San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Border Showdown Continues: Eruption on Río San Juan

The brown waters of the Río San Juan are again muddying the relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

And it appears the latest clash over the river, which has for over 150 years been a point of contention between the two countries, is just getting started.

Last Thursday, Marco Reyes, owner of Finca Aragón, a 210-hectare farm on the Costa Rican bank of the Río San Juan, told The Tico Times that Edén Pastora, well known in Nicaragua as Comandante Cero, a hero of the Sandinista Revolution and later a Contra rebel leader, entered his property and announced that the farm was the property of Nicaragua.

Reyes, who is a Costa Rican citizen, said that after he told Pastora that the farm was in Costa Rican territory, some of the farm’s employees were beaten, several of the farm’s cows were slaughtered and two of his workers went missing.

“Mr. Pastora told us that the land belonged to Nicaragua and that they would need it to complete the dredging of the Río San Juan,” Reyes told The Tico Times last week. “We told them that this is Costa Rican territory but they ignored us. They have pulled up trees and killed our animals. They are following through with their plan to dredge the river on our property.”

When Reyes’s report reached the Security Ministry last week, the result was yet another diplomatic dust-up along the Río San Juan, which forms the eastern part of the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

“Yesterday we flew a helicopter over the area … and took pictures and videos of the dredging process,” Security Minister José María Tijerino said last Thursday. “Today we reviewed the photos and video and it is evident that the dredging is taking place very close to the Costa Rican riverbank and that it is depositing sediment into Costa Rican territory.”

In light of these findings, the Foreign Ministry submitted a formal protest to the Nicaraguan government requesting an immediate halt to the damaging effects  caused by the dredging of the river.

“We spoke with the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Costa Rica to inform him of the protest and of the concern of the government and the Republic of Costa Rica regarding the violation and disturbance that Nicaragua has caused in our territory,” said Foreign Ministry official Marta Núñez.

Send in the Troops

Last Friday morning, around 90 members of the National Police boarded planes and helicopters and deployed to Barra del Colorado, a small, isolated town of around 500 people in the northeastern corner of Costa Rica (TT, OCt. 15). Dressed in military fatigues and wielding M-16 assault weapons, members of armyless Costa Rica’s National Police began periodic flyovers of the Río San Juan and Reyes’s property to assess the damage.

On Friday morning, a guide fishing at Río Colorado Lodge in Barra del Colorado and several fishermen told The Tico Times that Pastora made an urgent radio call to the members of his team operating the dredge, demanding that they move the dredge pipe from the Costa Rican side of the river to the Nicaraguan side. Pastora’s call, made on a public marine radio channel, was overheard in Costa Rica.

 “I recognized Pastora’s voice and tried to respond to him, but he couldn’t hear me,” said the guide, who said he was a friend of Pastora’s in the 1980s, when Pastora was a Contra rebel leader operating in the zone. “Everyone on our boat could hear him telling people to move the dredge pipe off the Costa Rican side of the river and back to the Nicaraguan side.” The guide asked that he not be identified.

By the end of last weekend, the turbulence in the area had subsided, but photos and videos of the damage to Reyes’ property had circulated widely in the Costa Rican media. During a flyover of the property by The Tico Times on Sunday, it was evident that the dredge had damaged a corner of Reyes’ land, displacing dirt and knocking down dozens of trees. A small hill of sand and sediment had been deposited at the base of a clump of trees.

A few hundred meters west of Reyes’ farm, the dredge, named the Alba de Nicaragua, rested in the café con leche-colored water of the river, moored on the northern bank in Nicaraguan territory. The dredge, with the its two long pipes floating behind it like a tail,  has been motionless since dredging stopped Friday, only four days after it began.

This week, around 60 members of Costa Rica’s National Police remained stationed in the community center and elementary school in Barra del Colorado, just south of the Río San Juan, while Coast Guard boats closely monitored the mouth of the river in the Caribbean Sea.

“Police will remain (in Barra del Colorado) for approximately 15 to 20 more days and will be monitoring activity along the river daily,” National Police Director Juan José Andrade told The Tico Times. “The dredge is currently stopped and will remain so until the two governments come to a decision regarding the dredging.”

