Group says removal of squatters near Liberia was politically motivated

January 10th, 2014 (InsideCostaRica.com) Police officers of the Fuerza Publica in Liberia, Guanacaste carried out the eviction this week of some 50 families consisting of some 200 people that had illegally claimed land in El Aguacate, located about six kilometers northwest of Liberia, on land adjacent to the Pan-American Highway.

 

The eviction came after a complaint filed by the owner of the property, Adolfo Baltodano, who asked the courts several months ago to recover his land from the campesino squatters.

 

Now, a group known as the Movement for Agrarian Reform is claiming that the rights of the campesinos were violated, and that the move was politically motivated.

 

The group said that authorities arrived in 16 patrol cars, two vans and a helicopter in order to intimidate the campesinos, and once removed or arrested, proceeded to burn their food, homes, clothes, and other possessions, and took children present into the custody of Costa Rica’s child welfare agency, PANI.

 

According to the group, however, the Constitutional Court (Sala IV) had found in the campesinos favor in a write of Habeas Corpus on December 31st, demanding the withdrawal of police officials from the property.

 

“The OIJ and the Fuerza Publica violated the provisions of the Constitutional Court […] in order to defend the interests of the landowners such as Dr. Baltodano, who is linked to members of the PLN such as Deputy lawmaker Maria Ocampo Baltodano,” the group said.

 

The campesinos arrested during the operation remain in custody, and the children remain in the protective custody of PANI as of press time.

 

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    • Ken Morris

      Interesting. I’m probably an outlier, since it seems that every other ICR reader is a 100% supporter of property owners over squatters, but at least historically I believe there is a case to be made for squatters’ rights. I realize that these squatters’ rights are now often (maybe always) blatantly misused by unscrupulous people to steal property, and nobody can favor that. However, I wonder if there are any recent instances in which squatters’ rights ought to be supported, and this story suggests that this may be an instance. I’d like to know more about the situation.

      BTW, although I’m sure it’s more complicated than this, a main influence on US ideas of property rights was John Locke, who actually only championed property rights to the extent that a person actually worked the property. He was no defender of real estate investors, and in fact in this tradition property rights are intended to foster equality and discourage inequality.

      In Costa Rica, I wouldn’t know, but I would guess that squatters’ rights arise from the banana republic days, when with Locke Ticos reasoned that it’s better for those who work the land to own it.

      The question is whether this line of reasoning can ever be justly applied today. I have yet to see a case in which it has, but would be interested in learning if there are some.

      • mhogan

        It’s a slippery slope not to respect the legitimate owners ALWAYS — they paid for the land or inherited it. Why ever is it okay for someone to get something for nothing? When I depart this earth, I would want my son to have what we legitimately acquired as his rightful patrimony. The fact that perhaps in the grieving process it might not be possible for him to travel to claim the land within the legal time frame or he might be unaware of what can happen since he’s not from some “banana republic” and so that, you argue, is fair game for someone to claim because they can “work the land”? It’s a scam to me and a slippery slope down the path that socialists believe people don’t have property rights — it belongs to whomever they deem “needs it more.”

        • Ken Morris

          You ask: “Why ever is it okay for someone to get something for nothing?” yet also want your son to get inherit property for merely being fortunate enough to have you as a parent. That strikes me as getting “something for nothing,” frankly.

          If you think through property rights, they’re really pretty nebulous. You can’t really own the sand on a beach, since it washes out to sea, and you can’t own the waves, since they come and go. You can’t own the land too far below you (no digging to the other side of the earth) as neither can you own the sky above you (up into outer space?). Everybody also wants to restrict what at least their neighbors do with their property (no loud parties, polluting industries, or often even bars) as well as to legislate what they must do (mow the grass, build a certain square footage, etc.). Then there is intellectual property–copyrights and pattens–which tell Disney Corporation how long they have exclusive rights to Walt’s mouse and how much money pharmaceutical companies can make before the medicines they develop can be copied and sold as generics.

          In all these instances and others, property rights are legal contrivances intended to serve some social good. And don’t get me wrong, I think they often do serve a social good. Certainly it’s good for a family to be able to own their own private space, to some extent good for parents to provide for their children after they die, and it’s good for many businesses to be able to own many kinds of property, mainly because private enterprise usually produces more wealth while distributing it more equitably than other economic systems.

          However, we must never lose sight of the fact that property rights are always government creations hinged to a notion of the social good they are intended to achieve, and never are themselves absolutes. Locke was I believe responding to the vestiges of a feudal system in which most productive land was held by absentee landholders yet worked by peasants prevented from ever succeeding on their own, and therefore called for property rights as a way of empowering the peasants by providing them with economic opportunity that the existing property system denied them. A similar rationale probably lies behind CR’s historic commitment to squatters’ rights, since the country really was dominated by the Boston-based United Fruit Company while Ticos believed that a country with a strong middle-class of small farmers was better.

