San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Violent Break-ins Rattle San Juan

SAN JUAN DEL SUR – Rob and Kelly Thomas were settling in for a quiet evening at home in their secluded house in the hills overlooking San Juan del Sur when two masked men burst into their living room through the unlocked back door.

One of the men held a gun on Rob, who was sitting on the sofa watching a DVD, while the other assailant ran into the bedroom and started to viciously attack Kelly, where she had been reading on her bed.

“He came in and lunged on the bed and grabbed me by the throat with both hands,” Kelly recounted two days after the attack, which occurred shortly after dusk on Sept. 16. “He had a gun in one hand, and he reached back and started hitting me in the face. Then he pulled me off the bed onto the floor and started hitting me in the face again. And then he started kicking me.”

Kelly was then dragged by her hair into the living room, where Rob was trying to explain that the couple didn’t keep a lot of money in the house. The assailants, however, apparently knew their captives are the owners of El Gato Nego, a successful coffee shop and bookstore in San Juan del Sur, and refused to believe there wasn’t a bundle of money stashed somewhere in the house.

“The first thing I told them when they asked for the money is, ‘Look, I keep my money in the bank, I’m not stupid. I don’t have anything.’ But they didn’t believe that,” Rob said.

He said there were “plenty of valuables laying around,” including two laptop computers, Kelly’s pocketbook, a camera and some money on the counter. “But they didn’t touch any of that, they just wanted to know where the [real] money was.

“They acted like their plan was to get into the house and steal some money, but once they got in they didn’t know what to do,” Rob said of the assailants, whom he guesses are around 18 years old.

Trying to take control of the situation and prevent the two young men from panicking, Rob said he tried to play the “the role of adult, to structure the situation for them, to give them a clear path to what they wanted and get them out of the house.”

Rob told them there was a small sum of money kept inside a box at the bottom of his armoire in the bedroom. The men, however, were mistrustful and wouldn’t follow his instructions.

“I say, ‘Look, take the f**king money and get the f**k out of here, all in Spanish. But they wouldn’t go near it, they wouldn’t touch it,” Rob said. “So I said, ‘Look, I will get it for you, OK? So I walk over to the armoire, keeping my hands open, non-aggressively. And as I get near the door, pow!” The gun fired.

The bullet entered Rob’s left tricep and exited through his shoulder, knocking him to the floor in the process. Stunned, Rob got back to his feet, still unaware that he had been shot.

“When I got up off the ground, he cocked the gun again and pointed it at my belly. That’s when I saw the blood coming out of my arm,” Rob said.

Oddly enough, it was the misogynistic partner-in-crime who had been beating Kelly who apparently decided the situation had gone far enough.

“He got a strange look on his face, like they had just gotten into a situation that he was not anticipating, so he went over to the armoire, opened the door, found the money and then they left,” Rob said.

In total, the men made off with less than $80 in tattered and un-exchangeable U.S. dollar bills, some British Pound Sterling and some Euros.

“It wasn’t a good deal for them in the end,” said Rob. “They didn’t profit from this.”

After the perpetrators left, allegedly fleeing on bicycles across the acres of open fields surrounding the Thomas’ house, Rob and Kelly called the police and went to the health clinic to have the bullet wound treated. Luckily, the bullet passed through only muscle, causing no serious damage.

“I drove myself home from the clinic,” Rob said. “I haven’t even taken any aspirin.”

The Vermont couple’s ordeal isn’t an isolated event in an area were house breakins are becoming increasingly common.

Four nights later, on Sept. 20, Tony Bickmore and Kimberly Park, a couple of young retirees from Salt Lake City, Utah, came home to their isolated home in Remanso Beach to find four masked men hiding with machetes in the bushes outside their house. The assailants ambushed the couple as they were entering the house, and tied them up in chairs after making them lock their dogs in the bathroom.

“One guy held the machete on me as the other three ransacked the house,” said Bickmore, 47, adding that he thought the perpetrators were probably in their twenties and from the area.

After looting the house, one of the masked men tried to drag Park into the bedroom, before being called off by the ringleader.

“Before leaving, he pointed the machete into my chest and said I’ll cut your throat if you go to the police. I’ll be watching you,” Bickmore said.

Bickmore did go to police, who have been out to his house several times to take fingerprints.

