House stripping

El Bajito 1
By the back entrance to El Bajito, Juan Díaz de Antón, Coclé province. Not an unusual sort of thing to see in the Interior, but there is also house stripping in the capital. Photo by Eric Jackson.

The house stripping economy and culture

article and photos by Eric Jackson

Not far from my back fence, some folks who were part of a gang that smashed up and invaded my house, and robbed me, had a modest little squatter house to which they were adding. They are doing years in prison now. I was their victim who made a public issue of what they were doing, hence the attack, but I was not the only person whose home this crowd violated. 

The initial prosecutor was indifferent. Or shall I say, dedicated herself to blocking the collection of proofs about the crime wave and instead sought to set me up on a false police report charge? As the proofs came in, the police made arrests and were careful to do so in a way that the neighbors could see the suspects being taken away in cuffs.

What did some of the neighbors do, not necessarily as a favor to me? The maleantes’ house and its contents were quickly stripped. Just a concrete slab remains. Part of it is that people don’t want predators who took special aim at the area’s senior citizens to have a place to which they might return after they get out of prison. But an even greater part has to do with a long-running tradition, with roots in history and based in current economic policies and land tenure law.

Much of Cocle province was scorched in the 1899-1902 Thousand Days War. Yes, the history books will tell you that this was all about an allegedly stolen Colombian election. Here in Cocle, prior to the war the breadbasket that produced a great part of the capital’s food, it was the most vicious of close-quarters civil wars. There were religious overtones, as the Liberals believed in secular government and the Conservatives believed in the Catholic Church as the official religion. The Conservatives represented the big land barons — often absentees — while much of the Liberal base was small holders ever at risk of having their homes and farms snatched by the wealthy and connected families. It wasn’t just Victoriano Lorenzo’s legendary Cholo guerrillas against the Conservative army, but neighbor against neighbor, with many of the rules of civilized conduct and common decency suspended. Most of the war zone’s farm animals were killed, most crops destroyed, most buildings burned. Murder, rape, assault and vandalism ran rampant and most people fled either to one of the contending armies or to Panama City. Those who sought protection in Conservative-held Penonome or Aguadulce ran out of luck, as Lorenzo’s growing campesino army took those towns, too. The war ended, Lorenzo was betrayed and executed, but life in rural Cocle never went back to what it was.

There is an agricultural trait of the balo trees upon which the area’s living fences are and long have been strung. These plants fix nitrogen and their leaves make good fertilizer. Thus, 120 years later it’s possible to fly over parts of Cocle and from the air see old fence lines of farms abandoned during the way and left fallow since.

Forged old land titles, gangs stealing the real estate of the elderly and willing to kill those who expose them, a political caste that habitually impedes attempts by those with rights of possession perfected by 15 years or more of tenure to get formal title to their land — these things exist here and there in Panama, but especially in the former war zone of Cocle, where chains of land tenure were broken long ago. There are many communities in which everyone, or almost everyone, occupies land by rights of possession rather than title. Typically the people in such places can’t afford lawyers even if they have titles, so as to be able to pass such titles on to heirs when they die.

An unoccupied country house? Nobody can show by official documents that she or he owns it? Who or what is to protect it?

If occupied by heirs or purchasers, are they strong enough to hold it against fraud artists and bullies?

Thus the popular presumption that if nobody owns it, anyone can take it. The roof, the doors, the bars protecting the windows, the electrical wiring and fixtures, the pipes and plumbing fixtures.

It’s an old tradition. Panamanian Spanish lacks the Castilian lisp because the people who came here were mostly from southern Spain, from places that at the time of the Spanish conquest of Cocle had relatively recently been conquered by Catholics from the north from the Arabs, with the royal decree banishing Muslims and Jews from the Spanish Empire only having come down in 1492, with the fall of Granada. The appropriation of Arab Spain’s real estate, and legends of previous demolitions or appropriations, are parts of the stories of some of Spain’s most famous places. Young men with few good prospects in life who headed west to the New World from places like Seville took those traditions with them to places like Cocle.

Looked at in macro-economic terms, the stripping of buildings in Panama destroys that part of the nation’s overall capital.

In many other parts of the world there are things like escheat offices, dedicated to the preservation of property not owned by a private person, which is taken over by and disposed of by the government. Other places have laws prohibiting the stripping of fixtures from buildings.

On top of those things, around the world some places with building codes restrict the incorporation of things salvaged from old buildings into new buildings — even though the more modern trend is to reuse or recycle for environmental reasons. As a practical matter, though, a lot of the cheap hollow cinder blocks and metal roofing materials used in Panamanian popular construction do not age well enough to recommend their incorporation into new buildings.

Balanced against the preservation of buildings in Panama is the power of the construction industry, whose interest is to destroy the old to make way for the new. The real estate sellers and landlords also have vested interests in keeping the housing supply down so as to keep sale prices and rents up. The lawyers always want a cut, even when it prices them and many a house out of the market.

These interests have over the years prevailed upon the politicians to enact favorable policies which, however, do change with time and the push and pull of competing interests. There are the tax exonerations for new buildings for a certain number of years, aimed at encouraging new construction. In practice these tend to degrade building standards — an apartment building that’s going to be exempt from real estate taxes for 25 years is likely to be built to last not much longer than 25 years. There is the ban on the accrual of rights of possession over condemned urban residential properties, coupled with a prohibition on anyone collecting rent from these. These laws precluded urban homesteading and encourage arson — burn the building down and the title holder who couldn’t collect rent gets the lot back for whatever disposition.

Out in the countryside, what might happen to those living alone? Go to jail, or to the hospital, and afterward come home to find your home missing? A real possibility.





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