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Squatter Rights in Costa Rica

Squatters on my property in Costa Rica.  When you mention squatters in Costa Rica it conjures images of somebody physically taking over your property.  In Costa Rica the issue of squatters has its nuances because it may involve political, social and legal issues that don’t all necessarily line up together resulting in different results depending on the particular circumstances involved in the squatting of the property.

A Brief Review of Squatting History in Costa Rica

I will first look at the political, social and cultural aspect of squatters in Costa Rica and then look at the application of the law. Costa Rica like most of Latin America during the 1930’s to 1950’s struggled with social unrest and communist influences in the region. This created organized invasions of existing farms and armed confrontations for the possession and defense of property. In order to quiet the unrest the Costa Rican government in 1942 passed the “Parasite Law” (Ley de Parasitos Ley # 88). The law legalized the occupation of the land that had been de facto occupied by squatters. It never had the effect intended and the hostilities continued. Finally leading up to the revolution of 1948 which toppled the government and created a government Junta know as Junta Fundadora de la Segunda Republica. Fast forward to 1961 and in an attempt to clean the titling issues of properties the government passed the law creating the Institute of Land and Colonization (Instituto de Tierras y Colonizacion (ITCO)). The initiative was funded from grants provided by the U.S. under the Alliance for Progress initiative. The goal of the land institute was to clean up the land titles and legalize the plots of land that had been in possession of squatters but also land held by small farmers that had no title either. Under pressure from the resurgence of the communist party the re-distribution of land in Costa Rica continued throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The government would expropriate land and then hand it out to agricultural farmers that qualified. As Costa Rica transitioned from agriculture and workers headed to the cities it gave rise to urban squatting

The reason I am giving this background is so you can see the pattern. If we invade lands and pressure the government they will eventually give in and give us what we want. Politicians also used land gifting as a political tool during political campaigns. They would commonly grant land to their political supporters. That has been the mindset for many years. In those days the battle was for agricultural parcels.

How Does Squatting in Costa Rica Occur Today and What is the Law ?

The modern day squatter can be classified into 3 groups.   The organized group that targets land for housing. The individual opportunistic squatter that sees a financial opportunity to lay claim to the possession of land and does so. The criminal organization that organizes and executes squatter invasions.

What does the law say about property rights and squatting. ?  The Constitution of Costa Rica is the supreme law of the land. In Article 43 it states that “ That the ownership of property may not be violated (La propiedad es inviolable). Nobody can be deprived of their property unless it is based on a legally justified public interest…”

Now the Costa Rica Civil Code in Article 279 separates the “ownership” of property to the “possession” of property.   Keep in mind that the Civil Code of Costa Rica that we use today was passed in 1887.

That code provides that: “independently of the right of property the right of possession may be acquired by: (1) consent of the owner. Mere tolerance by the owner does not give rise to possession. (2) By the mere fact of holding possession for more than one year.   The year begins when publicly open possession takes place. Or if the possession was done clandestine on the date the owner discovers the dispossession.

So now the law gives rights to the owner of property but also to the possessor of property.

Let’s follow that with Article 305 of the Civil Code which provides that the property owner and the possessor of any kind, may defend their property or their possession repelling force with force or recurring to the competent authorities.

The Civil Code gives us 2 categories of possession of property. Those that have more than one year of possession and those that don’t. Against a possessor that has less than one year on the property the owner can initiate any of the following legal procedures.

  1. Restitution of the Right of Possession (Inderdicto de Amparo de Posesion o Restitucion). This must be brought with 3 months from the date the property invasion occurs.
  2. File a criminal complaint for Trespass (Usurpación) to recover possession.
  3. File and administrative eviction complaint before the police.

Now if the possessor has been on the property for more than one year in an open, stable, peaceful, public and interrupted manner then they acquire possession rights. Article 317 of the Civil Code provides that “that possession may not be taken in a violent manner not even by the rightful owner while there is opposition from the possessor. The claim must be made judicially in Court”

If more than one year has passed since the occupation the only avenues available to retake possession are by:

  1. Ordinary civil lawsuit re-vindication and restitution of possession
  2. Criminal lawsuit for Trespass (Usurpación)

If the property is agricultural land and the squatter is using it for agricultural purposes then you may also have to contend with Agricultural Law issues which provides additional guarantees for those that are making productive use of the land.

On the other hand if the owner of the property has consented by mere tolerance for a person to occupy their land to use it then the occupier does not acquire rights over the property.   These are known as occupation by mere tolerance (mera tolerancia). In these circumstances if the occupant refuses to vacate the property, the Code of Civil Procedure (Art. 449) and the Law of Tenancy (LGAU art 7) authorize the owner to initiate an administrative eviction process directly with the police.

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