SAN JUAN DEL SUR After closing up her beach restaurant, El Jardin, around 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, April Whann was sitting down to have dinner with her mother, 14- year-old son and several staff members when she heard her security guard grunt and fall to the ground outside.
Whann ran to see what had happened and found eight armed men kicking her guard into unconsciousness before quickly turning their weapons on her and her family.
Whann s son was thrown to the ground and had his hands strapped behind his back and held at gunpoint, while Whann had a knife put to her neck and was instructed to hand over all her money and valuables. The other two guards were beaten and tied up and the staff held at gunpoint.
After three and a half hours of being threatened repeatedly with death, beaten and intimidated, the burglers stuffed the victims into Whann s mother s pickup truck and drove off toward Rivas around 1:15 a.m., according to the police report.
They were then driven into a dark sugarcane field, where the men left them and ran off, apparently after getting spooked by a passing motorcycle cop. So far, no arrests have been made.
The nightmare kidnapping lasted for four hours, but for Whann and her family, who have lived in San Juan del Sur for four years and in Latin America for two decades, the fear continues.
None of us is doing well; I still cannot sleep a full night, the California native told The Nica Times this week in an email from Argentina, where she is recovering with her family. I honestly do not want to go back to San Juan My thought now is that I hate Nicaragua and I feel scared. I want readers to know that Nicaragua is not safe and that it is no longer petty robbery. These people will hurt us and have no problem doing so.
Whann s frightening ordeal has sent a collective shiver through this populous beach town, and put an exclamation point on a brash crime wave in a community normally known only for its surf waves.
For a community that is still recovering from the gruesome memories of the 2006 rape and murder of Doris Ivania Jiménez, a young Nicaraguan woman whose U.S. exboyfriend, Eric Volz, was found guilty of the crime and then released on appeal last December, the recent escalation of violent crime has come as a frightening reminder of innocence lost. Some have gone so far as to speculate that the rise in crime against foreigners is somehow payback for Volz s controversial release from jail.
At a town hall meeting held here last week with staff from the U.S. Embassy, 70 U.S. citizens gathered in the civic center to tell Ambassador Paul Trivelli and Regional Security Officer Chris Rooks about their concerns with escalating violence and rising citizen insecurity.
We are very frightened, said Kathye Aley, a seven-year resident of San Juan del Sur. Aley said she knows of several tourists getting robbed at machete point on the beach.
We want the reign of terror to end, said the California native.
Many in attendance at the meeting had a story to tell about being robbed or assaulted either on the street or in their homes.
Most who spoke expressed frustration with the town s 13-member police force, which many claim is inefficient and illequipped to deal with the rise in crime, and a judicial system that doesn t keep criminals behind bars.
In many cases, even putting perpetrators behind bars in the first place has been extremely difficult, even after they have been positively identified to police.
Tim and Anna Webster, from Colorado, were burglarized Feb. 11 while they were still sleeping in bed. The bandit broke in through a window, which they claim was purposely left unlatched by their cleaning lady, and stole their laptop computers and their passports.
They then received a ransom e-mail telling them they had three days to pay $1,000 if they hoped to retrieve their computers and passports.
When they asked how they were supposed to make the payment, they received a lengthy e-mail in perfect English with detailed instructions about driving to San Jorge and then doubling back and depositing $100 bills in a hidden coke bottle before going to a separate pickup site to look for their passports, which they were told would be hidden by the side of the road.
The Websters didn t agree to the terms, and were told in a subsequent e-mail to kiss their computers goodbye. The couple has filled out a police report and have identified the thieves, but that no arrests have been made.
Another couple, who recently caught a burglar in their hotel trying to escape with their laptops, said they are worried he won t end up behind bars and are asking the embassy for help.
We need to send a message that we re not going to take it anymore, the wife said, adding, but we need help because we don t know the process and we don t speak Spanish.
The crime wave clearly has this normally laidback community on edge. Several times during last week s meeting, emotions became heated as some residents talked about arming themselves, some blamed the police and embassy for not doing enough, and others blamed the victims for flaunting their wealth and not learning Spanish.
Those who have lived here longest noted that robberies and violent assaults are a new phenomenon in what was once a sleepy fishing village. As more foreigners and more wealth and material goods flood into town, crime has come with it, they say.
The increase in crime is not just based on anecdotes and perception. The embassy has registered an increase in reports of crimes and stolen U.S. passports in recent months.
We are concerned with the gradual rise in crime, particularly against Americans, although I am not sure it s focused against Americans, said Ambassador Trivelli.
The U.S. Embassy discouraged its citizens from arming themselves with guns, but did talk about the need for better prevention and the importance of reporting all crimes to both the police and embassy staff (crimes can be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org).
U.S. citizens are also encouraged to register with the embassy.
The embassy stressed that it is out of its jurisdiction in Nicaragua, but said that it can
help in certain circumstances and wants to know when crimes have been committed.
Chris Berry, one of the two wardens for the U.S. Embassy in San Juan del Sur, said that he has already held meetings with Mayor Eduardo Holmann and the local police commissioner to discuss ways of improving citizen security.
One of the ideas that has emerged is to create a police support group similar to Granada s Amigos de la Policia, whereby residents would help pitch in supplemental funding for the police to buy gasoline and other basic equipment to do their jobs.
Follow-up meetings with the police and the mayor are scheduled for the coming week, Berry said.