Residents of the building Crystal PH, located on Calle Alberto Navarro, in Bella Vista, have spent years denouncing irregularities on the 15th floor of the building, ranging from building without permits from the Panama City Mayor's Office to the illegal renting of apartments without authorization from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Tourism Authority of Panama.
On several occasions, the building's owners have been sanctioned by the authorities, but residents of the building reported that they have continued with their leasing activities, mainly in the evening, when groups of male tourists are accompanied by young women. During the night there are parties that take place that prevent neighbors from sleeping.
The apartment of Kathy McGrath has become a death trap. Her ceiling has leaks that almost resemble rainfall through the cracks.
McGrath, 63, thought that after her retirement she would live a quiet life and chose to do so on Calle Alberto Navarro. However, from the year 2013, the peace has been diluted when she saw the leaks in the ceiling.
Surprised by the situation, McGrath engaged the services of a construction worker to repair the ceiling. During this work it was discovered that pipes were badly installed and were blocked by condoms.
"I didn't know what to do. My house was all flooded. This was a nightmare. I was afraid the ceiling was going to collapse," she said.
The days passed and the scene was complicated. The leaks in the ceiling got so bad that the apartment became uninhabitable.
Other neighbors reported that the 15th floor was converted into a penthouse "just for men." This is when the loud parties started.
McGrath and several residents of the building decided, on June 23, 2013, to attend a municipal council meeting in Bella Vista to register a complaint, but received little support after their appearance.
However, by May 11, 2014, almost a year later and after the situation became more chaotic, the residents were able to successfully lobby the Municipality of Panama to request an inspection of floor 15.
This was accomplished on July 28 by then director of works and buildings, Gonzalo Barrios, who ordered the "immediate" suspension of the work that was performed on the property of the Corporation Josephco, S.A.
That resolution referred to the construction of an apartment at level 15 of 460 square meters and the adequacy of a roof-level terrace of 920 square metres without the consent of the approved plans.
"The work has advanced 100 percent and its value is $402,500," said the document.
Despite this, the penthouse owners continued with the work on the site and were fined $500 for contempt of court.
The same year, the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP), through the Directorate of Tourism Investments, fined the company Josephco, S.A., $5,000 for violating article 21 of law No. 80 of 2012 which involved advertising via the internet for a lease for a term shorter than 45 days and not having permission to operate as a public accommodation.
In that sense, article 21 prohibits all leases less than 45 days and provides for sanctions ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
Residents used these decisions to present the case to the representative of Bella Vista Ricardo Dominguez. They also brought the irregularities to Mayor José Isabel Blandón, as well as to members of the national police.
Among the long list of institutions they petitioned was the Ministry of Housing, where they requested a copy of the lease of Josephco, but discovered there was no such document. The law requires all owners to have a lease agreement certified by a state institution.
But the confusion remains. In the midst of the struggle of these people to keep the peace in this building of El Cangrejo appears the name of David Guardia, alternate member of Deputy Luis Barría, as the legal face of Josephco S.A.
According to documents in the Public Registry dated June 30, 2014, Guardia was appointed as new president of the society Josephco. That same day they named Gabrielle Thévenot as treasurer and Marco Rinaudo as secretary. The latter, according to neighbors, is who is referred to as the "administrator" of the apartment.
However, the alternate deputy has gone to assemblies that have been organized by residents to discuss the problems in the building along with Marco Rinaudo.
Even two years ago when the representative of Bella Vista, Kenia Martinez, tried to access the apartment on the 15th floor with agents of the national police and municipal officials, they were not allowed.
"A voice came from the apartment saying that the door was not to be opened by order of the deputy," said a note dictated by the representative.
Later, Martínez, in a letter addressed to former Director of Works and Buildings Gonzalo Barrios, she wrote that "we could not perform the diligence of notification or perform an inspection because we were not allowed to enter the area of construction."
In addition, the representative mentioned that she came to talk by telephone with Guardia and he collaborated with information in the midst of the proceedings requested by the management of works and buildings.
For another resident of the building, Anabel Franco, during these last two years shehas lived through very difficult moments because few entities paid attention to complaints.
"The single entity that we felt that backed us was the Tourism Authority," said the neighbor.
In early 2015, the ATP again fined Josephco, S.A., this time $15,000 for continuing to publish listings of apartments for rent for a period of less than 45 days under the domain www.airbnb.com.pa, which advertises the "offering of apartments with full furniture, including listing of monthly, weekly and daily rates prices."
Those affected have no doubt that Guardia exerted his influence over institutions.
Franco said it is sad that entrepreneurs build without thinking that they are putting at risk the lives of people, because they also closed the access to the roof, which created a danger in case of a fire and which is prohibited by law.
