First in a two-part series
PUERTO VIEJO – Since her husband died three years ago, Marcelena Pérez spends her time selling coconut water, bananas and other snacks on the highway between the Caribbean port city Limón and the popular beach town Puerto Viejo.
At daybreak on Aug. 14, the 80-year-old woman saw something strange in the grass on the beach in front of her. A “pretty girl” in torn clothes walked toward Pérez.
The 23-year-old U.S. student said she had been kidnapped, robbed and then physically and sexually assaulted on the beach.
She didn’t say much else. She just asked for a glass of water and a place to sleep.
Puerto Viejo remains the tourist heart of the Caribbean due to an exotic backdrop and gorgeous beaches. But the area has a history of neglect when it comes to fighting crime. Thugs seem to act with impunity in the area, as many residents will attest. A movement to fight back is growing in Puerto Viejo. But at the same time, criminals in the Limón province seem to be growing bolder.
One of the victim’s professors agreed to speak with The Tico Times about the incident as long as the name of the U.S. university and those involved were kept anonymous, to protect the identity of the victim, one of six students in Puerto Viejo after a six-week summer course on conservation.
He added that the school, in the western U.S., has provided support for the situation since it was first reported. College administrators, following emergency protocol, assisted by contacting parents, paying for flight changes and providing counseling for those involved. All students will be debriefed on the episode.
Since 1993, two professors, also husband and wife, took students to nature reserves and indigenous communities in Costa Rica. The students dealt with snakes and sharks, but the isolated regions kept students away from people. However, the final week of the trip was spent on a beach-front property called La Caracola in Playa Chiquita, about five kilometers from Puerto Viejo.
“We anticipated being 50 yards from the beach and five kilometers from town,” the professor said. “The students gravitated to town.”
On the last day, the group sat down for dinner at the lodge. The students agreed to do the cooking. They made a huge salad, using organic ingredients picked up during the trip, for everyone to share. For dessert, the hotel guests devoured organic chocolate from the indigenous Bribrí community.
The meal was a success except for one awkward moment. A young man, who a staff member at La Caracola believes deals drugs, showed up to talk to the students. He apparently had met them earlier in the week. A student shooed him away.
The professors, who were travelling with two young children, went to sleep around 9:30 p.m. The hotel workers and teachers warned the students about safety. The college students wanted one last chance to enjoy Costa Rica’s tropical splendor. At around 12:30 a.m., the group, sharing four bikes rented from a local pulpería (corner store), slipped out and headed toward the city.
The most popular place in town on a Saturday night is Johnny’s. The bar on the beach and adjacent to the police station stays open the latest, too.
Johnny León, owner of the bar, said he remembered seeing groups of college-age tourists drinking the night of the abduction, but didn’t learn about what happened until the professor came by with a picture of the victim the following morning.
At 2:30 a.m. the bar closes, and everyone scatters. Johnny’s offers taxis to those that need them. The path to Playa Chiquita is “dark and dangerous,” León said. But the students had bikes, and they left riding them. They were sloshed.
The victim and a 24-year-old female fell behind the group during the trek back to La Caracola. A four-door, dark-colored sedan with distinct bluish-purple neon lights on the inside, and the back jacked up higher than the front, pulled up to the women. Five men, looking between the ages of 16 to 28, were in the car. A couple of them tried to grab the victim’s friend, but she escaped to the beach. The kidnappers snatched the victim and drove north.
They zipped through a police checkpoint in Tuba Creek. A recently passed law prevents authorities from stopping and inspecting vehicles without a reason. The police likely were not alerted until after the witness, who fled the abductors, called 9-1-1 from La Cariblue Hotel (a manager at the hotel confirmed that a security guard helped the witness call police).
At approximately 3:40 a.m., the professors were awoken by a thud. A police car had slammed into part of the La Caracola property. The witness informed the others students what happened, who in turn told the professors. A frantic search began.
The rest of the students seemed catatonic for hours Sunday morning, forgetting – only to recall later – large chunks of what happened. One admitted later to buying pot, a frequent indulgence on tourist beaches throughout the country. Those close to the situation wonder if it was laced with a stronger substance, and if it came from the visitor during dinner.
“Some of the students were so incoherent I could not get from them meaningful information,” the professor said. “I was furious with them for that.”
Authorities at the university, U.S. Embassy and the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) were made aware of the crime. A local security group, Un Caribe Más Seguro (A More Secure Caribbean), sent out a Facebook message to members about the car Sunday morning.
But the victim was long gone. In fact, the kidnappers already had abandoned her. The professor said the student realized she couldn’t overpower them, so she tried to outsmart them. She made comments that helped gain sympathy from some assailants and caused discord among the attackers, the professor said. After less than an hour on the beach, they deserted her.
She lay awake for hours on a beach in Bananito, about 25 km north of Puerto Viejo. At dawn, she set out for help and came upon Pérez.
“She came over here and we started chatting,” Pérez said. “And I asked her, ‘Where are you coming from?’”
In rudimentary Spanish the student explained to Pérez the worst night of her life. Pérez, a sociable woman with sun-worn features, provided the victim her bed – a mattress covered by pink mosquito netting catty-cornered next to the refrigerator that holds Pérez’s coconuts. In the cluttered cabin, the student slept for several hours.
At 10 a.m., Pérez and her son gave the victim a change of clothes and hailed a bus to Puerto Viejo. The family paid the $3 bus fair. However, nobody notified authorities the student was found.
The male professor wanted to look again on the road where the incident occurred. He prepared to leave La Caracola in a taxi when he spotted an ephemeral figure walking with a limp a couple hundred meters away. As the taxi rolled by her, the professor leaped from the vehicle before it could come to a stop.
He embraced her, asking, “Did you know two nations are looking for you right now?”
The student’s return commenced a five-day whirlwind tour throughout the country as she was whisked to an OIJ office in Bribrí, an indigenous community in the Talamanca Mountains, to OIJ headquarters in Limón, and to a forensics lab in San Joaquín de Heredia, northwest of San José. The OIJ possesses a 13-page report on the incident, the male professor said. The witness also gave her testimony to the OIJ.
But justice seems far off. No suspects have been arrested in the case. The OIJ would not comment for the story except to say the investigation is ongoing. Authorities seemed to downplay the attack, spending more time blaming the victim and the hotel instead of finding suspects, the professor said.
Members of Un Caribe Mas Seguro posted fliers advising tourists on how to stay safe in Puerto Viejo. The next day some of those flyers were ripped down.
Look for part two in the series in the Sept. 9 edition of The Tico Times: Using victim advocacy groups, social media and innovative security measures, Puerto Viejo residents fight back.