In Central America, a Republic of Airrecú?

Gunfire erupted along the disputed strip between Costa Rica and Nicaragua Saturday.

On a patch of swampland between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, a rebellion is simmering.

On these 170 square miles, roamed by jaguars and lapped on one side by shark- infested waters, the locals want a nation of their own. They have the flag ready - and the national anthem - for the self-proclaimed Republic of Airrecú, a name meaning "friendship" in the language of the region's Malekú Indians.

The 5,000 residents - impoverished farmers, crocodile poachers, and former Sandinista and Contra soldiers - say they're tired of being a neglected footnote in a century-old border dispute between their Central American neighbors.

The situation here illustrates how even a small group's sense of being marginalized can fester into armed confrontation.

Airrecú separatist leaders claim to have received past offers of armed assistance from "international groups" that they refuse to identify. But they say that their greatest allies in the independence movement are history and modern surveyors, not AK-47s.

For their part, Nicaragua and Costa Rica both dismiss the separatists as outlaws, while doing little to resolve their disputed boundary. Meanwhile, a Nicaraguan proposal would put the area not under its own flag, but under water as part of a canal project.

Nicaragua protected the strip as Los Guatuzos Nature Reserve in 1990, but its residents say that under an 1858 border treaty, the land actually belongs to Costa Rica.

Omar Jaen, co-founder of the Airrecú movement and honorary vice president of the aspiring nation, claims the border area was erroneously marked as Nicaraguan territory in 1905 by surveyors who were unable to place border stones in the flooded, snake- infested swampland where the real frontier lies. As a result, surveyors placed "provisional" border stones several miles too far south on the first piece of dry ground they came across, he says. Over time, the markers were mistaken by both governments as actual border stones, with the result that Nicaragua was given a large swath of Costa Rican land.

Because Costa Rica never officially recognized the 100-year-old error, the marginalized border residents, who have been given no access to schools or healthcare under the Nicaraguan government, claim the best solution is to form their own country.

"Airrecú is already an independent nation without international recognition. The people on this land live more independently than most countries that have recognition," says Mr. Jaen, a Latin American border expert who has done past consultant work on border conflicts in Costa Rica and Colombia.

Jaen, son of a Costa Rican mother and a Nicaraguan father who worked as a border surveyor, charges that neither of his parent's countries now holds strong claim to the disputed territory: "This land does not belong to Nicaragua [according to the border treaty], and Costa Rica lost its right to it by never claiming the territory as part of the country."

Francisco Villalobos, Costa Rican attorney general for international affairs, acknowledged that "the border is wrong, and Costa Rica has accepted this for the last 100 years. This is a historical error, and Costa Rica wants its land back."

A small movement of Costa Rican patriots - spearheaded by former President Rodrígo Carrazo - has asked the government to recall all maps showing the erroneous border. But Costa Rica, in its attempt to mend relations with Nicaragua following recent disputes over rights to the San Juan River, has shown no interest in trying to reclaim the disputed strip of swampland.

The Costa Rican Congress last year formed a special commission to study the matter, but neither the Nicaraguan nor the Costa Rican government has been willing to officially acknowledge the error, and both dismiss the separatists as "cattle rustlers" and "outlaws." Nicaragua is especially unwilling to recognize the border snafu, as it plans to open a bidding process to build an inter- oceanic canal that would run through the disputed borderland, flooding most of Airrecú.

Secessionist leaders insist they are not outlaws, but simple farmers who must trade with Costa Rica for economic survival.

Jaen says Airrecú is a peaceful nation, but warns that many of its residents are former soldiers who have weapons and are willing to use them if provoked.

On August 2, a six-member Costa Rican police unit was attacked by 15 mortar rounds fired across the border from Airrecú. No one was injured in the attack. Costa Rican authorities said police were fired on by Nicaraguan cattle rustlers who were smuggling livestock into Costa Rica to sell illegally. Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar sent a letter to the Nicaraguan government last week denouncing the attack and requesting help to increase border security.

Airrecú leaders, however, claim the mortars were fired by separatists who were defending their property against corrupt police who use the pretext of contraband to steal property from the people of Airrecú.

"These people are not smugglers. They are the residents of Airrecú defending their autonomy, independence and security," Jaen insisted. "The people of Airrecú considered [the police patrol] an act of aggression."

Airrecú leaders fear that the clash will spawn a new offensive by Costa Rica and Nicaragua to nip separatist aspirations in the bud. "Now things are going to get hot," charged Airrecú's self-proclaimed president, Augusto Rodriguez. "This is what we had hoped wouldn't happen."

"This could signify the beginning of a violence that we don't want," Jaen agrees. "If it gets to this, there will be deaths on both sides, and we will have to use weapons that I can't even tell you we have. There are many ways to defend yourself in the jungle."

Airrecú first attempted independence in 1995, but the United Nations did not recognize it, and the Nicaraguan government threatened the separatists with military action. But according to separatist leaders, planning has continued behind closed doors, and Airrecú is now ready to make another attempt at independence.

Despite land mines left over from Nicaragua's counter revolutionary war in the 1980s, the possibility of rearmed bands of soldiers, and zero infrastructure, Jaen claims an independent Airrecú could develop an economy based on ecotourism, luring visitors with its novelty and untouched natural beauty.

"Who wouldn't want to visit a new and unknown country?" Jaen proposes. "Some of the most successful countries in the world are the smallest ones."

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