Dubious Transport System for the Nicaraguan Caribbean

Corn Island residents contradict the Navy’s statement that the capsized boat had been ordered not to embark.

By Cinthia Membreño  (Confidencial.com.ni)

Algunos sobrevivientes. Foto-: Jeffrey Arguedas/EFE
Some of the survivors were met by relatives. Photo: Jeffrey Arguedas/EFE

HAVANA TIMES – Last Saturday’s tragedy in the Nicaragua Caribbean – in which a boat capsized leaving 13 Costa Rican tourists dead, among them a minor – brought to light the shaky system of navigation controls that exists in this part of the country. Although the Army assured the media that boats had been prohibited from navigating since Friday January 22, contradictory stories have emerged regarding the veracity of this report.

In a press conference, Mario Corrales, head of the Naval Forces, insisted that navigation had been suspended in the zone one day prior to the tragedy, declaring: “not only that, but all of the vessels had been brought to shelter due to the bad weather that prevailed in both the South and North Caribbean. This event was the result of the negligent and reckless attitude of those vessel owners who, even knowing the situation, allow themselves to attempt these crossings, despite the risk.”

Florencio Castro, a Costa Rican survivor of the capsizing, told Confidencial via telephone that the climatic conditions were normal when he, his wife, and the other thirty or so tourists boarded the “Reina del Caribe” [“Caribbean Queen”] owned by Roger Hilario Blandon. The boat left the dock at Big Corn Island on the morning of the accident. He also assured that the hotel where they stayed had informed them that the boat had the correct launch permits, and that no authority ever approached them to impede their passage from one island to another.

A resident of Little Corn Island also affirmed that the waters began to become turbulent sometime between nine and ten in the morning, due to the force of the wind, and that previous to this there had been no launch prohibition in place. The version going around town, he said, is that the boat left the big island for the little one without permission, and that it returned to its launch site in the same way.

Winston Downs, coordinator of Little Corn Island’s communal government, stated via telephone that he didn’t know if Blandon’s motorized canoe left the dock illegally or not, but that boats were traveling from one island to the other until eleven in the morning. After that time, it was no longer possible to cross due to worsening weather. He declared that there had been rumors since Friday that things would get worse, but that the authority’s ban on navigation wasn’t issued until Saturday morning.

Miguel Gonzalez, expert on coastal politics and a professor at York University in Canada, assures in an opinion piece published in Confidencial that Blandon wasn’t the only one who broke the law last Saturday. “The notification not to embark should have been complied with by all of the commercial vessels on Corn Island. Nevertheless, other boats also went out that day.”

What’s still not clear is if the ban was issued by word of mouth or in writing. It was impossible to find a copy of the security measure on the Army’s website, so Confidential requested the document from Cynthia Urrutia of their Public Relations department. She first said that she would find out if this were possible; later phone inquiries were met with the news that her superiors were in a meeting and couldn’t attend to our request. We also called Colonel Manuel Guevara, Army spokesman, but he failed to answer his cell phone.

Infrequent presence of authorities

Whatever the case, the deeper question is how a tourist oriented vessel managed to leave the dock without the permission of the Naval Forces. According to the declarations of the Caribbean residents we consulted, this is a reflection of overall problems in the system.

Winston Downs of Little Corn Island’s communal government, explained that the Navy doesn’t have a guard post on the small island and that only the National Police maintain personnel there. Nonetheless, an inhabitant of the zone assures that even the latter work voluntarily. “So not even that functions,” he added regretfully.

Downs also told us that even though an embarkation permit is required of the boats transporting tourists, the authorities aren’t always present on the dock at Big Corn because their command post is elsewhere. “If I have my personal boat and want to leave for the big island, I can do so; if [the authorities] aren’t there when I come back – and they’re not always there at the dock – I can also leave again,” he explained.

