SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUA, is a fishing-and-tourist town of colorfully painted wooden homes laid out on lazy Pacific-coast streets where bicycles outnumber vehicles, where kids set up goal markers out of rocks for afternoon games of fútbol, where locals pass the evenings exchanging gossip on their stoops or attending mass. Always now, too, half-clad gringa girls stroll past in flip-flops on their way to Marie's Bar, where the party on the weekends spills out the door, or Big Wave Dave's, where expats line the counters trading notes on the day's sailfish catch, on the going price for laborers, on the quality of the local beauties, of which there are many.
Los Años Ochentas, as the Sandinistacontra war of the 1980s is carefully referred to here, is long over, though the memories of it remain. The men go out in their narrow pangas for tuna, for roosterfish, for bonito, for whatever they can pull in on their handlines. The women hang up their laundry to sun-dry.
I'd come, like others before me, looking to pitch a hammock on a stretch of untrammeled beach. Hearing reports of Nicaragua's beauty and safety from a fellow former Peace Corps volunteer, I'd left Florida in my Ford Ranger in early October with a couple of fishing poles, driven slowly through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and arrived in San Juan del Sur on a dusty Sunday afternoon six weeks, five border crossings, and 4,000 miles later. I'd been disappointed before by tales of paradise that turn out to be tourist traps, but my first view of the bay, hemmed in by two sets of cliffs like the Pillars of Hercules, left me diving into the surf as the sun set, wearing a smile as warm as the water around me. By noon the next day, I had a little house with a view of the Pacific for $250 a month.
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San Juan is small. Officially, 20,000 people live here; according to the local barber, Roberto López Mora, it's really just a few extended familiesLópezes, Chamorros, Calderons, Sanchezes, Danglastracing their roots to the time "before records." It doesn't take more than a day to start recognizing faces: the oldest beer-bellied expat with his young Nica girlfriend, the Rastafarian trinket hustler who promises he can get you "any-ting, any-ting." But also, the carpenter who makes furniture across from the park and the expat and his local wife taking their tawny-haired kid down to the beach for a swim.
Nine days after I arrived, on Tuesday, November 21, I walked down the hill into town in the evening to buy a few cans of beer. In the street outside the Miscellania Calderon, where I'd buy all of my sundries over the next three months, a huge crowd had assembled, everyone hushed and looking at something I couldn't see. Gatherings like this are ubiquitous in Central America; I passed it off as a religious event, a Purisima procession of a statue of the Virgin. Then I saw the cops. They came in and out of the doorway of the Sol Fashion boutique in their neat blue uniforms, taking notes.
In the coming days, the shocking details of what was alleged to have happened were splashed in tawdry headlines in El Nuevo Diario, the left-leaning national paper. Doris Ivania Alvarado Jiménez, 25, a pretty, popular San Juan native, was reported to have been raped, sodomized, and strangled with a ferocity that spoke of specific hatred. It was an audacious crime. Last seen alive in front of her shop at 11:30 that morning, Jiménez was found shortly after 2:00 p.m. when the building's watchman, noticing that the boutique was closed, let himself in with a key. What he found inside has threatened to boil resentments between locals and expats into open hostility: the woman's body, hog-tied with bedsheets, asphyxiated with wadded-up paper and rags.