PUERTO VIEJO, Limón province – Alex Stephens and Evelyn Cortés woke up with two men in their bedroom threatening to kill them. Instead, the criminals stole $10,000 in cash, paintings and a Toyota truck.
During their escape, they killed police officer Mario González at a checkpoint and disarmed the remaining officers.
The year was 2006, the place Puerto Viejo, a village on the Caribbean coast. Fast forward to last Saturday, when two rival gang members were killed in a shootout at the Stanford’s, a popular spot with tourists. The two gangs in question are the Guapos and Panas, and their dead members are Johnny Fajardo, also known as Virus, and Luis Martínez, respectively.
From Cahuita to Manzanillo, some of the hottest tourism spots on the Caribbean, residents say they have been facing a debilitating crime wave – including murders, rapes, robberies, extortions and acts of arson – for years.
The authorities, residents say, are not responding adequately, if at all.
“This is a drug town with a sugar coating of eco-tourism,” says Stephens, the owner of a dried flower business in northern California who’s lived off and on in Puerto Viejo for 20 years. “The country’s lost its pura vida.”
“We’re totally abandoned here,” says Eddie Ryan, a U.S. citizen, owner of the Costa Papito hotel in Playa Cocles and vice president of the area’s Tourism Chamber.
“It’s so dysfunctional, and a lot of the police are corrupt. The whole system needs to be fundamentally reformed.”
‘So tired of all this’
In Stephens’ case, he had such little faith in the judicial system, he didn’t testify against Mendoza, aka “Rambo,” who allegedly threatened to kill him in 2006. As a result, Mendoza walked.
“No way, man, here they just shoot you in the street,” Stephens said. “There’s no guarantee I would have made it from San José to Limón.”
Cortés, however, did testify against the perpetrator she saw, Cristian Vargas, also known as “Culebra,” and he is doing 10 years in prison.
“If they had not killed a cop, they never would’ve looked for them,” Stephens said.
“There were checkpoints with 50 police and helicopters and it was the biggest thing I’ve seen in Costa Rica in 20 years.”
Stephens said he believes the failed hit was orchestrated by one of Cortés’ ex-boyfriends, a local crack dealer.
“I said to him, ‘If you had anything to do with this, I’ll kill you,”’ Stephens said. “I had another meeting with (the crack dealer) to try to make peace and (an agreement is) in place, but it’s hard for me to not want to kill him or have him killed. Hits are customary in the area. But if we do it – retaliate – then they’ll throw the book at us because we’re foreigners.”
Ryan points to another case illustrating the impunity and dysfunction of the police and judicial system here. He says there’s a serial rapist who lives nearby in Playa Chiquita who was positively identified by his latest attempted victim, a Brazilian, with the aid of National Police.
According to the Puerto Viejo Satellite Web site, http://www.puertoviejosatellite.com, police believe the suspect has preyed on at least seven women, mostly foreigners and including a 16-year-old, since 2003. He had previously served six of 13 years for a sex crime conviction and got out early for good behavior.
Ryan and others in the community are enraged that the suspect is not behind bars, at least in preventive prison while an investigation goes forward of the most recent case of the attempted rape in March of the Brazilian. Ryan said Bribrí Criminal Court Judge Eliseo Duran filed the case as a robbery because the woman’s wedding ring was stolen and threw out the attempted rape charge because National Police are not allowed to help a victim identify suspects.
“The rape charge was thrown out on a technicality because the procedural rule is (the National Police) can’t be involved in suspect identification,” Ryan said. “It just doesn’t add up and I’m so tired of all this.”
Ryan and others in town filed a formal complaint against Duran with the country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Luis Mora.
Criminal Court Chief Justice Jose Arroyo confirmed Duran is under investigation by the Judicial Inspections Department because of his potentially questionable rulings.
Duran could not be reached for comment.
Cases going nowhere
Ryan, a leader in the community, said he’s fed up with the criminal justice system and has nearly given up hope. He cites corruption and lack of jail space as being two primary reasons authorities aren’t protecting the public.
“It’s by no accident that we don’t get preventive prison here because there’s no prison space,” he said. “We have the same jail capacity here that we had in 1950 and the population’s gone from 1 million to 4 million. On the corruption front, if one cop comes in (who’s not corrupt), they take him down with rumors and innuendo and set him up. If you have one guy really into doing his job, the supervisor will get rid of him.”
