San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Maritime Zone

Ombudsman’s Office orders investigation of anti-riot police behavior during coastal protest

First in a series. Read the second story here.

A peaceful protest over land rights in Costa Rica’s maritime zone sparked a violent backlash from police on the Pacific coast last Monday, as anti-riot officers used tear gas to remove dozens of protesters from the Inter-American Highway in Puntarenas.

Following the incident, protesters armed with video clips taken on their cellphones and by local journalists accused police of using excessive force, and the group behind the demonstration is now demanding an investigation.

The faceoff took place in Chomes, Puntarenas, 127 kilometers northwest of the capital, as coastal residents organized by the National Front for Coastal Communities (Frente Nacional de Comunidades Costeras, in Spanish) blocked a road with tree branches, rocks and other debris, causing traffic to snare for several kilometers.

The residents are calling for passage of a Coastal Community Land Bill, known by its Spanish acronym TECOCOS, which has stalled in the Legislative Assembly for several months. TECOCOS aims to resolve an ongoing conflict over Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone Law, which mandates the removal of homes and businesses located within the coastal maritime zone, an area 150 meters from the high tide line on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

TECOCOS would allow thousands of Costa Ricans who have lived and worked in the maritime zone for several years to keep their homes and businesses.

According to members of the front, lawmakers from the ruling National Liberation Party broke a promise to pass TECOCOS, opting instead to move forward two bills drafted by the Chinchilla administration. Protesters say the PLN had agreed to pass TECOCOS in a first round of debate in the Assembly last June, along with the two government-sponsored bills, but that never happened.

On Feb. 17, PLN lawmakers filed a motion to exclude the TECOCOS bill and vote only on the government’s two bills. A spokeswoman for Presidency Minister Carlos Benavides told The Tico Times that lawmakers have no plans to call TECOCOS up for discussion.

The front responded by rallying dozens of protesters – from teenagers to the elderly – who gathered in the hot Pacific sun last Monday in front of a Puntarenas gas station. When protesters blocked the two-lane highway, snaring traffic, the situation turned ugly.

Anti-riot police moved in, firing tear gas and smoke bombs to clear the road. Choking on the gas, several protesters fled to the nearby gas station and an adjacent restaurant, where they say they were attacked by police. Eleven people were arrested.

This week, resident Stella Chinchilla filed a complaint with the Ombudsman’s Office in which she accused police of using excessive force, including allegedly attacking a 75-year-old Costa Rican man named Ignacio Velásquez.

(Courtesy Frente Nacional de Comunidades Costeras)

Heating up

Wilmar Matarrita, coordinator of the National Front of Coastal Communities, told The Tico Times he has evidence “protesters were not the aggressors,” but rather “victims of police brutality.”

Matarrita said he collected testimony from local property owners, a restaurant owner, a gas station owner and the director of a local health clinic.

National Police Assistant Director Pablo Bertozzi defended the police action, telling The Tico Times that the use of force was necessary after talks with the protesters failed. According to Bertozzi, traffic on the major highway had backed up 10 kilometers, and police asked demonstrators to clear both lanes. Protesters agreed to open one lane. That’s when police moved in.

Bertozzi also claimed that when police attempted to remove debris from the road, demonstrators attacked them.

“Police officers were obligated to respond using chemical agents [tear gas] in order to remove the protesters and establish order. As a result, 11 people were arrested, one of whom had attacked a police officer with a weapon. Police were physically attacked,” Bertozzi said.

Members of the front countered by saying that police officers “attacked” women and seniors, and chased demonstrators who were trying to run from the scene.

On Wednesday, the Ombudsman’s Office asked the Public Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation of the incident. The office also asked Public Security Minister Mario Zamora to issue a detailed report justifying the use of force.

Bertozzi said his staff is compiling the information requested by the Ombudsman’s Office and will respond to the allegations.

“If someone believes the police used excessive force, they should go to the appropriate agencies and file an administrative complaint. We will take those complaints seriously and investigate them objectively,” Bertozzi said.

Meanwhile, Matarrita called on members of the Higher Education Council of the University of Costa Rica to denounce the alleged abuse, and said that organizers planned another demonstration in coming days.

“We’re going to protest again in order to force a national debate on maritime coastal zones,” Matarrita said. “But members of our communities are not going to return to the street unprotected and without national support. We’re going to protest peacefully and we’re going to use all legal means available to us.”

Watch a documentary video of the conflict (in Spanish) here:

Read a Spanish version of this story here.

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Once again there is some lopsided reporting coming from Tico Times. TECOCOS, 18148, is the proposal championed by Villalta, FA, and PAC for the Maritime Zone. Wilmar Matarrita, coordinator of the National Front of Coastal Communities, is also an activist with the Frente Amplio party. Tico Times failed to contact anyone from the other fractions that support the 18593 “Regulation of Existing Structures” and 18592 “Urban Coastal Centers” solutions when making this article to verify their side of the story.

TT states “According to members of the front, lawmakers from the ruling National Liberation Party broke a promise to pass TECOCOS,…” This is simply untrue. The truth is that all three law projects were supposed to be passed together and the fact is when the first vote came up ALL political parties voted in favor of TECOCOS and the deal was that FA/PAC would do the same for the others, 18592 & 18593, but what did they do. PAC/FA broke their promise and voted against the law proposals. The law proposals were all three sent to the constitutional court for review before returning to congress to pass the vote again This is public record and TT can easily verify the information. Today, TECOCOS, does not have enough votes to pass without the support of the other political fractions in congress so why even bring it up for vote since PAC/FA already broke their promise. The 18592 and 18593 can easily pass without the votes from PAC/FA.

Worth noting is that TECOCOS has a new text that no longer protect the towns that have structures within the 50 m public zone while 18592 protects these structures. Why even vote on a law, TECOCOS, that fails to protect those who it was supposedly made to protect? Furthermore, TECOCOS has many restrictions that goes contrary to the socio economic structure that is supposedly conceived to protect. TECOCOS prohibits the concession holder from selling, renting or mortgaging the land and structure. It also prohibits the holder from changing its use as it has to be maintained the same for all future. This in effect condemns the inhabitants and their heirs to poverty forever. Lets take Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Caribe sur, as an example. Most landowners here rents their locales to third parties and thats how they make their living. Under TECOCOS you would lose this right. If you are a fisherman you have no incentive to send your kids to college because if they want to continue to live on the property they will have to remain fishermen forever. No use to go and get and education and become a doctor because a, you can’t open a doctors office since its use is only fishing b, you can’t rent the property while you practice somewhere else d, you can’t mortgage or sell the property to get money for college c, if you have no heirs, as in kids, the muni will take the property upon your death and pass it on to who it finds appropriate d, if your property is more then 1,500 m2 the muni will take anything above that square footage and re distribute the land to who it finds appropriate. I could go on but for those who speak spanish I encourage to watch this video featuring the congresswoman exposing the failure of the PAC/FA block to live up to their promise as well as the failure of TECOCOS to live up to the spirit of why it was conceived.

I encourage TT to do better fact checking in the future and verify both sides of any story unless of course there is an agenda on behalf of any political ideology.


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Police in Costa Rica are PLN are like SS NAZI.

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This is so scary the PLN are Fascist.

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