San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Separatists Say Study Helps Case

Costa Rica and Nicaragua confirms there is disorder and errors in the placement of border markers, a finding Airrecú leaders say fuels their case.


However, Costa Rica’s National Geographic Institute (ING), the official cartographer for the Costa Rican government, dismissed the activists’ claims and said the UNA investigation in fact coincides with studies done by the institute that found that, despite some inconsistencies and confusion, the border is where it should be.


HEAD UNA researcher Esteban Dörries reiterated at a press conference in November that the study contemplated only a limited set of criteria and is not intended to provide a resolution to the conflict, which has been going on for more than 10 years.


The self-proclaimed Republic of Airrecú was an idea first brandished in 1995 by border residents to pressure Costa Rica into reclaiming a swath of land they believed had been mistakenly ceded to Nicaragua.


According to the group’s leaders, Costa Ricans Augusto Rodríguez and Omar Jaen, a misinterpretation of border markers in 1994 led Costa Rican officials to incorrectly delineate a section of its northern border too far south, giving 290 square kilometers of Costa Rican territory to Nicaragua, effectively turning 5,000 Costa Rican residents into Nicaraguans.


Feeling abandoned by both countries, in 1995 the group claimed their independence, going as far as to notify the United Nations of their existence (TT, June 30, 1995). The United Nations never recognized the new country, Costa Rica did not attempt to recover the territory and Nicaragua quickly responded with a peaceful, but pointed, military deployment.


IN an interview with The Tico Times this week, however, both Jaen and Rodríguez said the fight for Airrecú is alive and well.


“We would get more attention if we were more violent. Since peace isn’t news, and we are pacifists, basically,” the issue has not received the press attention it has in the past, Jaen said. “We don’t need arms because we have more than sufficient scientific and legal arguments.”


Jaen insisted the group is seeking independence outright, and the movement is no longer an attempt to pressure Costa Rica into recuperating the land.


“Costa Rica does not have the legal possibility of recovering (the territory). Former foreign ministers have said that already, the Geographic Institute has said it and the Sala IV (the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court) has said it three times,” Jaen said. “In international law, when a foreign minister has said that a territory belongs to another country, it can’t be gone back on.”


What Jaen does want, though, is for Costa Rica to pay damages to the people who were denationalized as a result of the change in borders, citing increased miscarriages amongst women, and early deaths due to depression amongst the elderly in the area. He says people in the area feel abandoned by both countries. Nicaragua, he said, knows the land doesn’t belong to it, and does not invest resources in the area.


“(Nicaragua) gives no services. It hasn’t placed a single police officer, teacher or doctor. Neither has Costa Rica,” he said.


THE confusion boils down to the placement of the concrete border markers, carried out originally in between 1897-1900 in accordance with the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty. The treaty said that the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua follows the San Juan River inland from Punta Castilla on the Caribbean coast until it reaches a point three miles shy of a former Spanish fort, known as el Castillo. From there, it was to parallel the southern shore of the river at a distance of two miles south until reaching Lake Nicaragua, where it would continue to run two miles south of the lake’s shore.


But in their search for solid ground in the swamps south of the lake, surveyors placed the 3.25-meter-tall concrete markers too far south, Jaen said.


The UNA study confirmed what had been known for some time – that many of the border markers were misplaced, damaged or missing. One of the missing markers is the now-infamous marker 13, which identifies the boundary south of the lake. In the 1994 redrawing of the border, surveyors used border marker 13-A, which according to Geographic Institute interim director Max Lobo is an intermediary marker that lies directly on the line between markers 13 and 14.


Jaen, however, claims that border marker 13 was never installed and 13-A was a provisional marker never intended to delineate the actual border, which should be exactly where the Cañas-Jerez treaty puts it: two miles south of the shores of Lake Nicaragua.


“If we go by (strict) interpretation of Cañas-Jerez… there is a discrepancy,” Lobo admitted. But, he says, Cañas-Jerez also empowered a commission to carry out the exact delineation of the border andgave it the right to deviate from the exact line if it needed to.


The Nicaraguans on the commission wanted the border farther south and the Costa Ricans wanted it farther north, Lobo said, and the current marking was a compromise.


The important part, Lobo insisted, was that both countries ratified the final border delineation, and have abided by it without conflict ever since.


WHAT has caused conflict recently, however, has been the San Juan River. According to the Cañas-Jerez treaty, the river is Nicaraguan territory, but Costa Rica has navigational rights. For several years Costa Rica and Nicaragua have argued over what those rights exactly entail, and Costa Rica’s decision last September to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in the Netherlands triggered a rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries (TT, Nov. 4, 2005). Currently, relations are strained at best.


In that context, the head researcher for the UNA border study insisted when he presented the findings that the investigation was strictly a technical comparison between the original documents defining the border and the actual placement of the markers, and should not be used for political purposes.



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