“I don’t know if a conversation took place between the police and the Naval authorities this Saturday, because they should have been coordinating. The police come to the dock, but without an order from the Marine authorities they can’t tell the vessels not to go out.”

Miguel Gonzalez also stated that the authorizations to embark function in a “somewhat effective” way on the Caribbean Coast to assure safe transit along the most common commercial routes. In addition, he felt that the existing system for the authorization and monitoring of fluvial and maritime navigation has some evident challenges, visible in the number of accidents on the high seas related to changing weather conditions.

“Only last year the authorities reported around 15 accidents where boats capsized or faced similar problems along the Caribbean Coast; 25 people lost their lives in these incidents. The majority of the accidents involved local fishing boats, and many of the dead were indigenous people from the Miskito tribes, commercial lobster divers and people in transit between indigenous communities,” Gonzalez stated, considering that these accidents are “far too common.”

Among additional reasons for such accidents, the political expert notes the inadequate and insecure means of transportation; the lack of careful regulation of land, river and maritime travel; and the lack of expertise and caution among the pilots. “However, Roger Hilario Blandon can be accused of many things, but not of lack of expertise in maritime navigations. He’s covered the route between the two Corn Islands for 15 years with almost no incidents, until that ominous Saturday of high winds,” he declared.

This past Monday, the national police described Roger Hilario Blandon – owner of the “Reina del Caribe” – as a citizen with a past history of drug trafficking, who served out a five years sentence in the Bluefields prison beginning in 2003. After surviving the sinking of his vessel, he was turned over to the authorities, who will investigate the possibility of charging him with crimes of reckless homicide and endangerment.

A survivor describes the tragedy

Florencio Castro, one of the surviving Costa Ricans, told Confidencial that he and his wife had been planning their trip to Corn Island for a few weeks, after hearing “marvels” about this tourist destination. To make the trip, they contacted a tour operator from their country who organized a microbus to take them from Costa Rica to Managua, and later helped book an air trip from the capital to Corn Island.

On the return trip from his three-hour stay on Little Corn Island, Castro noted that there were “unusual” winds and “huge waves.” The tourist recalls that the prow of the boat was lifted out of the water and then fell back down several times, while he could hear those traveling with him warn that the boat was going to overturn. When this happened, he did what he could to place distance between himself and the boat. “I pushed off, jumped, and fell about three meters away. I stayed away from the vessel, with my life-vest on, and when everything calmed down I approached again and stayed there,” he said.

According to the Costa Rican, minutes after the vessel capsized a boat approached and its captain and helpers rescued the first survivors. In adverse conditions, with strong waves that constantly pushed their boat away, they managed to get a 4-year old girl and her father out of the water, and later the other twenty or so people who survived. Castro indicated that it wasn’t until sometime afterwards that a Red Cross boat arrived to rescue the tourists.

In statements to the Costa Rican press, Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solis expressed gratitude for the “[Nicaraguan] fishermen’s quick intervention” and for their collaboration with the rescue of the survivors, as well as to the government of Nicaragua for the solidarity and collaboration offered after the accident.

Three bodies recovered

Mario Berrios, head of the South Caribbean Naval Forces, indicated that this past Monday a land, air and naval operation was carried out to locate the bodies of the four Costa Ricans who had still not been found. The search area covered a triangle between Monkey Point, San Juan del Norte (formerly known as Greytown) and Corn Island.

In addition, he stated that a P-3 Orion plane from the United States was added to the search at the request of the Nicaraguan government. The authorities were also looking for the capsized boat, which had come loose from the civilian vessel that was dragging it to dry land at a moment when they were crossing though an area of reefs.

As the afternoon drew to a close, officials confirmed that the authorities had recovered three of the four bodies that had been missing. They were found some 70 kilometers to the south of the site where the vessel had gone down, and were turned over to the National Police to be taken to a Forensic Medicine site. A rescue operation is still in force to locate the body of 13-year-old Leyner Contreras.

Includes information from the Spanish news agency EFE