River situation defused as Nicaragua moves pipe

The situation along the Río San Juan that had the potential for armed conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua appears to have been defused.

Dredging barge has armed soldiers aboard. Photo: Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública/Paul Gamboa

Nicaragua has removed the dredge pipe that violated Costa Rican sovereignty. Eden Pastora, the man in charge of the operation, was overheard Friday afternoon on the marine radio band instructing dredge workers to move the pipe. Friday night José María Tijerino confirmed that the 12-inch pipe had been removed.

Pastora, a former guerrilla leader, had contended on Nicaragua television that the disputed land, an island on the south side of the Río San Juan belonged to no one.

Pastora is well-known in northern Costa Rica because his rebel headquarters used to be near Barra del Colorado. A fishing guide with Río Colorado Lodge, based there, reported he heard Pastora Friday afternoon telling workers on the dredge to move the outlet pipe to the Nicaraguan side of the river. The guide said he knows Pastora personally. Speculation in the area is that Pastora is staying at a hotel or fishing lodge somewhere north of the river.

Shortly after 1 p.m. A.M. Costa Rica learned that Pastora had been ordered back to Managua, the capital, by President Daniel Ortega, who was described as being angry at what happened on the river. The dredging was shut down.

Costa Rica officials surveyed the island and claimed there was environmental damage. A photo released by the security ministry Friday showed where a line of trees had been cut. Tijerino confirmed in the evening press conference that there was environmental damage. He said the river bottom sucked up by the dredging vessel destroyed a mangrove along the river.

The dredge is located in Laguna Los Portillos opposite the mouth of the Caño Sucio, which flows into the San Juan from Nicaragua. The river is Nicaraguan territory. The international border is the south bank.

Terjino said that all had returned to normality along the river and that Costa Rican police did not find any Nicaraguans when they visited the area by air and surveyed the damage. The initial report that came Oct. 8 said that Nicaraguan soldiers have threatened a Costa Rican farmer working government land there. The complaint said that the soldiers killed farm animals for food.

Eventually court cases for the intrusion and the environmental damage are certain to follow.

Despite his assurances of normality, Terjino has issued no orders to pull out heavily armed police officers and others who went to the area early Friday. They have taken over the local school as living quarters, and Barra del Colorado school children hope they stay because Monday and Tuesday are days designated for examinations.

The students hope for days off instead. Police are using the school kitchen to produce meals.

Involved in the deployment were the security ministry’s Unidad Especial de Intervención, other Fuerza Pública officers, air units, the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas and agents from the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad.

There was a report that the Barra del Colorado airport would be reopened for limited civilian aircraft Saturday afternoon. Officials closed and now guard the strip where troops are moved in and out.

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