Real estate development is incredibly complex, with a vast number of interrelated moving parts and a huge cast of employees and third-party contractors that need to be constantly organized. It might be compared to juggling twenty balls while simultaneously engaging in games of Chess, Risk, and Poker with three different people and at the same time being asked to forecast the relationship between this year’s inflation rate and next year’s fashion trends. A good developer learns to draw connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, because doing so often provides the necessary flashes of strategic insight that drive projects forward. (Other times the connections inject a little humor into the day, which is also essential for a real estate developer).
So before I get to the meat of this blog entry, permit me a timely piece of seemingly unrelated news, though perhaps you will divine the connection after reading the whole post. My favorite band of the last five years is Kevin Barnes’ of Montreal. I’d been eagerly awaiting their next album for several months now, and it came out yesterday, so I’ve been listening to it quite a bit. Unusually for of Montreal, it closes with spoken-word lyrics, pointedly aimed at those who hide behind religion for nefarious purposes. And the name of the album is False Priest.
Developing in Central America has great advantages, as well as some disadvantages. The foremost advantage, at least for Amble Resorts and its mission to create the kind of low-density, nature-preserving resort we are doing at Isla Palenque, is the low cost of land. It would be impossible to create this kind of project in a first-tier resort market like Cancun or Cabo (or even much of Costa Rica, nowadays) – land prices are simply too high and developers are forced to squeeze tens (or hundreds) of condos per acre to justify the price they paid for the land.
On the other hand, there are disadvantages, routinely disparaged by outside and local developers alike: the slow pace of local government bureaucracies is one, and low level corruption is another. I would add to those the problems that sometimes occur when working in a country with large pockets of poverty and some people so desperate to obtain wealth that they lose sight of their morals.
People who come to Central America as tourists aren’t usually touched by any of this. They might see the poverty, and probably hear about the low level corruption, but it doesn’t really affect them. Central America is very much a great place to vacation, retire, or live the good life. It’s just sometimes a challenging place to do business.
For example, there are few developers in Panama who don’t have stories of some low-level bureaucrat asking for bribes or some local yokel trying to extort money from them one way or another. The intelligent developers don’t pay the bribes (in addition to being morally wrong, it’s only going to come back at you anyway), but how to deal with the people you suspect are extortionists and those who are causing you legal problems (which is very easy in a civil legal system such as Panama’s) becomes a little more of a judgment call.
I’ve been dealing with one such situation recently, and although it has caused some measure of nuisance and delay, I can state with confidence that taking the moral highroad and trusting in the legal system, however slow, works.
Starting this past spring, which coincidentally was just as our project got into full swing and it became clear that we were serious developers spending millions of dollars in the local economy, a person by the name of Gerardo Rodriguez Sterling began hassling me and my employees. Sterling happens to call himself a “Reverend” and has an ostensibly Christian foundation and church, which in the eyes of some provides an apparent moral authority and allows him a certain leeway in persuading others. But he also has a criminal record and a history of nefarious behavior.
Now, I must admit the possibility, however remote, that Sterling’s motives for creating his foundation and church are genuine. On the other hand, his background leaves serious questions in my mind. Between September 1998 and June 1999, over the course of several court cases and appeals, Sterling was convicted of selling drugs and sentenced to prison (this case can be found online without much effort). During the proceedings, as the court put it, “RODRÍGUEZ STERLING aceptó ser consumidor crónico de drogas” (translation: “Rodriguez Sterling admitted that he was a chronic drug user”). I know that there are true stories of those who find God in prison and turn their lives around. But I also know that the movement of drugs from South America to the United States is a big business which affects every country from Colombia to the US. With drugs comes illicitly gained money, and with illicitly gained money comes the need to launder it. Churches and their related foundations are often used for these purposes. Now, this is only my opinion, but Sterling’s background seems to me very incongruous with his current stated endeavors, but very much in line with the more nefarious purposes of drug running and money laundering.
