La Carpio: Sensationalist Reporting and Clear Voices
Thousands of Nicaraguan poor live in La Carpio, Costa Rica,
and all are fodder for sensationalist news stories in the national press.
Is such reporting due to racism, class scorn or simple media superficiality?
The book Voices of La Carpio reveals the damage such coverage produces,
the pain it triggers.
Karina Fonseca Vindas
A sprawling community called La Carpio has sprung up northeast of San José’s central canton. It is home to some 23,000 people, about half of them impoverished Nicaraguan immigrants. This 236-square-kilometer urban settlement has become one of the areas most feared and repudiated by Costa Ricans.
Negative public opinionCosta Rica’s Mixed Social Aid Institute has estimated the monthly income of the majority of La Carpio’s families at between 60,000 and 75,000 colons (US$130-165), not enough to cover the cost of basic provisions and services for a family of six, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute. In addition to figuring out how to cope with such adverse economic conditions, La Carpio’s residents have had to deal with police raids and get used to their community frequently appearing in the crime sections of the country’s media, which tend to emphasize crimes committed by foreigners.
Police agents and journalists feed the negative public opinion about La Carpio. Many Costa Ricans who have never visited the community often speak disrespectfully of the people who live there based solely on what they see, hear or read in the news. Between 1999 and October 2004, the digital edition of La Nación, the country’s most important newspaper, carried an average of one negative article a week related to La Carpio.
In the first half of 2004, La Carpio acquired even greater notoriety due to several violent acts that occurred there and the abundant news coverage of them. On January 22, Wilberth López, a Nicaraguan whose wife had accused him of domestic violence, broke into the house they shared in La Carpio, violating the restraining order she had taken out against him. Once inside he killed three of his children and wounded his wife and her brother, then killed himself. The multiple homicides shook the country, particularly the Nicaraguan population, which attended the children’s funeral in La Carpio’s church in droves. The Costa Rican media covered this violent crime for days, turning it into a veritable media event.
Operation BroomOn January 30, the Public Security Ministry conducted a sweep operation in La Carpio it aptly dubbed “broom,” in which it rounded up 620 people, the vast majority of them Nicaraguans. Beyond the stigmatizing nature of its name, since what is usually swept up with a broom is garbage, the operation can be interpreted as a repressive police response to the previous week’s domestic violence that served to identify the image of poor Nicaraguan immigrants as synonymous with crime.
Is there any basis for this identification? Investigations into the issue have discarded it. In the nineties, for example, Nicaraguans committed only 10.3% of the reported acts of violence against women in Costa Rica, with the rest committed by nationals. While no case of domestic violence can be justified, these figures are almost exactly proportionate to the percentage of Nicaraguans in the country’s total population, belying the stereotype that Nicaraguans are significantly more violent than the host population.
According to Costa Rican police authorities, the aim of the sweep was to review the migratory situation of the foreigners and verify whether fugitives from justice were living in La Carpio. Of the over 600 picked up, it was determined that 22 would be deported immediately, 21 were carrying false documents, 73 were undocumented and 173 had applied for and were waiting to receive the documents that would legalize their situation. Nicaraguan lawyer Carlos Coronado Vargas filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of 65 of his compatriots who had been prejudiced in the operation and three months later Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court ordered the state to pay them costs and damages. The justices reasoned that the operation had been caried out on public streets and with no prior indication that those picked up had committed any crime. They further concluded that the operation had violated article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits the arbitrary arrest of foreigners.
The capital’s garbage dumpThe last of the scandalous media episodes related to La Carpio during that period began on May 31, 2004, when residents blocked the community’s only access road. They claimed that a company called EBI was not complying with a series of promises relating to the contract it had negotiated with 12 of the community organizations in coordination with Costa Rica’s central government and the San José mayor’s office for a project called the “La Carpio Environmental Technological Park” This attractive sounding name is in fact a euphemism for a new landfill project administered by EBI, a subsidiary of the Canadian Berthierville Co. Inc. Starting in 2000, 700 tons of garbage from different parts of the metropolitan area have been dumped in La Carpio every single day.
