Crime a growing concern on Nicaragua’s beaches

Residents say police presence is minimal on the tourist beaches surrounding San Juan del Sur

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.

Antonio Sáenz and Matilda Mercedes Caldera, owners of Camping Maltilda’s, recount the events of June 9 (photo/ Ronald Valencia)

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.”

 

 

  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    How come this hotel owners don’t hire security(a dog doesn’t count)?

  • Devry

    I saw this change in Costa Rica 15 years ago, the gap between those with money and those without grows as does tourism, it is a difficult thing to grow one without the other. Las Penitas, come on down your the next contestant on the how to grow tourism show! Lets hope we can do it better and safer here in our community, so sorry for those unfortunate tourists who where harmed. Shame!

  • Adam Clarke

    I agree that the policing of tourist areas in this country is a joke. Here on Little Corn the local businesses are expected to feed and house any police who come here, or they don’t bother coming. When a specific incident occurs they come for a couple of hours, occasionally apprehend someone, and even if they have solid proof e.g. possession of specific stolen items and eye witness reports, then they generally let the culprits loose after a day or two, even when the victims of the crime have travelled to Big Corn island to file the requested police report. There are notices on this island about theft being against the law, but it seems these ‘laws’, if they even exist, are posted just to make people feel better. Its unfortunate that neither the government tourist authorities, or the local island authorities sees fit to invest in making Nicaragua’s growing tourism industry safe for our visitors. Any promises about doing so made are empty and unfulfilled.
    Fortunately crime here is rare, and generally petty, but it seems that local island justice is the only way to punish the handful of people who ruin some people’s time on the island and the reputation of tourism here as a whole.

  • car

    too bad. tourism, the driving force of economic change in nica is threatened and the brilliant ruling dictators do nothing except deport their political opposition.

  • mark druce

    This is exactly what I said would happen in previous comments to growth of the Pacific Beaches. When development only favors the rich and is not distrubuted to the basic infrastructural and educational needs of the the nation first, you set the scene for events like this. I suspect that the thugs or robbers were actually liberal, anti-sandinista, or CIA opperatives acting to destaplize the nation. Think about the helicopter crash? The Nica friends of Somoza in Miami are getting ready to take over the nation again. The USA can not leave Nicaragua alone.

    • Hefe

      If CIA was going to destabilized a country, I think they would do more than that…such as tainted chicken at Tip Top

    • Brune Raphael

      are you kidding, petty theft and the cia on southern beaches to “de-stabilize the country” ?

    • TC

      Druce, you’ve drank the cool aid didn’t you?

  • Leona

    Good article, Tim. People keep talking about Nicaragua being the safest country in Latin America and “fast growing tourism mecca”. This is a joke. INTUR’s PR firm has done a good job of fooling the U.S press and the Ortega government has done their usual job of trying to fool the Nicas. The police are corrupt and ineffective and country is not safe. I would never bring a family with children here and nor would i recommend tourists travel alone. Again Tim, good article and keep up the good work!!

    • Tim Rogers

      You’ll have to thank Claire Luke, she is the one who reported and wrote this article. Thanks for reading ND.

  • buenaventura

    Qué vergüenza que esto ocurra en la “côte d’azur” nicaragüense, con hoteles de 1000 dólares la noche construyendose en la misma zona (Hotel Mukul del los Pellas); y un serio problema de comunicación y seguridad para los turistas más palmados. Ojalá que el caso de esta chica violada sirva para que los turistas boicoteen el turismo en San Juan del Sur hasta que se arregle la situación. Por que a pesar de ser una bella región no vale la pena visitarla si los vecinos no colaboran a protejer al turista.

  • Carlotta Chamorro

    And trust me Tim, it’s downhill now.

    Popular wisdom has it: “Ladron que roba a ladron tiene cien anos de perdon” in other words if the Nica president is a common thug, a thief, the top criminal stealing the in the land and the Land, why the hell the smaller criminals won’t steal, cheat or commit murder?

