San Juan River Dispute Widens

By Adam Williams
NEWS ANALYSIS: Costa Rica gives Nicaragua an ultimatum to remove troops from Isla Calero, which Nicaragua seems likely to ignore.
Nicaraguan helicopters 

Tim Rogers

Flexing Muscle: The Nicaraguan Army this week insisted it will defend the Río San Juan at all costs. Lawmakers and top military brass this week left from San Carlos to do a flyover of the river and visit the disputed border region where Nicaraguan soldiers are stationed.

Despite diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua along the Río San Juan, as of Thursday afternoon, both nations remain in a standoff.  The dispute centers on the ownership of Isla Calero, on the south side of the river, a portion of which is claimed by both countries. The Río San Juan serves as the eastern portion of the border between the two countries.

After a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Tuesday to present recommendations to assist in resolving the conflict, an additional meeting was scheduled for Thursday afternoon to further discuss the issue. Late Thursday, the meeting was postponed until Friday.

The OAS proceedings this week followed visits by José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the international body, to both countries over the weekend. Insulza met with President Laura Chinchilla and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during a three day visit to the region, which included two flyovers of the river and the disputed portion of Isla Calero.

Upon his return to the OAS in Washington, D.C., Insulza presented four recommendations to the Permanent Council to defuse the situation.

Insulza

Diplomatic Intervention: José Miguel Insulza, right, the secretary general of the OAS, met last weekend with Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro, right. Insulza visited Costa Rica and Nicaragua in an effort to defuse the growing conflict between the countries.

Ronald Reyes | Tico Times

Of the ideas presented to bring about a peaceful resolution, Costa Rica was most interested in Insulza’s third suggestion: “To create a favorable climate for dialogue between the two nations, the presence of armed forces in an area where they could generate tension should be avoided.”

Although it did not specify, the statement was presumed to be aimed at the presence of armed Nicaraguan troops on Isla Calero. The troops were first reported on Isla Calero on Oct. 21 and since then, they have constructed a makeshift base (TT, Nov. 5). Although Insulza claimed not to have seen Nicaraguan troops during a flyover of the area on Monday, their widely reported presence on land claimed by Costa Rica is the basis of what has become a heated international dispute.

In response to Insulza’s recommendation, Enrique Castillo, the Costa Rican ambassador to the OAS, issued an ultimatum to Nicaragua on Monday afternoon, demanding that all Nicaraguan troops be removed from the area within 48 hours.

“Beginning right now, we are demanding that Nicaragua remove all military personnel from Isla Calero within 48 hours,” Castillo said on Tuesday afternoon. “We consider their presence on Isla Calero to be a direct violation of national sovereignty and Costa Rican territory.”

At press time Thursday, Nicaraguan troops remained in place on the disputed tract.

Castillo went on to say that Nicaragua has been the “aggressor” in the conflict and that failure to comply with the OAS’ recommendations would be a “mockery” of the OAS and other diplomatic efforts resolve the dispute.

“Nicaragua is making a mockery of everyone here today,” Castillo said.

Castillo did not mention whether Costa Rica planned to remove the estimated 30 members of the National Police stationed at Barra del Colorado, approximately 10 kilometers south of the Río San Juan, at the southern end of Isla Calero.

In response to Castillo’s ultimatum, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS, Denis Moncada, denied that Nicaragua was the aggressor in the conflict.

Although the meeting of the OAS was intended to provide the two countries with diplomatic suggestions to mend the situation, by the end of the session, it was clear that the sides were nowhere close to a resolution.

Other Recommendations

In addition to the removal of its armed forces, the OAS’ other recommendations were that the two countries consider creating new demarcation to determine the official boundaries, that both countries work together to combat drug and arms trafficking in the region and that the Presidents of each country be present when the two nation’s Binational Commission to discuss the Río San Juan issue on Nov. 27.

The recommendation to re-establish the demarcation of the border was presented by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during Insulza’s visit to Managua last Saturday (NT, Nov.7). According to Ortega, there are 137 points where border markers should be placed, although Costa Rica has certified only 17 of them.

“Placing the border markers will help us settle this issue once and for all,” Ortega said on Saturday.

The issue of demarcation is expected to be one of the themes discussed at the Binational Commision meeting this month in Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste While the meeting has been scheduled for months, due to escalating tension surrounding dispute over the Río San Juan, there has been no confirmation by either side that the meeting will take place.

“If Nicaragua asks for a bilateral meeting, we will accept, but Costa Rica will not go looking for one,” Castillo said Tuesday.

The OAS’s final recommendation, which encouraged the countries to join forces to combat the drug trafficking in the area, is a concept that many, including Moncada, consider an overlooked wrinkle in the border conflict.

“Some of the people most interested in this conflict are drug traffickers,” Moncada said Tuesday at the OAS.

There might be merit to his words. In recent visits by The Tico Times to Barra del Colorado and San Juan de Nicaragua, just north of the Río San Juan, many residents said that the only benefit created by the heavy police and military presence in their towns was diminished drug activity.

“That’s been the nice part about having all these police here,” said Guillermo “Memo” Cunningham, who owns a small restaurant and hotel in Barra del Colorado. “All the drug traffickers are hiding out and worried. It’s disrupted their business for a few weeks and made the town a little more peaceful.”

The isolated, largely unpatrolled rivers and lagoons of the region have long been a portal for drugs. Both the Río San Juan and Río Colorado provide entryways into the countries from the sea and, in a region with very little police or military presence, traffickers are known to carry drugs into both nation’s hearts.

Edén Pastora, Sandinista revolutionary hero turned Contra rebel, who is now in charge of Nicaragua’s controversial dredging project on the Rio San Juan, told the Nicaraguan television station La Prensa TV that he entered Isla Calero in mid-October to control drug trafficking activities taking place on Finca Áragon, located in the area contested by both countries. Pastora said the Nicaraguan military found 72 barrels of fuel, high-powered boats, satellite telephones, weapons and undocumented Honduran workers.

Although Marco Reyes, the owner of Finca Aragón, denies Pastora’s claims, cooperation to combat drug trafficking in the region could be an important step in fighting drug distribution in the region. Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua are listed on the U.S. government’s list of 20 major drug trafficking or producing countries (TT Sept. 17).

“We agree with and accept the recommendations of the OAS,” said Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro. “While not the prominent issue in these proceedings, there is a definite need to reduce drug trafficking in the region.”

The Clock Is Ticking

The timer on the 48-hour ultimatum issued by Castillo expired Thursday afternoon with Nicaraguan troops still present on Isla Calero. Should Nicaragua continue to refuse to remove its troops from the territory, which they claim as their own, Costa Rica has said that they would take the issue to a higher authority.

“We have been very clear: If the inter-American system fails us, if it proves weak, we will consult higher authorities,” Chinchilla said on Sunday. “We are willing to take it, if the case calls for it, to the Security Council of the United Nations.”

Should Nicaragua fail to comply to the ultimatum issued by Castillo, and if the OAS fails to take further measures, the first step in the resolution process – involving the OAS – will have proven ineffective.

“Whatever solution that comes from this process will be a peaceful one,” Chinchilla said this week. “Costa Rica is asking only for a fair exit to the conflict.”

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