Diplomatic Back-and-Forth

By Tuesday of this week, several days after Costa Rica’s formal protest was issued, Nicaragua had not yet responded, and Costa Rican acting Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi issued the following assessment:  “The damage caused by the dredging was an unacceptable violation of Costa Rican sovereignty. We think the dredging was an irresponsible act by Edén Pastora supported  by  certain  military  authorities.  We hope that it wasn’t an act of the Nicaraguan government, but we have yet to learn their official position on the matter.”

On Wednesday morning, Nicaraguan Foreign Vice Minister Manuel Coronel 

issued an official response, though it wasn’t the reply Costa Rica had hoped to hear.

“The government of Nicaragua categorically rejects the statements contained in the diplomatic letter from Costa Rica,” the statement signed by Coronel read. “All of the activities directed towards the fight against drug trafficking, such as the dredging of the Río San Juan, have been undertaken in Nicaraguan territory, in accordance with the rights established in the treaty of Jerez-Cañas, as well as the Cleveland and Alexander rulings.”

Coronel’s note included a counter-protest, demanding that members of the Costa Rican Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) refrain from entering Nicaraguan territory. Earlier this month, two OIJ officers were arrested on the Nicaraguan side of the Río San Juan.

Coronel’s letter concluded by proposing that the Bi-National Commission for the Río San Juan, established to address controversies, meet immediately to assure that the landmarks that serve as the boundaries between the two countries conform to the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858 and the Cleveland and Alexander rulings, which established the official boundary between  the two countries.

The Costa Rican Foreign Ministry responded Wednesday afternoon with a statement saying that they were analyzing Coronel’s letter and that they would draft a response.

Dredging for Tourist Dollars

Foreshadowing Coronel’s statement, Pastora last Friday defended his actions by saying that the Reyes property was in “no man’s land” and that the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858 failed to assign the land to either country. 

And while Pastora’s justification for nipping the northern corner of Reyes’ property might fall short, the motivation for the dredging project is something that Ticos understand: Tourism development.

“The private sector in Nicaragua has been demanding the dredging of the river for a very long time,” Lucy Valenti, the president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (Canatur), told The Tico Times. “Everyone considers the Río San Juan to be a vital part of Nicaraguan tourism, and as of right now it isn’t navigable all year long. So, one thing that we have demanded is that the government take the necessary steps to make the river navigable for tourism purposes.”

Valenti said that certain parts of the Río San Juan dry out and become too shallow to navigate during the dry season. The dredging process will permit travel and tourism along the river throughout the year. When completed, Nicaragua will be able to bring tourists down what the industry’s boosters are calling Nicaragua’s “Water Tour” (Tour de Agua) that stops at several hotels and attractions along the river and into Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua).

“We consider the Río San Juan to be the principal attraction for eco-tourism in Nicaragua,” Valenti said. “Our plan to develop the river is to create an ecotourism and sustainable product in the country.”

While the dredging of the river is intended to boost tourism in Nicaragua, which hosts around 1 million tourists annually, more specifically, the buzz-cut given to the top of Finca Aragón was part of a new development planned for the area of San Juan del Norte (also known as Greytown), at the mouth of the river.

“The Nicaraguan government has a lot of plans in that area,” said Alfredo López, the owner of the Río Indio Lodge in San Juan del Norte. “An airstrip is being built in Greytown and they are hoping to bring people to see the 380,000 hectares [of the nearby Indio Maíz Reserve, a governmental protected area] that are full of wildlife and untouched jungle. There are rivers there that we haven’t even touched yet.”

López also says that the Nicaraguan government is considering building a 55-slip marina near the rivermouth that will host boats and yachts of up to 100-feet. According to López, Pastora, who has been staying at the Río Indio Lodge with his dredging crew, is attempting to cut a new channel at the river mouth of the Río San Juan to provide access to the marina and year-round passage for boats between the Río San Juan and the Caribbean Sea.  The marina is expected to be built in one of the lagoons in the area.

“What the government plans to do is dredge a new river mouth so they can make the river deep enough to keep it open all year round,” López said. “That is one of the main goals of the dredging of this part of the river.”

One Km In, 32 To Go

The Nicaraguan government plans to dredge 33 kilometers of the Río San Juan to clear sediment in the eastern-most part of the river, where it winds and slowly makes it way to sea. Since the dredging of the first km of the river began on Oct. 18, there has already been one international conflict, 90 Costa Rican National Police officers deployed to the border region and a farmer claiming his cows were murdered.

What will the next 32 kms bring?

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