by James “JB” Bryson
For the PNO.com
readers that both read and commented upon my trip down to Bocas del Toro to accompany a friend dealing with a land deal gone bad, I promised a follow up that was both educational and factual. One of the people that read what was occurring with my friend was forthright enough to take the time to contact me directly and truly educate me as to what he has seen in Bocas del Toro for almost 18 years.
I asked him if he would be open to contribute an editorial to the site and he declined, yet he did agree to allow me to ask some questions that I may post.
We met for coffee off of Balboa at the Coffee Bean recently, and the following is what we discussed:
1. “First off Anthony, I would like to thank you for meeting me. As we discussed on the phone, you are allowing me to ask a few questions in regards to your first hand and specific dealings in Bocas del Toro, with the understanding that I will be quoting you directly for an article to be posted on the web. Your ok with this?”
2. “Anthony, when did you first come familiar with Bocas?”
2A. “JB I first became familiar with Bocas del Toro back in the early 2000’s doing Due Diligence on a handful of properties for a client of mine that was interested in building a large scale development as well as land banking opportunities. I spent nearly 4 months of my life there covering nearly every square inch of that place helping to source opportunities for that client. In the end he chose NOT to invest in there but we did end up making very sizable investments elsewhere all over Panama.” The main property that was targeted back then by my European group of clients was owned by a small group of well known Panamanians from here in the city. Their company that held the land was called Theobald and it was my first education in Bocas skullduggery and scamming. Today on that property there is a large scale housing development called “Red Frog Beach”.
3. “And what exact skullduggery as you claim was occurring if I may ask?”
3A. “Lol what wasn’t should be the question. The guy leading the charge to sell the property and representing Theobald was a character named Obaldia. His thing was he was trying to sell the group a couple of very large fincas. The problem being they had no beachfront and didn’t reach the sea. But old Obaldia insisted they did. What they were able to do was get written in the property description in the Registro Publicó that one of the properties limits was the Mar Caribe or the sea but the plans and boundary survey showed something quite different. Also just doing an inspection told another story altogether different. As well asking anyone on the island and they would tell you the real story. Obaldia and the Theobald group of players weren’t locals and were not well received by the local community The beachfront area that Theobald was peddling was owned by the Nation it was what is referred to as Rights of Possession and was being controlled by a guy named “Polo” that had been living there even prior to the title that was given by the government to Theobald which was in the 80’s if my memory serves me. Polo had been there since the 60’s and another group next to him was in possession of another beach front area that Theobald was representing they owned. Hence the entire beach area there is called Playa Polo (Polo’s Beach) even still today. I don’t remember the owners name off the top of my head that had the rights to the adjacent beach Theobald was trying to sell us but I can circle back to you JB as I’ve got all my old archives and files back at my place from every property I’ve ever competed DD on here in Panama.
4. “So this was a case of simple case of selling something you own and something owned by your neighbor too?”
4A. “I guess that’s one way to view it. The funny thing is we were set to complete he transaction we were ready to close the deal and buy and develop what is now Red Frog if they could provide one small thing. A certified Plano that showed they owned the beach. They would never show us any plans that were not merely demonstrative they said they didn’t exist and we should merely take what the Public Registry said in writing that the neighbor to I believe it was the North was the Mar Caribe and with that be satisfied. Well in Panama there are many things in the Public Registry that are not as they are stated. The law clearly states that the Plano or boundary survey is what prevails over what is written in the Public Registry and old Obaldia just couldn’t and wouldn’t ever show us an official Plano. We still wanted the property so we tried to negotiate also with Polo in order to buy his Rights of Possession and the Theobald fincas. However, in the interim we finally found the official Plano for the Theobald fincas in the archives in Santiago and the Plano showed clearly the property’s boundaries and neighbors denoting they didn’t reach the sea and that indeed Polo had he rights as well as the other family whose name escapes me the rights next door. So armed with that we went back and exposed this information to the partners of Theobald with the intention of using this information to lower the price enough to still acquire both their fincas and purchase from Polo his beach front. We were not interested in the neighbors property which is probably why I can’t remember their names. Interestingly our findings enraged the owners of Theobald and they threw us out of their offices in a rush. With that my first of many forays into Bocas land began.”
