MISTAKE OR FRAUD?
Alleged mass Land Scam on Ambergris Caye: (Photo of Mata Grande). Lands Department is another “Hotbed” of corruption, Prime Minister Dean Barrow states.
by the Corozal Daily
Last month Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow admitted to members of the Belizean Diaspora in Los Angeles and we quote. “I believe that the Lands Department unfortunately is another hotbed of corruption. The administration has tried to do something about the officers (who facilitate these deals) through dishonesty, rather than incompetence…perhaps in some instances, it is a combination of both”.
Of recent, PM Hon. Dean Barrow went on to make references of such in the village of Santa Familia where two persons seemingly hold title to the same land even though the land had been developed and cultivated by the rightful owner.
In other land scandals - in April of this year, Dangriga Police investigated the selling of acres of land that occurred when the rightful owner was reportedly out of the country.
Then early in October 2103, villagers in the Crooked Tree took to the airwaves, claiming that two houses belonging to a Rudolph Tucker were demolished, while the land title, which he reportedly held since 1995 was repealed.
In response to the PM’s statements, Hon. Gaspar Vega - Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources stated to the media and we quote “I am the first to agree with the Prime Minister, truthfully…The reason why the Pm knows of the level of frustration we are going through is because we are trying to do everything possible to eliminate the level of corruption.”
A whole bigger scheme of these seemingly elaborate land deals has been unearthed, involving hundreds and if not millions of dollars in fraud and early signs of wrongdoings at the Lands Department came as early as 2011, just months prior to the General Elections.
In 2011 a land scandal broke out on the island of Ambergris Caye involving the San Pedro Town Council and in the middle of it, fingers pointed at an employee of the town council, a town councilor and the Minister of Tourism, Manuel Heredia Jr. The allegation was first made known when a whistleblower from the town council mass-emailed an anonymous letter to the media outlining what the author referred to as “a ring of land scammers who are operating from within the town council”.
In the letter, the author pointed out that recently, a beach front property situated in the Mata Grande area was illegally acquired by Ms. Candy Bradley, a former town council employee. The letter stated that former town Councilor Juan Alamilla used his cousin, the Minister of Tourism Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr. to sign a letter recommending that Ms. Bradley be allowed to purchase the property which was said to belong to the Government. The anonymous email, penned by “Jane Doe,” went on to explain that shortly after acquiring the land, Bradley sold it to a “powerful” San Pedrano who later discovered that the land was illegally acquired, and upon learning so requested his money back. The letter went on to suggest that when confronted with the situation, Minister Heredia, former Mayor Elsa Paz, former Councilor Juan Alamilla and Candy Bradley decided to sell the property for a higher value in order to not only return the money to the said San Pedrano but to divide the profit amongst them.
The land in question is lot number 12, situated in the Mata Grande Subdivision and registered at the lands department as Parcel Number 4594 in the San Pedro Registration section.
The same property was being advertised for sale on the Hollywood Realty of Belize website, a real estate company situated on Ambergris Caye. Property tax information obtained from the San Pedro Town Council showed that Lot # 12 was owned by an American couple residing in the United States of America.
Parcel 4594 – Beach Front – Mata Grande
In an interview with the media via telephone the Americans confirmed to the media that they were the legitimate owners of the property in question. They entered into an agreement to purchase the property in July of 2002 from a company called Butterscotch Limited, owned at the time by William and Vicky Campbell and a title was obtained on September 15th of the same year. Supporting evidence to the above claim was provided to media, in the form of a copy of the recorded Deed of Conveyance to these individuals.
The question remains, what happened at the Lands Department between the time the Americans acquired the property in September of 2002 and then? What transpired leading up to Candy Bradley becoming the registered owner of the property on file at the Lands Department and transferring the land to a second party who claimed he never put the property up for sale?
In an interview with the media at the time, Hon. Heredia explained that in May of 2011, he was approached by Ms. Bradley, who expressed her desire to purchase an available plot of property north of San Pedro. At this, he recommended to the Ministry of Natural Resources that Ms. Bradley be allowed to purchase the property. Mr. Heredia stated that when he gave Bradley the recommendation, he was unaware of the location and if indeed the property was owned by government. When asked why it was that he did not investigate whether the property was available, Mr. Heredia responded that it was the duty of the Ministry of Natural Resources to do so and not his. In responding to the allegations of partaking in the sharing of profits from the transaction involving the sale of the property in question, Mr. Heredia responded that “it is totally bogus.”