The main “compensatory” social benefits stipulated for the community in exchange for going forward with the landfill were to pave the streets, create a trust fund into which approximately US$0.15 would be deposited for every ton of garbage processed and title the lands on which the residents had built their houses.
The only street the company paved was the one its garbage trucks went back and forth on every day, leaving the parallel ones that connect the various sectors of La Carpio unsurfaced. But the greatest controversy is that EBI has failed to continue depositing the agreed-upon quota into the fund, alleging bad management of the money by the community leaders. In addition, the government has stopped titling the lands, one of its main reasons being that at least 2,000 resident families do not qualify to receive the deeds due to their migratory status. The disagreements over these commitments have generated ill will on all sides.
Brief sympathy for La CarpioThe May blockade was designed to exert pressure for the reestablishment of talks with the authorities responsible for implementing the agreed-to offers. When it became obvious that no dialogue was possible among the parties, the Costa Rican police threw teargas bombs, supposedly to “reestablish order” and disarticulate the “rebel group,” which only frayed tempers even more. In an area with only one access road and houses built chockablock, the effects of the teargas were far greater than intended. The final count was 102 people in need of medical attention, many of whom had not even been involved in the events. In fact, children were the most affected. The media images shown the next day were powerful: front-page stories by journalists covering Red Cross posts about boys and girls with respiratory problems, and numerous photos of mothers and fathers running with their children in search of urgent medical care.
There was also coverage of violence between the police and the demonstrators following the use of the teargas, which had enraged La Carpio’s residents. Dozens of teenagers confronted police officers with sticks, rocks and even a number of firearms. Six officers received gunshot wounds, fortunately none of them serious. The newspapers showed police flogging demonstrators. All these images encouraged public opinion not only to denounce the police actions, but also to insist that the unresolved claims of La Carpio’s residents be put on the public agenda.
Gangs in Costa Rica!Regrettably, repudiation of the police action was forgotten within a week, as was the discussion about unkept promises that had led to the blockade. They were erased by a fresh media attempt to link La Carpio’s youth to an allegedly imminent invasion of Costa Rica by the violent youth gangs known as maras plaguing other Central American countries.
This information took two fear-mongering paths. One was insistence on the idea that the repressive measures being imposed by neighboring countries to combat the maras would push their members into Costa Rica. The other, even more refutable focus was that poor communities such as La Carpio represented a breeding ground where gangs—which indeed do exist there and in other poor Costa Rican neighborhoods—could develop into maras. Several of the most influential media described the maras as the new threat to “peaceful” Costa Rica. Journalists visited prisons in Honduras and El Salvador and spoke with mara members, inducing them to confess their intentions to set up shop
in Costa Rica. Some gang members interviewed by television and newspapers were happy to comply.
Voices of La CarpioThe massive presence of Nicaraguan immigrants in La Carpio makes it more susceptible than other similar urban areas to being criminalized. In a vicious circle, the media turn to La Carpio to fill their crime section, using acts committed there to feed already existing paranoia about the danger of certain poor neighborhoods.
The hostility of many Costa Ricans toward foreigners living in their country and this abundance, sensationalism and reductionism of most news about La Carpio have become powerful formulas to exclude this community’s residents even more.
One of the forms this exclusion takes is a lack of educational opportunities, and that led to the creation of “A Snack and Shoes,” a program for migrant children who are excluded by both their poverty and their nationality. The objective is to consolidate a scholarship system to support immigrant primary and secondary school students who are about to drop about of school by providing them a monthly stipend to cover the cost of transport, food, necessary clothing and school supplies.
The program tries to create a solidarity network between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans to encourage respectful coexistence between the two communities. One fruit of this initiative is the publication of the book Voices of La Carpio, which has begun to circulate in La Carpio with support from the UN International Organization for Migrations and the UN Development Program. Starting with the next school year it will be given out as discussion material in schools with an important immigrant population.
