Death in Costa Rica’s rainforest

Known for ecotourism, Costa Rica may actually be a paradise for poachers—and murderers of expats
Death in the rainforest
Anthony A. Davis

The body of 53-year-old Canadian Kimberley Ann Blackwell was discovered on the morning of Feb. 2, high in the lush, hot, tropical rainforests of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, where she had lived for almost 20 years. She had been shot the night before, execution-style, and lay sprawled on blood-soaked dirt near the gate to her home and cocoa farm. Maurico Valerin Jimenez, a 25-year-old warden with the Ministry of Environment and Energy, found her. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a body,” says Jimenez, who had arrived on Blackwell’s remote jungle property with several other wardens to begin a 15-km patrol of adjacent Corcovado National Park, a wonderland preserve of jaguars, monkeys, parrots and pumas.

Many locals here—especially campesinos, Costa Rica’s poor subsistence farmers—loathe the wardens, who interfere in a rural tradition of poaching and eating bush meat. “It’s Deliverance out there,” an expat friend of Blackwell’s says of the area, a densely treed, hilly region strung together by badly rutted roads and dotted with cattle, coffee and cocoa farms. For wardens like Jimenez, Blackwell’s property was a sanctuary. The animal lover had moved to the Osa, located just above Panama in southwest Costa Rica, 18 years earlier from the Yukon, and regularly let the wardens camp on her land, serving them coffee and soups. “It was like going to a restaurant,” says Jimenez.

Almost seven months after Blackwell’s death, authorities have still laid no charges in the slaying, even as rumours about why she was murdered and by whom multiply. The mystery of her death only deepens Blackwell’s mystique as a maverick among mavericks in the Osa, a gathering place for off-the-grid nonconformists who scrape refuge out of the untamed jungle and wild surf. Sir Francis Drake, the 16th-century privateer, once buried treasure here. Among locals, Blackwell is every bit as much a legend—a fiery, uncompromising hippie who inspired deep loyalty in her friends despite a penchant for decking them during fits of rage.

Those friends and Blackwell’s family are now seeking to push recalcitrant Costa Rican officials to solve her murder. Many expats are equally concerned about an uptick in murders and abductions of foreigners, particularly in the Osa, a trend suggesting that some Costa Ricans feel increasingly emboldened to target outsiders without fear of police repercussion. At least eight foreigners have disappeared in the country in the last two years, including 33-year-old ex-Montrealer Kim Paris, last seen leaving her home on Aug. 25, 2010, riding a bicycle. In May, Jacques Cloutier, a 59-year-old Canadian expat, died in a flurry of bullets while sitting in the front seat of an SUV. Just days ago, American Lisa Artz, 49, became the fourth foreigner murdered in the Osa since 2009.

These homicides, like Blackwell’s, remain unsolved. But from numerous interviews conducted in the Osa, exclusive access to her diaries, autopsy and police reports, and a private investigator’s file prepared for Blackwell’s family, Maclean’s has pieced together a deeply disquieting picture of what may have happened. Regardless of who killed Blackwell, there is little doubt that Costa Rica itself shares in the blame. Renowned as an ecotourism Eden and a relatively safe retreat for visitors, it is in fact a place where the poaching of animals is rampant and authorities are prepared to ignore compelling evidence in even the most serious of crimes. Above all, Costa Rica is apparently a country where locals can reasonably expect to settle scores against outsiders with impunity.

Locals called Blackwell la bruja—the witch. The sobriquet may have referred to the intoxicating chocolates she concocted in Cañaza, the village not far from her land. More likely it had to do with her fierce, often antagonistic personality, her high cheekbones, explosion of wiry black hair and frank, salty talk; in macho Costa Rica, women are typically more submissive.

She was born of pioneer stock in North Bay, Ont., on Aug. 29, 1958, to James, a territory manager for Sealtest Dairy, and Veronica, a homemaker whose bouts of depression led to her suicide when Kimberley was just 10. Life wasn’t easy: James, a single dad with five kids, moved the family often. After a younger sister, Beverley, died of cancer at 19—Blackwell spent long hours at her bedside—she hitchhiked to the Yukon, settling in Whitehorse and buying a home on Squatters’ Row, the city’s famed strip of bohemian hovels. At just five foot three, she was known for her outsized, Bunyanesque strength—in the mining camps where she worked as a cook—and was often the only woman. Friends say she staved off unwanted advances with an axe.