    Time to leave Nicaragua, while you can. Or join the fun and the next take over is coming. Never a dull moment in the tropics!

  • Hal

    I’ve travelled in Nicaragua several times and I enjoy the people and the place. I assure you: this article gets my attention. Certainly, petty theft is a problem and a nuisance for travellers. But this type of violent crime is a huge jump from petty theft. Those involved must be caught and brought to justice. My heart goes out to the victims.

  • joe

    My 2 cordobas….The animals who committed these crimes need to be hunted down and prosecuted. They are not only a danger to the tourists, but a liability to every nicaraguan who is trying to make an honest living. These criminals most likely started out as petty thieves and graduated to robbery and rape. Each crime that they committ and get away with will embolden them. Murder will be next!
    This incident needs to be kept in the headlines until they are caught.
    I recomend that the Dispatch should post the mailing address of the SJDS Police Station so concerned citizens, business owners, and tourists can donate $ to fund the investigation. A public reward should be offered for information leading to their prosecution. I am confident that this venue could raise $10,000 USD fairly quickly. It would be a most effective investment for everyones well being, and a message to those thinking about committing these types of crimes. Finally, If you poisoned my dogs, you would hope the police catch you before I do!
    Zero Tolerance for violent crimes!

  • Martin Nelson

    The principle victims of crime in this country are the Nicaraguans themselves. Ask any local and he or she will tell you about the baracho who steals clothes off the clotheslines, chickens from the back yard, cell phones from their neighbors. Ask any neighbor if he or she knows a wife that is regularly beaten. All these suffering folks know the police can not or will not help, and they know that if they report crime they will be punished. Its a lawless country and until and until their in an independent judiciary nothing will change.

    • Dav

      I am retired and have lived in San Juan the last 2 years. I don’t walk in town late at night or on lonely streets. If I go out, I park atv at restaurant .
      My dog sleeps in the house,(the dog is the alarm, nothing more. we have 24/7 security, nicovale , the machete hangs on the wall. If the govt did anything, they should make it easier for people like me to obtain a firearm. I don’t want the police, their useless. aIl i want is a gun.

  • Paige M

    I am a 20 something American living in San Jose, CR. I have been here since January, and visited San Juan del Sur about 2 months ago. I can say I was anything but impressed, and didn’t feel safe at all. The town is dark, there are NO police, and I noticed (interestingly) there seems to be no local women throughout the town – groups of local men would be in the streets all night. This was pretty unsettling for a group of 4 young women traveling. I was impressed with our particular hostile, however it’s not uncommon to find the “security guard” asleep the next morning – not very assuring. I won’t be returning to Nicaragua. The distinction between Nicaragua and CR was astounding, and very sad.

    • Rebecca Ore

      I live in a part of Nicaragua where the local women are out on the streets until probably 9 or 10 p.m. (I’m rarely out later than around 8 and then generally only on my block). San Juan del Sur isn’t all of Nicaragua and parts of Costa Rica are safer than others, too.

      Use what the residents do as an indication of how safe over all a place is. I picked the place where I live now because of this. If the resident women don’t travel alone, then the foreign women shouldn’t either. Poor women don’t sent their children to the grocery to pick up items if the neighborhood is infested with thieves, either (something I saw in NYC and if I was walking into a neighborhood after school and didn’t see children out, I turned around and walked away). Pay attention to what the residents do.

      The thing with beach vacations is that people are there to be in speedos and bikinis, flirting and swimming. They generally don’t come if they have to worry too much about security. I suspect the hotels will have to hire their own guards and work out something to help the local police hire more dedicated beach patrols. Tourism in poor places needs saturation policing, and the industry needs to generate enough tax income to pay for that. It’s not cheap, and a poor country isn’t going to lose money to make private industry money on tourism.

