By May 5,much of the shantytown known as La Candela, in Alajuela, west of San José, had become a wasteland. That morning, two days after police evicted one-third of the estimated 1,000 families who lived illegally on land belonging to private bank Banex, bulldozers knocked down hundreds of homes. Left behind was a vast expanse of dirt dotted with piles of rubble and wandering children, parents and abandoned pets.Many remaining families packed up, planning to leave before police return.
Just days later, however, new authorities who took office along with incoming President Oscar Arias renewed hopes – and added further confusion to a situation already characterized by misinformation and rumor –by announcing they might postpone the rest of the eviction, and promising to meet with community members Wednesday evening. It was a date they didn’t keep. According to an aid worker who attended the meeting, 200 residents pooled their money so they could offer coffee, food and flowers to the visiting Housing Ministry employees, but waited two hours for visitors who never showed up.
Ministry official José Gabriel Román told The Tico Times he and a colleague went to the community but couldn’t find the meeting location, partly because of heavy rains.He said six community leaders met yesterday with Fernando Zumbado, the new Minister of Housing and the Fight against Poverty.
The questions at hand include not only whether the rest of the eviction – scheduled to continue today – should be delayed, but also who has the authority to make such a decision.
Officials gave The Tico Times radically different answers when asked whether the eviction of the precario, a term for land inhabited by squatters, could be postponed. (Its residents, or precaristas, have lobbied to be left alone until December so their children can finish the school year uninterrupted.) Rigoberto Rodríguez, outgoing Regional Director of Alajuela for the National Police, said the eviction would continue today, but Zumbado, when contacted Wednesday afternoon, said nothing is decided. He said he met May 6 with people who had been evicted and told them he would consider postponing the rest of the process.
“I want to get to know the situation,” he said, and asked The Tico Times to give him more information about the shantytown. “It worries me a great deal that there are people on the street with no options.”
He added that “the National Police always has some flexibility,” though Rodríguez appeared to disagree.
“The thing is, that’s really not a decision the Housing Minister makes,” Rodríguez said. “It’s an administrative process. It isn’t a matter of whims… We can’t go against the rights of the owner.”
The police director, a lawyer who has been named the legal advisor to the General Director of the National Police, said that because the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ordered the eviction, a legal process would be required to postpone or stop it.
Gail Nystrom, a U.S. citizen who directs the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation and has worked in precarios for years, called Wednesday’s meeting mix-up “humiliating” for the residents who attended.
“Women, children, men, old people, waited from 5 until almost 7. They had a beautiful table laid,” she said. “They pooled their money from what they don’t have. This is not the way to start a government with positive relationships.”
Though Sala IV justices first ordered the eviction in 2002, prompting an appeal process that lasted until August 2005, the real confusion in La Candela began shortly before Easter Holy Week, when government officials visited the shantytown to announce all residents would have to depart.
Then, as now, rumors flew. Many residents thought the eviction would be carried out in a single day, April 21, though authorities maintained the process would be gradual, to give the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) time to provide subsidies to families who could prove their need, identity and legal immigration status.
Juan Carlos Laclé, IMAS’ assistant director for social development, said last week that the institute had authorized almost ¢63 million (approximately $124,500) in aid, parceled out in subsidies of ¢180,000 (approximately $356) per housing unit.
Two days after the first round of evictions (TT,May 5), the evicted land was cleared and surrounded by barbed wire, while many of the houses not yet evicted stood empty as well.
Some families were working to dismantle their homes to take the building materials to a new location; at one site, a bed stood untouched, the house around it gone.
In the bulldozed zone, four kids covered in dirt swung cheerfully in a hammock strung between two trees, while one of the security guards now guarding the property around the clock pushed them back and forth.
In a house on the edge of the eviction line, Gabriela, 7, and Henry, 1, carried their black cat out of the house, ready to move to a home their mother had found in Heredia, north of San José. On the wall of their house, a handmade sign read “Three thousand children without studies, thanks to the government.”
Jessica, 16, stood a few doors down outside her family’s house, gazing out on the dirt lot. Dust had been in the air since the bulldozers came, she said, adding that she thinks she won’t bother finding a new school when her family moves. Her grave-faced brother Efraín, 12, leaning on the handlebars of a tiny bicycle, said he’d missed tests “in all the subjects” because of the eviction, and wasn’t sure where his family would move – though after a moment’s thought he brightened up and said he hoped to live in the nearby neighborhood of Carrillo, because “there are lots of dogs there.”
How to Help
For information about how to help the families of La Candela, contact the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (390-4192), which is collecting funds for housing, food and other needs. The Friends of the Animals organization announced Monday that it would collect and find homes for the many pets abandoned by departing families; donations can be made through Banco Interfin, account number 3124980-02 (or call 267-6011 for more information).