By Christina Spilsbury.
The Wanted & The Unwanted
Until the 1970s the Nicoya Peninsula was an outpost of Costa Rica, mostly ignored by the central government and left to fend for itself. The coastlines were mostly uninhabited and what is now prime beachfront property was considered fairly useless, good only for grazing cattle. The incentives passed in 1973 to encourage foreigners to retire in Costa Rica created a market for beach development, and foreigners soon discovered the beautiful coastline of Guanacaste.
In 1977, the Maritime Terrestrial Zone was established in order to establish ownership of the first 200 meters of coastline. The first 50 meters from the high tide line was declared public property, and untitled property in the next 150 meters reverted to the state. The law allows the government to grant concessions for the occupation and use of the 150 meters Restricted Zone. With the ownership of these beachfront properties established, the stage was set for a major real estate boom.
The failure of the first “tourist boom” came with the war in Nicaragua. Developments were abandoned, buildings were left unoccupied and often unfinished. And Guanacaste became a haven for a different kind of entrepreneur, one who saw the government´s neglect as an asset, those who operated “under the radar”. Tamarindo´s main asset for these profiteers and those who preferred to be “off grid” was its remoteness, proximity to the war zone and its airstrip. In the 1980s, a long-time expat said that Tamarindo attracted two kinds of people: the Wanted and the Unwanted.
The Sandinistas were a rebel army responsible for overthrowing the dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Somoza had invaded Costa Rica on a few occasions and was very unpopular here. The Sandinistas enjoyed popular support in Costa Rica, and many of the most important leaders of the party were given asylum in the country. Costa Rica was part of the arms pipeline that started in Cuba and ended in the battlefields of Nicaragua. A Costa Rican congressional investigation, whose report was made public in 1981, concluded that approximately 1 million pounds of arms and munitions passed through Costa Rica to the Sandinistas between December 1978 through July 1979.
Eden Pastora, known as Comandante Zero, was the leader of the Southern Front, the largest rebel militia in southern Nicaragua. Pastora soon became disenchanted with the Sandinista leadership, and at the end of 1982 he formed the ARDE to confront the Sandinista leadership politically and militarily. Other factions opposed to the Sandinista´s politics and policies were formed in northern Nicaragua and along the miskito coast. These opposition groups became known collectively as the Contras, and were openly supported by Ronald Reagan. “The Sandinista rule is a Communist reign of terror,” President Reagan told that nation in a televised address in 1983. “Many of those who fought alongside the Sandinistas saw their revolution betrayed. They were denied power in the new government. Some were imprisoned, others exiled. Thousands who fought with the Sandinistas have taken up arms against them and are now called the Contras. They are freedom fighters.”
Eden Pastora moved his base of operations to Junquillal just south of Tamarindo where he worked as a fisherman. Pastora was not popular with Oliver North and the other U.S. government officials who were supporting the Contra´s efforts because he was not willing to subordinate himself to their demands. Pastora´s greatest support came from the Panamanian President Torrijos and from Manuel Noriega who helped set up a resupply network for the ARDE.
By May 1986, when Oscar Arias was elected president of Costa Rica, it was estimated that 20% of the cocaine reaching the United States passed through Costa Rica. Cocaine flowed in and around the war traffic, overlapping and duplicating the clandestine network of semi-legal private airstrips and small charter and air flight companies. Arias dedicated himself to eradicating all the civil wars in Central America, and started the process by closing the clandestine airstrip opened by the CIA in Portrero Grande, just north of Santa Rosa National Park. (One of the best surf breaks in northern Guanacaste is popularly known as Ollie´s Point because of its proximity to the airstrip supervised by Lt. Colonel Oliver North. Those who are interested in the significance of this airstrip should read up on the Iran Contra Affair, a fascinating story of American officials circumventing U.S. law in order to further their agendas in the Middle East and Central America. Oliver North, former ambassador Lewis Tambs, CIA station chief Joseph F. Fernandez are forever banned from entering Costa Rica because of their involvement with clandestine arms and drug trafficking.)
The Legislative Assembly´s Commission on Narcotics and Trafficking examined the explosion of drug and arms trafficking during the early 1980s. Testimony compiled by the Commission includes many details about the clandestine use of the Tamarindo airport. “Case 282-88 pointed out that the cocaine trafficking had the collaboration of Colonel Edwin Viales Rodriguez, former Department Chief of the Guardia Rural in Guanacaste, who offered security for the flights that were made from and to our air strips. The landing strips of Tamarindo, Sardinal, Ciruelas, Coyolar, Las Loras and Llano Grande were used. From October 1984 to the end of 1985, an international organization of drug traffickers operated in our country headed by Panamanian Floyd Carlton Caceres, responsible for at least 10 shipments of cocaine, totaling approximately 5,000 kilos.
It is estimated that 10% of the drugs shipped through a country are given to locals as payment for their help in refueling, storing, and providing supplies for the traffickers. There´s an often told local story about a group of kids who helped carry supplies for a pilot who landed in Tamarindo. As the plane got ready to taxi down the runway, a big package of white powder was kicked off the plane, either accidentally or as payment for the children´s help. The kids thought it was a package of sugar, but the powder was bitter to the taste and they took the package up to Villarreal to see if anyone knew what to do with it. The story goes that everyone consulted was innocent of the powder´s true use. Their best guess was that it was a large package of lime, and they used the cocaine to line the soccer field in the center of Villareal.