It took murder to generate action on Caribbean coast

Investigators suspect that individuals detained in a fatal stickup early March 2 may be the gang that has been plaguing the Caribbean Coast since October.

A massive response from police officials required the murder of a 17-year-old girl. The girl was shot at her family’s store in Panama near the border but died in the Hone Creek clinic

In fact, in late February, a police officer reported that crime had decreased in the area. There was no mention of a long string of criminality.

In addition, there did not seem to be much emphasis in the Spanish-language press or on television stations about the continuing problem in the Puerto Viejo, Cahuita and Sixaola areas. A.M. Costa Rica editors and reporters monitor such news closely.

The bulk of reports about crimes in that area came mainly from readers of this newspaper. Those who went public with the situation, such as Carol Meeds, faced extensive criticism from fellow residents, mainly through a local Internet discussion list.

Michael Cook, a Massachusetts resident who used to spend part of the year at Playa Negra, also has been candid with letters urging action on security.

Understandably those in the tourism business along the Caribbean coast feared that extensive publicity of the crimes would hurt business.

That is why tourists appeared to be easy pickings. Judicial agents detained five men and a woman Saturday and said they were suspects in a robbery gang that ravaged the area. The six were linked to three persons who already were detained within hours and days after the 17-year-old died.

The Judicial Investigating Organization attributed an invasion and robbery of the Hotel Sansanti early Feb. 28 to the gang. That was the case where the victims, 18 tourists, mostly U.S. and Canadians, were ordered from their rooms and held hostage for an hour while crooks sacked the hotel rooms and bungalows.

That night a Canadian family, tourists at the Congo Bongo complex in Manzanillo were confronted by at least five men wearing masks and carrying firearms.

Taken were cameras and cash, investigators said. This stickup is being attributed to the same gang by investigators.

The two crimes were the first public mention by police agencies. Presumably many of the robbery reports did not reach the judicial police central headquarters in San José. That agency also was deeply involved in other crimes, including a daily dose of murders and drug smuggling.

Equally silent on what appears to be a crime wave were the various foreign embassies. Although embassy workers are among the first to know about crimes committed against their nationals, no diplomat has even sought news coverage of the situation. They prefer to make personal comments to their Costa Rican counterparts and are not anxious to rock the boat too much.

A case in point is the U.S. Embassy where workers there decline to even confirm that a U.S. citizen has been involved in a crime. They cite the State Department’s expanded interpretation of the U.S. Privacy Act. Even though death extinguishes privacy rights, embassy officials will not even confirm an automobile death or the name of a murder victim, although embassy workers might be the most authoritative source.

Not a single tourism operator sought help from reporters in getting more police into the Caribbean coast area.

The robbery across the border and the subsequent death of Ayad Said Alsur appears to have generated an overwhelming response from judicial investigators. More than 100 agents were assigned to the case. They had the advantage of the quick arrests of two Coast Rican and a Panamanian national.

Officers said that two men were detained shortly after the shooting in Panamá. Officers carried plenty of evidence in their vehicle that linked them to the fatal robbery. There was a handbag belonging to the dead girl and even a billfold with photos of the family of victims, they said.

Agents detained the third suspect, a Panamanian, March 4 on the strength of an identification by the dead girl’s father. The father said he also identified the clothes worn by the suspect as garments taken from his place of business during the robbery.

With these three suspects in custody, agents moved to locate others. The investigation bore fruit early Saturday when eight simultaneous raids were conducted at Bribrí Centro, nearby Chease, Margarita de Sixaola, Catarata and Hone Creek. All the communities are close to the Panamá border and are in the canton of Talamanca.

Agents said that they found evidence at some of the homes of the suspects that could be linked to robberies.

And the Judicial Investigating Organization said specifically that agents are continuing to look into a number of robberies that have taken place since October and that the participation of the suspects have not been discounted.

The five men join the three earlier suspects in preventative detention. A woman detained in the Saturday raid was set free on the condition that she sign in with prosecutors.

The girl died on the Caribbean coast, but because she was shot in Panamá, the cases will be tried in San José due to a law that covers events outside the country that have an effect here.

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