The final two months of 2010 will forever be remembered for the international conflict that roiled between Costa Rica and Nicaragua along the muddy waters of the Río San Juan.
What started as a Nicaraguan project to dredge the river that separates the two nations exploded into a contentious border dispute that will now be heard Jan. 11 at the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Relations between the two neighboring nations had been calm since the world court ruled on the last dispute over the river’s navigational rights in July 2009. But on Oct. 21, Costa Rican farm owner Marco Reyes said the Nicaraguan army entered his farm south of the Río San Juan, ordered him to leave and claimed his land belonged to Nicaragua.
“Mr. (Edén) 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 in October. “We’ve told them that this is Costa Rican territory, but they are ignoring us. They are pulling up trees and killing our animals.”
In response to Reyes’ report of the “invasion,” the Public Security Ministry sent 80 members of the National Police to Barra del Colorado, a small town five kilometers south of the river, on the Caribbean coast. After doing a series of flyovers, the ministry reported that dredging had caused considerable environmental damage to the Costa Rican side of the river.
As damage reports accumulated, Pastora, a former Nicaraguan guerilla leader, claimed that Reyes’ farm, located on Isla Calero, is property of Nicaragua according to the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858.
Costa Rica sent Nicaragua a formal complaint and asked that troops be removed from the area. The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry rebuffed the request.
“The government of Nicaragua categorically rejects the statements contained in the diplomatic letter from Costa Rica,” said a statement from Nicaraguan Foreign Vice-Minister Manuel Coronel. “All of the activities directed toward 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 Jerez-Cañas Treaty, as well as the Cleveland and Alexander rulings.”
As the dispute intensified, media sources reported that Pastora claimed he had consulted the Internet application Google Maps prior to entering Isla Calero. According to Google Maps, Isla Calero was considered Nicaraguan territory.
The claim kicked off an international media circus with headlines such as “Google Nearly Starts a War. Seriously,” reported by ABC News.
Amid the controversy, Daniel Helft, senior manager for public policies for Google Latin America, wrote on a public Google blog that while “Google maps are of very high quality and Google works constantly to improve and update existing information, by no means should they be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries.”
As Nicaragua remained obstinate to Costa Rica’s request, the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry called upon the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and moderate the situation. After a weekend visit to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the OAS held a vote to determine if Nicaragua should leave the area. Of the 24 regional representatives that voted in the OAS, 22 felt Nicaragua should leave the disputed territory.
A day after the OAS ruling, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega railed against the decision, deeming the vote “rigged.”
“Last night, we were all witnesses to a failure of the OAS,” he said. “It is an institution that loses credibility every day, if it even has any credibility left. …We will stay [on Isla Calero] due to the manipulated, rigged and lying vote of the OAS.”
Nicaragua’s decision to ignore the OAS ruling kicked off a second wave of startling events that only inflamed the growing rift between the nations.
In mid-November, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Costa Rica, resulting in the Security Ministry issuing a nationwide statement warning that xenophobic acts against Nicaraguan citizens would not be tolerated.
Days later, the prosecutor’s office of the Caribbean-slope town of Pococí issued a warrant for Pastora’s arrest, due to his alleged acts of environmental damage that violate Costa Rican forestry laws. Pastora easily crossed to the other side of the river.
Other reports and photos showed Nicaraguan troops chopped down trees near Laguna de los Portillos, apparently to create a canal from the lagoon to the San Juan.
Costa Rica again took the conflict to the OAS, where regional foreign ministers unanimously voted that Nicaragua should remove its troops from the area. Nicaragua disregarded the vote.
On Dec. 14, Nicaraguan Congress passed a defense bill that could allow Ortega to consolidate power and use the country’s military at his discretion. One of the bills allows him to militarize the border region (See The Nica Times Year in Review, Page N1).
In early December, President Laura Chinchilla referred to Nicaragua as belonging to a group of Costa Rica’s “enemies.”
Tensions are still percolating as both sides prepare to present their cases at the world court on Jan. 11. The court could take years to rule on the case, and no one is certain who would win.
In the meantime, the dredge rests in the muddy waters of the Río San Juan, and no one knows if and when it will be started up again.