-mayor of the first National Party administration in the SGM’s history. Acosta hasn’t attended SGM corporation meetings or been in his office for over a year. “I don’t want to begin a confrontation,” explains Acosta.

Cartagena defends her work at the SGM cadastral office but also agrees that the Municipal land registration problem is substantial. Cartagena has substantial experience in cadastral work and Roatan land surveys in particular. Prior to her SGM posting Cartagena worked at a 2000 cadastral census with PMAIB for six years. Cartagena says that of the SGM 3,700 plot surveys, 1,200 plots have unresolved problems.

As many as 2,100 plots contained problems when she began working in SGM, but according to Cartagena, she was able to resolve around 900 of these “problem” land parcels. Cartagena believes that her work has not been entered in the cadastral system computer database. “I want for the cadastral office to be audited and my work,” said Cartagena.

Cartagena gave particular examples of how the cadastral system is manipulated. “I have found errors, up to 4 acres discrepancy between the two databases. Also, people have realized that the owners of some properties are unknown, and they have taken advantage of it and produced claim for these properties,” says Cartagena, who worked at the Santos Guardiola cadastral census in 2000.

In December a new SGM cadastral team, headed by Pedro Melendez, took over from Cartagena. “We are more competent than the previous [Santos Guardiola] cadastral team and we are making efforts at assuring the public that the cadastre in Santos Guardiola is better,” said Melendez, SG cadastral director. Melendez, who previously worked 13 months at the Roatan Municipality in their cadastral department estimates that only 3% to 4% of land plats have problems.

Santos Guardiola is not alone in its struggle to assure land ownership. “I think the land problems on the west side [Roatan] are just as severe,” said Annie Kulp, an island realtor with Roatan Realty office. An antiquated system of registering land documents is not coordinated with computerized cadastral mapping and vulnerable to tampering and falsification. “Books one through five are crumbling, disintegrating,” said Anni Jones, an islander real estate agent with Roatan Realty, about Roatan property registries.

Some property registry books date back to the early 1900s. Lack of book preservation and lack of access to land registries have been a cause of conflict and insecurity. “When you touch them, they become powder,” Kulp described the condition of the books. “The white collar crime has become very prevalent, especially the abuse of authority by local officials and real estate offenses,” said Jones. “These crimes affect our personal security, mental wellbeing.”

You don’t have to tell that to a retired American couple, Greg and Cindy, who would not disclose their last name for fear of endangerment their security. The retired couple in their fifties has been in a legal battle over their property in Pollitilly Bight for the past three years. “Our life was threatened and we managed to get one of them [land grabbers] in jail. […] It’s about theft, forgery and bad checks,” said Cindy. The couple hired a bodyguard, lives in an “undisclosed location,” and has reported their legal and criminal problems to the US State Department. “Even our lawyer doesn’t know where we live,” says Greg.

While the situation of property registration on Bay Islands is chaotic, there are some central government efforts to improve the land registration procedures and resolve conflicts. For several months INIPSA, a consulting agency, had a verification and integration process with property owners all over the island department. The cadastral reform in Honduras has seen most scrutiny in the Bay Islands, but the soaring property values has placed the system under stress. [/private]

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