Puerto Viejo police officer Dennis Pereia, an eight-year veteran, acknowledges the crime problem is out of control. He said Puerto Viejo alone averages 20 reported robberies a week, but he estimates only 20 percent of crimes are reported.
“There are robberies every day against foreigners and Ticos but they leave the country or go back to San José,” Pereia said.
“Some tourists file reports, but they get scared and they don’t want to go through the judicial process.”
The officer said it’s a mystery what happens to many of the cases filed with the Bribrí prosecutor’s office.
“We give them the police reports and then I don’t know what happens,” he said. “The law here is pretty flexible. And the town doesn’t help the police much.”
‘Time to give out
Because of the lack of action from authorities, some residents are talking about taking matters into their own hands. Martín González, the Tico owner of Sol del Caribe restaurant in Playa Cocles, said the community is fed up.
“There’s talk of linchamientos,” he said. “Some are thinking it’s time to give out some beatings.”
Linchamientos are public beatings of alleged criminals, intended to get them to stop their behavior or chase them out of town.
But González acknowledges the practice, once commonplace in the area and referred to as “giving a good massage,” is no longer that easy because criminals often have guns.
“The entire town is afraid,” he said, “and the police are, too.”
Some are talking openly about taking even more desperate measures, such as contracting hits against alleged threats.
One such man is Manuel Pinto, a Frenchman and owner of the local Caribe Sur real estate business. He and his wife Emmanuelle, say they filed a police report with prosecutors in Bribrí after they and their two daughters, Sara and Maya, were allegedly assaulted and threatened on Father’s Day by two U.S. citizens who have a business in town. Although the Pintos received a restraining order against them, they are unhappy the suspects have not been arrested for the crime.
“(One of them) grabbed my daughter, the one with muscular dystrophy, by the hair and dragged her three meters,” he said.
“They slammed my wife’s head down. … The whole town saw it, but the prosecutor still hasn’t done anything.”
Pinto said he began considering the option of contracting a hit on his aggressors after a local hitman approached him, saying the other side in the dispute already had offered money to kill the Pintos.
“They threatened to kill us twice right in front of the cops, but when we asked the cops if they heard, they said they didn’t understand English,” Manuel said. “Why hasn’t the prosecutor done anything about the assault? I’m paranoid and I can’t sleep at night. We considered a hit because of lack of support from law enforcement.”
“The judicial system in CR isn’t worth a sh–,” Emmanuelle said. “Life is cheap.”
The Pintos have left the country for a week. Before they left, Manuel said the crime problem has come to such a level he has thought about temporarily giving up on his real estate venture.
“I considered taking down the Web site and putting up a splash page saying that due to uncontrolled crime in the area, we’re closed and we don’t recommend foreigners coming to invest here now,” he said.
Making nice with ‘Gordo Malo’
The hitman most mentioned on the lips of these people is a local legend known as ‘Gordo Malo.’
Underscoring the impunity in the region, Gordo Malo granted The Tico Times an interview, acknowledging he is a hitman for hire who also runs a protection racket.
Gordo Malo, who has a cedula with the name Magno Enrique Beñavides, claims to be a former Contra in the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and a former agent with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
Residents say he’s terrorized the region for years, but the stories have mutated and it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
But Beñavides says he charges from $100 to $20,000 for a hit, depending on the client and the target. He also likes to sample the offerings of the different refrigerators in the area.
“I have the ability to go into your kitchen and leave without you even knowing it,” he boasted. “I know violence but it doesn’t please me. But I get bothered easily, and when I get bothered, I get very violent. Everyone’s afraid of Gordo Malo.”
Asked for specific murders, Beñavides declined to offer any, citing his knowledge of the country’s laws and what he could and couldn’t get away with.
“There are various dead but they are labeled as disappeared or unidentifiable,” he said.
Pinto used to consider Gordo Malo an enemy. Now he considers him a necessary evil after the self-avowed hitman warned him his attackers asked for his services.
“He’s one of a small handful of people who have terrorized the town for years,” he said. “The reality here is you have to go and make nice with the criminals. That is the unfortunate absolute reality here.”