San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Town Recuperates After Bank Assault, Monteverde Recovers from Bank Hostage Crisis

SHAKEN from its sunny, cloud-forested languor,the mountain town of Santa Elena de Monteverde thisweek mourned the dead and swept up the bullet casingsafter last week’s failed bank robbery and 28-hourhostage crisis.Erly Hurtado, 27, freed the last hostage, laid downhis gun and turned himself over to police the evening ofMarch 9, ending a bloody assault on the Banco Nacionalin Santa Elena, in the mountainous north-central region(TT, March 11).The attack claimed nine lives, including bankemployees and clients, a police officer and two of thethree gunmen who approached the bank opening firewith AK-47s and other weapons.HURTADO entered the bank, but his brother, Santos Hurtado, and their half-brother,Santos Cruz, died outside, shot by bankguard Alvaro Castro and three area policewho engaged the men shortly after thefirst shots were fired the afternoon ofMarch 8. Most of the bank employees andclients who died were all shot in the firstminutes of the attack.Throughout the hostage ordeal, negotiatorsof the Judicial InvestigationPolice (OIJ) encouraged Hurtado to givehimself up, all the while helpinghostages who escaped while Hurtadowas distracted.The OIJ has been criticized for thelength of the negotiations, the death ofthe officer, Oscar Quesada, 44, and thenumber of people who may have died ofgunshot wounds while waiting for rescue.In an interview with The Tico Times,OIJ director Jorge Rojas said, “Our priority,always, will be to remove the hostageswithout them suffering physical damageand capture the hostage taker, trying toensure that nobody is injured, not thehostage taker, not the hostages.“There were many people; that was theproblem. It was not known how manyhostage takers were inside the bank. Wenow know that four arrived, two died, andwe thought two entered, but that wasn’t thecase – one fled.”HURTADO had convinced policeand hostages, who were on the floor anddidn’t take stock of the situation, that hewas not alone. He had also threatened touse a fragmentation grenade, whichpolice later learned he did not have,Rojas said.“It seems to me that the operation, withthe exception of the officer who died, wentwell,” Rojas said. “They achieved theremoval of the people who were there andconvinced him (Hurtado) to give himselfup. Making an analysis of everything thathappened, we see that it went well. Whathurts is that we couldn’t get out the injuredpeople (who died during the course of thecrisis).“Throughout the entire time weassessed the situation. If there was agrenade… Going in suddenly, we wouldhave exposed the people who were inthere. You can’t go in when you don’thave knowledge – how many, where,etc.”POLICE negotiators, trained in CostaRica, the United States and Colombia,spoke with Hurtado by phone and throughpolice officers in the bank, Rojas said.First contact with Hurtado was made byphone through the 911 emergency callsystem with negotiators based in San José.While Hurtado spoke, hostages escapedslowly through the bank’s front door, theglass shattered in the assault.Negotiators had attempted to convinceHurtado to surrender from the beginning,Rojas said.“I’ll die first, I won’t surrender,”Hurtado responded initially, according toRojas.Hurtado demanded food, alcohol,painkillers – he had been injured as wellduring his entry – and ¢15 million($32,258) in dollars, as well as an escapevehicle, Rojas said.The request for alcohol was “impossibleto fulfill,” Rojas said, but police eventuallydelivered canned tuna and otherfoods that would be difficult to tamperwith – per Hurtado’s request – as well asthe painkillers.AFTER further negotiations, policedelivered $10,000 in exchange for therelease of one of the three hostagesHurtado was keeping close by. Thehostage was Nancy Ramírez, sevenmonths pregnant.Hurtado released her shortly after noonMarch 9, in exchange for the money, andsaid “he wanted to take four people withhim (in the escape vehicle) and set them freein the mountains,” Rojas said. Police decidedit was the right time to enter.Police entered the bank at 1:30 p.m.,the operation in which Quesada died.When officers failed to subdue Hurtado,two negotiators who had been dispatchedby plane shortly after the standoff beganrelayed messages from outside the bank toan officer inside.Hurtado finally gave up hours laterafter he “realized the reality of his situation,that he was not going to escape,”Security Minister Rogelio Ramos said inan announcement the evening of the surrender.He also commended the officers,Quesada’s friends, who continued negotiationsfor more than six hours after thedeath of their partner.THE OIJ, Public Security Ministryand Prosecutor’s Office, which had beenworking together throughout the week,believe the perpetrators may also beresponsible for 18 assaults on variousbusinesses throughout Costa Rica inrecent months. In 13 of the assaults, thesuspects approached the businesseswhile shooting, which suggests the samegroup might have perpetrated the SantaElena crime, Rojas said. Three homicidesresulted from the previous 18assaults.On Monday, the day before thetragedy began, police met to discuss howto capture the group, Rojas said.Responding to charges that policewere warned of a possible attack by anarmed group in the area, the SecurityMinistry issued a statement that listed thewarnings they received in the prelude tothe attack, and the police actions taken.There were four calls made March 1-3alerting police to suspicious-looking people,including a caller who heard gunshots,all in the central Pacific coastalregion and town of Miramar.From her ramshackle rancho in LaÑoca, mountain town in Nicaragua, cutoff from the world with no TV, radio, orelectricity, Albertina Martínez, the motherof the Hurtado brothers and their half-brotherSantos Cruz, this week apologizedfor the actions of her sons, and mournedthe deaths of two of them.“No mother expects that her sonswould do such horrible things as those thatpeople say my boys did in Costa Rica. Ihave a huge internal pain,” Martínez toldthe daily La Nación.THE bank, which is the only one inSanta Elena, re-opened Monday, two businessdays after Hurtado surrendered.There were hundreds of bullet holes incomputer monitors, televisions for securitycameras, the cameras themselves, thewalls, the ceiling, desks, counters andchairs, bank director Francisco Araya said.He told The Tico Times the bankemployees who survived the crisis are onleave, and being seen by three counselorsprovided by the bank.In response to the attack, the banknow has a double-door entry and metaldetector that retains clients betweenbefore they enter.Some are calling for the razing of thebank to make way for a park-like memorialto the victims. Araya said he is notopposed, as long as land is readily availablenearby, which could be a problem inSanta Elena, he said, where well-placedland is expensive.(Tico Times reporter Katherine Stanleycontributed to this report.)

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