BY GLENN GARVIN
PUERTO VIEJO, Costa Rica -- The sight of the young blond gringa,
the roadside in the gathering dusk with her thumb in the air, made Ricardo
Gonzalez bang the steering wheel of his truck in fury.
``Two girls murdered, and still the rest of them are out here
happened!'' he exclaimed. ``I'm telling you, señor, we don't have a crime problem!
We have a problem with American girls who go looking for trouble.''
A week after two 19-year-old American women were murdered and
left in the jungle underbrush a few miles north of here, the little beach towns
strung along Costa Rica's southern Caribbean coast are ricocheting wildly
between grief, anger and fear -- partly of criminals and partly that publicity over the
killings will strangle a blooming tourist industry in one of the country's most
Emily Howell of Lexington, Ky., an Antioch College student working
on a school
project in Costa Rica, and Emily Eagen of Ann Arbor, Mich., a former Antioch
student who was visiting her, were shot to death at such close range that police
have called their murders executions.
Authorities have no indication the victims were involved in any
illicit activity, and
two hotel owners said they knew the women well and had never known them to
engage in risky behavior.
But some residents of the area were quick to condemn many of the
Americans who frequent the quiet area away from Costa Rica's better-known
``We have too many tourists who go looking for danger,'' said
Manuel Marena, a
fishing guide in the town of Cahuita. ``They go looking for drugs, or they go
walking on the beach with someone they just met, or they do both, and then
something happens, and people say we have a crime problem.''
Costa Rica's southern Caribbean beaches are the victims and beneficiaries
long estrangement between the country's politically powerful and predominantly
Latino Pacific coast, and its politically weak and predominantly black Atlantic
It was nearly the end of the 1940s before blacks from the Atlantic
side were even
permitted to travel to the cities on the Pacific without a special pass. The first
highway connecting the two coasts opened in the 1960s.
The result: beautiful and nearly pristine beaches, mostly untouched
by the frantic
tourist development on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Perfect surfing waves break
onto a gorgeous patchwork of black and white sand. Dolphins frolic off the
shoreline. The hotels are small and intimate, rather than the big resorts that
dominate the other side.
The rustic feel of the Atlantic coast, coupled with its distinctive
culture, attracts a
different breed of tourists. And one strain of that breed is young women seeking
romance, often leavened with generous helpings of marijuana and cocaine that are
readily available -- the payoff from passing South American drug traffickers to
locals who help them.
It's a potent mixture that many business people in the area say
women take risks they would never dare at home in the United States or Europe.
Some of the most outspoken critics are hotel owners who say they
shoo away the men from the beach brought home by their young female guests,
only to find them slipping in through windows or over fences.
``I feel embarrassed to see the young girls come here and involve
these guys they meet on the beach,'' said Alphaeus Buchanan, who owns Surf
Side Cabins in nearby Cahuita, barely a mile from the scene of the murder. ``You
give one of these guys a dinner or even a cigarette and a drink, and he follows you
around like a dog. And the minute you look away, your purse is gone.''
Even more blunt is Arline Diaz, who owns the small Tropical Gardens
``Girls come here looking for sex, and they don't always know
who they're having
sex with,'' she said. ``They need to take more care. This can lead to big, big
Many of the hotel owners say the lack of care taken by some tourists,
with a hostile Costa Rican press that delights in publicizing crimes in the
Caribbean area, has given the beaches an unjustified reputation for danger.
``Look, I moved here from Boston,'' said Charlie Wanger, who with
Shannon, runs the Cabinas El Tesoro here. ``Boston's a great place. I wouldn't
have moved here if this was a war zone or a no man's land. And tourists wouldn't
keep coming back if they weren't having a good time.''
The Wangers said they knew the two murdered American women well.
``the Emilys'' had stayed at their motel several weekends. And while the Wangers
agree that many tourists walk a potentially dangerous line at the beach, they
don't think the Emilys were among them.
``I never even saw them intoxicated,'' Shannon Wanger said. ``And
bring guys back to the hotel.''
Added Charlie: ``A lot of the young clients ask us where to buy
they never did.''
The Wangers said the task of boxing up the women's belongings
to send home
was one of the saddest of their lives. But even worse are the seven little
half-Rottweiler puppies the women left behind, who even now go to the door of
their motel room to scratch and whimper.
``That's my last memory of those girls,'' Shannon Wanger said.
``Sitting on the
back porch of the cabin, laughing and giggling and smiling, and they had all these
puppies jumping all over them. . . . I always try to find a higher purpose in things.
But I'm fighting myself finding a higher purpose in this. It just seems like a totally
useless waste of life.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald