San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Reporting on the 28-Hour Hostage Crisis

WHEN masked gunmen tried to shoottheir way into the Banco Nacional and tookthose inside the bank hostage last week inSanta Elena de Monteverde, a populartourism destination in the north-centralmountains, reporters and film crews fromSan José swooped into the area.Tico Times photographer MónicaQuesada, EFE newswire photographerJeffrey Arguedas (formerly with The TicoTimes), Associated Press photographerCristobal Herrera and I careened over unlitdirt roads in the middle of the night tryingto reach the bank before it was all over.During the three-hour drive, our newscame from Channel 7 TV’s radio station,96.3 FM. I scribbled notes while Herreraheld a flashlight on my notebook, andArguedas gunned our rented all-terrainvehicle over roads that looked likeBaghdad bomb targets.Shortly after midnight, eight hours intowhat would be a 28-hour hostage crisisand minutes before we lurched into thepolice barricade around the bank, ahostage called Channel 7 on a cell phonefrom within the bank. In a chilling interview,he whispered what he knew – sayingat one point “there are dead people.” Hedidn’t know how many gunmen wereinside with him.WE stopped at the police barricadesoon after, just as a hostage had escapedand was loaded into a Red Cross ambulance.We didn’t know at first if it was ahostage, an attacker pretending to be ahostage, or an attacker who was underarrest. The photographers swarmed him,flashes snapping.From the beginning, the definingtheme of the crisis was confusion, rumor,and little to no official information. Whenpeople watching the bank from the policebarricade saw movement at the door, theyran to the nearest TV for an explanation.The crisis occurred all around them, insight of where they lived, worked or vacationedat the time, but the TV, rather thanthe confusion of what one’s own eyes andears revealed, was the preferred method ofunderstanding the catastrophe.The TV stations had brought their fullforces to bear on covering the crisis anddispatched reporting teams to Santa Elenaand all over San José, at times releasinginformation not eventhe police in SantaElena possessed.THE clamp on information at the sitewas maddening. Reporters and photographerswere barred entry to a taped-off zoneabout one block on the three sides of thetriangular town center around the bank.We were bunched between the supermarketand the police station, where wealternately got body counts, names offreed hostages and crackers and coffee.Red Cross officials were the onlyauthorities who would talk. They gaveofficial lists of the names of the escapedhostages and their injuries. Some had beenairlifted to San José and the Pacific portcity Puntarenas for medical treatment.Reporters disputed the Red Crossinformation while it was read off the lists– they had conflicting informationgleaned from interviews with patientsairlifted out and from community membersand other escaped hostages.Certainty seemed impossible.I arrived at the health clinic just as twoescaped hostages were released from theircheck-up – two U.S. volunteers at a localschool. They talked about the dead peoplethey saw, their fears, and were unable toconfirm how many attackers were inside.They were reticent to give their names,one mentioning she thought the attackersmight seek retribution. One of themdescribed the odors of urine and gunpowder,the deafening bark of the rifles, andthe sound of someone choking, possibly todeath, on their own blood.It was an awkward interview, stolenfrom two women who talked reservedly,but animatedly in the rush of their freedom,and who probablyshould have simplygone home torecover from thetrauma.The parents of a man still held hostageinside the bank asked one of the women todescribe one of the bodies she saw, afraidit might be their son. There was a misunderstanding,and for a second the elderlyman turned his head away, his expressionblank, and acknowledged that the bodywas probably that of his son. A secondlater it was cleared up – she had seensomeone who looked older than his son’sage. I don’t know whether that man losthis son or not.NEAR the police station, some familymembers of those inside the bank huddledunder the eaves with camera crews, on-siteTV reporters behind caked-on makeup,loiterers and notebook-toting reporters.We all wanted to be closer to the scene.The lack of information was the ubiquitouscomplaint, and not only from thereporters – one woman who had a brotherin-law inside was exasperated – “Whydon’t they tell us anything? Even if theydon’t know, just tell us that.”Police officers milling in front of thetiny station spoke occasionally, but theylooked away when I asked what was happening.Nobody was “authorized” to giveinformation. That was the word of theordeal – autorizado – who is, who isn’t,and what information is official and what’sjust a good guess.Another reporter said things weremore open before last year’s corruptionscandals that led to the arrest of two ex-Presidents (TT, Oct. 22, 2004). Now,nobody talks, the reporter said.THE work became ugly, as the sunrose, more than 12 hours into the crisis. Itdegenerated into chats with other sleepdeprivedreporters in the doldrums afterthe first wave of hostages escaped. Therewere lulls of inaction and infuriatingsilence from the police.The work became the sickening attemptto get quotes from suffering people.When someone pointed out a womanwho was waiting outside the clinic fornews of her two daughters trapped insidethe bank, I asked her how she was doing.“I don’t really know how to answer aquestion like that,” she said. She was right.I offered her some bread and cheese andquit talking about it.AS the day pummeled on, and nerveswere frayed by too much coffee and toolittle sleep, the photographers I was withrebelled.They edged beyond the yellow tape andscooted inside, clustered, on their knees,against a signpost at the bottom of a hillleading to the bank, the side of which wasin sight. The view was partially blocked byparked cars and the stock of an M-16 riflepressed against the belly of a stout specialunits officer trying to shoo them out of theoff-limits zone. They argued.The officer told them to go ahead ifthey wanted to get shot in the face. Thenhe changed his mind when that invitationseemed to encourage them, and he trottedtoward them to escort them out.LATER, the news spread among thecluster of photographers pressed againstthe barricade in front of the police stationthat the gunman had surrendered. It was7:45 p.m.My first thought, shamefully, was notrelief for the victims or their families. Itwas of a hot meal and a long sleep.Just before the surrender I had typedup my notes – 17 and a half hours ofreporting, including phone numbers andleads for follow-up investigations, and emailedthe notes and bones of an article toThe Tico Times office in San José.I had dozed off about four times at thekeyboard and drank about a half-gallon ofcoffee out of two paper Coca-Cola cups.In short, covering the incident wasconfusing, frustrating and sickening, especiallywhen trying to balance the need forgood shots, interesting quotes and solidinformation with respect for the authorities,injured hostages and grieving familiesof the victims.

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