Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

The image of municipal trucks burning just a couple of miles from the cruise ship terminal at Town Center in Coxen Hole was straight out of a movie scene as part of Gravels Bay was taken over by an angry mob and civil unrest. A friend of mine was the one who requested an inspection of the land adjacent to the conflict zone and who was accompanying the municipal employees charged with the inspection task. Before the end of the day the municipal officials were chased by an angry mob with stones and machetes and the two Muni vehicles were torched. To explain how our tax-financed municipal vehicles went up in flames I need to give you some background on the reasons behind the angry mob in this conflict zone known as the Alden Webster invasion.

With progress come certain challenges, one in particular is an increasing population with no access to proper housing. Roatan has little low-cost housing available and no access to government land for laborers and domestic employee. They usually live in “cuarteria” squalor with 10 to a single room and a shared bathroom. Taking advantage of the situation, some slick, snake-oil salesman comes offering cheap lots for purchase or simply squatters – a tempting preposition.

More often than not the property that is being offered already has an owner: a long-missing foreigner, an islander who inherited the land from his grandparents and never paid taxes. What happens next are lawsuits that drag on forever, evictions and other drama. The police are afraid to enforce ownership because they’re often outnumbered by the squatters and Cobra police units have to be called to remove people kicking and screaming. Meantime “the snake-oil salesman” is long gone with their money.

Municipal officials were chased by an angry mob

Back in the early 2000’s PMAIB [Project for Environmental Management of the Bay Islands] ,financed by the BID, proceeded to survey all land in the four municipalities and requested all land owners bring in their land titles to the municipality for validation. No “dominio plenos” (quit claim deeds) were issued at this time by the municipality. After this process all unregistered land was transferred by the federal government to each of the municipalities. The catastral office was created and all property that did not have a legal recorded title was handed over into the jurisdiction of each municipality. This was recorded at the property registry (Institute of Property). The Honduran Central Government handed control and land titles to the local government.

A couple of years later the Honduran Congress enacted a new property registry law [Institute of Property] whereby they allowed squatters to be given titles by the government on land that was deemed national property or, on rare occasion the and old be expropriated for public use [regularizacion predial]. Some of the “good squatters” of Roatan have requested and been granted “dominio plenos” (quit claims) from the central government, apparently conveniently forgetting that they had already titled all unclaimed land over to the municipalities.

The central catastral offices in Tegucigalpa could not have given anyone title because the municipalities already had these titles. So when the squatters present their titles to be recorded they are refused registry because those titles didn’t come from the municipality that technically owns them. In an apparent paradox, one branch of the Property Institute is issuing titles while another is unable to record them. If an individual sells or donates a single plot of land simultaneously to two separate parties then that’s fraud. When the federal government titles land to the municipal and then also give other individual titles on the same land to squatters then that’s ….Welcome to Honduras. I hope we can put down the machetes and sit down to dialogue.