SAN JUAN DEL SUR— A horrific robbery and rape at a backpacker hostel at the southern Pacific beach of Playa Majagual has shined a worrisome light on what locals say is an increasingly dangerous and unpoliced environment for tourists on remote beaches surrounding the popular surfing hub of San Juan del Sur.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on June 9, five masked men armed with pistols robbed and raped a U.S. tourist and pillaged the hostel where she and her male travel companion were staying at Playa Majagual, 12 kilometers north of San Juan del Sur. The armed assailants reportedly poisoned four guard dogs protecting Camping Matilda’s, then cut the chained lock, bound the owners with rope, and then raped the guest and looted the hostel, according to owner Matilda Mercedes Caldera.
The thieves then made their escape in the owners’ vehicle. They sped past a police checkpoint outside of town, drawing gunfire from the cops. But the officers were without a vehicle and did not give chase. The abandoned getaway car was later found ditched near the Ochomogo Bridge.
Although the assault on the hostel was loud and conspicuous—the thieves set off a car alarm and fired a gunshot to test their pistol before leaving the crime scene—there was no response from neighbors or police. That’s because there are no police to be found in Majagual, Caldera said.
Hours after the assault, Caldera and her husband managed to untie themselves at about 3 a.m. and used a hidden cellphone to call the police, who finally arrived at 6 a.m. The rape victim, a woman in her early 20s, was taken to a private hospital in Managua for emergency health treatment and then reportedly left Nicaragua as soon as she got a replacement passport.
The Nicaragua Dispatch attempted to discuss the incident with San Juan del Sur’s police chief, but he declined to offer any information on the crime or answer any questions about public safety concerns in the area.
The level of violence in the assault on Camping Matilda’s has shaken the community in Majagual and on surrounding beaches; while theft is not uncommon in the area, the brazen nature of the robbery and rape has elevated concerns about security issues and inadequate police presence, locals say.
“There are no police. There is no security,” said one Majagual resident, who requested not to be identified. He said there used to be one or two police officers who would drive over to check on the area once a week, but those periodic patrols ended about six months ago.
“Police aren’t making much money and you have to pay them for gasoline. People will call them (for help), but they won’t show up, or they’ll show up days later,” the source said. “It’s gotten a lot scarier. There have been more thieves with machetes and masks recently.”
The source says that he used to tell others that most of the crime in the area was petty theft from turtle-egg poachers and the like. “But now I can’t say that anymore,” he laments. “This thing with Matilda changed everything.”
Meagan Willis, owner of Castaway Beachfront Inn next door to Camping Matilda’s, booked a return flight to the United States the day after the brutal rape.
“I didn’t feel safe being alone in my hotel,” she said in an email from the U.S.
She says on April 23 two men wearing masks and wielding machetes men ran out of the woods and stopped her and her sister as they drove down the road to San Juan del Sur on their motorcycles. She said the assailants robbed them of cash, a camera and their iphone before running off.
Although Willis called the police from her neighbor’s house to report the crime, the cops never responded, she says.
“There isn’t a police presence. Living there for the last year, I’ve only seen the police there maybe three times, and two of those were during Semana Santa. Also, when you do call them, they may or not show up,” she said in an email.
At La Casa de Martin, a local bar in Majagual, bartender Herly Jacamo said people don’t normally hear of crimes that occur in the area because they mostly go unreported. When they are reported, “most cases are forgotten,” he says.
A lack of police surveillance and lax response is also a concern in San Juan del Sur. Walking around the streets of the town, the police presence is minimal.
“Crime is a huge problem here, but it’s never reported,” said Kenny Nakai, who owns two food joints in town. He says concerns over the town’s tourism reputation and image also deter some people from reporting crimes.
Willis says failing to report crimes is counterproductive. She thinks people are afraid to report crimes because they fear it will hurt the tourism business, but she says their silence becomes an accomplice to crime.
“This only lets thieves get away with it,” Willis says. “Maybe if we get it out there we can actually prevent some crimes and make Nicaragua as safe as businesses and the government make it seem.”
Another San Juan del Sur resident who requested anonymity said many people do not trust the police because sometimes they are involved in the crimes. One police officer who worked for five years in San Juan del Sur was allegedly involved in several crimes committed in the area before he was shot dead in October 2011 by a U.S. expat who caught him in an attempted robbery in Tola.
Locals say the cops are mostly feckless. “Police don’t catch the robbers, and if they do, there are no consequences. This only encourages crime,” the source charged.
Still, tourists say taking risks is a part of traveling because crime is a universal hazard. Argentine tourist Matias Garcia sits on the beach outside Matilda’s and stares out past the white sand at the crashing waves.
“I’m scared something could happen to me,” he says; “but it could happen anywhere at any beach.”