Excellent Question: In Panama it's common for people to just build things almost willy-nilly with no approved architectural plans, approvals, or permits from the local government. Of course it's not supposed to be this way. There are laws and regulations in place requiring anyone who's going to build anything, anywhere in the country, to have a full set of approved plans, drawn up by an architect and signed off by a plumber and an electrician. They are supposed to get a permit to build based on those plans before any construction starts. Then once the construction is completed there's a series of inspections that must be completed before the government will issue an occupancy permit, meaning that people can safely inhabit the structure. That's the law. The problem is that in many cases people don't follow the law, and they do practically whatever the hell they want. This is more true the further you get away from Panama City or any other large city or town, or any form of centralized government.
Little "Matchbox" Houses Everywhere: Does anyone really think that every little house thrown up by poor Panamanians in the interior actually has approved plans and permits? Of course they don't. These people are so poor they can barely afford to buy a few sacks of cement at a time, or a hundred cement blocks to put up walls - there's no room in the budget for things like plans, or fees for permits. That's reality on the ground.
Who's Responsible: No matter where you live in Panama there's a local Mayor somewhere who is the elected official responsible for that area. As part of his staff he will have a "Municipal Engineer" - and this is the guy who is supposed to receive and review the plans, make sure they have all of the proper stamps, and issue the permits. It's an relatively powerful position because if you don't go through him, then by law you can't build anything. These guys very often abuse their positions to suck bribes and money out of people who are trying to build something (the right way.) They will slow down the process by sitting on paperwork, and then it magically speeds up as soon as the wheels are greased. In some cases unscrupulous individuals would rather just toss $100 bucks to the Municipal Engineer to ignore them and leave them alone, because that's cheaper than having to pay an architect to draw up the plans, get the stamps from the plumber and electrician, and to get the permits issued. It's one thing if you're trying to put a roof over the heads of your family at the poverty - subsistence level (dirt poor) and another thing altogether when a relatively rich gringo is just trying to skimp a few bucks by circumventing the system. And, they are fostering corruption at the same time. Not good. Anyway, the "responsible individual" is the Municipal Engineer, who works for the Mayor.
Building Permits are Public Documents: By law, anyone can walk into the office of the Municipal Engineer and demand to see any building permit for any structure. They are public documents. However if a builder has paid a bribe to the Municipal Engineer instead of going through the process of getting the plans and permits, then most likely the plans and permits don't exist. The Municipal Engineer will deny your request to see the plans and permits, because they simply don't exist. He knows they don't exist, but he's not about to tell you the truth by saying "well, I can't show you those because I got bribed to look the other way. Would you like a glass of water?" No, he's going to lie, stall, tell you to get lost, tell you that he doesn't have to show them to you, make up all kinds of stuff, threaten to take some kind of action against you if you mess with him (meaning, expose him as a corrupt local official), etc. Basically, his message will be "get lost" and he's hoping that you just go away and never come back.
Put It In Writing: If everything is on the up-and-up, you can probably just walk into the office of the Municipal Engineer and ask to see the plans and permits - and they will pull them out and show them to you - no documentation required. If, however, you walk in and ask and you get the stonewalling, lying, corrupt local official routine, then you have to drop back a step and start to document your actions. Write up a simple letter (in Spanish) asking to see the plans and permits for the building in question. You don't have to explain why you want to see them, because you already have a legal right to see these public documents. State clearly that you expect a response within a set time period, like 15 calender days. Bring the original and a copy with you. When you deliver the original, make sure to have them sign and date your copy as the "received" copy for your files. That way, later, you can prove that you actually delivered this letter, and that the office of the Municipal Engineer received the letter. You might also want to provide a copy to the Mayor's office, just in case the Municipal Engineer is acting on his own without the Mayor's knowledge or consent. Then, wait the 15 days. At the end of that time, go back to pick up your copy of the plans and permits. If they don't provide them, then drop another letter on them to document their failure to comply with your simple request.
File A Writ of "Habeas Data" - There is a law in Panama which covers public documents. The concept here is known as "habeas data" - meaning that you can file a request through the judicial system to demand the fulfillment of your rights to see that information. Now - this part is important. Because the Municipal Engineer works for the Mayor, and the local Mayor is an elected official, then it falls to the Superior Tribunal to resolve these issues. The local "corregidors" (Justice of the Peace) work for the Mayor as well, so that won't work. And by law this kind of action has to be filed with the Superior Tribunal because they will in effect be ordering the Mayor to comply with your request. If you are in Portobelo for example, which is in the province of Colon, the Superior Tribunals which are responsible for that area are in Panama City. So, they could order the Mayor of Portobelo and the local Municipal Engineer to provide the information. In Bocas del Toro, for example, the Superior Tribunal is in David.
It Doesn't Have To Be Complicated: The law is designed to make it simple. You don't need a lawyer to file a writ of "habeas data" with the Superior Tribunal. Of course you can ask a lawyer to help you draw it up if you want to, and that will likely increase your chances of success, but in fact you can simply state the details of the situation in a simple letter to the court as an individual citizen. These things can be filed by a person, or by a legal entity, such as a Panamanian corporation. Include copies of the letters you sent to the Municipal Engineer as evidence, as well as the simple statements of what's going on. Obviously if you are concerned about a particular property or building that's under construction, you should include the details about the case or situation, photos, etc. Give the court as much information as possible, to help them decide the case in your favor. These are "easy" cases for the courts because it's a no-brainer. If there's a building under construction, then by law there must be a plan and permits, and the law also states those are public information, and this member of the public wants to see them, so make a copy and deliver. So ordered. It's not complicated for the courts, however now that you have this order in your hand, life might get very complicated for the local corrupt government officials.
Go Back And Present The Order: Once the court issues their decision in your favor, return to the office of the Municipal Engineer. By this time the local guys, and the person who was doing the building, have probably gone back and "created" the documents - complete with back dating and signatures - in order to paper their butts to avoid the pain. In the end you will probably get copies of these plans and permits, and all you've really accomplished is that you've forced them to go out and create more bogus paperwork. Anyway, for what it's worth, that's the answer to the question. There are all kinds of sets of information that are supposed to be "public access" in Panama according to the law, and there are all kinds of corrupt government officials who are trying to keep it hidden from prying eyes anyway. Happy hunting, and good luck.
Copyright 2011 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.