Anyway, starting in late May, Sterling began filing a series of “claims” against me (in Panama, it is relatively easy to file a denuncia, or claim, against a person, which triggers an investigation by the rough equivalent of a district attorney). Most of these claims were and/or are completely silly and I suspect are just being made to waste our attorneys’ time. The only one which was in the least bit serious was a claim filed on 1 June, in which he claimed I was “usurping” Isla Palenque, which he said was his land. This claim was dismissed by a judge in late August for lack of evidence (or, as we might say in the United States, as “frivolous”). I’m not going to go into all of the other claims he is making, but suffice it to say, I am confident they will all be treated in a similar manner and that the locals accepting these denuncias are now realizing the nature of his claims and will soon cease to allow them to be filed.
A more pressing form of pressure came in early June when Sterling sent around eight men to the island. These men all claimed to be members of Sterling’s church, but they came dressed in camouflage and similar gear, presumably to intimidate and threaten our employees on the island. Now, I suppose these guys could well be God-fearing Christians, but the appearance they gave was more in line with my previous suspicions about Sterling’s “church.” I’m not sure what kind of legitimate church would send these types to our island.
This was serious, and our attorneys quickly obtained a Boleta de Proteccion (restraining order) against Sterling and his cronies. However, getting the local authorities to act on this court order was much more difficult, as Sterling hid behind the technicality that beaches have public easements. Abusing this easement, which is meant for day visitors and overnight campers but not for people to set up a permanent camp, Sterling was able to create enough legal confusion with the local police that it took a couple months to have the intruders removed. In the meantime, my employees and I were forced to hire armed security guards for protection and to keep them from exiting the public easement area and entering our land. Nonetheless, on 10 September, the police finally arrested and removed the intruders, and established a new order that if they or anyone else acting on behalf of Sterling return they will be arrested and be sentenced to two months in jail.
Again, I try to believe people’s stated motives and maybe there was some legitimate reason these men wanted to be on our island. However, one unusual encounter during the time the intruders were on the island might point to their true motives. On 11 July, during the height of Sterling’s physical and legal pressures against our project, his attorney came to Isla Palenque while I was working there. After describing in excruciating detail all of the troubles and claims Sterling was making against me, the attorney stated emphatically that if I would just sit down and talk with Sterling, the problems could all go away. I suppose it’s possible that no threat was intended by this statement, but it sure felt like extortion.
In addition to all of these legal hassles and physical disturbances, an internet campaign was also begun around the same time to damage our reputation and scare away our potential buyers. In addition to Wikipedia vandalism (now being blocked by Wikipedia Administrators) and other postings on third-party platforms, the primary effort of this internet campaign has been the establishment of a website, which contains an amazing number of half-truths, nutty claims, and outright lies which are too numerous for me to even attempt to address in detail here. But one example stands out as especially pernicious and easy to knock down. Sterling claims we are selling homes on land we don’t own; it is a matter of public record that our company owns the land. One can go to Panama’s “Publico Registro” and the offices of Catastro (Panama’s titling agency) and see this for oneself.
Similarly, an examination of the website’s three posted .pdf documents reveals much about its true nature. The documents are in Spanish, and are labeled with confusing titles that I suspect are intended to fool English speakers into believing they are something they are not. If you have a Spanish friend, or use Google Translate, a quick examination of the documents reveals some apparent deception. Two of the documents are actually Amble’s joint complaints with Ms. Rodriguez against him. The other one is the aforementioned case that was denied for lack of evidence and – contrary to the website’s claims – is a non-issue.
There are additional Sterling-related issues that I would like to address, but this blog entry has gotten long enough, so I will save them for the near future. Given the nature of the internet, it is difficult and time-consuming to remove defamatory materials. However, we are working on it and are confident we will eventually be able to do so. I am posting this blog entry now and in this manner because we strive to remain open and honest about all of our activities. We waited this long to begin telling our side of the story so as to not give his ridiculous claims more weight than they deserve, but now welcome an opportunity to speak. In the mean time, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment on this post and I’ll be sure to answer it promptly.
President, Amble Resorts