The winners and losers of Costa Rica in 2015
1. Costa Rican athletes
Costa Rica may be small, but its athletes held their own on the world stage in 2015.
Costa Rica’s best-known athlete, Real Madrid goalie Keylor Navas, shattered league records and is now nominated for the title of best goalkeeper in the world. For the first time ever, the country’s women’s football team, known locally as Las Ticas, qualified for the World Cup, held in June and July in Canada. While the team did not make it very far in the tournament, individual players have racked up impressive accolades. Las Ticas captain Shirley Cruz was nominated for the title of best player in France for her stand-out performance with club team Paris Saint-Germain, and was chosen as the best player in group play during the World Cup. Teammate Raquel Rodríguez also carried her team at Penn State University to the national championship, scoring the winning goal in the title game.
Ticos continued to impress outside the world of football, too. Cyclist Andrey Amador was greeted to a hero’s welcome in San José after finishing fourth in the Giro d’Italia, the most important cycling race after the Tour de France. Amador is now the highest ranking Central American cyclist in history.
Husband and wife boxers Hannah Gabriels and Bryan “Tiquito” Vásquez both fought world title fights this year, with Gabriels taking home the championship belt. Costa Rican surfers also rose to fame this year, with the country’s surf team taking home the International Surfing Association world title.
2. Christiana Figueres
After decades of disagreement, 195 countries reached a deal this year at the U.N. climate talks in Paris. A big reason for the consensus was Costa Rican Christiana Figueres.
As the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Figueres spent the last five years brokering negotiations before the Paris talks. Her hard work paid off big for the planet, with world leaders agreeing to keep emissions low enough to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. For her efforts, Figueres was awarded the Medal of Paris.
3. Costa Rican sovereignty
Ending a five-year bickering match between Costa Rica and its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands ruled that Costa Rica is the rightful owner of a 2.5-kilometer section of disputed territory along the countries’ eastern border.
The dispute began in 2010, when the Nicaraguan military invaded the small triangle of wetlands during an operation to dredge the San Juan River, claiming the territory belonged to Nicaragua. The ensuing arguments led Costa Rica to file a complaint with the world court. In the coming years, the feud periodically heated up with both countries alleging the other caused environmental damage in the region.
Though the court found neither country had caused significant environmental damage, the ruling primarily landed in Costa Rica’s favor. Now internationally recognized as the rightful owners of that part of the right bank near the San Juan River mouth (duh!), Costa Rica also continues to have the right to navigate the river. Nicaragua will also have to pay Costa Rica reparations, the amount of which will be determined in mediation.
Costa Rica’s most well known bovine hero, Malacrianza, went out to pasture for the last time in 2015 with his death in March. The 16-year-old bull was known throughout Costa Rica as the most fearsome toro ever ridden in the country’s popular bull festivals. During his long run on the rodeo circuit, Malacrianza killed two of his riders. The bull is now buried beneath a life-sized statue of himself in his favorite pasture on his farm in Playa Garza. Though the bull won’t live to see another rider, he went out with a bang, and that makes him a winner in our eyes.
5. Mark Lyons
He may not have won (or even finished) the toughest mountain bike race in the world, but Mark Lyons will be the name everyone remembers from the 2015 Ruta de los Conquistadores. After slipping during a river crossing in the first day of the race, 55-year-old Lyons was carried by the river deep into the jungle in Carara National Park. For the next 30 hours Lyons fought his way through the rain forest without food, water or shoes. Against all odds, Lyons was able to make his way back to the race course where he was found by rescuers.
The year 2015 marked a major shift in the Costa Rican government’s attitude towards shark fishing. The unraveling of the country’s previously stiff shark policies began in February, when government officials authorized the export of more than 200 kilos of fins from endangered hammerhead sharks. According to conservation groups, the export was in violation of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
In September, things got worse. In backdoor negotiations with fishing groups, government officials agreed to no longer support or promote the inclusion of shark species in international conventions like CITES. During the same meeting, officials also promised to review minimum catch sizes for sharks and to negotiate with couriers like UPS and American Airlines that had banned shark fin shipments on their planes.
