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A frog scans the jungle from atop a ginger flower
photo by Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden
If the rabiblancos want to take your land...
by Eric Jackson
Public corruption in Bocas del Toro is legendary. Because it's so far from Panama City, and because certain legal forms applicable in most of the rest of the country --- like the notion that beaches and oceans are public property upon which private buildings may not be erected --- have long been routinely disregarded, the letter of the law has traditionally meant less than local customs there. Then, starting with the influx of a number of North American and European expatriates who became dissatisfied with Costa Rica in the late 1990s, prices of real estate on the Bocas islands began to skyrocket.
Local crooked politicians saw their opportunities and took them. One of these, former Mayor Eladio Robinson, went to prison over it. His routine was illegally evicting families with well established squatters' rights to farms that they had in some cases occupied for generations and selling the land to gringos.
Bogus documents were planted in public registries. Panama City families with illustrious surnames began to show up with purported documents "establishing," for example, that they owned such properties as one on which a public school had stood for decades. Judges and notaries and elected officials were found who would recognize all sorts of improbable claims.
It's not that this sort of thing never happened before in Panama. The norm for decades was that whenever a road was built in the Interior, wealthy families would bribe public officials and move in to expropriate farms that families had occupied and worked for decades. Pittsburgh University sociologist Gloria Rudolf has noted that this process can be seen from the air, in the trees of old fencelines that mark the boundaries of spaces in which there are no longer any farm houses.
And consider Panamanian economic history in general, which has long been suppressed by, among other things, criminal defamation laws that until recently allowed for the prosecution of those who wrote truthfully about the predations upon which many prominent local businesses were founded on the theory that a true but unflattering account criminally injured the reputation of a person long dead. But still, the pattern is well enough known. Somebody, often a foreigner, establishes a business that prospers. Sombody "from a good family" bribes government officials to drive the person who created an economic niche out of business and the person with the known and feared surname moves in and takes the business.
Such are some of the games now being played in Bocas del Toro. It's so notorious that the Public Ministry has sent a special investigator to look into multiple tales of judicial and electoral corruption in this sparsely populated and remote province.
Lin and Dave Gillingham --- she a British subject and he a New Zealander --- bought a bit more than nine hectares of forested, titled land on a hilltop on Isla Colon, not far from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Bocas laboratory. "We purchased from Minerva Blancaneaux Quintero in 1999. We were the first segregation that happened from Finca 1880," Lin Gillingham explained. Tracing the chain of title, their seller had bought the property in 1990, from someone who had bought in 1987. The chain of title on the property goes back to 1914.
The Gillinghams then did something that elite Panamanians consider beneath their dignity. They swung machetes to make some trails, did a bit of planting and a lot of planning, put up a house and a few low-impact structures, and after years of labor opened the Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden to paying visitors late in 2008.
At about the same time along came the Eletas, a family that owns major chunks of Panama's broadcasting and insurance industries and many other businesses and properties. The usually low-key Eletas have been in the news in recent years mainly for the proclivities of one of their octogenarian extended family elders for sexual relations with 13-year-olds.
But this, as far as we know, is not the tale of another of the old pervert's escapades. This is about Compania Faustina SA, a company said to be owned by members of the Eleta family --- there is corporate secrecy in Panama which prevents the press and people from knowing precisely who owns which parts of a notorious business --- and whose legal representative is one Diego Eleta Quelqueju, who lists his address as an office in the Edificio Aseguradora Mundial on Avenida Balboa in Panama City. Last September this company filed a "proceso no contencioso de deslinde y amojonamiento," or non-adversarial proceeding to survey and mark property whose metes and bounds are uncertain.
The Eletas' company does own land on Isla Colon Finca 3499 and has since 1965. But according to public records and three different surveyors, their property is neither within nor even close to adjacent to Finca 1880, part of which is the Gillinghams' land.
But the Eletas want the botanical garden and the land on which the Gillinghams' house sits, and notwithstanding the findings of surveyors and the contents of public records that their land is elsewhere, they have prevailed upon First Circuit Civil Division Judge Danis N. Castillo's suplente, Manuel García, to order a court officer, José Sánchez, to enter the Gillingham's property and mark off the Eletas' claim. The handwritten entry warrant, which the Gillinghams' attorney advised them was legally deficient, was accompanied by a Google satellite photo with the Eleta's claim superimposed over it.
What the Eletas want to take, from the court's purported entry
warrant. The white spot bisected by the line on the left is the
Gillinghams' house. The botanical garden is inside the lines.
After twice being turned away at the Gillinghams' gate, the alternate judge scheduled another entry date for March 27, to which the Gillinghams responded by putting out a call to friends and neighbors in Bocas to assemble for the event. That date was postponed for "within 15 working days," but before that a new intrusion date was set. That, the Gillinghams' lawyer found out from another attorney rather than the court itself, was April 14. Another call was issued, and the entry was put off again.
The dispute has received some coverage in the Panama Star and has been the subject of discussion on some of the English-language email discussion groups. The British Embassy can't and pointedly does not get involved in legal disputes involving UK citizens, but the British consul has been watching and communicating with the Gillinghams and in diplomatic manners that stuff gets back to national authorities and amounts to a discrete and indirect but classic expression of concern. At the same time, the story has been circulated among members of the US Congress by activists oppposed to ratification of the proposed US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement as an example of the deficient rule of law in Panama. The story has also been reported in newspapers in New Zealand.
It would appear that, despite the conventional wisdom among many Panamanians that the Eletas get what they want and it's foolhardy to oppose them, neither the Eleta family nor Judge Castillo want the machinations of this land grab to be observed or photographed, especially with a crowd of people on hand. The judicial entry onto the Gillinghams' land has been postponed for an indefinite date rather than canceled.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the Gillinghams are appealing to a higher court in David to seek relief from the Eleta's land grab and associated intrusions. There's no word on when a decision may come down from that tribunal.
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