Tag Archives: Central America

Costa del Crime

sierpe police station

Sometimes in the dead of night I hear the low droning thrum of a boat moving fast, from south to north. I’ve stood outside in the pitch black to look, but there are never any lights. It’s likely they are drug boats running up the Pacific from Colombia to Mexico and the United States. The traffickers strip them right down in order to carry the maximum amount of fuel and cocaine, paint them grey, pack on powerful engines, and they pass by here, not far off the coast, usually around 3am.

Since January of last year, there has been a coordinated multinational effort to patrol Central America’s coastlines. Operation Martillo, as it’s called (martillo meaning hammer), has necessitated or enabled (depending on your politics) an unprecedented level of US involvement in Costa Rican security. Homeland Security keep tabs on trends in trafficking, and the conclusion of a recent subcommittee hearing is that most drugs from Colombia no longer go north via the Caribbean, but travel up this coast, the Pacific coast. Presumably they’ve stepped up the number of patrols, but if so they must be focusing on the Central Pacific area around Manuel Antonio, because there’s not much going on round here.

Possibly, ironically, as a consequence of the threat of patrol vessels, instead of attempting to shoot past Costa Rica, traffickers have been avoiding the interception hotspots by landing the drugs in remote areas along the coast to be collected and moved on by road.

Costa Rica’s vast, unpopulated, jungly national parks, protected by a woefully small number of guards and volunteers, make an ideal drop off point. A few abandoned drug boats, signs of drug trafficker camps, new, rough roads have been found, along with the occasional trafficker and cocaine haul. Round these parts there’s little distinction between the parks and the sparsely-populated peripheries – in fact there’s a fine specimen of a Colombian drug boat that was found in the labyrinthine mangroves now parked beside the kiosk-sized police station in Sierpe.  Some 15 tons of cocaine was seized in – and off – Costa Rica last year, a record high. But there’s also plenty of evidence that much more is getting through – more drug consumption, more drug-related crime, revenge killings between rival traffickers, more cash in private banks, more money laundering, and more suddenly wealthy locals.

Moving drugs across land has to involve a degree of local cooperation, and for low paid workers the temptation to be ripped off and dragged down into criminal activity for what appears like high returns, can evidently prove too much.  More pitiful than the recruits are those people who find packages washed up, or stashed in the undergrowth, and decide to make off with them.

Some years ago, I wrote about how teenagers, some as young as 14 and 15-years old, were setting up business as drug lords in Belize City after finding waterproofed packages of cocaine on the beach. Whole areas of Belize City were out of control at that time, as child-dealers protected their turf with semi-automatics, and their penniless buyers mugged and murdered – often their own families – for the cash.  I spoke to an old woman who’d had her gold teeth removed. Not nice. Some of the packages had intentionally been dropped from boats where they would float ashore roughly in the area of  of a designated pick-up point, others had been jettisoned. Either way, there was always someone looking for their lost property.

A few months ago, I was swimming by a ranger station where some packages of cocaine had just washed up. The rangers radioed the police and the Guardia Costera arrived to collect them. Around the same time, the watchman at the next remote property along the coast from here, went missing. They say he found something he shouldn’t have found on the beach, and that blood and signs of torture were found at the property to suggest he was made to give it back. When I was next in Sierpe, I spoke to my friend at the police station who said they had continued to search for him for eight days but with no luck; that they could only hope that he’d got away and gone into hiding.

Anyway when I hear those boats I keep my fingers crossed they just keep going, but I can’t see everyone returning to an age of innocence any time soon.

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Discovery of New Ocean!

balboa

I am (intermittently) hard at work on a book about people who came to these parts and why, and what they did when they got here. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a fit and fearless, conniving and bloodthirsty gold thief, is one of my personal favourites. If his name was truncated and modified slightly to Babba, I think he would be better known. But of course it won’t be. Anyway, it’s the anniversary of his Big Day today . . . sort of.

V N de Balboa was born in Extremadura, Spain. (Anyone who has been there might understand the appeal of sailor or New World explorer as a career choice in an old place that is predominately dry and flat). His career didn’t start well (or end well – more of that later), and after some low key exploration, he washed up in Hispaniola where he got into debt. His fortunes changed by a fluke of fate when he hopped aboard a ship bound for San Sebastian, one of Spain’s first colonies, discovered the few remaining survivors half-starved and largely insane (evidence of cannibalism – say no more), transferred them to a new spot they called Santa Maria la Antigua de Darien, in what’s now Panama. He acted as temporary governor until the court-appointed official, Pedro Arias, (‘the cruel’) was sent out to take up his post.

