By Marion Ali
Over a dozen fraudulent, private land transactions have been unearthed country wide by the Ministry of Natural Resources and handed over to the Belize Police Department for investigation.
According to officials at the Ministry of Lands, the suspected ring of con artists, used fraudulent land title documents to “sell” prime property in the Consejo Shores, Placencia and Commerce Bight communities of Belize.
Lands Commis-sioner, Wilbert Vallejos, told the Reporter on Thursday that the “ring”, meticulously studied and targeted land plots which were legitimately owned by absentee landowners or, in the case of Commerce Bight, plots which could easily be usurped under the old deed system.
Once selected, the fraudsters would walk into the Lands Department, equipped with forged identifications and land documents, purported to have been signed by Justices of the Peace. In some cases, forged foreign passports bearing the culprits’ pictures, with legitimate land owners’ names were used to secure official land documents.
They would then attempt, and in some cases, succeed to transfer and sell the parcels of land to unsuspecting parties.
The first cases originated in Commerce Bight two years ago, when the old land registration system was still in effect. Those cases involved lands that are still governed by the deed system, which is more easily manipulated, since a person claiming to be a title holder can easily pretend to have lost their title document and then apply for one or more copies. Anyone aware of the loophole could then conduct a number of illegitimate transactions using those copies.
Three cases, under the new compulsory registration system, were uncovered just last week in Placencia.
Other cases surfaced in Consejo Shores, Corozal over the course of several months. A couple of these cases are currently before the courts seeking redress.
Had it not been for the new land management system put in place in May of 2014, which calls for more rigorous scrutiny of the authenticity of applicants – particularly those not applying in person or who bear foreign passports – the Consejo Shores cases would have been difficult to detect.
The new regulations were implemented as part of the compulsory registration system, which sought to plug loopholes that would otherwise allow for erroneous practices and corruption from within or outside the department.
Vallejos said that the Lands Department cannot yet conclude definitively whether employees were involved in the schemes.
What is known, is that all of the documents bore forged signatures of employees of the Lands Department. In some cases, he mentioned, the signatures were clearly not those of the employees in question.
The suspected wrongdoers seem to have disappeared for the time being, but based on the “documentation” presented, they are described as Belizeans and foreigners. In one instance, the “landowner” presented a Canadian passport as proof of identity.
The Ministry of Natural Resources advises the public to “beware of internet websites that purport to sell land in Belize. Government is mindful that there are many legitimate real estate companies that sell land over the internet and as such we encourage buyers to execute the necessary due diligence during this process.”
The Lands Department also recommends that people adhere to a list of measures to ensure the legitimacy of land transactions and authenticity of land documents. These include: validating the authenticity of the land title by making a check at the Land Registry; purchasing a certified copy of the registered document to confirm ownership of parcel; and requesting an abstract of land title from seller and cross reference it at the Land Registry.
The Ministry of Natural Resources assures that all legitimate transactions and documents are backed up on a daily basis and no land registration will be completed without the proper authenticated documentation, which is matched against their electronic and manual recording systems.