Nicaragua sets up army camp on disputed island

This is a photo of the Nicaraguan military outpost officals say is on Costa Rican soil. Photo: Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública

Costa Rica’s tradition of pacifism is being put to the test, perhaps on purpose, by the Nicaraguan government.

The stakes are high for Nicaragua and low for Costa Rica.

The Nicaraguan government appears to have moved troops onto the Isla Calero, which Costa Rica says is national territory. The foreign minister, René Castro, said Monday that the country would carry its appeal to the Organization of American States.

Meanwhile air photos show a military camp on the island. This is the same place that figured in an intrusion by Nicaraguan soldiers three weeks ago.

Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, said over the weekend that the military operations along the Río San Juan were to suppress narcotics trafficking. However, José María Tijerino, the Costa Rican security minister, said that troops have set up tents and hoisted the Nicaraguan flag. There are an estimated 50 soldiers.

Costa Rican officials are sending an unspecified number of its own troops into the area. Technically the units are armed police. There was no explanation why Costa Rica did not occupy the island last week.

Nicaragua seeks to punch a channel through to the Caribbean to provide quicker access to the Río San Juan, which runs along the border of both countries. The land involved is owned by the Costa Rican government and not very valuable. So the project is worth much more to Nicaragua than stopping it is to Costa Rica. The goal is to boost tourism and boat traffic.

Tijerino, in a late afternoon press conference, cited the country’s pacifist tradition, and said that diplomacy is the logical course.

Major Nicaraguan newspapers headlined the disclosure that its troops were reported to be in Costa Rica, but editors used wire service copy generated in San José.

The conflict between the two countries began whena Nicaraguan dredge on the river dumped sediment onto the south bank, which is Costa Rican land. At the time, there were reports that Nicaragua simply was deepening the river.

Then photos appeared of a swath of land cleared of trees, presumably by Nicaraguan workers. The swatch looked very much like the first efforts to cut a channel from the river to the Caribbean. The last 30 kilometers of the river winds and doubles back on itself. A direct channel to the river would cut out most of that meandering and perhaps provide access for bigger boats.

Costa Rican officials have been shy in outlining what really is going on along the river. They spoke of environmental damage instead of a possible river channel and concentrated on the sediment dumped on the south bank. Because the international border is the south bank, a new river channel would put what is now Costa Rican land into Nicaragua.

Oct. 8 a rancher complained that Nicaraguan troops entered the property he leases on Isla Calero, but that incident seldom came up in official conversations. The probability that a channel was about to be dredged was buried in the middle of a security ministry release Oct. 22. And even then the ministry said the new channel was headed for a lagoon and not the Caribbean.

President Laura Chinchilla has said very little about the situation. There have been no demonstrations at the Nicaraguan Embassy by Costa Ricans.

The two countries exchanged notes, but the reply from Nicaragua bordered on the confrontational. Costa Rica plans to send another note protesting recent developments.

Castro, the foreign minister, said he hoped that a meeting of the Organization of American States would take place this week. Nicaragua is sure to argue that the land involved always belonged to that country.

Heading up the river operations for Nicaragua is Eden Pastora, the former Sandinista guerrilla who broke with Ortega and formed the southern Contras during the country’s civil war.

He is acquainted intimately with that area of the river because his headquarters were nearby.

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