Obviously at this point he had to find some other way of making his name and fortune, and, at the start of September 1513, decided to go inland, and up into the mountains in search of gold, taking with him a mob of leftover settlers and sailors. He didn’t find the gold, but he did find the Pacific Ocean, which, given the limitations of cartography at that point, was quite a surprise.

So Balboa goes down in history as the first European to spot the Pacific, 500 years ago today . . . or maybe tomorrow, or next week. The momentous event is said to have taken place on September 25th by some, and September 26th by others, and in the contemporary account below, on the ‘7th day of the calends of October’.

Regardless of when exactly he did it, he described his adventures in letters to Peter Martyr, Europe’s answer to a press agency. Martyr, the Apostolic Pronotary and Royal Counsellor to the Sovereign Pontiff Leo X, both paraphrased and embellished Balboa’s news in his riveting letter to his master.

We have received letters both from him and from several of his companions,” Martyr informed the Pope, “written in military style, and informing us that he had crossed the mountain-chain dividing our ocean from the hitherto unknown south sea. No letter from Capri concerning Sejanus was ever written in prouder language. I shall only report the events related in that correspondence which are worthy of mention.”

He continues, explaining how Balboa, demoted from the position of governor, determined instead to be the first to find gold: “Vasco Nuñez ill endured inaction, for his is an ardent nature, impatient of repose, and perhaps he feared that another might rob him of the honour of the discovery . . . He summoned around him some veterans of Darien and the majority of those who had come from Hispaniola in the hope of finding gold, thus forming a small troop of a hundred and ninety men, with whom he set out on the calends of September of the past year, 1513.”

Martyr describes how Balboa negotiated the support of a powerful tribal leader, or Cacique, called Poncha, who provided men to guide the Spaniards. Just as well, because the journey was fraught with danger:

“They passed through inaccessible defiles inhabited by ferocious beasts, and they climbed steep mountains . . . Thanks to Poncha’s men and the labours of the bearers, Vasco scaled rugged mountains, crossed several large rivers, either by means of improvised bridges or by throwing beams from one bank to another, and always succeeded in keeping his men in health.”

Those of a sensitive nature should skip this next bits.

“Before reaching the summit of the mountain-chain, the Spaniards traversed the province of Quarequa, of which the ruler, who bears the same name, came to meet them; as is customary in that country, he was armed with bows and arrows, and heavy, two-handed swords of wood. They also carry sticks with burnt points, which they throw with great skill. Quarequa’s reception was haughty and hostile, his disposition being to oppose the advance of such a numerous army. He asked where the Spaniards were going and what they wanted, and in reply to the interpreter’s answer, he responded: “Let them retrace their steps, if they do not wish to be killed to the last man.” He stepped out in front of his men, dressed, as were all his chiefs, while the rest of his people were naked. He attacked the Spaniards who did not yield; nor was the battle prolonged, for their musket-fire convinced the natives that they commanded the thunder and lightning. Unable to face the arrows of our archers, they turned and fled, and the Spaniards cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some their heads at one stroke, like butchers cutting up beef and mutton for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain like brute beasts.

“Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against these naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer. ”

Back to the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific:

“Leaving some of his companions who had fallen ill from the incessant fatigue and hardships to which they were not inured, at Quarequa, Vasco, led by native guides, marched towards the summit of the mountain-chain.

“From the village of Poncha to the spot where the southern ocean is visible is a six days’ ordinary march, but he only covered the distance in twenty-five days, after many adventures and great privations. On the seventh day of the calends of October, a Quarequa guide showed him a peak from the summit of which the southern ocean is visible. Vasco looked longingly at it. He commanded a halt, and went alone to scale the peak, being the first to reach its top. Kneeling upon the ground, he raised his hands to heaven and saluted the south sea; according to his account, he gave thanks to God and to all the saints for having reserved this glory for him, an ordinary man, devoid alike of experience and authority. Concluding his prayers in military fashion, he waved his hand to some of his companions, and showed them the object of their desires. Kneeling again, he prayed the Heavenly Mediator, and especially the Virgin Mother of God, to favour his expedition and to allow him to explore the region that stretched below him. All his companions, shouting for joy, did likewise. Prouder than Hannibal showing Italy and the Alps to his soldiers, Vasco Nuñez promised great riches to his men. ‘Behold the much-desired ocean! Behold! all ye men, who have shared such efforts, behold the country of which the son of Comogre and other natives told us such wonders!’ ”

“As a symbol of possession he built a heap of stones in the form of an altar, and that posterity might not accuse them of falsehood, they inscribed the name of the King of Castile here and there on the tree trunks on both slopes of that summit, erecting several heaps of stones.”

