DRAKEBAY – When clouds muffle the already soft illumination of the stars, this bay gets eerily dark.
From the shore, the faint reflection of light on the water provides little hint of what goes on in the open bay, while the lapping of the tide against a cluster of boats tied up in the center of the bay is amplified by the silence.
In the early morning hours of May 7, under similar circumstances, the mooring lines of four boats were cut, and three of the boats were dragged out into the Pacific Ocean. Well offshore, their motors – all made by Suzuki – were unhooked and transferred onto another boat. The hulls were set adrift.
The robbery in May mirrored exactly an incident a year prior, the only difference being the three motors stolen in 2008 were all made by Yamaha.
Similar robberies date back about a decade, according to DrakeBay locals and hotel owners, but in the past year thieves have become more brazen, as their take has become bigger and there has been little opposition and few repercussions.
“DrakeBay’s kind of like no man’s land,” said Nichole Dupont, the manager at La Paloma Lodge, located on a bluff overlooking the bay.
In the rainy season, access to this isolated inlet located on the northern shore of the OsaPeninsula is limited almost exclusively to boats and planes, as already poor roads become nearly impassable.
That isolation has made it a tropical haven for vacationers looking to escape the rest of the world, as well as a target for criminals looking for a place with little authority.
In just over a year, six motors were stolen from the little fleet of fewer than 40 boats that is usually tied up in the bay. It’s part of a trend that has been growing over the last decade.
In addition, many people say that drug traffickers take advantage of the area’s isolation to fill up with gasoline and unload cargo. Just a week before this year’s theft of boat motors, the helicopter that crashed with 347 kilos of cocaine on Cerro de La Muerte (TT, May 8) is believed to have picked up the drug in DrakeBay, according to the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ).
And since the local police have no phone, no radio and no boat, strange ships drop anchor without a single question asked – and they frequently do, according to area residents.
The only authority in the surrounding water is the boat belonging to MarViva, a nongovernmental organization that works with government agencies to enforce fishing regulations.
The Drake police station is a tiny, makeshift shack that sits next to the local soccer field and doubles as a space to keep soccer balls. The station’s only means of contacting other law enforcement officials is by using the public phone at a pulpería some 100 yards away.
“They (policemen) are so incomunicado, they might as well send smoke signals,” Dupont said.
Law enforcement receives almost no government funding, said Edilio Gómez Zúñiga, one of the three policemen in the community.
The electrical wiring for the station was donated by the town – although the only things it powers are a small radio and the overhead light – as was much of the building, Zúñiga said.
“You can see the structure where we work,” he said. “We work with our fingernails.” Just about everyone with whom The Tico Times spoke for this report considered the police to be of little help for anything other than filing police reports.
Because of the lack of effective police presence, as well as a recent increase in hotel room break-ins, many of the hotels lining the bay have hired private security.
The theft of boat motors happens the same way every time, locals say. A group of small boats from outside the area come into the bay; sometimes their crews claim to be fishermen.
“They were here, more or less, for five days,” said Alexander Rodríguez, captain for Aguila de Osa Inn’s boat tours. But, he said that while in the bay, they did “absolutely nothing. They didn’t have anything to fish with.”
Between five and six o’clock one evening, the mysterious boats all left.
“It was a distraction to make us think they were gone,” Rojas said.
Those boats returned late at night and hauled the boats in the bay out to sea, where a winch on another boat was used to move the motors, which weigh close to 300 pounds.
“It took three people to mount our motor on dry land, so there’s no way it could be done without a winch on the open sea,” said a hotel manager who asked not to be identified.
Over the past year, two hotels and four area residents were hit during two big robberies. La Paloma Lodge has lost two motors in this way in the past 10 years, one of which was stolen in May. The most recent theft was a 250-horsepower Suzuki worth about $18,000, Dupont said.
For the hotels, it’s definitely a loss, but not to the extent it is for area owners who use their boats for tour and taxi services or fishing excursions. In early May 2008, Dago Alberto Rojas went to bed one night after preparing his boat for the next morning’s trips and tying it off in the bay, as always.
When Rojas arrived at the bay the following morning, his 22-foot boat and 100- horsepower Yamaha motor were gone; the chain that held the boat was cut, along with those of two other boats.
Area boat owners quickly revved their motors and searched the bay for signs of the wayward hulls.
Nobody really expected to find the motors, but they still hoped for the hulls, Rojas said. He later hired a plane to scan the area, but found nothing.
Rojas said he had no theft insurance for his boat and motor, which were worth about $20,000. After the robbery, he had no choice but to go to the bank and try again.
“I didn’t have everything I needed for it, but I’m working with the bank, and little by little, I’m recovering,” he said.
Victims face even more frustration after a robbery as they try to get the OIJ to investigate the scene prosecute the thefts.
“The OIJ was pretty worthless,” said the hotel manager. “They came like two weeks later, and everything was lost by then. If they’d come out sooner, they’d have had fingerprints.”
Area residents say OIJ officials tend to resist making the two-hour trip from Ciudad Cortes to DrakeBay.
“They said (that) if we want to provide the OIJ with petrol money, they’d come down,” the manager said.
But few victims actually expected justice would be done in the end; they just hoped to recover their motors.
After this year’s theft, five men were caught off the coast of Puntarenas, approximately 10 hours northwest of DrakeBay by commercial fishing boat, with one of the stolen motors and the caps of the other two motors hidden on their boat. But, because there was no one at the scene who actually saw the men drag out the boats and remove the motors, no charges were filed, and the men are still free.
“These men did the robbery but, with the Costa Rican laws, because no one actually saw it, we only have the men with the motors in their boat and we can’t do anything else,” said Alberto Palma, deputy chief of the OIJ in Puntarenas.
Just about everyone who was interviewed for this article, even the police, expressed frustration over the matter.
“The judge is going to let them go unless they’re actually caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” Dupont said.