For the residents, the year 2015 was quite similar to 2014. They went back to entities such as the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the police, the General Directorate of Revenue, the Ministry of Housing, the Tourism Authority and to the National Assembly, where they requested an appointment with Deputy Ana Matilde Gómez. Again there were few answers to their requests.
Another point to mention is that at the end of year 2015, Guardia resigned as president and legal representative of Josephco, S.A. However, the people complaining about the situation say he is still linked to the group.
The last battle that the neighbors undertook was at the beginning of July 2016, when they brought the ATP, the representative, immigration, the municipality and police to the place to conduct an operation.
After hours of inspection, the legal office of the Mayor's Office said: "the apartment consists of six bedrooms, in which there are no clothes of children or adults." In one of the rooms is a pool table and there are plasma TVs in all the bedrooms."
According to those affected, this confirms that no one inhabits the site and that it is leased for evening parties, "without paying taxes."
Apart from that, they called the construction illegal and said it placed the apartment below it in danger. Water continues to leak into that apartment.
DEPUTY STEPS DOWN
Alternate Deputy David Guardia said yesterday that he has had no relationship with the society Josephco, S.A., for several months.
Guardia has been mentioned by residents of PH Crystal as the "visible face" of the owners of the penthouse of the building that has caused so many problems.
"To me, I was hired to go to two or three Boards of Director meetings representing the owner of the society. I have not had time to know about the conflicts. I am not a shareholder of that company. I envisage that they [the residents] will use my name for being political, but the truth is I no longer have nothing to do with it," he said.
According to the alternate deputy of the Panameñista party, he never exerted influence on entities such as the municipality of Panama, the Tourism Authority or the Community Board despite his authority.
"The fines came from the previous government and yes, I know some of them. This is a fight between neighbors. I didn't need these problems, so I decided to leave," said Guardia.
On the issue of the illegal rent, he mentioned that while he was president of the society, leases were for 60 days, although he clarified that the owners of the site brought friends from abroad to use the apartment.
"If you bring a friend to Panama, and he stays five days in the apartment, there is nothing illegal because he is there as a guest," Guardia said.
He also said institutions have carried out five inspections and have not found anything. wrong Finally, he stressed that when he formed part of the society, he had not observed or heard anything about evening parties among tourists.
"The only thing I saw was a London family with children. Also, there was a group of American that came to see a project in the interior of the country, but I do not know if they were accompanied by women," Guardia said.
Attempts were made to contact the administrator of the penthouse, Marco Rinaudo, but there was no response at the end of the edition. Several phone calls were made to a cell phone number for Rinaudo provided by Guardia and attempts were made by email as well.
SINAPROC STEPS IN
The fear of the residents of the Crystal PH has technical support. This week the director of the national system of civil defense (Sinaproc), José Donderis, carried out an inspection of the site and determined that it is "very dangerous."
"There is a risk of that slab collapsing," were the words of Donderis in a report. Following that, he said that he sent a team of legal and engineering experts of the entity to do a report, which will be ready today. At the same time, he expressed that the Panama Fire Department should be notified to take action.
In fact, residents of the building reported that the emergency exit to the roof had been blocked, which could result in a "tragedy." Meanwhile, Ricardo Domínguez, representative of Bella Vista, reported that it was decided to ask for the demolition of seven rooms that were built on the 15th floor and the roof of the building, as well as baths and other rooms.
He said that he has been given "little support" on this issue, although he said that the directorate of works and buildings should take measures in these cases. In addition, he said that he has never been approached by Guardia.
"I have zero relationship with that member," the representative concluded.
The Panama Tourism Authority in a press release said that clandestine lodging affects public safety and the tourists entering the country. It also explained that this type of lease is a focus of tax evasion and becomes unfair competition for businesses legally practising this activity in the country.
Precisely, during the month of June, the ATP received a 13 calls and 12 emails from citizens who denounced renting rooms in the place where they reside, while 5 records are in the process of formalities in the Legal Department and 5 in coercive processes for recovery of fines.
In the case of the apartments in PH Crystal, the entity announced that it has applied economic sanctions on two occasions.
The ATP said that it maintains talks with the Ministry of Trade and Industry to have "greater jurisdiction" and be "more energetic" for these type of infractions.
It also, warned that it will act not only against the owner of the property, but also against the people that are engaged to promote and sell these services. It said it is "important" that the population is aware that there is a law that regulates this activity and establishes fines up to $50,000 and the embargo of goods.
Mayor Jose Isabel Blandon only said that he will produce a report on the case. Crystal PH residents said he has made plans to discuss the issue with them this week. Former Director of Works and Buildings and current Vice Minister of Land Management Juan Manuel Vasquez said the work done on the 15th floor was done without permission.
"Usually, this type of modifications to PH first requires an authorization from its Board of Directors, and without that, we can not approve a permit," he said.