“Not only is Vasco Nuñez reconciled to the Catholic King, [Ferdinand]who was formerly vexed with him, but he now enjoys the highest favour. For the King has loaded him and the majority of his men with privileges and honours, and has rewarded their daring exploits.”

Yes well, that sort of honour-loading seldom ends well. Pedro Arias, Governor of Darien, didn’t appreciate having to take all matters of importance to Balboa, the new Adelantado of the South Sea, and the regions of  Panama and Coiba, and in January 1519 set him up and had him beheaded for treason.

The letters from Martyr to the Pope are compiled in the most excellent De Orbe Novo. I also found an account of Balboa in a school book under the headings ‘Early Life and Exploration’, ‘Seeing the Pacific Ocean’,  and ‘Death’.  The picture is borrowed from Fine Art America  (available as cards, prints, etc), and chosen because that’s what you’d do if you discovered an ocean, isn’t it? You’d run into it with all your clothes on.

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Monkey Jumps

I’ve seen monkeys work up the courage to jump, change their minds, jump and miss, but I’d never seen a monkey bridge, so I’ve included it – please excuse the quality.

I thought about posting this under the title ‘Neck Exercises’. For the first month or so, it was a case of ratcheting my head backwards over a series of notches until my chin was pointed to the sky and I was ready for monkey action, but eventually my neck got longer and more flexible, ending up like one of those cheap desk lamps. There are three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species in abundance here: howlers, capuchins and spider monkeys.  Capuchins are deemed to be the most intelligent, however spider monkeys are the most riveting; fluid movers who appear to have a lot of fun.

I thought a lot about Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, as I waited under trees getting bitten.  Jane Goodall has a long, bendy neck. Goodall winged her way into studying chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania without experience or qualifications (which, with the support of Louis Leakey, she swiftly accumulated), and it was her intuitive, fresh  observations that revolutionised our thinking about primates and our uncomfortably close evolutionary connections with them.  Her findings were shocking and amazing: evidence of toolmaking, the extent of group collaboration, cannibalism, but her anthromorphic approach, the way she named the individuals she followed – David Greybeard, Fifi and Flo, and Mike, and attributed, as critics would say, personalities, was controversial. Is still.

That was in the 60s. Suggesting – or rather, pointing out, that primates have fun, is still not a fashionable scientific concept, but I defy anyone to spend time watching  spider monkeys in the wild and identify what we regard as human emotions and motivations in their behaviour, from affection, fear, and joy to cheekiness, sneakiness, plotting and cooperation.

 

Incidentally Jane Goodall circa 1960-1969 (minus the time studying for a PhD at Cambridge) is someone I very much wanted to be, as I grew up devouring old, damp National Geographics and books like Innocent Killers and Grub: the Bush Baby (okay, that’s confusing because I also wanted to be Grub – why did we have to live in a house? why couldn’t we live in a makeshift river camp?). Satisfying observations, a life in the wild, contributions to conservation; flip flops, shorts and Landrovers, and married to the rakish Baron Hugo van Lawick – it all looked great.

 

 

I refer you to Being Jane Goodall in an old copy of National Geographic. And Innocent Killers is still a great read.

 

 

 

 

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Eco-Goldminers

cz

I ended up in Costa Rica first time round because to ship the pick-up truck from Panama to Colombia and continue the New York to Tierra del Fuego jaunt involved dry heat, delays, expense, innumerable bribes or chorizos, and a high risk of petty crime. After six months on the road, and having had most possessions already stolen by 15 year-old crackheads in Belize while interviewing the Minister of Tourism for a travel feature), I didn’t fancy it, and staying put seemed a better option than going on. Most foreigners land here as tourists, a smattering still as hoteliers and retirees, but the first wave of visitors to Costa Rica came in search of gold.

It must have been frustrating for Spanish conquistadores, who saw plenty of gold dangling from the various body parts of indigenous indians, but struggled to find the source despite wooing and / or killing many of the tribal leaders. Still, they saw enough to keep trying, and wrote boastfully and optimistically about the wealth of gold here in order to secure the money they needed for further expeditions to find it.

(Having said that, there’s a description in the 16th century ‘Tree-Dwelling Indians of the Lowlands of Panama’ that makes it all sound really easy. Court correspondent, De Bry, describes how two courageous noblemen sent by Columbus on a reconnaissance trip into the interior had come across seven rivers: “In the sands of these rivers gold was found, which the Indians, who acted as their escort, proceeded in their presence to collect in the following manner: they dug a hole in the sand about the depth of an arm, merely scooping the sand out of this trough with the right and left hands. They extracted the grains of gold, which they afterwards presented to the Spaniards. Some declared they saw grains as big as peas. I have seen with my own eyes a shapeless ingot similar to a round river stone, which was . . . afterwards brought to Spain; it weighed nine ounces.”)