          The only question I raised is whether there might still be instances in which squatters’ rights contribute to the social good in CR. Every story I have seen is a tale of crooked fat cats using peasants to steal land, and every instance in which squatters’ rights are now invoked may be of this thieving sort. Obviously I can’t support that. This sketchy news story simply made me wonder whether squatters’ rights might sometimes still be good.

          • mhogan

            You make some interesting points, one being: “property rights are always government creations hinged to a notion of the social good …”–government contrivances true, but the cynic in me believes it was NEVER for social good but to line the pockets of the government or acquire POWER through taxation for their own benefit. What? You believe politicians always put honor over personal gain or Power? Moreover, governments themselves own vast tracks of land. Why then — for the “social good” don’t they give their land to the squatters? As for my son getting something because he has me as a parent and therefore “something for nothing” – I brought a child into the world as a responsibility — not to be a burden on society; therefore I INVESTED to provide that does not happen (to the best of my ability). Can you say the same of the squatters’ parents? If you argue that buying property is not a valid ownership, why don’t we just let the government (the social, collective “people”) own all the land and we all just be squatters? Why pay property taxes for the right to use the land? Why pay inheritance taxes in those countries where it is required? Why pay the government transfer fees or stamp duties to register the land from one owner to another? (After the initial purchase, how many more times and other ways do we have to “pay” to hold onto an investment (land acquisition is an investment paid through tax dollars)? Anyone who argues one should not have the right to own property with all its responsibilities and protections is really saying everyone owns the property and that is communism. That’s the redistribution of wealth concept (wealth being property) or Agenda 21 thinking. Historically, how has that (Communism/Socialism) worked out for the poor? How has the “War on Poverty” helped the poor despite trillions being pumped into that War? Do-gooders of social engineering have their hearts in the right place but their brains up their wazoo–if you know your history. Ironically, China is moving away from Communism into a free-enterprise system (albeit so slowly it is hard to notice) but the West is moving rapidly into Socialism/Communism with the “State” controlling every aspect of our lives and telling us what we can own and what we cannot, and so much more. Anyone who says we are not moving into a Socialist/Communist State will become victims of the darkness since nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. It is in the twilight were I believe we are now that we must be the most aware of the change in the air — however slight — and know that Man is not owned by the Government and fight the fight for freedoms — one of which is right to own what one pays for. As to your argument about owning the sand on the beach, the air we breathe, the waves, etc. – last I looked they were not for sale — land is and the government taxes ownership. One other question for you: if the government grants the squatters valuable pieces of “private” land where taxes have been paid by the lawful owners for years, how do they handle the squatters’ non-payment of any taxes? Or, is it another of those redistribution concepts? Ticos, you state, “believe that a country with a strong middle-class of small farmers was better” — I am all for a strong middle-class but I don’t believe we can put the small farmer genie back in the bottle — those guys are a dying breed for the almighty buck just like your “fat cats”. We can all argue that the old ways were better, but all of us, Ticos included have come to want more than the past provided and while it is easy to accept a “more convenient life”, it is near impossible to reduce your standard of living without a rebellion. Seems governments are forcing us to downsize anyway to pay for their social engineering concepts — let’s see how long before the ones who subsidize that concept rebel. I think it will happen in our lifetime because the “haves” will have had enough of income redistribution or turning over their rights (property included) to fight another losing War on Poverty.

            • Ken Morris

              Well, you obviously make too many points for me to respond to (and I don’t disagree with many of them, at least in part) so let me just pick a few.

              First, I would be careful about using the phrase “social engineering” to refer only to programs designed to help the poor or middle classes. My main point is that private property rights are themselves an instance of “social engineering,” since they too involve public policies (including as you point out property taxes etc.). There may be a kind of quantitative argument worth making to the effect that the government shouldn’t attempt too much social engineering, but interestingly even Hayek (the great proponent of free markets) rejects this argument. He explicitly writes that limited government in the sense of “little” government isn’t the goal; rather the goal is for the government to do the right rather than the wrong things. Many will certainly disagree with Hayek as to what the government should or shouldn’t do, as well as how likely it is to be successful attempting different tasks, but my point is that even those on the fairly far right recognize that the government has to do some “social engineering,” although they tend to reserve this phrase for only some government initiatives.