      Poor parts of the US have had the same problem with developers building things out in the middle of nowhere, multi-story buildings in some cases, up on a 4,000 foot mountain, and trying to turn over services to the locality when the taxes paid don’t cover road maintenance, much less the extended police patrols, garbage pickup, water supplies, sewage systems, and fire fighting that the residents of these places expect.

      Some US tourist areas have off seasons where many of the employees are on unemployment and food stamps and county administrators see studies that show that spending county money on developing tourism is a net loss for the locality.

      If tourism pays for its expenses, it’s a benefit. If it costs the locality, not so much.

      Charleston, SC, has a thriving tourist industry in one of the poorer cities in the US. It also puts a cop on about every block in the tourist area, many of them minorities (who find tourists amazingly dense at times). Most tourists also know not to go north of Broad.

    • Surfnica

      Paige,

      You couldn’t be further from the truth..You live in a city where there on average 3 home invasions per day and when you get the time let me know a safer beach town in CR then SJDS…I’ve been here for 10yrs, no bars on the windows, and nothings ever happened to me or my visitors…In CR we have all been robbed more then once as well as my friends who live there…So I guess you are right there is a big distinction between Nicaragua and Costa Rica…

      All the best

  • nicachica

    While this is a horrible example of violence against these people, I must admit that when I see young American women strolling around beach communities barely clothed, I wonder what they are thinking! Put some clothes on, chicas! While it may be okay to walk around with a tiny bikini in the states, it is a different matter here. Also, chicos, put on a shirt and pull your shorts up closer to your navel….no one likes to see a dude’s pubic hair! Just my two cents worth…..

    • Cory

      Why would you ever write a comment like this?
      This girl was not in her bikini, or even on the beach. She was inside of her hotel room at 1 in the morning when men with masks and guns assaulted her.
      Think before you speak or write.

    • SC Nica

      Agree totally with non natives being respectful of customs inclusive of appropriate dress. But, appropriate dress or not, Nicaragua must address such criminal acts or recognize that it’s developing tourist industry is going to suffer tremendously.

    • Victim

      Dear Nicachica,
      As the victim spoken of in this article, I would like to say that you should be ashamed of yourself. I was asleep in my bed when the attack took place, and I hadn’t even been on the beach that day. Shame on you for justifying, even in the slightest way, the atrocities that I have lived through.

      • Elis

        Dear Victim,

        I was shocked when I read the news about this crime. I feel embarrased of what happened to you. I mean, you were here thinking of having a great time, enjoying the country, but this incident changed all. God bless you and I hope the Lord be with you during this difficult time in your life.

    • Joey

      No kidding! Tourist do things that just puts a big target on their back and then wonder why they aren’t safe in a 3rd world country populated with uneducated, poor and macho men. Duh. Get a clue. When in Rome do as the Romans.

  • http://ceihg.org CEIHG Managua

    The science of political economy, as taught by the North American economist Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty (1894), explains what has been happening in SJDS since it began to “progress” and “prosper”, beginning in the late-1990’s. Wherever the institution of private property in land predominates, progress (increasing population and production/commerce, thus increasing demand for land and resources) MUST lead to land speculation, an exaggerated concentration of wealth by landowners, and gross economic inequality. SJDS’s growth as a tourist mecca had come with benefits for a minority of landowners within an economic regime of excessive emphasis on private property in land and a gross negligence in not using those values to fund adequate public services, while relying on taxation of productive industry to foot the bill. While landowning renters and business owners in SJDS continue to benefit from the unearned income from the land values that grow with increased commerce, they must also expect to experience increasing social degeneration. The attraction of SJDS, apart from its beaches, was its small-town atmosphere and its tranquil more-or-less socio-economically equal population. With tourism growth managed for almost exclusive purpose of private wealth-building (including the selling off of communal lands for private profit by past (and present?) alcaldes – ask the locals) the level of inequality and crime has increased as the poor majority perceive little benefit from SJDS’s “progress.” The the structural (long-term sustainable) solution is the public collection of land values for public funding and the untaxing of ALL private values (wages, earning on productive capital, commerce, etc.). Meanwhile, yes, you will need a lot more very well-paid police to protect you from the steady growth of more and more brazen acts of crime.

