RÍO SAN JUAN, Nicaragua – On the south bank of the Río San Juan, on Isla Calero, which Costa Rica considers to be its territory, a makeshift base has been established, housing a group of armed and camouflaged Nicaraguan soldiers. The base, consisting of two small houses, a thatch- roofed barn and a small wooded pier, is located a kilometer west of the mouth of the Río San Juan, which forms the eastern part of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The outpost is being used as a checkpoint for boats traveling on the river.
The occupation of Isla Calero by the Nicaraguan military was reported by Costa Rica’s Security Ministry on Monday, which also released photographs of several troops and a Nicaraguan flag on the property. When The Tico Times visited the property on Tuesday, six members of the Nicaraguan military, many whom appeared to be in their teens, scanned the tourist boat with M-16 automatic rifles in hand before allowing it to pass. By Thursday, around 15 soldiers were seen at the base.
A few hundred meters west, two heavily armed soldiers walked along the south bank of the Río San Juan, also carrying automatic weapons.
The presence of the Nicaraguan military on the island has quickly boiled over into an international conflict between the two countries. On Tuesday, the Costa Rica sent further National Police reinforcements to the town of Barra Colorado, located on the Río Colorado just south of the Río San Juan. National Police have been stationed in Barra del Colorado since the Nicaraguan presence on Isla Calero was first observed, two weeks ago.
On Tuesday night, The Tico Times observed two Nicaraguan military helicopters flying over the Río San Juan toward the base on Isla Calero, where, according to local residents, they dropped off more troops.
The controversial dredge, named the Alba de Nicaragua, is moored west of Isla Calero on the northern bank of the Río San Juan. Although several soldiers and men dressing in civilian clothes stood on the boat on Tuesday, it did not appear that the dredge was operating (see a video of the dredge at www.ticotimes.net). On Oct. 21, the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry filed a formal complaint with the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry which requested that the dredge be stopped until the dispute over territorial rights over Isla Calero was resolved.
While Costa Rican officials have called the Nicaraguan presence on the island an attack on national sovereignty, people on the Nicaraguan side of the Río San Juan are equally disappointed with the sudden tension the dredging incident has brought to the normally peaceful region.
In the small town of San Juan de Nicaragua (formerly San Juan del Norte), located along the Río Indio just off the mouth of the Río San Juan on the Caribbean Sea, members of the community of about 2,000 are distressed by the incident, one they feel could have easily been avoided.
“It’s a river,” said one resident, who was working on the construction site of a small new hotel. “Nicaragua is on one side, Costa Rica is on the other. It’s that simple. Why did Pastora cause such a silly incident that disrupted the entire area?”
Similar sentiments were shared around town on Wednesday morning as many residents listened to the OAS hearings on small radios or watched the proceedings on television.
“Why is someone from every country – Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela – commenting on this?” said a middle-aged man as he watched the OAS hearings on TV in his darkened living room. “This shouldn’t have become an international conflict. That jerk Pastora ruined the peace that exists between the countries. And for what? There was no reason to dredge on the other side of the river. Now everyone is giving Nicaragua a bad name.”
The people of the town, which is hoping for a rise in tourism with the arrival of a new airstrip at nearby Greytown, are also concerned with the impact the event might have on the area’s reputation. Members of the tourism industry here have reported several cancellations of reservations due to the conflict.
“All we can hope for is that this issue will soon blow over,” San Juan Mayor Misael Morales told The Tico Times on Wednesday from his second story office overlooking the Río Indio. “Construction on the new airstrip is expected to begin in 15 days. It’s already been delayed for years, and we hope that this issue won’t further delay it.”
Morales also said that the community has limited access to electricity and has been considering trying to establish a relationship with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to provide power to the town. He said that he is concerned the recent conflict could ruin that opportunity for his community, which currently only has electricity, produced by a diesel generator, eight hours a day.
On the Rio Indio beside the town of San Juan, several boats carrying Nicaraguan soldiers headed north away from the Río San Juan on Thursday morning. On the shores of the small town, armed soldiers walked the banks of the Río Indio.
For the residents of the usually quiet town of San Juan, many of them diligently hammering away on new construction for a tourism boom that may or may not arrive, normalcy cannot return soon enough, an attitude found on both sides of the river.