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Sunday, August 25 2019 @ 11:52 pm EDT

Several Mafias Falsifying Titles And Land Documents - Stealing Land Worth Millions in Panama

Real EstateIn mid-2008, when the then governor of Cocle, Darío Fernández, discovered his mother had been involved in the illegal transfer of a property in the area of Piña, in Colon, he never imagined this would be the cause of his assassination three years later.

Fernández , using a radio station he owned in Penonomé, exposed the shady dealings of one of the many criminal gangs operating in Panama, who are specialists in stealing privately owned land from their rightful owners, from which they have earned millions of dollars in illegal profits, and they have even banded together to contract hired killings.

It all started when the politician and journalist (Fernández) received a call from the Public Registry, letting him know that the process of transferring a 12 hectare parcel of land in Colon that was in the name of his 93 year old mother - Juana Maria Jaen - had ended.

Fernández - who at the time was also the President of the Partido Revolutionario Democratico (PRD) for the province of Cocle - was amazed by the call and he immediately set out to investigate what was happening, because his mother had not sold the land, nor had she requested that it be transferred to someone else.

What Fernández discovered was a criminal network that had transferred the property at least eight more times times, that became theirs seemingly as if by magic in May 2008 - the property rightfully belonging to his mother.

Among those involved in these illegal transactions was the lawyer Ricardo Martínez Quiroz, a person well known to Fernández, and who had also been a member of the PRD in the province of Coclé.

Mayra Hall Conte and Julián Alfredo Nouvet Conte were also involved.

The three form part of the group of seven people indicted and convicted in 2013 for the murder of Fernández, which occurred in Penonomé on November 6, 2011 at the hands of a paid assassin. Martínez Quiroz remains a fugitive from justice in the case.

During the trial prosecutor Roberto Moreno said Fernandez was murdered after he uncovered a criminal network engaged in identity theft and illegally selling land. The network had generated gains of $1.5 million from these activities, he said.

Another case confirming the existence of these mafias - experts in "cloning" fake land titles - is that of the leader of the Hossana Evangelical Church of Panama, Edwin Alvarez.

He unwittingly became involved in August 2013 in a land sale through the falsification of documents in the Public Registry for 13 hectares of land located in Boquerón, Chiriquí, for which he paid $320,000.

The leader of the Hosanna Apostolic Community said the land would be used to develop camps, retreats and other activities that are not held at their churches.

The disputed land, claimed by the farmer Ricardo Sitton from Chiriqui, and which according to the investigations were fraudulently registered in Herrera, were previously transferred through four other people before they were obtained by Alvarez.

Alvarez had to face a criminal trial, during which he was prevented from leaving the country.

In the end he was acquitted, along with seven other defendants, "because they were surprised in good faith," according to the prosecution. Alvarez pledged to return the property to its original owner.

However, the case was not closed, because the evidence indicating the existence of a criminal network that is behind these actions led to the Prosecutor's Office of Organized Crime to open an investigation last December in order to determine who is criminally responsible.

Moreno, who is currently the Superior Prosecutor Against Organized Crime, confirmed his office has detected several of these criminal organizations involved in these types of crimes, and his office has at least four case files open related to these criminal actions.

He said on of these processes is that of the Pastor Álvarez, in which they are evaluating some of the evidence collected to determine responsibilities.

A dozen foreign citizens living in the Chiriqui highlands has also fallen victim to the tentacles of these criminal organizations, so the criminal courts in this province have opened four criminal cases.

Complaints about the illegal "cloning" of land and title documents began in 2006, and the most recent was presented in 2012.

It was said the usurped land has a value of between 3 and 4 million dollars in total.

According to the investigation, the illegal operations of this network include "overpricing" land sales to foreigners who have acquired the land, obtaining two titles on the same parcel of land, obtaining loans from financial institutions using these falsified titles, livestock theft, and the falsification of transfer paperwork used to steal the land from the rightful owners.

Officials from the Public Ministry are currently investigating to determine if corrupt government officials working in the office of the Public Registry of David are involved.

Because of the way this band is operating, the victims are comparing them to the famous television series The Sopranos.

In February the Third Circuit Judge of Chiriquí, Idalgis Olmos de Sánchez, ordered the National Police to arrest the lawyer Cley Estenio González Caballero, Daniel Polanco Rodríguez, Itza Dania Muñoz and Lot Jafet Muñoz, for their alleged participation in the network of "cloners" in order to proceed with the investigation against them.