              Second, probably off the subject but since you mention it, I hope you aren’t picking up on Jay Brodell’s weak opinionated argument against the US War on Poverty the other day. I checked, the US poverty rate fell sharply (to its lowest level ever) between the introduction of the War on Poverty in 1964 and 1973, about when the programs began to be dismantled. Now, there are all kinds of reasons why a person may oppose this War on Poverty, as well as all kinds of intervening variables that might explain poverty’s decline then (like the humming wartime economy with a strong unionized working class) but if the goal is to combat poverty, the data suggest that the War on Poverty was a stunning success.

              Third, and most importantly (plus back on the topic) you raise what I think is the most important issue, namely what property rights mean and ought to mean today. CR likely isn’t going to bring back the days of the small farmers and other small self-employed property owners, not in an era of global corporations and large-scale labor forces. Does it therefore make any sense for it still to have legislation protecting squatters’ rights? Probably not. Probably today property is better construed as skills and training (one historic definition), and if so the property rights of the poor are better defended by assuring them access to education rather than a piece of real property. However, the flip side of old-fashioned property rights also becomes more complicated. CR definitely wants foreign investments, some of which include property rights, since these provide the jobs for the Ticos whose only property is their education and skills. However, it’s not clear that every instance of foreign- or even locally-owned property is desirable. Certainly ritzy resorts and similar developments don’t benefit Ticos, or don’t benefit them past a point. So if I were in a policy making position I would look carefully at which property rights I wanted the government to grant and which ones I didn’t from the standpoint of the economy’s overall well being. Of course, this would be social engineering, but then as stated I think property rights are always social engineering anyway. The issue is only what you want to engineer!

              Though this is all abstract stuff. You win the real world debate. In the real world most government officials are likely motivated by the aim of feathering their own nests rather than the public good, and from what I read corrupt government officials are themselves sometimes behind the trumped up cases that use squatters’ rights as a ruse to steal land. I have no solution to this problem, except to say that I know the solution is not to shrug and allow the big dog to eat the little dogs’ food insofar as we can help it. The whole point of having government–including property rights–is to improve upon a world in which might makes right. Alas, we therefore have to work with government, however disgusting the task may be.

      • expatin paradise

        Ken, as usual, you present some well-reasoned arguments. There are conditions under which squatters’ rights make sense. When land is truly abandoned and squatters pay the taxes and improve the land, I have no quarrel with squatters being able to claim the land after a reasonable amount of time. Even in the US, adverse possession claims are honored, but the “squatter” in those cases must occupy the property for years. In the case of Costa Rica, however, those rights accrue after only three months, which is not reasonable in a country where foreign investment is actively sought by the government. Costa Rica’s law is especially ridiculous when there is a renter or caretaker for the property and the landowner reasonably believes that the property is being protected, as was the situation in a recent case where the squatters prevailed. Even if the property owner is in the country, three months is an unreasonable amount of time. I don’t know what a more appropriate time requirement would be appropriate for Costa Rica, but three YEARS seems like a minimum in modern Costa Rica, especially if the owner is paying taxes on the property. Additionally, where there is a rental or caretaker situation, it would seem reasonable to expect the courts to find that the landowner did not intend to abandon the property.

        In the present case, it seems clear that some form of favoritism is in play. Here, the landowner is a Tico, and apparently an entitled one who is well connected to the ruling party. In the recent case where there was a renter but the squatters prevailed, the owner was a foreigner. This is a double standard that is only too familiar to us expats. If there was a court order granting the squatters the right to occupy the land and the landowner violated that order, the landowner should be found in contempt, along with the police who facilitated if the squatters presented them with a copy of that order. Further, the landowner should be required to reimburse the squatters for the value of their destroyed personal belongings and for temporary shelter for the period of the court order, and for the structures if the squatters eventually prevail.

        If this landowner is as powerful as is suggested, perhaps this case will start a dialogue on revision of the squatter’s law here.

        • Ken Morris

          I’m afraid that I still can’t follow the details of the cases well enough to form an opinion about them, but to use the word you use a couple times, everything you write strikes me as “reasonable.” Also, I agree that a revision of the law regarding squatters is sorely needed, since whatever its historic (and perhaps contemporary) justifications, it seems now to be routinely abused. I only raised the issue because I’m curious to know whether there is ever an instance in which CR might still want laws protecting squatters. You seem to suggest that there may be, which is my conjecture too, although I can’t think of a single real-world instance I’ve read about that is such a case.

          • expatin paradise

            I can’t think of a situation where I can see a justification for protecting squatters other than a situation where an owner dies and leaves no heirs, abandoning property – in that rare case, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for another party to get a title. Squatters’ rights typically existed where there was plenty of open, unclaimed land that was essentially of no value until someone put it to use. That really isn’t the case in today’s Costa Rica.

