Property theft and usurpación
“Stick ‘Em Up,” says the robber to the tourist. “Give me all your cash.”
“José, move the property marker 10 feet. The neighbor will never notice. They’re always in the States,” says the new landowner to his surveyor.
Both are examples of stealing and punishable by imprisonment in Costa Rica.
According to the security ministry, every four days a property in Costa Rica is invaded by squatters. In the past, the practice was more of a problem in remote parts of the country. Nowadays, professional squatters make a living encroaching on land because of their increasing value, especially in Guanacaste. There have been seven major invasions in this area alone from Jan. 1st to June 12th.
Moving fences and property markers, called mojones in Spanish and boundary stones, markers or monuments in English, happens much more often. Squatters are generally poor people trying to make quick cash preying on property owners like locusts. Moving mojones is a practice of the “well to do,” motivated by greed.
Both scenarios are examples of trespassing and the illegal seizure of property referred to as usurpación or usurpation, defined as the “wrongful seizure or encroachment of a privilege belonging to another.”
Usurpación, Article 225 of Costa Rica’s penal code, imposes prison sentences of six months to three years on violators. Paragraph two of the article states the following very clearly: “those who take advantage of all or part of a property, altering the terms or limits of same.” This means fence and property marker moving is illegal and a crime.
There is another kind of usurpation, not commonly recognized as such. It is the illegal use of an undivided interest in a property. What is an undivided interest? It is the “title to property owned by two or more persons, none of whom are entitled to claim or possess any specific part.” The word derecho in Costa Rica is the Spanish word for an undivided interest.
Here is an example of this kind of trespassing: Four young surfers came to Costa Rica for many years. They found a wonderful, cheap piece of property close to the best waves. By putting all their worldly goods together, they purchased the property, with expectations of always having a place in Costa Rica for a vacation or occasional escapes. As years pass, the lives of three of the four move in other directions, and they lose interest in traveling back to the country. The fourth comes back often, and without permission from the others, all of whom hold an equal, undivided interest in the property, starts building a house.
When the other three find out, they ask the fourth to buy them out. However, now the once-cheap piece of property is worth a fortune and is way beyond the budget of the builder of the house, so the group sues the fourth for usurpation.
In a case like this, the house could be demolished and the violator be convicted and ordered to pay damages to the others along with other severe penalties.
There is a saying, “locks are to keep honest people honest.” The same is true for fences. They divide property lines to keep neighbors at peace. Legal property divisions like undivided interests keep partners in property transactions honest.
Moving property boundaries, a common practice in Costa Rica, and the illegal use of undivided interests in properties are crimes in the same criminal code as outright transferring property illegally or “sticking someone up” on a street corner with a gun.