This usually peaceful, tourist-filled town turned into the site of one of the most tragic hostage situations in the country’s recent history this week, as nine people were killed and 17 injured during a failed bank robbery.
The bloody standoff at Banco Nacional began Tuesday afternoon and ended 28 hours later when the last assailant, Erly Hurtado, a Nicaraguan in his mid-20s, surrendered to police. Among the killed are Mario López, a Red Cross worker who was in the bank as a client, and officer Oscar Quesada, 44, who worked for the police special intervention unit.
Five other bank employees and clients were killed, as well as two of the assailants.“WE were waiting in line to do a transaction and I looked at the door. A guy was saying ‘alarma, alarma,’ and the door guard looked scared. There was lots and lots and lots of gunfire,” said Dorothy, a U.S. citizen who was in the bank during the failed robbery attempt and told the The Tico Times she preferred not to use her last name.
“Immediately when we saw the guns we dove on the floor and didn’t look around,” she continued. “We heard gunshots, a lot of gunshots. Workers and clients were killed.”
While the hostages inside the bank lived the nightmare, Costa Ricans around the country clung to live TV news coverage to watch the drama unfold in this rural community, renowned for its conservation efforts and cloud forest. Despite its characteristic peacefulness, this was the third attempt to rob the town’s only bank in the past 10 years – the others were June 14,1995, and Jan. 20, 1998 – and the second time people carrying out the assault were killed, according to Roberto Méndez, director of security for Banco Nacional.
Méndez said he believes the bank in Monteverde is more prone to robberies because it is in a mountainous region, presumably making escape easier. Bank director Francisco Araya told The Tico Times the bank is going to pay for the funerals of all the victims, the medical bills of everyone involved, and repair all nearby buildings damaged by gunfire.
Bank employees also will be given 15 days of vacation and a substitute team will be brought in so the bank can reopen by Monday.
THE deadly gunshots began at 3:30p.m. Tuesday when three assailants armed with AK-47s and other heavy weaponry attempted to enter the bank.
According to witnesses and photos, a fourth suspected assailant was outside the bank, but left the scene before attempting to enter or participating in any exchange in gunfire, explained Jorge Rojas, general director of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). A fifth assailant may have been waiting in a getaway car somewhere, he said.
Bank guard Álvaro Castro, 20, told Channel 7 TV news he saw three of the suspects approach, two with painted faces and one with a handkerchief covering his face. Castro said they shot at the door a total of three times. When they shot the second time, Castro shot back, and in the third, Castro was hit in the arm and the abdomen. He is recovering well.
The guard fell to the ground and feigned death, in order to protect himself, he told news cameras.
WHEN Castro shot back, he was successful in hitting the assailants, and two died outside the bank entrance, according to the Ministry of Public Security. They were both Nicaraguan.
The third wounded assailant, Hurtado, entered the bank reportedly shooting and killing all the six victims immediately. Among the victims are Víctor Badilla, Rosa Marchena, María Bolaños and William Suárez, according to the daily La Nación.
Authorities have not released an official list of the deceased. When Hurtado spoke to the police during hours of negotiations, he apparently lied and spoke of a colleague, to give himself more weight, although there was none, according to an official police source.
However, several of the hostages – of which there were 28 – reported to the daily newspapers hearing voices talking throughout the night. This is “under investigation,” according to the police.
ANOTHER suspect possibly remains at large after escaping in a car closely after the incident began, presumably driving the getaway car, according to Minister of Public Security Rogelio Ramos.
The hostages, including bank employees and clients and a woman seven months pregnant, were released or managed to escape throughout the course of the evening and following day. Many sustained gunshot wounds and were airlifted to Hospital Mexico in San José or treated in the Monteverde public health clinic.
All of the most seriously injured, including David Saunders, from Hawaii, and Nancy Ramírez, who is pregnant, are recovering and in stable condition, according to a spokeswoman for Hospital Mexico.
HOSTAGE Dorothy and her U.S. friend Beth, a fellow volunteer at a nearby school who also asked not to use her last name, were released from the bank at about 2 a.m., Wednesday.
“It was the scariest thing in my life. I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to die,’” Bethsaid. “There was a guy with black paint on his face, like shoe polish. He didn’t talk.”
They remembered the smells of gunpowder and urine.
“We heard a guy coughing blood to death. I’m pretty sure. We had no idea what was going on the entire time. We didn’t know who was outside, who was inside,” Dorothy said.
MANY hostages said they escaped on their own, without police help.
However, Ramos explained, “They were able to leave because we were occupying the attention of the suspect for quite awhile.”
Hurtado finally gave up at 7:42 p.m. Wednesday after he “realized the reality of his situation, that he was not going to escape,” Ramos said.
The assailant exited the bank and was escorted between two police officers. One Red Cross worker described him as looking “drugged” and exhausted. At one point Wednesday afternoon, police considered the idea of allowing the assailant to escape in a vehicle, as he requested in exchange for hostages, but that idea was abandoned and officers decided to enter the building. Officer Quesada was killed during the attempt, according to TV news reports. Ramos would not release information on reasons behind the change of tactics.
THE police and rescue effort was a combination of forces between the special intervention unit – known as the anti-terrorism unit, national police, Monteverde police, and at least 60 Red Cross workers.
Area police responded within minutes, according to officer Marvin Ugalde.
“When I got there, there was a dead man and an injured man and one coming,” Officer Cristian Carballo said. “He turned back into the bank. We shot the injured man when he reached for his gun. We waited about an hour behind buildings for the arrival of reinforcements.”
The officer added it was only the second time he had ever shot anyone protecting this normally peaceful town. One of the main draws to the area is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, started by Quakers who immigrated to Santa Elena in 1951. With peace and conservations guiding principles, the area has become one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
“When all this is gone, when all the press is gone, I would hope you comeback to see what this community does, because it will be honorable, truthful and healing,” Randal Smith, owner of Pension Santa Elena, a hotel next to the Banco Nacional, told The Tico Times.
IN defense of criticism that maybe the bank guard should not have returned fire, bank director Araya said, “We think the guards acted appropriately, it was in self-defense, and in defense of those inside. People say if the guards hadn’t shot, the others wouldn’t have entered shooting. But that is not the nature of people like that, it has been shown, they would have been shot regardless.”
Hurtado and the two assailants who died – his brother Santos Angenor Hurtado and half-brother Santos Marjory Cruz – are part of a group believed to be responsible for violent robberies in the past in Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Turrialba and Guápiles, in which they enter restaurants and supermarkets shooting, according to OIJ investigators. They are also suspects in at least two homicides.
Kim Beecheno, Sonia Cordero, María Gabriela Díaz and Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.