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HomeCosta RicaProtecting Your Assets: Lessons from Costa Rica's 'Madre Patria' Mega-Case

Protecting Your Assets: Lessons from Costa Rica’s ‘Madre Patria’ Mega-Case

On June 25th a group of persons, 35 so far, were arrested for what authorities are calling a Mega-case, the street name of which is “Madre Patria” (Mother Country). The accusation alleges registration fraud with properties, money laundering and corruption. According to OIJ (Organismo de Investigación Judicial), which is the investigation authority under the Judicial Branch of the government, this may be one of the largest cases in their history, as far as scope and depth.

According to reports, the main leader of the supposed criminal organization is a Spanish citizen who was involved in bus companies, real estate ventures and expensive vehicles. Other persons involved are a number of lawyers and public notaries and even a judge who would allegedly advise the organization as to legal aspects to try and avoid prosecution.

In order to understand the serious nature of this case and prevent becoming a victim of fraud, one needs to understand how the system of property transfer works in Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica a piece of property can be registered, or it can be “not – registered”. The law provides most of the same rights and defenses to both types of properties but properties that are registered have an important added level of security, which is precisely that the government authorities have checked all the elements of legality of that property, they deem these elements to be correct and therefore they register the property giving it the government´s seal of approval.

For a property to be registered it must have a plat map (the English technical name is cadastral map) and in Spanish it is “Plano Catastral”, which indicates a number of very technical elements, such as size, borders, geolocation, elevation, encumbrances, water rights and many others.

The registered property will refer to the plat map and indicate who owns it, what rights of ownership the person has, if there are co-owners, if the property is subject to any legal limitations, such as roads, electricity lines, mortgages or encumbrances and others. The registration will indicate the last price at which the property was sold and the supporting documents that justify its registration and movements.

The analysis of the legality of a registered property is a very technical and important aspect of the law because, although there is a very important principle of Registration Law that states that all goods that can be registered (cars, land, boats, mortgages, liens, corporations and others) are protected by the “Fe Pública Registral” which translates to “Public Registration Good Faith” and means that one can, in principle, assume that what the registry certifies is true and correct, the reality is that the Registry can be defrauded and therefore, what would appear to be a correct and legal title, can actually be a fraudulent title, which will cause the parties involved, especially the victims of fraud, great expense, loss and hardship.

This means that even though, at first glance, a property is correctly registered, the title of that property has to be investigated since its legal birth to determine there have been no fraudulent transfers.

The reason that the registry can be defrauded is because in Costa Rica we have the NOTARIO PÚBLICO, which dates all the way back to Colonial Spain and beyond. The Notario Público, which is very different from the U.S.A. version of the Notary Public (in the USA the Notary Public is only a qualified witness), is meant to be a lawyer with spotless character and honesty. This person is an officer of the government even though he or she is not a public functionary.

The Notario Público is given the power of “Fe Pública” (Public Good faith) and the acts he or she authorizes are deemed to be true, legal and correct, unless and until it is proven otherwise and that is why a Notario Público must act beyond reproach and must guard the legality of the actions he or she authorizes.

A Notario Público not only has the power to state that the acts he authorizes are true but furthermore he must give impartial legal advice to all parties involved, thus making sure the act itself is perfectly legal. This means he must have profound knowledge as to a great number of legal issues involving the acts in which he is involved.

Of course, that is the theory. In reality, all lawyers can become Notarios Públicos. In the past it was more automatic, whereas today, graduating lawyers must approve special courses to opt in.

Evidently, honesty cannot be legislated and a very few bad apple Notarios Públicos have found that it is rather lucrative to find certain types of persons that are more vulnerable to fraud. For example, tourists, investors and visitors that do not speak Spanish, senior citizens, poor people, persons not physically located in Costa Rica and many other persons find themselves at a disadvantage for protecting their assets.

That is why, even after a person has acquired and registered their property in the National Registry, they could be in danger (albeit it is not a common occurrence) of being a victim of fraud, especially if there is no one on the property or living in the house, if the person is alone, if they don´t speak Spanish, if the person is seen to be at risk for fraud, etc.

The National Registry in its effort to curtail these frauds has done a very good job in offering options for the protection of your registered assets. In the first place, the Registry application or website allows anyone to register into the site and search their property or, for that matter, any property (because properties are public information) and verify, in real time, the status of their assets and check to see if anyone has tampered with their holdings.

A second and perhaps more important instrument is the service of Registry Alert, which allows the user to purchase an alert service for $15.00 a year, by which, if any action is taken on a person´s property, the Registry will send an email alert to the owner so that they may act in defense of their assets. These services are available online at:


Once the user has registered and been given access, you can go to “Carrito de Compras” (Shopping cart) and where it says “Tipo de Producto” (type of product) you scroll down to “Alerta Registral” (registry alert). Once you click on that link you can add “agregar” the $15.00 per year charge, which will give you the general service credit.

Once your payment has been approved, the system will prompt you so you can choose the specific service you desire, which includes:

a) Alerts for corporations

b) Real Estate

c) Movable goods (Bienes Muebles such as cars and boats and motorcycles), etc.

The system will alert you if any movement occurs on any property included in the service. As always, it is essential that the community use only the services of very reputable professionals who will advise you as to the best ways of protecting your properties and other assets.

Let us know if you have any questions or comments at

About the author

Lic. Jorge Montero B. is an attorney and Notario Público educated in the U.S.A. and in Costa Rica. He holds various Post Graduate Degrees in Criminal, Commercial, Environmental and Agrarian Law from the University of Costa Rica and has over 30 years of litigation, contract and counsel experience.

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