San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel closings on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast spark violence

Eighteen years after the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Technology (MINAET) ordered the demolition of the Las Palmas Hotel in Punta Uva, Talamanca, in the eastern Limón province, the act was finally carried out this week in chaotic fashion, resulting in protests, tear gas, Molotov cocktails and gun shots.

On Tuesday, armed members of  the National Police, National System of Conser-vation Areas (SINAC) and MINAET arrived in the Caribbean town south of Puerto Viejo to close Las Palmas and Suerre hotels, which government officials say are located within the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. The brigade of forces was met by local protesters wielding signs that said, “If you take away Las Palmas, you take away our lives.”

Protesters lit tires on fire in the middle of the narrow Caribbean highway that runs south towards the Panamanian border and hurled rocks at the gang of police and government officials as they approached. Police forces responded by shooting tear gas at and marching in unison towards the demonstrators to clear them off the roadway.

By 3 p.m., police, SINAC and MINAET officials arrived at the hotels and ordered hotel employees and visitors to leave. According to a statement issued by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), 14 tourists staying in the two hotels were removed safely and provided with transportation, food and rooms at other area hotels.

On Wednesday morning, MINAET and SINAC employees began the slow demolition of Las Palmas, removing furniture, lawn chairs, beds and merchandise. The crews also began removing gutters and roofing.

In 1993, the Ministry of Natural Resources, now MINAET, ordered the demolition and a return of the property to its original state be-fore construction began.

Officials ruled in 1993 that the hotel was located within the li-mits of the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and that it was causing damage to the park’s natural habitat (TT, March 12, 1993).

In 2004, the Supreme Court’s Civil and Administrative Law Branch (Sala I) ordered the demolition of the hotels. However, in the next five years, the court reversed its ruling on several occasions, most notably in 2009, when 120 police officers, firemen and Coast Guard members accompanied bulldozers and excavation machinery to the site, only to see the demolition halted by a last-minute reversal of the decision (TT, Oct. 30, 2009).

In addition to environmental damage charged to the hotels’ owner, Jan Kalina, of the Czech Republic, Finance Ministry officials say that Kalina failed to pay property taxes.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Ministry of the Presidency issued a statement in support of the demolition.

“Due to the judgment presented by the Comptroller General’s Office, it was determined that … on Oct. 13, 2009, … the occupants of the land are to be cleared off the territory of the reserve.”

The statement also said the hotels were located within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, and that since 1993,  they had caused “ecological damage during construction and operation,” and that “today, after a long process of more than 18 years, the removal was carried out.”

The hotels employed 28 local residents, the daily La Nación reported.

Buses traveling the highway between Puerto Viejo and Cahuita were delayed three hours Wednesday afternoon.

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