Nicaraguan soldiers back on Isla Calero

February 11, 2011

RIO SAN JUAN – Nicaraguan soldiers are back at their outpost on Isla Calero, less than one week after Public Security Minister José María Tijerino announced they were gone. This week, The Tico Times observed several armed, camouflaged soldiers on the south side of the Río San Juan, on the disputed strip of land known as Isla Calero.

The white and blue Nicaraguan flag, which was absent from the photos produced by the Public Security Ministry last week, is again waving high on the south side of the river.

The Nicaraguan outpost on the south side of the Río San Juan has three small houses. More soldiers are also present in a small white house east of the larger outpost. Between the houses, soldiers with binoculars monitor traffic from several makeshift wooden watchtowers overlooking the river.

Last week, after conducting flyovers of the river and Isla Calero on Jan. 29 and Jan. 31, Tijerino, alongside Foreign Minister René Castro, announced that the Nicaraguan soldiers were no longer present on Isla Calero. Despite the soldiers’ absence, both Tijerino and Castro alluded to their possible return.

“[The absence of troops] does not necessarily mean that Nicaragua has abandoned the area. It could mean that the forces are hidden,” Tijerino said. “On previous occasions they have come and gone … and this does not guarantee that it is safe for Costa Ricans to return to navigate the river region.”

Since Sunday, the river was heavily manned by troops, primarily near the dredging project on the Nicaraguan side of the river just west of Isla Calero. The dredging project there has completed cutting a broad canal through a curved piece of land in Nicaraguan territory. The canal, which is about 50 meters wide, offers a more direct route in an area of the river that is exceedingly windy. A second dredge is also present  on the river.

Construction and more tourists have followed  the dredging project at the river’s eastern edge. In San Juan de Nicaragua, located where the river meets the Caribbean, heavy construction is under way on a new airstrip in what is known locally as Old Greytown. A Costa Rican company, MECO, is building the airstrip, which is guarded by Nicaraguan soldiers. San Juan del Nicaragua is expected to be the entry point for tourists traveling the “Route of Water” along the Río San Juan to Ometepe Islands in Lake Nicaragua.

Excitement at the prospect of boosted tourism has spread along the Nicaraguan side of the river. In the tiny, impoverished river towns, residents watch from raised wooden shacks as long cargo boats with construction and utility materials float past.

“We are very content with the progress of the dredging,” said Dario Sánchez, a resident of El Jobo, a small Nicaraguan river town with about 60 residents. “We want people to come and visit and see how we live. We have lots of fruits and natural products to sell, as well as beautiful, untouched jungle to share with people. We want to show this town to all kinds of tourists: North Americans, Asians, Europeans, anybody.”

Despite the optimistic outlook, people here remain wary of the possible collapse of tourism plans should the International Court of Justice rule in favor of Costa Rica against Nicaragua in the pending case at The Hague, Netherlands.

“The whole issue is exaggerated,” Sánchez said. “We don’t have any problem with Costa Ricans and they don’t have any problems with us. All we hope is that the case in The Hague provides a peaceful resolution for both countries, and that it doesn’t stop tourism from developing along the river.”

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