On her behalf, former Mayor Elsa Paz dismissed all allegations of her involvement in the controversy in question and stated that she is unaware of the matter and as such is unable to comment further. At the time, the media tried to contact former town council employee, Candy Bradley multiple times to get her side of the story but attempts were futile. As for former Councilor Juan Alamilla, he refused to grant the media an interview.
Following an investigation by the media into the matter – which provided more questions than answers – and after contacting the American individuals, the property was removed from the Hollywood Property’s real estate website. An urgent notice was also issued on September 17th by the Land and Surveys Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment stating: “Please take this as a formal notice of a possible land fraud in matters concerning the following property: Lot 12 of the Mata Grande Subdivision (formerly known as Mata Caballo) Subdivision Parcel NO. 4594. If you become aware that this property has been placed for sale or have knowledge of any parties attempting to market this property please notify the department.”
What was confirmed then is that the property in question was indeed titled to two different individuals. How this happened and who the players are in this ring of wrongdoings will soon come to light. The Corozal Daily has investigated from a veteran realtor that the land would be worth around $450,000.00 USD - $475,000.00 USD in today’s real estate market.
As for the rightful owners of the Mata Grande land, they have had to pay thousands and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to claim their property back through the court system and absolutely no restitution offered to them by the Lands Department. As for Candy Bradley, she made out with approximately half a million dollars Belize currency in the sale to the second transferee and as for the transferee he is still battling restitution against the Lands Department and Bradley.
This is just the “tip” of the iceberg unearthed by the Corozal Daily as other major incidents point to a more elaborate and troublesome level of fraud and dishonesty in the land sector.
The Corozal Daily will bring you an update on the most recent land scandal.
Part II- Corruption at Lands Department
In this Part II story, while the Prime Minister announced
to the Belizean Diaspora in Los Angeles last month, that Lands is another “hotbed”
of corruption, an elaborate and organized scheme to constitutionally deprive
owners of their private lands has been ongoing since 2011.
The Corozal Daily has been following this story since and has unearthed an
elaborate scheme involving dealers and facilitators in and out of the Lands Department.
The scheme can affect any landowner in Belize but more so, it seems to be targeting
landowners of prime land who mostly reside outside of Belize. Should the scheme
affect your land, you will need to spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees
to claim your property back with absolutely NO restitution from the Government of
To paraphrase the Prime Minister whether willfully or just incompetent, these public
officers causing these land problems, cannot be taken to court by the Government
nor can they be fired just “like that” as they are protected under our Belize laws.
One way of ensuring your land is not affected is to make regular physical checks
on your land and call the lands department if you find anything suspicious and if you
don’t live in Belize and you own land here just have someone you trust to make
these frequent checks for you. So, exercise caution…and as we say in the business
Every land owner in Belize must read Part II of this article.
PRIME MINISTER DECLARES LANDS DEPT. A “HOTBED” OF CORRUPTION – PART II
Another alleged Land Scam on Ambergris Caye: (Photo of Bella Vista)
Affected Property 1.3 acres highlighted in Yellow to the right of the photo
Belize is internationally known as a popular tourist destination providing great opportunities for first time local and foreign investors to succeed given the opportunities. What can devastate a sensitive industry like tourism development and investment is rampant corruption in government. As BELTRAIDE (Belize Trade and Investment Development Service) launched its “Invest Belize” video in October 2013 promoting different sectors of the Belize economy, corruption reared its ugly head in different sectors of the government from Rosewood, Noh Mul, Passport scandal and Visa hustle. The latest scandal involves an elaborate scheme in the land sector that involves the fleecing of perhaps millions of dollars from the public purse. The modus operandi (MO) by dealers with connection to current government facilitators has been occurring in some instances months before the 2012 General Elections and involves pieces of prime, private lands owned mostly by North Americans who happen to be absent and who live in the United States and Canada.
As we pointed out in Part I of this story titled, “Mistake or Fraud - Lands a hotbed of Corruption” Prime Minister Dean Barrow stated to the Belizean Diaspora in Los Angeles last month: –
“There have been ongoing attempts on trying to assist with processes. Remember, they had this land management systems project funded from abroad and all that. The biggest problem (I hate to say it) is with individuals. Too many people complain that nothing is being done at the Lands Department unless you are prepared to pay. So, I am hoping that the effort that’s being made and the fact that some people have been rotated out together with the systems on which there is ongoing work, will help. I will also tell you that we are trying to get somebody to act as a kind of quality assurance person or the Department and a liaison with the public. We had spoken to one well known individual that then worked. We are speaking to another one currently, and if we can swing that particular contract, that particular arrangement, hopefully that will help now.”
