Ecuador Case Highlights Effect of Land Theft on Urban Poor

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More than 2,000 working-class families in an Ecuador slum were tricked into buying small plots of land that were never for sale, in an example of a regional crime that strongly affects rural areas but can also have a major impact in cities.

During the past few years, the already crowded Pacific port city of Guayaquil has drawn masses of people to outlying towns, according to El Telegrafo. The new arrivals are often sold small plots of land, sometimes with makeshift homes, by fraudsters who have no claim to it, officials say.

In the Monte Sinai sector in the northeast of the city, one man was recently arrested for defrauding 2,400 families, reported El Comercio. The case is not unique: Julio Cesar Quiñonez, secretary for the prevention of illegal settlements, said land traffickers had affected nearly 19,000 families in that sector. He also said there were 103 people in Ecuador being prosecuted for land fraud, reported.

Quiñonez and his office have spearheaded changes to the penal code to make it easier for authorities to go after land hustlers and ensure that people who were defrauded are compensated for their losses.

InSight Crime Analysis

While land theft in Latin America is often linked to eco-trafficking and agriculture, small urban plots can also be vulnerable. In the case of Guayaquil’s slums, it seems to be in part the product of a state ill-equipped to deal with the large influx of people to the city. However, the government has made clear attempts to rectify the problem, creating the irregular settlements office a few years ago.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

Land trafficking and theft remain stubborn issues in other countries as well. It is especially prevalent in Guatemala, which recorded 1,400 cases of the crime in 2013.  Nicaragua too has been affected, and in January, a man was arrested as part of a group that organized illegal land sales and invasions in the country’s main forest reserve

The crime is often facilitated by corrupt officials and businessmen. In Argentina, a criminal group was recently accused of stealing three properties belonging to a deceased painter, while in one case in Guatemala a property theft ring used government workers to falsify documents

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