Police Response

Crime is nothing new in San Juan del Sur, nor was it first time Rob and Kelly Thomas have been victims. Kelly was carjacked in Managua four years ago, and El Gato Negro has been broken into eight times since opening in 2005.

What has changed is the police’s response to crime, Rob said. The first time their store got broken into in 2005, the local police didn’t even bother investigating, he said. But on the most recent occasion last year, the police sent over an investigator, taped off the crime scene, and dusted for fingerprints. Even the police captain dropped in for a visit to make sure everything was being done correctly.

The police are also taking last week’s break-in very seriously. The night of the burglary, an officer responded immediately to the call and spent the night at the Thomas’ house after patrolling the expansive property of Fincas de Esquimita in search of the criminals. The officer returned the following evening and spent a second night guarding their house, Kelly said.

“The police have been very responsive,” Kelly said. “Everyone has been very professional, very nice and very helpful. And I am sure they are going to catch these people.”

Sub-Commissioner Ramón Pérez told The Nica Times Sept. 18 that the police had a suspect under investigation in the town of Ostional, and were in the process of gathering evidence and testimony. He said 75 percent of all reported crimes in San Juan del Sur get solved.

Perception of Crime

Rob and Kelly spend much of their days at Gato Negro talking to tourists and foreign expats, and say the perception in town is that crime is on the rise due to a confluence of factors that are driving people towards more desperate measures.

“The economy is getting worse and worse, and we have a drought and there are going to be massive food shortages here,” Kelly said. “Plus we have a reduction in foreign aid and we have an increase in violent crime and we are going to have a decrease in tourism and tax revenue and employment.

And I don’t know what the solution is, we need to combat the violence and live together as a community.”

She adds, “I know very few people who haven’t been robbed. All my friends have been robbed.”

Mónica Zalaquett, director of the Center for Prevention of Violence, says the perception of increased violence is reflected in the statistics, at least in Managua, where there was a 50 percent increase in violent crime last year and a 30 percent increase in violent crime so far this year.

Crime is also becoming more organized, Zalaquett said. Now criminals are involved in express kidnappings, gang-related crimes and assaults using more sophisticated weaponry.

In addition to a slumping economy, Zalaquett said the increase in drug consumption in Nicaragua, especially crack, has become an important factor in rising crime.

“The police have been more efficient in stopping drug shipments through Nicaragua than dealing with the circulation of drugs within the country,” she said.

In San Juan del Sur, Police Sub-Commissioner Pérez says the modus operandi of criminals has become more brazen and violent, but the number of reported crimes has maintained a similar average to last year (see box).

One of the problems, Pérez admits, is that many crimes go unreported in a tourist town where visiting foreigners make “easy targets.” In Nicaragua, he explained, if there’s no whistle, there’s no foul.

For example, Pérez says police recently arrested several thieves who robbed two tourists on Playa Remanso at gunpoint, but the victims never showed up to file a complaint at the police station. “So we couldn’t do anything, because if there is no complaint, there is no crime,” Pérez lamented. “If there is no victim, there’s nothing we can do.”

Pérez also lamented that the Amigos de la Policía network created for the foreign community to help the police has become inactive. Not only have police lost permanent contact with the foreign community, he said, but they’ve also lost material support.

“Now we have three broken down motorcycles and a patrol vehicle that’s in the auto shop,” Pérez said.

Pérez also said the solution is not to fill the jails with all the purse-snatchers and small-time criminals, because they’ll come out worse than they went in.

“Delinquents enter jail as rookies and come out as experts,” Pérez said. “It’s like a university where they get their masters or doctorates in crime.”

The solution, Pérez said, is for the whole community to come together to work on issues of citizen security, because the 22-member San Juan police force can’t manage it all on their own.

“If we don’t work together to strengthen security there will come a time when this gets out of control, and we’ll be in the same situation as Mexico, where everyone just looks out for themselves and even the police are involved in the crime,” Pérez said.

Rob and Kelly Thomas, despite their appreciation of the police force, understand the limitations and say they are now doing their part to protect themselves with private armed guards on their property 24 hours a day.

“The next couple of years in Nicaragua are going to be economically difficult, so there could be more criminal activity and violence,” Rob said. “I think everybody needs to be a little bit more careful.”

Next week: Crime in Granada


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