Voices of La Carpio includes opinions gathered from different meetings of resident groups, particularly in the community itself. The aim is to counteract the negative images in the Costa Rican media, giving both Nicas and Ticos the opportunity to explain what their coexistence is really like, what they think and feel about the role of the media, the government and private enterprise in their community and how they envision that La Carpio can improve.
“They only see the bad part”The comments reveal that Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans in La Carpio have forged a respectful relationship despite initial difficulties. As one resident recalls, “The struggle has been very hard; those of us who’ve been here for ten years have been struggling right from the start, when we had to dig wells and haul water, when we had to sneak out at the crack of dawn, putting up posts to steal current because they didn’t want to give us electricity… It’s been very long, very painful, very tearful for many people, and there have even been fights within the community itself. It’s been a very sad and very tough struggle, but also a very beautiful experience. It’s a pity that people only see the bad part.”
One of the main complaints from the inhabitants of La Carpio is that the media only show people “the bad part.” This is how they tell it: “The journalists have marginalized us without even being aware that many working people live here, people who leave their houses at dawn to earn their daily bread, including Ticos, Nicas and people of many different nationalities. This is what they should focus on so we aren’t looked down on when we go to the clinics or just out into the street and find it so hard to tell people that we’re from La Carpio...”
Is life really Like that?One of the episodes of “That’s Life,” a daily talk show on Costa Rica’s Channel 7, illustrated how the media commonly reinforce the relationship between criminality and poor barrios. One resident described how she felt about the way the program dealt with the issue of the maras: “I’d been suspecting it for some time, when they started carrying feature stories about the Salvatruchasand La Dieciocho [names of notorious Central American gangs] and other stuff about the maras. I immediately analyzed it psychologically and said to myself: ‘They’re going to say that they’ve infiltrated La Carpio as well, or at least that these criminal and problematic people are more likely to come here. To be honest, it’s very depressing and really undermines your self-esteem. It also makes all of us living here more afraid and even generates more violence by putting us on the defensive.”
Another woman from the community went even further: “I’m certain that some people who came, I don’t remember from what newspaper, bought toy weapons and handed them out in Cueva del Sapo [one of the sectors of La Carpio]. When they did their report, the little kids were playing with these plastic pistols and they focused on that, just so they could show that the kids go around playing with guns from such an early age. I saw it. I was coming back from the butcher’s when I saw it, but I didn’t tell anybody because I don’t want them to pick me up.”
What Voices of La Carpio tries to show is that while the socioeconomic conditions
of low-income urban areas do indeed influence the generation of criminal acts, the media have been incapable of looking beyond that focus. They aren’t interested in understanding the structural causes that make these areas more susceptible to being focal points of delinquency. For them, if it bleeds it leads; it’s as simple as that. They have a hard time separating criminality from class condition. It’s easier to discredit those who have less “rights” or less possibility of responding and the criminality-poverty binomial dominates their collective vision of the social reality on which they are supposed to report.
“If the TV people could see what La Carpio is like”“I’m going to share an experience I suffered. About four years ago, we wanted to study in the INA [National Learning Institute, a center that offers training in different fields as an alternative to those who aren’t in a formal academic system]. Six of us housewives got together and went off to the class. When we got there, we all decided not to tell them that we lived in La Carpio so we wouldn’t be snubbed. And it’s really like that. We didn’t tell them and they all shared with us in the nicest way. We drank coffee together, shared materials and everything. But there’s always one drunk at a wake; one day a woman came and said, ‘Ooh, these people are from La Carpio.’ And just like that, they turned their backs on us. For two years running they didn’t want to give us financial aid, just because we were from La Carpio.”
This fear of admitting where one lives is recurrent. “If the TV people could see what La Carpio is like, if they could come and film all this... But no; first they show all the dirt and only then do they show the good stuff, if at all, because they usually only go after the bad. If they’d show the good part, people would support La Carpio more and we wouldn’t have so much trouble when we apply for a job: ‘Er, you’re from La Carpio?’ Even being Costa Rican, I had to lie just recently and say I’d gone back to live in Pavas...”