5. “That it? I’d love to hear more about what happened next there? Did you end up advising the Red Frog group before they purchased the land?
5A. “No not at all they were not my clients. We don’t offer a public service here JB. Caveat Emptor “Buyer Beware”. What I heard was that after our negotiations fell apart they quickly after sold the the guys developing Red Frog for nearly double the price we had settled on with them. From that point on those guys at Red Frog have had problems as I knew they would trying to stake a claim on those beaches that they do not own.”
6. “Wow. I find this so intriguing Anthony. I went on my last trip to Bocas to Red Frog and had a beer there I think at their restaurant and beach club. So they don’t own that beach?
6A. ” No the beach they do own is called Red Frog Beach and that is in fact theirs where the Bar and pool are located. They purchased that separate and apart from one of the most infamous swindlers in Bocas del Toro history. It was and I believe still is all Right of Possession property bought by Red Frog by a gringo from Texas that settled into Bocas early and began his shady land acquisitions and dealings.”
7. “Can I ask you his name?”
7A. ” Nah it doesn’t matter. That guy never did anything to me or any of my direct clients so no reason to mention his name here. I did habe several future clients that looked to buy properties from people he had sold to and in each instance after completing our diligence we walked away. I will say he was a bright guy and from what I hear a good salesman too. I met him on a few different occasions in Bocas. My opinion was that he could have done well doing things the right way but got a little too creative and greedy and made a mint taking advantage of unwitting newbies to Bocas looking to buy land. That’s all I say about that JB. Can we move on to a different line of questions. My intention wasn’t and isn’t to start naming names and exposing the different swindlers and grifters in the history of Bocas lol.”
8. ” Wow Anthony it really is intriguing to listen to all of this. “So did you work privately, or were you retained by a company or individuals? “
8A. ” I was initially retained by this European investment group and did a successful tour with them which lasted the better part of 3 years from 2003 to 2005 in Bocas del Toro matters. Since then and prior to I’ve been hired by quite a large number of clients both individuals and business to both offer opinions and various studies all over Panama going back now nearly 25 years here in Panama. Primarily offering Due Diligence on property transactions, project development studies and connecting foreign nationals and foreign groups with different local professionals and services ranging from legal, accounting, transportation and logistics, construction managers and back in the old days pre Panama Papers we did quite a lot of connecting clients with banks and bankers for the setup of bank accounts and the setup of offshore entities.”
9. ” I told you in detail of the issue we saw with my friends property, a property that is listed as HIS in the registry, and one that was sold to him be an operating real estate company that received commission, is now inhabited by a person claiming they have lived there for years. Is this common?”
10. “What do you see as the most common issue that occurs with potential buyers in Bocas?”
10A. “Long answer, in Bocas there are too many issues to name one as the most common. I would say that some of the most common issues include the following:
“• Translapes or overlapping fincas or plots of land. This can occur for a multitude of different reasons but is a pretty common occurrence in Bocas as well as other places in Panama (that’s not unique only to Bocas del Toro).
• Sellers that are NOT selling in good faith is another big issue. Very often and usually in the foreign community (non Panamanian) buyers in Bocas find out after the fact they have been taken advantage of or a “problem” surfaces after they have closed on their property. They then after often thousands of dollars or potentially more can’t find a way to “fix” their issues so they then mask the problem and pass it on to the next guy and dupe them in the same fashion that they were duped themselves. The interesting thing about Bocas is it’s often the same 3 or 4 dozen properties where these issues keep coming back up like a bad breakfast taco.
• Scam artist Real Estate Agents and/or Lawyers whose business model is built around defrauding their clients and making a fee or commission on the transaction and then becoming part of the solution collecting fees foreveror as long as possible sucking money out of the same trusting “gringo” client. This unfortunately happens far to often.
