Guatemalan gangs use violence and fraud to steal homes and properties
By Dialogo December 23, 2013
. Guatemalan security forces recently dealt a major blow to an organized crime group which was stealing properties from victims and then re-selling them, sometimes on the same day. Some of the victims were elderly people who had little money and nowhere else to live.
On Dec. 5, 2013, National Civil Police (PNC) agents, in coordination with the Public Prosecutor’s office (MP), arrested 17 alleged members of the Los Topacio gang. The gang members allegedly defrauded people of their homes by using a variety of tactics, said Iduvina Hernández, director of Security in Democracy (SEMEM), a civil society organization which is based in Guatemala.
Violence and fraud
Eight of the suspects are either attorneys or notaries, said Claudia Paz y Paz, the Attorney General in the MP’s office. These suspects allegedly defrauded victims not by threatening them with guns, but by tricking them with fake paperwork, authorities said. For example, gang members used invalid contracts with forged signatures, counterfeit tax stamps, and fake identifications to obtain some properties, Hernández said.
Between January and November 2013, four gangs which engage in property theft are suspected of killing 114 people who resisted selling their home or land, Property Registrar (RGP) Anabella de León, reported. Criminals use “violence, intimidation, and threats to steal property,” she said.
Gang members have wasted no time in turning a profit on the properties, Paz y Paz said. “This criminal organization sold the properties at low prices and performed various transactions in a single day,” the prosecutor said.
A growing problem
The number of reported cases of property theft in Guatemala have increased dramatically since 2012, authorities said.
From January through early December 2013, 1,400 cases of property theft were reported in Guatemala, law enforcement officials said. In all of 2012, about 1,000 such cases were reported, authorities said.
“Property theft has increased dramatically in Guatemala as members of organized gangs and drug cartels use violence, kidnapping, extortion, murder and fraud to steal property,” Hernández said.
Gang members often target victims after obtaining information about specific uninhabited properties or properties that are for sale, de León said. Thirty percent of the stolen properties belong to Guatemalans who live abroad, she said.
Gang members target people they believe are most vulnerable, de León said. “Those most affected are elderly Guatemalans living in the United States or other countries, immigrants, and owners of property located in dangerous areas.”
The highest incidence of thefts occurred in the western region of Guatemala, de León said.
Gangs seek properties in border regions
Organized crime groups typically steal properties in border areas, authorities said. Gangs and transnational drug cartels target properties in border regions because they can use stolen homes as a base of operations for drug trafficking, firearms smuggling, or human trafficking, authorities said. Organized crime operatives can also use stolen homes as lookout posts, to watch drug cartel or gang rivals.
In the department of Petén, in northern Guatemala, the Sinaloa Cartel has reportedly stolen a number of homes, Hernández said. The transnational criminal organization, which is led by fugitive kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, has alliances with gangs which operate in Guatemala, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18, or 18th Street.
Los Topacio gang has been operating since 2000, prosecutors said. The gang has nearly 50 members, authorities said. Seven of the 17 suspects who were captured on Dec. 5 have been previously arrested, authorities said.
Members of the gang are suspected of carrying out the killing of a labor judge, Flor de María Gil Ovalles, and her son Héctor Homer Juárez Gil, according to Paz y Paz.
Organized crime operatives shot the lawyer to death in August 2009, in a sector of Zone 9, south of the Guatemalan capital, after the judge denounced the theft of four buildings.
Los Topacio operates primarily in Guatemala City, Sacatepéquez and Izabal. Security forces have now arrested about 40 percent of its members, but the gang remains active, prosecutors said.
Security forces captured the longtime leader of Los Topacio, Mynor Giovanni Álvarez Jacobo, in February 2011. He is also known as “Topacio.” The gang leaders is serving a sentence of 16 years in prison for property theft and money laundering.
One of the Los Topacio operatives arrested Dec. 5, Rosario Floridalma Mijangos García, confessed to security officials that the gang sold stolen properties for 10 percent of their value.
Lawyers who are part of the gang were paid about $4,000 (USD) to provide false sales contracts, the gang member said. .
Guatemalan police have made a number of significant arrests of real estate scammers.
In August 2013, police officers coordinated by prosecutors of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) arrested 13 people, including three minors, in separate operations in Villa Nueva, San Miguel and Amatitlán. The 13 were suspected of stealing homes and vehicles. Security agents confiscated four firearms from the suspect.
In May 2012, security forces in n Zone 14 arrested Liliana Rodríguez Paiz, the leader of a gang which steals property and sells drugs at the retail level. Rodríguez is also known as “La Tarántula;” she was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Organized crime groups “should be afraid” of the Public Prosecutor’s office, Paz y Paz said.
A security success
The capture of 17 Los Topacio suspects is an important success for security forces, Hernández said. “This gang is probably one of the largest operating in the country,” Hernández said. “However, there are other gangs that also steal property.”
In addition to investigating and capturing gang members who steal properties, the Guatemalan government is working hard to prevent such cimes. For example, in 2011 the government launched a Property Registry, which improves security for property owners. Of the five million properties registered in Guatemala, only 5,000 use the service so far, authorities said.
Also in 2011, the government took an important step toward improving security for property owners by changing the law regarding notarizations, which record property sales and transfers, Hernández said. Under the new law, lawyers much submit to the government a list of notarized documents every month.
The incidence of property theft has grown because some lawyers are dishonest, Hernández said.
“This criminal activity seems like an urban legend, because people lose their homes overnight. Unfortunately, there is corruption behind the legal profession in Guatemala,” Hernández said.
I didn't like this page at all. The problem is much bigger. Because a great number of these victims live in foreign countries. They pay and entrust legal services to lots of thieves and don't realize their property has been stolen until it's too late.