In September, 2011, the San Pedro Sun broke the story of a land scandal within the San Pedro Town Council. The matter surrounded a beachfront property situated in the Mata Grande area. Allegations were that the property was illegally acquired by a Miss Candy Bradley who was then a Town Council employee. According to San Pedro Sun further allegations were that 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 property really belonged to two American nationals, who had no idea that their property was being sold by the government of Belize. It was reported in the San Pedro Sun newspaper that Bradley sold the land to someone who later found out that the land was illegally acquired. The new owner requested his money back. Government returned the land to the American owners; the sellers who initiated the sale leveraged themselves to get in a compensation from government in cash or new land; win-win. Corruption regarding real estate is complex, involving many players in a variety of roles. Recently, the Prime Minister, in a visit to the U.S. told the Belizean Americans that there is a hot bed of corruption in the Lands Department.
Hon. Dean Barrow- Prime Minister of Belize and Minister of Finance
“I believe that the Lands Department, unfortunately, is another hot bed of corruption. The administration has tried to do something about the officers who through dishonesty rather than incompetency, and partly in some instances is a combination of both. The difficulty with these public officers is that constitutionally, they have tenure. So, you can’t get rid of them except you go through a process that sees you bring administrative challenges; there must be a hearing before the Public Services Commission who seems to be very reluctant to fire public officers. Where a case has already occurred, it’s a little difficult because, ultimately if somebody got title when there was a preexisting ownership, the title would have to be seen as having been issued in error or as a consequence of fraud, and the court will set aside the second title and recognize the first one. The difficulty is, you 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, the first title will sue. So, ultimately, the only way that the ministry tries to make can be vindicated is by the way of some sort of a court ruling”.
Well, there is another issue in San Pedro that sounds very familiar to the 2011 Mata Grande land one. In fact, the new issue was also in court this year where the claimants have referred to their 2011 land deal as precedent for what they are calling ‘’land fraud on the Island of San Pedro. This lan disuse also stems from transactions that happened in late 2011 as well. Meet Carlos Balona, a man who has owned $1M beachfront property on opulent north Ambergris Caye with its trendy all inclusive resorts. Balona got the land for only $13,000. He was recommended for the purchase of the land by area representative and Minister Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr. Balona rents a little house from former UDP Councilor, Juan Alamilla, cousin of Minister Heredia. When he spoke to us, Balona apparently knows very little about the $1M land he owns and said that his landlord Juan Alamilla knows more about the property. That’s because Balona only owned the land for a few days before it was sold for $100,000 to Mr. Mario Rodriguez. The sale was also facilitated by real estate agent and also Justice of the Peace, Pedro Vazquez, who certified that he was witness to their $100,000 transaction. But after this sale, Balona says he has received no money for it:
Reporter: “Quien dice eso?” (“Who said that?”)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Mr. Juan”.
Reporter: “Juan que?” (Juan what?)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Mr. Juan Alamilla”.
Reporter: “Juan Almilla, y el llamo a usted (and he called you just now and told you) y decir que todo se ter…el dice todo se acabo, okay”.
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Se acabo, si”. (It’s over yes”.)
Reporter: “Pero ellos pagaron a usted para la tierra?” (“But did they pay you for the land?”)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Yo… solo mi nombre incluian y no mas”.(“What happened is..all they did was the use of my name”.)
Reporter: “Solo usar su nombre. Ellos no dar a usted dinero? Did they not give you money?)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “No, ahorita no. Yo creo que el terreno no se ha vendido. No hay nada ahorita de eso, no hay nada”. (“No, not right now. I believe that the land has not been sold yet. There is no such a thing about that yet”.)
Reporter: “So, si ellos vendieron la tierra, despues de eso, a usted va a dar, cuanto? (“So, if they sell the land, after that, you will get how much?’)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Todavia no me han dicho”. (“They haven’t told me yet”.)
Reporter: “Haw? No han dicho?”
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Todavia no me han dicho nada”. (“They haven’t told me anything yet”.)
Reporter: “Hooombre!” (“Maaan!”)
Mr. Carlos Balona: “Y esa es la problema, si”. (“And that is the problem, yes”.)
On November 10th, Mario Rodriguez was in negotiations for the sale of the property, when a land occupation notice appeared in the San Pedro Sun newspaper claiming fraud and wrongful possession of the same property. That’s because there are other title holders to the land. According to documents sent to us, the 1.3 acre plot belonged to Patricia and Frederick Dow Sr. who purchased it on August 29, 1980. The Dows then passed their property to their three children as Deed of Gift. This was done in September in 1995. As far as the Dows knew, the property was theirs until they were informed that Rodriguez was trying to sell the land. The Dows claimed in a lawsuit that Carlos Balona and Mario Rodriguez used fraud to obtain their property. They also claimed that the Ministry of Land, the Minister of Natural Resources and the Attorney General “acted outside the scope of their statutory authority…and contravened the rights of the Dows…by arbitrarily depriving them from their property. (Claim No. 825 of 2011) How did it end up here? Well, it began with the Ministry of Natural Resources acquiring the land in question, for public use. Then, in August of 2011, on the strength of UDP area representative, Hon. Manuel Heredia’s recommendation, the Ministry gave Carlos Balona permission to survey the 1.3 acres it recently acquired. By September, the property was legitimately registered at the Section of Mapping of Lands Department. Acting upon information received, the Dows instructed their real estate agent to immediately inform the Ministry of Natural Resources that they were the true and the rightful owners of the beachfront property.
At that point, no lease or title had been issued to Balona. On October 3rd the real estate agent wrote Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. Gaspar Vega and CEO, Ms. Beverly Castillo and informed them of the possible fraud, providing relevant documents. A portion of that letter reads: …We are requesting that a stay be put with my 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 The following day, another letter was sent to CEO Beverley Castillo requesting an audience because of the urgency of the situation. The real estate agent says he called many times but with no success to get appointment to see the CEO or the Commissioner, Mr. Wilmer Vallejos. Yet, days later on October 7th, the lands department, with all the warnings and explanations, still proceeded to issue Balona a lease on the property. And in unusual speed, that lease was converted to title two weeks later on October 27th.
Another two weeks later, on November 10th, the notice of fraud appeared in the San Pedro Sun. Unbelievably, the following day, November 11, the title of the property moved from Mr. Carlos Balona to Mr. Mario Rodriquez. On January 5, 2012, an injunction was placed on the property, parcel # 9627. This stopped Mario Rodriquez from flipping the million dollar property. The Dow’s have also filed a lawsuit against the Government of Belize and several of the actors.
No less than the former US Ambassador met with Minister Gaspar Vega on January 15, 2013 to discuss this particular case. However, to date, the Dow’s have not gotten back their proper land title, are contemplating going back to court, GOB has compensated Rodriquez with new government lands, we understand 2 acres of prime marine-side land he was seen clearing JUST on Thursday, November 8th; and Balona? He still chops yards and has no money, even though he was a millionaire unbeknownst to him for a brief moment. He still unaware that a lawsuit with him as number one defendant was being fought on his behalf by government in court… And when we asked him why he did not show up to court, he told us that it has already been taken care of it.