Nudge from U.S. Senate fails to cure property woes

Expats may not be aware that Costa Rica was once the subject of a blistering U.S. Senate resolution over a complex squatter case that resulted in the murder of a U.S. citizen.

Not much seems to have changed in the last 16 years because property thefts still are in the news.

The issue is current, in part, because former expat Daniel Fowlie is threatening to return to Costa Rica to reclaim the extensive property he held in Pavones in extreme southwest Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, there are other cases moving snail-like through the Costa Rican courts, and in Nosara, a crown jewel of Costa Rican tourism, there are reports of land invasions, legal trickery and other versions of property fraud.

It was in 1997 when a seven-year dispute erupted into gunplay. Dead was World War II vet Max Dalton. A squatter also died. Reports at the time said that a gang of squatters, mostly armed with machetes, refused to let friends aid Dalton for more than a half hour after he was shot.

Many of these-one-time squatters are the de facto property owners that Fowlie will have to dislodge.

The expat’s death and apparent incompetency by Costa Rica law enforcement brought an unusual, undiplomatic response from the U.S. Senate, orchestrated mostly by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. The  North Carolina Republican also was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Senate resolution asked two things of Costa Rica:

“That it is the sense of Congress that the Government of Costa Rica should– (1) in the interest of justice to which Costa Ricans have long been committed, consider fundamental reform to protect the property rights and lives of all law-abiding residents and property owners of Costa Rica from acts of intimidation, violence, and property invasion. (2) conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the death of Max Dalton.”

Expat property owners throughout the country would agree that Costa Rica has not complied with the first request. Friends of Max Dalton would roll their eyes at the second.

Said the Senate:

Whereas, although the United States embassy in Costa Rica had forewarned Costa Rican officials about threats on Max Dalton’s life, on November 13, 1997, 78 year-old United States citizen from Idaho and World War II veteran Max Dalton was surrounded and murdered in a dispute with squatters, some of whom were illegally occupying his property in the Pavones region of Costa Rica;

“Whereas the murder of Max Dalton was the tragic conclusion to a seven-year assault perpetrated against Mr. Dalton by the squatters in an attempt to steal his property, and Costa Rican citizen Alvaro Aguilar was also killed in the incident;

“Whereas the initial investigation of Max Dalton’s death was flawed in that investigators failed to take fingerprints, collect bullets, and secure the scene of the crime;

“Whereas, landowners, including United States and Costa Rican citizens, have reported harassment and invasions by squatters in areas of the country, other than Golfito in Pavones, including Cocotales in the North East, the Caribbean cities of Cahuita and Cocles, and Jaco on the Pacific Coast;

“Whereas the squatters’ tactics have included stealing and starving livestock, burning homes, leveling crops and fruit trees, death threats, machete attacks, and, in the case of United States citizen, murder;

“Whereas Costa Rica has a long history of democratic governance, respect for human rights and close, friendly relations with the United States.

Nonetheless, successive Costa Rican governments have failed to deal with squatters invading property held by foreign and Costa Rican landowners . . . ”

When Helms died in 2008, La Nación, the Spanish-language newspaper, did not even mention the Pavones case and it had not done so in 2001 when Helms said he was retiring from the Senate.

A.M. Costa Rica has been publishing news stories about land invasions, particularly as they affect expats since its inception in 2001. Although the news stories have emphasized problems of expats, many Costa Ricans have similar problems. That’s why Costa Ricans are wary about publicizing family deaths. Strangers frequently show up with a sales agreement freshly signed by the deceased.

One expat couple lost a $300,000 Pacific coast condo they purchased for cash through some legal maneuvers. But most of the expat squatter problems are restricted to those who own vacant land.

The poster boy of property problems is Sheldon Haseltine, who has waged court battles for 16 years over coastal properties in the central Pacific. The end still is not in sight.

A.M. Costa Rica has published more than 100 major stories on property problems. Articles have outlined how Costa Rican law favors squatters and how expats must keep a daily eye on their vacant land to avoid problems. Many were written by legal consultant Garland M. Baker.

The newspaper also has reported how various chambers of the Corte Suprema de Justicia differ on how to handle so-called innocent third parties,those who have purchased stolen property. That concept figured in a series of news stories involving some well-connected Costa Ricans who claimed they purchased a million dollar Pacific coast property from a snow cone vendor on the beach. Even a judge did not buy that story.

Although the U.S. Senate threatened to block millions in grants, Costa Rica did not change the laws. So any change in the near future is unlikely.

Fowlie was here once before and was banned in 2005 by the then-immigration director on the strength of a La Nación news story that said residents of Pavones felt threatened by the septuagenarian.

The 15-miles of beach concession land claimed by Fowlie has a value today of many millions of dollars. He said he has continued to pay taxes on his land to the Municipalidad de Golfito.

Fowlie was a paternalistic resident in Pavones for years. He said he purchased the land along the Pacific coast mainly to save the trees from the slash-and-burn culture that was eroding the forest there.

His efforts to maintain direct control of his ownership was frustrated by an 18-year stint  in a U.S. prison on a marijuana conspiracy charge.

There is no certainty that Fowlie will be allowed to return to Costa Rica. Even if he does, the legal mess he will encounter is daunting, personal safety issues side.

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