Costa Rica is named for the rich coast that Christopher Columbus described during his voyage down the Atlantic coast of Central America (1502-1504), although in fact gold hunters would have been better off on the Pacific coast, and specifically here in the Osa where pre-Colombian figures buried by the Diquis Indians have been dug up from time to time, and where the discovery of high quality gold around what is now Sirena Ranger Station sparked a gold rush in the early 1930s.

From time to time the Americans got involved, setting up a massive dredging operation off the coast of Carate in the 1940s, and later dragging heavy machinery into the jungle to work the rivers, but most of the mining and sifting was done – and is done – in laboriously low-tech fashion by oreros holed up in rough – rough – riverbank camps in the mountainous jungle. When United Fruit pulled out leaving huge unemployment locally, the number of miners on the Osa swelled to at least 3000. A few struck lucky, but most were subsistence goldminers, spending their days in icy rivers, their nights on mud under plastic sheeting, and, every few weeks, blowing whatever they’d found on guaro, rice, beans and prostitutes in Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe and the other hubs of Osa civilisation. Don Jorge’s Las Vegas bar in Sierpe took gold dust for beer until fairly recently, and there are places that still do.

From time to time they were joined by foreign adventurers like the French, Greek, Moroccan, Albanian Cizia Zykë, a foul yet charismatic – or maybe that’s psychopathic – chancer who wrote a repellant and riveting page-turner ‘Oro’ about his gold-mining fiasco here in the 70s.

Zyke, a former Foreign Legionnaire, gathered a motley crew of losers and fugitives, and spent a couple of years blasting, rock shifting and panning in rivers, snorting coke, drinking guaro and dragging under-age girls into the undergrowth. Throughout his life he carved himself a number of careers, running a night club in Buenos Aires, working as an interior decorator in Ecuador, racketeering in Toronto, setting up a floating casino in French Guyana and doing something in the Sahara – and there are plenty in Costa Rica with a similar CV, but gold miner team management wasn’t his forte and eventually his men hated him sufficiently to turn him into the authorities on drug trafficking, counterfeiting and intimidation charges. He escaped to Panama while awaiting trial and became a bestselling author before dying in France, aged 62, a couple of years ago.

Like many miners, he was camping in what is now the Corcovado National Park, and the government felt that mining and the stuff that goes with it in these parts – the river pollution, the tunnelling, the hunting and trapping, the gun-toting and the anaesthetising drugs and alcohol use, didn’t belong in an ‘ecotouristic’ experience. Since the founding of the park in 1978 there has been a (mainly steady) tussle between miners and park authorities. Initially there was a big effort to relocate them, and even some help to get ex-miners into tourism, with funding for tourist accommodation at Dos Brazos for example, but it all feels a bit fake and forced, and there are still many indigent miners in the park sifting for grains of gold in a low-key, old-style way. There’s a sporadic attempt to track them down (my neighbour, Carmen, still quivers when she remembers how armed rangers with flashlights surrounded the house thinking she was harbouring one), but it takes a lot of energy, cash and manpower and the penalties are feeble – for example, four miners caught a couple of months ago got imprisoned for three months each and are bound to go back.

This forest swallows up a lot of non-pristine activity. People live here, and not everyone wants to be a waiter; they hunt and farm, and fish and mine, just as they always have – and a lot of them like doing it because they get to live on a remote mountain surrounded by la naturaleza. Environmental conservation and the expectations of your average foreign ecotourist are tricky concepts for an uneducated miner living in a remote shack to grasp. They don’t care. Given there is little gold left, leaving them to it and investing the policing money into a more achievable goal might be the best course of action. What do I know.

Weirdly though, these illegal, untraceable goldminers are becoming one of the park’s tourist attractions, with an increasing number of guides and tour operators offering visitors, tired of monkeys and macaws, a chance to pay $50 for a hike uphill for a few hours and look at one. Oh, look! Poor people. That really is odd on many different levels.

Incidentally, there’s a great (old) post on Mark Meadow’s blog on ecotourists, goldminers, illegal activities, a night at a goldminer’s camp (not part of an organised tour), and he also mentions the next classic-by-a-foreigner-prospecting-for-gold-in-the-depths-of-the-Osa on my reading list: Goldwalker by Patrick Jay O’Connell (sadly not currently stocked in Fitz’s library).

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