Johnny’s Place, a beloved institution in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo known for its reggaeton and R&B DJs, has closed following a shooting early Sunday morning. Club owner Johnny León says it might be for good.
“No one died this time, but I don’t want to be caught in a crossfire again,” León said.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a man pulled out a gun and opened fire inside the bar, wounding five people, according to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ).
The victims were named as Ditier Castro, 21; Darcy Zaira Romero, 47; Raul Enrique Moraga, 24; Carlos Vaz Mcleod, whose age wasn’t specified; and his mother, Icylin Mcleod.
Some of the wounded piled into a car and headed for the nearby Hone Creek Clinic, in Talamanca. On the way, their car struck pedestrian Andrei Medrano, a private security guard who now is in critical condition at the Calderón Guardia Hospital, in San José. The five shooting victims were taken to Tony Facio Hospital in Limón, where they are in stable condition, according to OIJ spokesman Marco Monje.
The shooter fled the scene, and police did not immediately make an arrest. Monje said the apparent motive for the shooting was personal problems between the suspect and one of the victims.
When the first shot was fired, León said he was serving drinks, and along with many of his terrified patrons, he got down on the floor. His wife, Argerie Guido, was behind the register, and his son José Joaquín was working behind the bar. When the shots stopped, José Joaquín turned on the lights, and the family waited about 30 minutes for police to show up, León said.
Only two policemen were on duty in the area, according León, who said he spoke at length with police officers and provided them with videos from security cameras. Based on those videos, police identified the suspect, León told The Tico Times.
León also learned from police that the shooting allegedly involved members of rival gangs from Cahuita, a town located 16 kilometers north of Puerto Viejo.
Until recently, many of the shootings in the area have taken place in the street, not inside businesses, León said.
“We haven’t slept well since then,” said Guido, León’s wife. “We are really worried about the safety in the area.”
The incident happened a day before Costa Rica’s National Police posted a press release on its website titled “Police reinforce vigilance in the southern Caribbean of Limón,” indicating that an alliance with a local tourism board and residents will lead to the installment of 11 new security cameras at Playa Cocles, Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo.
It also noted that the Public Security Ministry and Tourist Police opened a new three-story station in Cocles to “reinforce vigilance in several of the more frequented beaches of the southern Caribbean.”
The plan also includes two new patrol vehicles, new all-terrain vehicles donated by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and 10 new officers, who will double street patrols of south Caribbean communities and beaches at night and in the early morning. They will “confront criminals who usually attack properties in isolated and hard-to-reach areas,” the report states.
“The situation has improved considerably, and we believe the police now have more resources, and we support those efforts that benefit us all,” the release quotes Jorge Molina, president of the local tourism board, as saying.
In the past few years, increases in robberies, home invasions and violent attacks in the southern Caribbean, coupled with a shortage of police resources and manpower, have prompted local hotel and business owners and residents to rally behind community policing and victims assistance initiatives. Local community members have been working tirelessly to lobby for more cops, security cameras and patrols. They also help victims, including tourists, file criminal complaints and put the word out on social media when crimes occur.
But the shooting at Johnny’s wasn’t in an isolated area – it was right next to a police station. In a posting on a southern Caribbean community Facebook group, some residents complained that police officers just 20 meters away failed to quickly respond to the emergency, allowing the perpetrator to flee.
One alleged witness wrote: “Last night, 1:30 in the morning, Johnny’s is full, inside shots are heard, many, they don’t stop, we all run out, I reach the police, and a wounded victim arrives, too. 4 officers attending to him [the victim], shots continue, I ask the police officer who’s holding a machine gun, aren’t you going to see who’s shooting??? NO. The officer goes back into the police station…..Meanwhile, a car leaves at a high speed … and runs over someone … I go back to the police station….the 4 cops are still there….I tell them, you know they just ran someone over??? Yes, we’re leaving now….30 minutes later they leave….”
Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean zone isn’t alone in facing increasing crime. A report on Monday by Teletica’s Álvaro Sánchez noted that assaults, robberies and home invasions are up across the country, on par to reach the highest numbers since President Laura Chinchilla took office four years ago on a platform to improve public security. The story even cites a store owner in Santo Domingo de Heredia, Germán Azofeifa, who has been attacked and robbed 30 times in the last five years.