PM Barrow further explained the complexity of the fixing the problem “The difficulty is that these people are public officers, and constitutionally, they have tenure, so you can’t get rid of them, except to go through a process that sees you bring administrative charges; there must be a hearing before the Public Services Commission, which seems to be very reluctant to fire public officers, and even when you do that, they go to court and they get lawyers who say ‘Oh, the proceedings were flawed, that the Public Services Commission had not been doing it properly’, but we’ve actually succeeded in firing about four of them, and we’re moving out a number of others, so, going forward, the problem will not be as acute, but where a case has already occurred, it’s a little difficult because ultimately, if somebody got [a] title, when there was a pre-existing ownership, the title would have to be seen as having been issued in error, or as a consequence of fault, and a clerk will set aside that second title and recognize the first title.”
To local and foreign investors, there is little comfort as it seems, according to PM Barrow, that the Land’s officers have the government over a barrel – there is very little the government, with all its law-making powers, can do in a case of obvious corruption in the department. This news is of little comfort to both local and foreign investors.
“The difficulty is, they (our insert: meaning those who have been deprived legal ownership of their properties) have to go to court, and that is costly, but in a situation like that, the Ministry can’t really solve the problem, because, if the Ministry comes down in favor of the previous land owner after having issued a second title, the second title holder will sue the government; and if the Ministry comes down in favor of the second title holder, the first title holder will sue, so ultimately, the only way in which any decision that the Ministry tries to make can be vindicated, is by way of some sort of a court ruling, and… as I said, to some extent that’s unfortunate; there are legal costs associated with that, but that’s what it is, unfortunately, in terms of cases of, as I said, would have already occurred, so I can’t be more helpful than that.”
In Part I of our article dated Nov 7th, we brought you the land scandal involving Candy Bradley, a former employee of the San Pedro Town Council and Juan Alamilla Jr. (pictured left), a former Councilor of the San Pedro Town Council. Later that same year 2011 another similar scandal broke out now involving another prime beach front parcel out on the island of Ambergris Caye and all fingers pointed again at the same former Town Councilor, Juan Alamilla Jr. as being in the middle of it.
In September of 2011, Americans Frederick Dow Jr. and his sister Martha Lewis Dow representing the Dow family and registered proprietors of 1.3 acres of their beachfront land North on Ambergris Caye listed for sale through an international real estate franchise and their local agent their property for $1,400,000.00 BZD.
The Dows, through their late father Frederick Dow Sr., had been in continuous and uninterrupted possession of the said property for over 30 years since 1980.
A few weeks after the listing was procured by the real estate agent, Frederick Dow Jr. (pictured right) was informed by the agent that a person and persons had been offering his land for sale through another local real estate agency.
Having been told of the land scandal that had just broken that same year on the island, the Dows immediately engaged their agent to carry out an investigation into the alleged circumstances by way of a title search through a title searcher and his agent immediately informed both the Minister of Natural Resources, the CEO in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the then Mayor of the San Pedro Town Council by way of an electronic email dated October 3rd, 2011 that there may be a fraud involving his family’s land and pleading to the registry to put a stay on any dealings with the property and we quote “We are requesting that a stay be put on any dealings with this property until this matter is cleared up and the rightful owners are able to execute their legal and equitable position as rightful owners”.
A second request followed on October 4th but no response was given to the agent’s emails or tireless phone calls requesting for an urgent meeting. However, on October 5th the Lands Registry mutated the Dows’ land as “private property” without any notice to them or due process, reference Mutation No. LRS-201111903 Entry No. 13579 Register #7 transferring it then to the Government of Belize.
The Dows and their agent began to fiercely pressure the Lands Department for disclosure and requesting an urgent meeting that unfortunately was never been given. The Hon. Minister Manuel Heredia Jr. who is a relative and political friend of Juan Alamilla Jr. sent a written recommendation to the Minister of Natural Resources for Carlos Balona (pictured left) to lease the Dows’ land.
Having placed the false information on the Land Register and as part of the dishonest and corrupt conspiracy, the Registrar received from the Minister and on the weight of the
recommendation, on October 27th, 2011 the Minister of Natural Resources purportedly sold and transferred, the multi-million dollar property to a one Carlos Balona, a well known yard cleaner of DFC Area San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye for a pittance amount of $13,000.00 Belizean currency. The deal was done.