Government officials have attributed these policy decisions to an effort to alleviate poverty on the coasts, while conservation groups have come down firmly against them. The new policies prompted Shark Project International to nominate President Luis Guillermo Solís for their Shark Enemy of the Year award.
2. Eduardo Li
Not even tiny Costa Rica escaped FIFA gate 2015. In May, officials raided the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland, arresting seven officials from international football’s governing body, including Eduardo Li, the then-president of the Costa Rican Football Federation (FEDEFUTBOL). In early December, Li agreed to extradition from Switzerland to the U.S. where he will plead not-guilty to wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy and other acts of bribery.
The most recent indictment, released by the U.S. Department of Justice, alleges Li solicited a $600,000 bribe from a sports media company for the rights to televise Costa Rica’s qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup. Shortly after the charges were filed, Li was removed as FEDEFUTBOL’s president, and he now faces up to 20 years in prison.
Thirty-two women in Costa Rica were killed as a result of domestic violence in 2015, the highest rate in four years. The Costa Rican Social Security System, or Caja, also reported a significant increase in the number of domestic abuse injuries treated at public hospitals.
The prevalence of public sexual harassment was also put on stage this year after 22-year-old Gerardo Cruz posted a video of a public employee filming with his cellphone up a woman’s skirt. The video went viral and Cruz was praised as a champion for women. On his way to an interview about his heroic confrontation with the harasser, Cruz was brutally stabbed, dying in a San José hospital months later. Though police later claimed the video and stabbing were unrelated, the anti-street harassment movement mourned his death nonetheless.
Costa Rican women can take solace, however, by opening their very own savings account exclusively for beauty supplies at the new Banca Kristal, the country’s first bank exclusively for women. Officials from Kristal’s parent company, state-run Banco de Costa Rica, say they founded the new bank to address inequalities in bank services for women, but Kristal has attracted more attention for its use of pink decor and special accounts adhering to female stereotypes.
4. Cuba Dave
U.S. citizen Dave Strecker has spent most of his recent life journeying through Latin America on a never-ending quest to bed as many prostitutes as possible. But thanks to a relatively new and obscure Costa Rican law, Strecker may end his days behind bars in a Costa Rican prison. Until his arrest last September, Strecker, better known by his online monicker “Cuba Dave,” was considered a sex tourism guru, and doled out advice on Youtube and through his website www.cubadave.com.
Strecker, now 65, was at Juan Santamaría International Airport on his way back to the U.S., when authorities arrested him under a then-untested law passed in 2013. The new law, an addition to the country’s human trafficking law, bans promoting the country as a sex tourism destination.
Despite attempts by Strecker’s lawyers to get the case thrown out, Cuba Dave will remain in preventive detention at the overcrowded San Sebastián prison at least until Jan. 2.
5. Grecia the toucan and Narco Paloma
The fates of two birds dominated headlines in 2015.
In January, teenagers attacked a black-mandibled toucan in the Central Valley coffee town of Grecia, hacking off most of the top half of his beak. The rescue center ZooAve took in the toucan and named the injured bird Grecia after his home town. Through a crowdfunding campaign, ZooAve started a fundraiser to produce a 3D-printed prosthetic for the bird. After achieving their goal, ZooAve contracted several Costa Rican companies to design the prosthetic while Grecia developed enough scar tissue to adhere it. Though Grecia’s beak has now healed, a spat between ZooAve and two of the 3D printing companies has led to delays in the beak’s production and the bird has now gone 11 months missing the top half of his beak.
Grecia isn’t the only famous bird that found himself behind bars in ZooAve this year. In August, police captured a pigeon carrying 14 grams of marijuana and 14 grams of cocaine into La Reforma prison in Alajuela. The pigeon, dubbed Narcopaloma, is now serving a life sentence behind bars for drug trafficking at the rescue center.
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