Negative impressions of La Carpio based on the media images are commonplace among Costa Ricans who have never visited the community: “I don’t know La Carpio, but they say you can’t even set foot there,” or “that place has been taken over by Nicas.” Personal experience is substituted with appropriation of what circulates in the media. If delinquents are the only subjects in news stories about La Carpio and Nicaraguans commit crimes, then the same glove fits all Nicaraguans living there. This stereotyping does enormous damage to all the men and women in the community who are trying to make something of their lives, which is unquestionably the great majority.
“People don’t leave out of fear, Public security is central to electoral campaigns all around the world these days. The fear of insecurity, the terror of terrorism in the United States has allowed President Bush to win a second term. In addition to legitimating government actions, public insecurity draws attention away from far more important issues for which no solutions are being offered. In the Costa Rican case, La Carpio has become the reference point for many Costa Ricans’ fears. The authorities’ fight against crime in poor communities is a focus of the struggle to generate favorable public opinion regarding police presence, a factor that wards off feared evils and attenuates the anxiety felt by many Costa Ricans who are finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy its basic needs.
but out of pain”
Knowing that at least one is “protected” by the police is a way to feel the state’s existence, even if the security one really needs to live a dignified life has nothing to do with the police. La Carpio’s residents intuit the existence of this “culture of fear” that is being propagated at the cost of their community. “One day a priest came and he said that people were leaving here out of fear. I told him, ‘No, it’s not just fear; people are also leaving out of pain.’ The fact is that seeing what’s going on hurts you both internally and externally, because you not only have to suffer what is happening, but also listen to the comments from outside; and that’s what hurts the most.”
Public security, understood as the fight against crime, is not the most important concern of La Carpio’s residents. “You ask if we’ve lived with fear. The only fear I’ve come to feel as an immigrant was when Migration came here and carried people off in a big sweep; people who were going off to work and lost the day’s wages.”
The greatest of the urgenciesIt’s a positive surprise for Costa Ricans to see La Carpio residents requesting childcare facilities, improvements in the area’s only school, the construction of a secondary school and upkeep of sports or recreation areas for young people. Hardly anyone there fears falling victim to the gang that hangs out all day on one of the corners. The real fear is that their children will continue to be victims of increasingly accentuated exclusion caused by government indifference.
“La Caja Farm” is La Carpio’s only school and the largest institution in the community. It provides classes for over 2,000 children in three separate sessions, including Saturdays. The groups are made up of a minimum of 35 students, and they only receive three classes a day. The school’s annual program includes none of the special subjects such as physical education, music or English offered in the majority of metropolitan area schools, but these limitations do not exempt the students from having to fulfill the same Public Education Ministry requirements for graduating as the other primary schools.
A professional from the school’s inter-disciplinary team describes the discouraging road the children of La Carpio face over the course of their academic formation. “Just imagine that over four hundred children enter first grade here every year, but only two thirds of these 13 or 14 groups graduate each year. Look at the percentage that drops out along the way. And the real possibilities of those who do graduate going on to secondary school are minimal. We’re talking about some 20% at best. The closest high schools are the Julio Fonseca or the Luis Dobles and some go to the San José Lyceum in Barrio México, but they all involve an economic investment for the family. And they can’t get into INA until they’re 15. At least 80 adolescents leave with nothing to do, which makes them fertile fodder for the gangs. We have students whose families are in very difficult economic straights, and it’s important for them to be productive. Given the very characteristics of the place, these families are already demanding that their kids start making an economic contribution, which makes it very hard for them. There are students who have made it to fifth year, but they are the minority.”
The value of the only schoolThe limited possibilities the children who go to primary school in La Carpio have of improving their lot are alarming. Some of the critical factors limiting the students are the deteriorated and overcrowded school premises, the lack of classrooms for preschool lessons, the absence of any training center for adolescents and the disposition that prevents INA from accepting youths under 15 years old, leaving adolescents who graduate from sixth grade when they are 12 with nowhere to go. The fact that the majority of families urgently need their children to help provide for the household further reduces their possibility of starting much less finishing secondary school.