Disputed Land is highlighted in yellow being 1.3 acres of beachfront
Located in a prime tourist zone North Ambergris Caye
In a televised interview with PLUSTV News yesterday November 7th, 2013, two years after this saga began, we paraphrase Balona: He claims that Juan Alamilla is the one that knows everything about the land transaction but that his name (Balona) was used. That he has yet to receive any monies from Alamilla or Rodriguez. That Juan Alamilla is his landlord. That he would be paid by Alamilla when the court matter was completed.
In furtherance to their claim of legal and rightful ownership of their land on the island, on November 10th 2011, the Dows made a Public Land Occupation Notice announcement in the San Pedro Sun local newspaper making a legal claim to their land and warning against trespassing.
On November 11th, one day after the Notice was published in the local newspaper, and 15 days after the Minister of Natural Resources purportedly sold the land to Balona, Carlos Balona transferred the land to a Mario Rodriguez, of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye for a mere $100,000.00 Belizean currency.
If the timing seems unusual and the scheme complex and elaborate, it is because it is. A veteran realtor confirmed to the Corozal Daily that a regular transfer at the Lands Registry takes months after going through all the checks, inspections, balances and assessments. Even after the title is dated and signed, titles are normally released months after that process.
The Dows had sought to register their land under the new system before it was transferred to Rodriguez. After much resistance from the Lands Registry but many please from the Dows and their agent, the application for first registration was successfully tendered on November 16th, 2013.
On January 9th of 2012 the Dows successfully received a judgment for an injunction on their property against Balona and Mario Rodriguez (pictured left), restraining any further dealings with their property.
On January 15th 2012 former United States Ambassador Vinai Thummalupally met with DPM and Minister of Natural Resources Gaspar Vega to discuss the Dows specific land case. We have been told by the Dows that up to date the Minister has failed to rectify their and has failed to show up at a scheduled meeting with his agent and the Real Estate Association of Belize.
The US Embassy warned that if there was no meaningful response to the former Ambassador’s request that they would consider putting Belize on an economic advisory notice.
After attending tens of hearings on a claim against Balona, Rodriguez, Minister of Natural Resources, the Registrar of Lands and the Attorney General’s office, mounting attorney fees in the tens of thousands and transportation cost flying down from and to the USA for every hearing, the Dows have still not received a proper title from the Government nor will they receive any restitution from them for the cost that has burdened their family to defend what is constitutionally their land.
In the meantime, according to the transfer documents, the Government received $13,000.00 BZD. Balona in his televised interview claims that he never received any monies from anyone on the transaction, therefore Mario Rodriguez, who appears to have invested $100,000.00 BZD did only on paper. However, Rodriguez will be now be compensated by the Government and Belizean tax payers, the current market value of the land he seemingly lost being between $1,000,000.00-$1,400,000.00 BZD. This is a win, win situation for all the players and facilitators involved.
In seeking relief of fraud, the Dows alleged that on 27th October, 2011 the Government of Belize contravened their rights guaranteed in Section 3(d) of the Belize Constitution which protects arbitrary deprivation of private property. The Registrar of Lands in order to conceal the false transaction deliberately refused to publish in the Gazette and a national newspaper an application for first registration by Government of Belize for them to be registered as proprietors of their Parcel 9627.
The Dows further claim that the Minister of Natural Resources, Registrar of Lands and the Attorney General abused their power when they transferred “the private property” belonging to them to the Government of Belize and then to Balona, when in anticipation of obtaining the Dows property, Juan Alamilla Jr., Carlos Balona and Mario Rodriguez were actively seeking buyers for it.
Unless you have been sleeping under a rock Belizeans, these unscrupulous actions by government will have irreversible negative impacts on Belize’s integrity.
These unnecessary compensations are costing each and every one of us and it is fleecing millions and millions of dollars out of the public purse whether in kind or by land compensation. This is not the only case. There are many similar elaborate cases that have yet to come to light. It has become so lucrative for these dealers and facilitators that they have become so open and bold about it.
Yesterday, after the news broke on PLUSTV sources informed the Corozal Daily that the Government of Belize has allegedly in its settlement compensated Mario Rodriguez 10 acres North on Basil Jones Ambergris Caye along the Basil Jones airstrip. These are lands that are part of a government acquisition that was meant for distribution to the residents of the island.
Foreign investors and all Belizeans who own land in Belize BEWARE and exercise “caveat emptor”. It was thought that the Land Registry was reliant in guaranteeing our titles as a result of the mechanisms in place under the Compulsory Registration system which would make dishonesty at Lands a thing of the past. Apparently, public officers know the system so well that they know that even if they intentionally commit a fraud or dishonesty, they can easily call it a mistake and thus become immune to any legal proceeding. So in essence, their attitudes are “catch me if you can.”
Source: Corozal Daily