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Why Nicaragua and Costa Rica are in a tense standoff over a remote swamp

Costa Rica and Nicaragua are at loggerheads over control of a remote island on the San Juan River. Google Maps and The Hague have been sucked into the dispute.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent, Staff writer / November 30, 2010

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla released a dove during a peace march in San Jose on Nov. 12. Both she and Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, have been accused of quietly fanning the conflict between their nations.

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

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Río San Juan, Nicaragua; and Mexico City

A simmering border dispute over a remote swamp island is threatening bilateral ties between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and putting regional stability at risk.

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The conflict erupted in October, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began a controversial dredging project to redirect the San Juan River – a Nicaraguan-controlled waterway that forms part of the border – farther south for "historical" accuracy. Fifty Nicaraguan troops soon followed and set up camp on a narrow stretch of disputed land near Costa Rica's Calero Island, ostensibly to combat drug trafficking.

While Costa Rica and other regional neighbors have asked Nicaragua to withdraw its troops from the area, Mr. Ortega says his soldiers are on Nicaraguan soil and accuses Costa Rica of manufacturing “disproportionate lies about invasion” in an attempt to block Nicaragua from dredging its river and reclaiming its natural resource. A Nicaraguan government white paper released this week accuses Costa Rica of being historically manipulative and dishonest aggressor nation with an expansionist goal of seeking “direct access to the Lake of Nicaragua and San Juan River."

Costa Rica claims it’s Nicaragua that has crossed the fence to usurp neighboring land. Even Google Maps was pulled into the fray when Nicaragua pointed to the Internet application as further proof that the sand-dredging mission was on Nicaraguan soil. Google modified its map, but the standoff shows no signs of abating, with Ortega using the crisis to rally his normally polarized country behind him as he seeks reelection next year despite a constitutional ban.

"With Google or without Google, we know where the border is," says former guerrilla Edén "Commander Zero" Pastora, who is leading the Sandinista government's dredging operation.

Along with putting out a capture order for Mr. Pastora's head, Costa Rica is taking Nicaragua to The Hague, with a preliminary hearing set for Jan. 11 to 13. At the hearing, the International Court of Justice will rule on Costa Rica’s demand that Nicaragua withdraw its troops from the disputed area and halt the dredging until the final border issue is resolved – a process that could take another four years.

Impact on regional ties

Nicaragua and Costa Rica are not alone regionally in butting heads over a shared border. From Chile and Bolivia to Colombia and Venezuela, many skirmishes have blemished regional kinship and affected attitudes on xenophobia, diplomatic relations, and integration between nations.

"These small situations can become much more complicated," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "There is the trade question, the immigration question, the connections between both societies. All of that could suffer."

Across Latin America, disputes over land and sea boundaries are as old as the nations themselves. Perhaps the most contentious is a sea outlet Bolivia lost to Chile 150 years ago. Peru is also disputing with Chile over a sea boundary. Colombia and Venezuela disagree over where lines are drawn in the Gulf of Venezuela, which is rich in hydrocarbons. Venezuela claims a large chunk of Guyana. Tensions also flared between Peru and Ecuador in the mid-1990s over territory.

Disputes in the region have rarely turned bloody, though there are exceptions: the 1879 War of the Pacific between Chile and Bolivia, the 1932 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, and the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. But by and large, border differences brew peacefully, says Stephen Rabe of the University of Texas, Dallas.

Sara Miller Llana

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