• Often as well you see or hear of locals usually on the outer islands selling the same property usually “Possesory Rights” properties often called “ROP” or “Derechos” that one family member sells to a buyer then another family member sells it to another buyer and so on and so forth. This is usually done when the buyer goes away and doesn’t end up settling permanently taking possession of the property.
• Adverse Possession/Corruption is another fairly common occurrence. That’s when a neighbor desires a property almost always a “ROP” property and they merely move in and take it over by force. They then use bribes or low level local political influence of the Sheriff, Mayor, or even sometimes the Governor or Senators to wield the influence they have to pull off these hostile invasions. The big winners here are the lawyers as these things tend to wear on for years until once side finally comes out on top.
• Prescription of titles is another practice that often rears its ugly head in Bocas. This is a legal process that is handled by a judge whereas if a person (squatter) lives on someone else’s titled property for a period of 10 years or more with no interruption meaning no actions are ever taken legally, they are never notified, the authorities are not ever notified etc. They can then file for a judicial process requesting to be granted dominion over said property. This almost never happens however, the way it should. Meaning corrupt lawyers and local judges eager to make a quick buck will often “fast track” these type of cases and just like that a title has been prescribed. I’ve seen this done on several occasions. I’ve also seen many of these overturned as well. The most common practice used here in these type cases is to prescribe the title through some form of dark dealings and then use that as a tool for leverage to then settle with the victim to go away hence more or less buying the actual owner off for sometimes pennies on the dollar. As crazy as it seems the foreign community are NOT the only victims of this type of organized crime. I’ve seen many wealthy and astute Panamanians fall prey to these same schemes in Bocas. I think it’s one of the reasons most Panamanians stay away from ownership in Bocas. As a note As I mentioned before JB these practices are NOT only unique to Bocas. I’ve seen quite a lot of the same in Pedasi and other places it’s just more of a common occurrence en Bocas del Toro.”
11. ” Is there no law enforcement presence in Bocas to prevent these things from occurring? ”
11A. “Sure there is law enforcement in Bocas. But it’s pretty easy to manipulate it. It’s about as easy as getting out of a traffic stop in Mexico City or Bogota.”
12. “Have you ever been successful in seeing people that were victimized receive compensation or win in court? “
12A. “Yes I have on several occasions but it’s not a short process. I’ve been involved personally in cases but can’t discuss for reasons of confidentiality as well as have seen others I’ve not been involved in. But those processes do take time and resources. Most people don’t have enough of one or the other time or resources hence they don’t ever get resolved or they as I noted above sell their problems to other sometimes disclosing other times not their issues.”
13. “Sounds rather bleak. What are the prospects of my friend getting his $82,000 USD back to him or his land to be granted?”
13A. “As we discussed, if he wants to go through a lengthy and often costly process, there is a chance he can win in court. Then there is the whole thing of enforcement. He already owns it in the registry, so in theory he has already won. It will cost him more than the land he is trying to save. As far as getting any money returned, that money is gone.”
14. “Are you currently working on any case you can speak of?”
14A. “Jajaja as they say here JB. I’m always looking at or involved in some way shape or form at somebody’s issues.”
15. “What advice based off your experience would you give to people or ex pats looking at Bocas as a real estate option?
15A. “Rent don’t buy! If your going to buy then do your homework. Hire a law firm that is credible from Panama City. There are none I’ve found in Bocas I would ever recommend. Get a second opinion from another law firm. Stay away from “ROP” property at all costs. Get Title Policy insurance it’s difficult to find but does exist in Panama. There is an entire checklist I’ve created over 20 years now learning from others mistakes on best practices and how to best asset manage once you have indeed made your purchase. But I get paid for that type of advice JB so unless you want to write me a check amigo I’ll save those tips for my paying clients.”
16. “Well I will at least pay for the coffee”
16A. “That I appreciate”.
END OF RECORDING
Further digging into the amount of litigation and issues with titling and purchases in Bocas del Toro literally opens up a library of either pending or non finalized instances of people getting screwed. As my friend “Buddy” is experiencing now, at least I can tell him he is part of the rule in Bocas del Toro, NOT the exception. He has a sad amount of company in his boat.
James “JB” Bryson