            Adverse possession rights, however, do have validity. A situation that comes to mind is where a person improves and maintains property for many years only to find out that there had been a surveyor’s error and part of the land that he improved and maintained was not his, that the actual property line ran through the living room of his house. These things happen, and if Costa Rica ever reconciles property borders with GPS coordinates as they have talked about for years, we will probably find that such cases are not unusual. In such cases, if the property was assumed to be one person’s and he held it for the required amount of time, under the principle of adverse possession, he could claim it as his and not have to tear his house down, move the house, or buy the property from the person who really owned it but had never made a claim to it. I have a friend who owns property here but still lives in the US, and he is dealing with one of those situations where a local man claims the property where my friend’s house (occupied by his caretaker) is. The Tico has some papers that he claims shows this, but my friend says that the Tico’s papers do not describe my friend’s property. Since my friend has owned the land for many years, an adverse possession right would make his fight much easier and less costly regardless of what the papers say.

            I have written before that squatters’ rights, like “free unions” (common-law marriages) are archaic and unnecessary legal rights in any country with modern access to courts and registries. If couple wants to marry, there is no reason that they can’t. Their failure to do so is generally because one party does not want to do so. The fact that they live together for three years should not enable one party to claim that the relationship is a marriage. Likewise, a living title holder of property should be recognized as the owner of that property, absent extraordinary circumstance.

            • Ken Morris

              I was with you until you got to the analogy with common-law marriage, which I’d like to hear more about. It seems to me that over time many situations evolve to the point where one party has a legitimate claim on the other (usually only voiced after the comfortable relationship becomes uncomfortable) without the parties having toddled off to the courthouse to get the government’s blessings. And, while I generally support liberal “big government,” I am very hesitant to demand that people toddle off to the courthouse to ratify a relationship simply because the government provides a ratification process. (Personally, I wonder what business the government has in ratifying marriages anyway.) Further, I suspect that the US has gone too far the other way in its failure to recognize common-law marriages, with the result that women especially (although possibly men) have lost a fair amount of rights. The analogy though is a good one, since we’re talking about arrangements that have arisen without formal or accurate legal sanction, which raises the question of what rights if any the parties have without these. My inclination is to give the parties to common-law marriages a lot more rights than parties to property disputes, since to my mind the state kind of has to be involved in property issues but doesn’t have to be as involved in personal issues like marriage (call me a libertarian in some respects) although I agree that the underlying principles are similar.

            • expatin paradise

              You got it – the common-law marriage analogy only applies insofar as it is another “right” that is not formally established.

              The situation here is that a “free union” is established when a couple lives together for a period of time. The period is supposed to be three years, and they are supposed to present themselves as married, but the courts here use a lot of judiciary discretion (caprice) in interpreting the law. What ends up happening is that couples who never intended to be married live together for a time then break up, at which time the woman claims that the relationship was a free union and ends up with half the assets (if she doesn’t allege “domestic violence”, have the guy thrown out of his own house under an order of protection, and end up with everything). This happens too often, especially to older gringos who never intended to entitle their lovers to half their assets and have families back home to whom they intend to leave the bulk of their estates.

            • Ken Morris

              Probably true about some gringos, but I frankly wonder what planet they’re living on when they become entangled in these things. Too personal, but I walked away from an otherwise excellent Tica in large part to protect my kid in the US. This said, my guess is that women are more apt to be victimized by the absence of common law marriage than men are by its presence, since I suspect a lot of guys skylark for a few years at her expense only to leave her with nothing. Reasonable laws and interpretations of same as always strike me as the goal.

              Another analogy came to mind that I figured I’d mention. Again too personal, but I worked a total of 22 years for two employers in the US who both classified me as “part-time temporary.” Clearly the classification was a euphemism designed by the employers to deny me and others employee rights otherwise guaranteed to all employees (including in one case Social Security coverage, eligibility for unemployment compensation, etc.). A supreme irony was that as a “part-time” employee I was allowed to work overtime, which I often did, when “full-time” employees could not. Then, while in theory I was free to quit and find a better job, the reality was that all the employers in that industry in the state offered the same deal, so quitting and working elsewhere (which I obviously did once) only resulted in more of the same.

              My view was that this hiring arrangement is merely a legal charade that should be challenged in court. Such a challenge, I think, would be analogous to squatters’ rights and common law marriage, since in all instances an arrangement has evolved that is in fact quite different from the one stated (or not stated) in the legal documents.

              You give the impression of being a lawyer, which I am not, but if so I will mention that I suspect the problem here is legal formalism. To my mind this legal theory creates tons of problems in the US, problems that amount basically to allowing “technicalities” rather than the intent of the law to prevail, although I think the doctrine is even worse in Costa Rica, where the letter of the law often prevails against not only the intent but also common sense (although Supreme Court Justices here seem to read a lot of their own biased opinions into the law too).