There is another investigation that has been going on since September 2012 in the Public Ministry, that is looking into the actions of a criminal network dedicated to the illegal registration of 88 farms belonging to the State.

These actions affected properties in islands and the province of Veraguas, as well as along the coast in the area of Coclé del Norte, in the province of Colón.

In this investigation 43 people have been named in the case file, which has more than 18 volumes, in the Public Ministry.

Eight of these people face "precautionary measures," including José Edir Torres, who illegally inscribed 58 of the affected farms, and Jesús Morales, who illegally inscribed another 19 farms belonging to the State, according to the investigations.

Among those mentioned in the case file are several family members related to the National Assembly Deputy Freidi Torres, and the Former Director of the Office of Agrarian Reform Nadia Moreno, who has already given a first statement.

In another case, in December 2012 the Fifth Criminal Court sentenced Donald Lamb and his son Brent Duane Lamb to 24 months in prison, for a case involving the sale of a parcel of land in Colón, which was stolen from a company named Robsons Real Estates Inc., using documents that had been falsified in 2007. (Prensa)

Editor's Comment: There are a couple of ways you could find yourself involved in this sort of a problem.

First of all, lets say you already bought land in Panama. You are a very honest and diligent person. You hired the best lawyers, did everything right. Crossed all your "t's" and dotted all the "i's" to make sure there were no surprises. You built your dream house in Panama, and have been living there happily for several years. Then one day you wake up to see heavy equipment moving around on "your" land. When you investigate, you discover that "your" land was - unbeknownst to you - stolen from you using fake documents, two years ago. The criminals transferred the land several times before it was eventually sold to the guy who owns the heavy equipment. Neither of you knew you were getting screwed, until it was too late.

Let's say you're a buyer. You are just now about to move to Panama. You also make sure everything is legitimate before you buy your land. Your very good and very honest lawyer checks everything out, and as far as they can tell, it all looks legitimate. So, you go ahead and buy the land. You get your permits to build a house - and they are issued by the government. You have an architect draw up some plans. You hire a contractor, and he starts to cut an entryway to build a road to where the house will be in order to start construction. Then a neighbor runs up frantically, screaming "what the hell are you doing on my land?" Little do you know, you purchased land that had first been "stolen" and then laundered by moving it from one person to another to another to another to another (all shell companies) before you bought it.

Or maybe they just go more direct. They fake the documents, steal your land, and then threaten to kill you and your family if you report it or protest. I know of more than one case in which the expat involved decided it was better to just flee the country, out of fear for their safely, rather than trying to stand and fight it in court. Remember, these people have already murdered at least one person in a hit for hire scenario. Taking out a gringo would not be that big of a leap.

Every one of these cases is a little different. I know of several involving corrupt government officials. The former Minister of the Presidency "Jimmy" Papadimitriu was forced to resign because of his involvement in the Paitilla and Juan Hombron land scandals. I personally investigated and reported on the theft of land in Chame, which apparently had the direct involvement of the Director of the ANATI. And I also know of other cases in Bocas del Toro involving expats, and organized efforts by corrupt government officials to steal land worth millions of dollars.

So what's the bottom line? How can you protect yourself? Investigate, and document. Take your time. Make sure you've got every possible angle covered. Actually find the neighbors, physically walk up to them and show them the documents. Ask them if they know of anything strange or out of place. They should know exactly who owned what, when. If something fishy is going on, it might come to the surface immediately. Before you lay down any money or sign any documents, do all of your due diligence research. Document the hell out of everything. Check for the dates of when things were last transferred or signed. Look at the names of who signed what, and do simple Google searches for those names. If any of them turn up as being linked to an ongoing investigation, run away with your money in your pocket. Spend more money up front (as an insurance policy) on private investigation. It's better to have to spend $2,000 to avoid a problem, than to lose $320,000 on a fraudulent land deal.

And another piece of advice I always give - Get a Panamanian bank involved in the deal by getting them to mortgage part of the deal, even if you don't need it. They will do all of their due diligence as well, which is a form of indirect insurance for you. They have teams of lawyers trained to sniff out problems, and they might find something you would have otherwise missed. This tactic will slow down your deal, and it might make it a little more expensive, and harder to do, but once again you won't lose your $320,000 (quickly, thank you very much...) Better to be slow and sure and safe, than fast and unsure and ripped off.

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