A year ago this week, three Nicaraguan brothers approached the Banco Nacional in Santa Elena, a small, idyllic village at the foot of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, high in the Tilarán Mountains in the north-central region of Costa Rica.
Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, the men opened fire as they closed in on the bank, shattering window glass and the calm that pervaded the sleepy tourist town the afternoon of March 8, 2005.
Two of the would-be bank robbers never made it to the entrance; they were cut down on the steps by gunshots returned by a bank guard inside. The third managed to enter the Banco Nacional and hold the employees and clients hostage for 28 hours.
Erlyn Hurtado, 25, finally gave himself up at 7 p.m. the following day, bringing the tragic standoff to a close. Nine people died in the meantime, including six of the 33 people who were inside the bank, one police officer and the two would-be bank robbers (TT,March 11, 2005).
As the country – which, riveted, watched the drama unfold live on TV – remembers the tragedy this week, the survivors are still trying to move on, and a new report criticizes police action that day.
Bank employees wounded in the attack, who lied bleeding and helpless as the life seeped out of their two coworkers and four customers, have returned to their jobs.
Nancy Ramírez, who, seven months pregnant was shot and then used as Hurtado’s personal human shield, later gave birth to healthy baby girl, Catalina.
Other survivors meet regularly, sharing their lives now bound by their common pain, the daily Al Día reported this week. Some speak of nightmares and fear, jumping at the sounds of explosions and sweating cold when they enter the bank.
There has been healing and solidarity. An outpouring of grief in the form of poems, drawings, letters and e-mails posted on the wall of the community parish house were compiled into a book entitled “La Paz Interrumpida” (“Interrupted Peace”) by members of the community and published later in the year (TT, Oct. 21, 2005). Tourism continues to be a boon for the community, and foreign tourists regularly climb the steps of the Banco Nacional, unaware of the blood and bullets that marked the bank one year ago.
A new report analyzing the police operation, however, is bringing painful memories and controversy over authorities’ handling of the case back to the surface.
Laura Chinchilla, Liberation Party legislator and Vice-President-elect who heads the legislative sub-commission that examined the response by the different security forces that day, wrote the report that criticizes the police’s handling of the hostage situation. It alleges officials were too slow to respond and had no clear plan.
Chinchilla’s principal finding boils down to one question, she told The Tico Times this week.Why didn’t officials move on Hurtado sooner?
Nearly all those who died inside the bank were wounded in the initial shoot-out between the bank guards and the robbers.
The police officer who was killed, Oscar Quesada, 44, died of wounds sustained when officials attempted to enter the bank 22 hours after the hostage crisis began.
According to Chinchilla, after examining the official reports on the incident and interviewing officers and higher-ups that were on the scene, the commission did not find “sufficient reasons for why the police delayed so much” in attempting to enter the bank.
On the contrary, she said, there were “three powerful reasons” that police should have acted sooner.
First, she said, the lives of hostages were in danger, evidenced when Hurtado killed a hostage almost five hours into the crisis.
Second, there were wounded and dying hostages. Citing the forensic report on those killed, Chinchilla said that four of victims suffered for 9-20 hours before succumbing. And third, she said, the negotiations with
Hurtado had broken down.
In addition, the legislator, who was Minister of Public Security from 1995-1998, criticized the lack of a clear plan, protocol or chain of command during the operations.
“Basically what happened was each person arrived and did the best they could,” Chinchilla said. “But there wasn’t a plan beforehand that guaranteed adequate coordination or a chain of command.”
Police Reject Findings
Jorge Rojas, Director of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), rejected the report’s findings, and criticized the sub-commission for not speaking with top officials.
“There is a series of people who could have given important information for the investigation and they didn’t take us into account,” Rojas told The Tico Times.
Among the officials, Rojas named himself, Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos, the chief of the OIJ’s Criminal Investigations Department, the Director of Police and the police Chief of Operations. Many of those officials were present at the crisis, he added.
Regarding the criticism of the police’s timing on entering the bank, Rojas said there were factors that officials did not know that affected their actions.
“We had little information. (Hurtado) said that he had a fragmentation grenade, that there were two or more (robbers) inside with him,” Rojas said.“Until we were able to get this information, we couldn’t enter. If we had rushed, there would have been more people injured.”
Rojas said the OIJ now has a new protocol for dealing with hostage situations, but insisted it was already in the process of revision when the Banco Nacional crisis occurred and was not directly a result of the Monteverde incident.
The police response to that incident, he said, was good.
According to the Judicial Branch, Hurtado this week was ordered to six more months of preventive detention. His preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin March 21.