  • MARITZA

    To Rebecca regarding your comment. The criminals will not bother local women that are on the street late at night because they have no MONEY. They will always bother and steal from tourists because they have MONEY. Face it. Nicaragua is not a safe destination and the Ortega Government is doing nothing to fix the problem. I live in Miami and travel to Nicaragua for business and do not feel safe.

  • Brune Raphael

    The Policing powers that be need to wake up and smell the coffee. The tourists will all go home and tell friends and no one will come back, if INTUR really wants tourists it must invest in public safety, regardless of who it is , or how much money they have or do not have. There are bad people all over the world, but to not follow through or to only slap the hand of these criminals will do no good for the country wanting to grow it’s tourism. I own a house in SJDS and my family wanted to go there last week with their 3 kids and I said NO, I do not feel good about these machete wielding robbers. Something must be done to support the police, however one comment suggested the police are in on it, and I agree there are good cops and bad cops. I always tell friends they can stay at my house but take nothing of value with them, and if my friends are not male and physically fit I tell them to go to somewhere else , not Nicaragua. This has been escalating and something must be done, the Ex Pat that shot that cop in Tola, as he tried to rob him was very lucky to survive the incident. There is obviously no easy solution, but for the police to do nothing is really hurting the country as a whole.

  • roger

    And this is suppose to be the safest country in Central America ? Yeah right!

  • Kelvin

    Police say they have a few in custody.

    http://www.policia.gob.ni/prensa_nota2.html

    To answer Roger

    The safest country in CA comment was always as a direct result of the murder rate per 100,000 of the population.

    It was never anything to do with B & E’s, Robberies, Street Crime or Petty Theft.

    It was just a nice thing to say by people like International Living and the like.

    Of course if tourists were getting murdered as part of our 11 to 13 per 100,000 then of course it would have gotten some rapid attention. But because it was domestic, drunken brawling and machete swinging, the tourism industry chose to say “look, its safer than Guatemala or Honduras or even Costa Rica.

    On the tourist circuit, Nicaragua has always been known as a petty crime country, but NOT violent. It would be rare to be actually assaulted or injured (threatened or implied…yes).

    Being attacked in your own locked and bolted hotel with guard dogs and a shotgun toting owner proves the old adage…”If they want in, they will get in, no matter what”. Security measures anywhere in the world keep are designed to keep honest people honest and as well, keep the opportunist and petty thief away. These guys wanted in.

  • http://futfanatico.com elliott

    Even in major cities like Managua you have to pay the cops’ gas money for them to show up. Then they show up, write a few notes, and don’t really investigate afterwards.

  • mark oshinskie

    I am not a stranger to rough spots. I used to work in the most dangerous neighborhoods in NYC when it was at its most dangerous, late 1970s-early 1980s. I have been chased down dark streets and have had a big knife pulled on me. (I didn’t yield anything to the “youths)”. I have seen a man shot a killed 20 yards from me. I am also larger than most Nicas. My objective is not to boast but only to say that I am not easily made afraid of urban settings.

    Nonetheless, Managua felt different. I was there with my 18 year old daughter, walking down the street near that American-style shopping mall. We we among the only people walking. People were looking at us out of vehicles as if we were crazy. Two cops did the same. I asked them if my daughter and I safely could walk to the malecon, a few blocks away. They told me there were guys with knives on a specific point on that route, about 100 yards away. Just to tweak them, I said, “Si Uds. lo saben, por que no caminen detras de nosotros y arresten los cuchilleros?” They frowned, shook their heads and told me to get a taxi back to Martha Quezada immediatamente.

    Que buena idea. On the 10 blocks back, I saw two cops hammerlocking a guy face down on the sidewalk on a stretch we had walked through earlier. Score one for the Nica cops, whose salaries and pensions can’t compare to US cops, esp. in suburbia.