Saturday, July 18, 2009

Law and Order...

It is 12:30 at night, I've just walked a friend home on the outskirts of this quaint, foreigner filled surf town called San Juan Del Sur, and I'm heading back to my hostel in the centre. The streets are almost silent in this part of town and all I hear now are a group of local boys drinking at the side of the road ahead. Usually, at this point I would keep on strolling casually and probably even stop to say a few cordial words with this friendly group of Nicaraguans enjoying the the cool evening breeze over a few hard drinks. Instead, I become very nervous and unsure of what to do, so I gather my bravery and walk by rapidly saying a "buenas noche" as I go, avoiding eye contact. They see the fear in me and laugh at me, I'm embarrased and ashamed as I walk away, safely.

I've travelled for almost a year now here in Central America, and never until now have I felt such fear. This is a result of being robbed twice within a span of two weeks, once at knife point. As I've already mentioned, my board was taken from my hostel as I slept; the bandits preferring the unconfrontational methods of night time burglary. The anger over this incident was just beginning to subside when I experienced my second, and much more damaging violation.

I was having a few drinks with a lady friend down along the popular strip of bars on the beach. At about 9:30 we decided to go for a stroll along the beach, which as I should have known turned out to be a big mistake. We walked for about five minutes before we found ourselves alone, but the solitude was only momentary as three guys appeared out of the dark behind us. It was a little sketchy the way they silently came up on us, but as I said, I had this happy go lucky mentality at this point that nothing would go bad for me and so I really thought nothing of it. When one of the fellows asked me for the time and then continued walking ahead, he only confirmed my unconcerned attitude. They continued strolling, just three young fellows enjoying the beach like ourselves, until before I knew it they had turned around and rushed us, and I had a knife jabbing against my side. Another fellow pointed at us what appeared to be some sort of gun, but in retrospect was likely a toy. Just as I came to the realization of what was happening another man came running from the street and the thugs backed off. We were saved! A cop or a good citizen was coming to our rescue! As he approached though I could see that he had different intentions, he ran up to my friend and ripped the bag off of her. Now the three guys were fighting over this bag; this fourth thug had just robbed these hooligans of their robbery! I still stood there with a knife jamming against my side, eventually having my pockets stripped of a mere five dollars. I tried pleading with them to at least leave some important medical supplies that my friend needed in her bag, but to no avail. I talked to the police right after, and they knew who at least one of the guys was, but finding these bandits that come from the big city of Managua to rob tourists is next to impossible with the resources that the police have here.

I lost practically nothing of value, and my friend had nothing irreplaceable, so seemingly there was no damage done. The truth is though, that incident left a huge mental scar. Perhaps its good that I will now be more careful about what I do; never again do I want to have that feeling of helplessness and violation as a knife is pressed against me, but I don't want to fear people either. I feel like those bandits have left me with a sense of paranoia, even prejudice and that angers and saddens me. I didn't want to become another statistic: "One cannot travel for a year in central America without being robbed at least once", but now I am.

After these two incidents I had a new and unyielding thirst for justice, so I got more active. I walked down to the local police station with my English surfer friend Stewy, and there I demanded to talk to the Chief of police. I was forthrightly granted his attendance, perhaps because I was skillfully illustrating my frustration in Spanish, having planned my speech in advance. My goal was to make the police come with me to search for my board, as I had received information a few days before from a local property owner who said he saw the guy who took my board and he knows who he is. The chief was equally impressed with my determination, and seeing as he had another incident where an ATV and a motorbike were stolen in the same area, he decided to investigate. Now, for this to happen here in Nicaragua is something very special, as the police usually have much more important things to deal with then frustrated foreigners. They are paid next to nothing on a monthly basis, most of them carry no weapon in a relatively violent country, and they often have to hitchhike to different areas to patrol. In this case though, they pulled out the one police truck that the force has; four officers including the Chief; one rusted assault rifle; and one sidearm. We had to push start the old truck and then we piled in and headed down the bumpy dirt road. Stewy and I were now on a ride along with the Nicaraguan National Police Force.

The investigation started with the stolen motor vehicles, and after driving to a few different spots we were able to figure out who the perpetrator was, but were unable to locate him, a local bandit known as "Checko" or something along those lines. We then drove down to speak with my witness who promptly informed us that the this "Checko" fellow also took my board! He pointed us towards a few more places to search. At one point the officers wondered off into the bush to search a house and they told us to guard the truck, we were working now! It must have been quite the site for the locals who passed by. Stewy and I, a couple of dirty surfer bums sitting in the front seat of the only Police truck fooling around with the two way radio.
As it turned out, the bandit was not found, but the police have insured me that they will continue the search and will "interrogate" him as to the whereabouts of my board. In reality, I will probably never see it again, but it was worth the effort if not only for the experience. The police were incredible to do such a thing for me, and I am grateful. Hopefully someday their work will become much easier.

So that is my story of crime out here in Nicaragua, a story I was hoping to never have to tell. It must be said though, that despite a recent string of armed robberies, San Juan Del Sur and the surrounding area is generally safe and the local people kind hearted and caring. In fact, those most angry about what is happening are the locals, as it hurts business and generally just perpetuates racist stereotypes. Everyone I've talked to here knows about a board being stolen, likely because it is actually big news and is out of the ordinary. They are all extremely sympathetic when I tell them my story, and often seem ashamed that such things would happen in their own country.

Needless to say I've had enough of this surf town life, and today I'm heading out to a famous break called Popoyo where there is nothing but one hostel and incredible waves.

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