SAN JUANDEL SUR – Faced with a growing crime wave that’s threatening the town’s image for tourism and investment, the community of San Juan del Sur is organizing to reclaim its beaches from a small but industrious band of local delinquents.
Today marks the official unveiling of “Amigos de la Policía San Juandel Sur,” a grassroots anti-crime program spearheaded by a group of foreign developers to increase the size of the local police force and provide it, with vehicles and equipment needed to do its job.
Tyson Harris, of the Costa Dulce development project south of San Juan del Sur, said that a wave of increasingly brazen beach crime around San Juan del Sur has become the leading concern for the local tourism and development economy, topping other market concerns related to President Daniel Ortega’s return to power or the economic downturn in the United States.
Harris said he recently lost a client who was about to close on a property but changed his mind after being robbed near the lot he was going to buy. Harris himself was robbed shortly after by two masked teens who held him up on the beach at machete-point – an incident that sealed his commitment to moving forward on the Amigos de la Policía initiative.
“Crime had gotten to a critical stage for the progress of development projects,” Harris said. “Nicaragua has always had the image as the safest country in Central America, but that image was at risk.”
The town’s tourism pioneers have also noticed a change with the influx of foreigners and capital.
“I think that tourist-targeted beach crime has appeared, and we never had that when I arrived here about 20 years ago,” said Chris Berry, owner of the landmark Pelican Eyes Piedras y Olas hilltop resort.
“The prosperity of the area coupled with economic conditions has created a crime base that wasn’t here before.”
Police statistics provided by local law enforcement support that perception. Officer Julio Zamora of San Juan del Sur’s 22-member police force said that last month two to three robberies were reported every day on the more isolated beaches to the north and south of San Juan del Sur.
The majority of the crimes, Zamora said, were being committed by the same group of 13 offenders whom the police have arrested and identified on multiple occasions, only to find them returned to the streets by the judicial system. Of San Juan del Sur’s “usual suspects,” Zamora said, three are currently in jail, and four have emigrated to Costa Rica, leaving six still on the prowl.
While most of the crimes are still of the nonviolent nature – thieves stealing backpacks from unsuspecting swimmers who leave their gear unattended on the beach, for example – the number of violent crimes and armed robberies is also on the rise this year, according to police statistics and beach anecdotal evidence.
“There were a ridiculous amount of robberies and assaults on beaches due to a lack of police supervision and resources,” said Aram Terry, part-owner of a local real estate office and the luxurious Balcones de Majagual development north of San Juan del Sur. Terry said the tourists being robbed “hated their experience in Nicaragua and don’t want to come back” – not exactly the image this tourist town wants to export.
Police figures show that crime is on the rise this year on the remote beaches to the south of San Juan del Sur – Playa Yankee had 14 robberies reported for the first quarter of 2008, Ostional had eight, Tamarindo six, and El Coco five – as well as on the northern beaches of Maderas and Majagual.
Criminals, sometimes masked and wielding machetes, knives or guns, are also getting better organized, including several instances where vehicles were ambushed at improvised roadblocks.
Police say they don’t have their own vehicles or enough manpower or resources to fight crime in the outlying beaches where tourists have been assaulted. Until recently, the National Police force in San Juan del Sur had only 14 officers, until Mayor Eduardo Holmann added eight additional municipal police officers to the force, paid for out of the town’s pocket rather than the National Police budget.
Holmann told The Nica Times that he has asked National Police Chief Aminta Granera “a hundred times” for more help beefing up San Juan del Sur’s police force, but has been told each time that there’s no money. That’s why he says the Amigos de la Policía program is an “excellent” idea, because “if we don’t support the police, there will be no security and no tourism.”
Holmann said the Amigos de la Policía program – which in its first phase has already invested $13,500 in two new motorcycles a repaired truck, new radio equipment and salaries for eight new officers – is not the same as privatizing the police force.
“This is supporting the police with resources; it’s not privatizing the police or creating a new police force,” Holmann said.
Harris, too, said that businesses, developers and residents who support the Amigos de la Policía initiative, which will have estimated operational expenses of $3,400 a month, won’t get preferential treatment.
The program already seems to be working. Since the addition of the two new motorbike patrol units last month, not a single crime has been reported – down from more than two a day in April.
As the Amigos de la Policía program evolves, it will also try to include the community on several different levels. The program is currently detailed in handouts in English and Spanish with the goal of soliciting feedback from the community.
Under the auspices of “Community Connect,” a local initiative to bridge the foreign and local communities, the Amigos program also hopes to conduct several outreach programs in local schools and youth organizations.
“We want to make a preventive effort as well by addressing the youth and getting them involved in activities to deter future crime,” said local community organizer Sarah Fahey.
For Harris, the Amigos program is about being responsible to your adoptive community.
Foreign developers and tourists, he said, have brought change to the community – some good and some bad – and the Amigos de la Policía program can be an important way to help the town through some of the growing pains associated with tourism and an influx of foreign capital into a once sleepy town.