Before sunrise Sunday, the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca community received a report that a U.S. tourist had been kidnapped near the beach town on the southern Caribbean coast. Local residents, the National Police and the Judicial Investigation Police undertook a hunt for the missing 23-year-old female, who was part of a visiting student group. Several hours after the initial kidnapping report, the student reappeared “like a phantom,” said one of her professors.
The details were hazy. A few students went out drinking at a Puerto Viejo bar Saturday for their last night in Costa Rica. The group was making a five-kilometer walk back to their hotel in the middle of the night when five men in a car snatched one of the students.
She seemed hesitant at first to talk about what happened.
“Certain people were told certain things,” said a professor on the trip, who asked that his name be withheld. “Largely to protect her parents, who she knew were going to find out. But then when it came to talking to the police, she told the story.”
A report on the incident has been filed with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). The professor said the OIJ typed up a 13-page single-spaced document on what happened. The woman also received an extensive medical examination and gave hours of testimony.
The two professors on the trip, a husband and wife, also asked that the name of the school be withheld until officials with the university had time to notify family members of the students.
The professors have brought students to the community-based conservation program in Costa Rica since 1993. This year the students spent six weeks traveling to nature reserves such as Corcovado and La Amistad and visiting indigenous communities. This is the first time they’ve had to report a serious criminal incident, the male professor said.
The OIJ report featured these details: Six students left Johnny’s bar in Puerto Viejo at 2:33 a.m. to walk back to their hotel in Playa Chiquita, several kilometers southeast of Puerto Viejo. Two of the females had split from the rest of the group.
The professor acknowledged “the students made every mistake in the book” as far as safety. But what happened next was unjustifiable.
A four-door, dark-colored sedan with bluish-purple neon lights pulled up to the women. Five men were in the car. At first they tried to grab the victim’s companion, a 24-year-old female, but she fought them off and ran away. The alleged kidnappers then took the victim and drove off.
The victim told the OIJ that what took place during the abduction was a “violent assault,” the male professor said. The woman was taken to a beach on the way to Limón, a port city 40 km north of Puerto Viejo, and was attacked.
The victim spoke “sufficient” Spanish, and remained polite throughout the ordeal, the professor said. He wondered whether that saved her life. “Using her wits, she defused the situation as best as possible,” he said.
At dawn, the kidnappers abandoned the student. Traumatized, she hid in the grass until a woman walking the shore encountered her. The woman helped her recover at a nearby house. The family attempted to call La Caracola Hotel but could not find a number. Around mid-morning, the student hailed a bus on its way to Manzanillo and took it back to the hotel.
One of two witnesses to the crime was in “shock” after the incident, the professor said. That witness later spoke at length with the OIJ. She left the country the next day on a pre-scheduled flight under “emotional duress,” the professor said.
The victim spoke from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. with the OIJ in Bribrí on Sunday. During the evening, the professors rode with the victim to the OIJ headquarters in Limón, where she looked at mug shots. No suspects have been named yet.
The next morning, the OIJ transported the victim to a forensics lab in San Joaquín, in Heredia in the Central Valley. She underwent a complete medical exam, and authorities believe her clothes could yield DNA evidence.
A call to the OIJ in Bribrí confirmed a kidnapping was reported, and that the victim is safe. An administrator said a denuncia (official complaint) is being processed by the OIJ. No other information was made available.
The U.S. Embassy also would not comment on the incident, citing privacy laws. The professor said the embassy chauffeured the U.S. citizens involved in the case between San José, Limón and Bribrí to help with the investigation.
The female professor, a native Spanish speaker, said she was aghast at the OIJ’s procedures and the amount of red tape they had to endure to report the crime.
The National Police said they couldn’t talk to the OIJ on Sunday until the office opened at 7 a.m.
Investigators had to be “pushed” to follow certain leads, including returning to the scene of the alleged assault on the beach.
“The victim, to put it mildly, is massively inconvenienced,” the male professor said.
On a drive back to Bribrí on Wednesday, the student dwelled on what had transpired since the kidnapping, particularly the extreme bureaucracy the complainants faced each day, the professor said.
“She did everything right,” the male professor said. “We told her ‘There’s hope you can do this. There are a lot of leads. You can help the next victim.’ And in the end she thinks she’s wasted her time.”
Correction: Due to a production error, a statement that the student made to the OIJ was framed as a direct quote. The quote has been removed from the story. The Tico Times regrets this error.