For all that, this single educational center is highly valued in La Carpio. As an official from the school itself says, “It’s the only school and I’m always impressed when I hear that the boys and girls don’t like to leave when vacation rolls around. The only place they want to go on Saturday is school. The children aren’t happy if the teachers can’t come to work. They want the teacher to come Saturdays so they can go to school. They need this space.”
Yesterday they attacked Nicas, Costa Rica is living through an historic moment right now. Two former Presidents are in custody pending trial on accusations of corruption and another will soon join them. Several of their cohorts and subalterns are in a similar position. One of the latter is Dr. Eliseo Vargas, former executive president of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS), the public entity responsible for providing medical attention to the country’s inhabitants.
today they’re accused of corruption
Vargas faces charges of having “contracted” some politicians to help smooth the way in the Legislative Assembly for approval of a certain Finnish credit and has admitted to the Costa Rican Public Ministry that he received a luxurious house as a “reward” for his effort. To wind up this now famous credit, the Fischel Corporation, a commercial group representing the Finnish company in Costa Rica, provided medical equipment to the CCSS billed at nearly US$38 million, an enormous expenditure for the CCSS that is now being looked into by the country’s judicial authorities. Vargas was one of the main promoters of this financial decision, which has triggered criticism from the heads of many of the CCSS’s medical dependencies. Some say the CCSS could have assumed the purchase without indebting itself while others focus on the fact that they weren’t consulted and that many of the purchases did not address their units’ most urgent needs.
Vargas’ lack of reticence in making free with CCSS resources contrasts with the image he had so carefully built up on other occasions. When he first headed up the CCSS, for example, Vargas presented the media with figures demonstrating the high cost for Costa Rica of providing medical services to Nicaraguan migrants, thus becoming one of the main public inciters of anti-immigrant sentiment. It is an ironic paradox: the proclaimed guardian of the public health sector’s finances reaps a substantial personal windfall by misspending the public funds under his charge. In fact, Costa Rican taxpayers may today be paying a higher cost for the corrupt actions of only one of our state officials than for the medical attention provided to the thousands of poor Nicaraguans residing in our country. Unfortunately, the national media have a very short memory when it comes to making these necessary comparisons to the public.
Is the recent reporting shiftThis case—only one of many recently questioned acquisitions—illustrates an informational switch in the country. The media have let the urban spaces and rural poor off the hook as the main source of their daily hard-hitting “red news.” Today the alleged criminals reside in the highest official spaces.
just a one-day bloom?
It would be ingenuous to hope that such scandals will lead to a shift in the age-old way criminality has been reported by the media, but while the charges against these top Costa Rican officials occupy a great deal of media space, there is no clarity in defining what category these news stories belong in. In Nacionales and El País, both informative arenas for the voice of the country’s political class and economically powerful, the stories were found exclusively on the front page at first, confirming how hard it is to abandon certain ideological structures and accept that the country’s political-economic “elite” commit crimes too. But more recently, things are turning around, with these two newspapers giving the stories the same sensationalist treatment as Sucesos, Costa Rica’s crime rag, and placing them in the crime section of those two papers, also aptly called Sucesos, traditionally where the offenses committed by the poor are found.
It’s hard to imagine that these accusations against high officials will convince the communicators of the urgency of rethinking the news treatment they give to a social phenomenon as complex as criminality or the damage they do to poor people by recurrently turning them into subjects, or rather objects, of negative news. Regrettably, the impact of various penal processes against top representatives of Costa Rica’s elite won’t be enough to do the job, given that peoples’ ways of thinking about criminality doesn’t change overnight. Criminalizing will probably remain a class affair and the accusations of criminal acts by the powerful a one-day bloom after which the media will go back to “business as usual.” This could be seen as pessimism, but pessimism could turn out to be a motor force of change.
Karina Fonseca Vindas is a journalist.