An enthusiastic traveller, she discovered Costa Rica in the ’90s, driving from Whitehorse in an old beat-up truck after deciding to move to the Osa permanently. (En route, in Nicaragua, she talked a squad of soldiers into posing for a photo alongside her—while she held one of their machine guns.) When the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship, docked in the Osa, Blackwell met Christopher Hoare, a handsome Australian a decade her junior working on board. “You could say it was love at first sight,” he says. “We had similar ideas about how we wanted to live our lives—clean air, clean water and clean food, away from the crazy world.”

Soon Hoare sold his Sydney condo so the couple could buy a $150,000 plot of Osa land with a panoramic view of the ocean. Together they built a house—little more than an unwalled canopy that permitted birds, lizards and other fauna to wander through. Friends dubbed her “Sloth Mother” after she rescued a baby sloth and nursed it for nine months, stringing a rope up in her cabin so it could learn to hang as though from branches. Photos show the animal nibbling her ear as she slept.

In 2004, after finding wild cacao trees on the property, Blackwell launched an organic chocolate venture. Using the mottled green, nearly football-sized beans sprouting from the trees, she made chocolates based on the dense, chili-spiced recipes of the ancient Mayans. Sold mainly to area resorts under the name Samaritan Xocolata, they became a local success. The process was arduous, and Blackwell hired locals to help, paying the equivalent of US$2.34 an hour, almost double the average wage—enough, she hoped, that they could eat legal rather than poached meat.

Indeed, Blackwell wanted most of all for her business to help cure the locals of their passion for hunting on her land. It was an unlikely prospect. Poachers have long used a tunnel-like path cutting through her property as a byway into Corcovado National Park, a 54,000-hectare reserve Costa Rica bills in its tourism advertising as one of the country’s “jewels.” Those slick campaigns, focused on Costa Rica’s environmental reputation and showcasing neon-coloured tree frogs, jaguars and exotic birds, helped draw two million tourists last year, more than any other Central American country. Tourism generates US$2.2 billion a year, the country’s greatest single source of foreign income, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. Along with its volcanoes, rainforests, rivers and beaches, its reputation for environmental stewardship has been crucial to its success. In 2009, the New Economics Foundation, a London-based think tank, ranked Costa Rica as the world’s greenest country. In May, President Laura Chinchilla received a Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean for expanding protection of the waters around Cocos Island, a rich undersea feeding ground for sharks.

Some believe awards like these are misplaced. While shooting a recent documentary on shark finning in Costa Rica, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was held at gunpoint and doused with gasoline by a gang of shark poachers. The story is no better on land, where hunting is largely illegal but endemic. Poaching in the Osa is so bad that scientists from the Universidad Nacional warn it will soon lead to the regional extinction of jaguars and white-lipped peccaries, a species of small, boar-like creatures. In local bars and hotels, peccary and tepezcuintle, a large rodent prized for its flavour, often appear on menus, a lucrative market for poachers. “In San Jose you can sell two lb. of paca”—another species of large rodent—“for almost US$100,” says biologist Aida Bustamante, whose group, Yaguará, is dedicated to protecting the Osa’s 30 to 40 remaining jaguars. “In a year some poachers can get more than 300 pacas”—a haul worth US$21,000, over three times the average annual income. Rumours speak of city men spraying the jungle with gunfire just to see what they can kill.

Such behaviour sickened Blackwell. Describing her as “valiant,” Eliécer Villalta Martinez, the Ministry of Environment’s supervisor in Puerto Jiménez, recalls that she broke down while calling in denuncias—formal complaints—against poachers on her land. “She was an ally,” he says. Yet she was increasingly alone. Last year, after more than a decade together, she and Hoare split, with Hoare returning to Australia. Her canopy home could not have left her more vulnerable in a country where residences are typically protected by razor wire, iron bars or broken bottles cemented atop walls. At night, alone, she could hear approaching poachers with their hounds. Still, she refused to go. Four years ago, Louis Reyes, a neighbour of Blackwell’s who liked to brag about killing jaguars, and whom she had threatened to report to park wardens, shot and killed her two dogs. They had barked loudly whenever he crept across Blackwell’s land with his own dogs to hunt in Corcovado. She was devastated. Later, while driving her quad along Puerto Jiménez’s main drag, she ran Reyes over, breaking his leg. Even close friends doubt it was an accident. Her family in Canada wired her $1,000 to compensate Reyes.

Blackwell struggled with her own rage. In blocky handwriting, she scrawled mantras to herself in a private notebook: “I am loving and lovable. Love is everywhere. I create Peace and Harmony and balance in my mind and life.” Elsewhere she lamented: “Not being like everyone else can make life difficult.” Late last year, she shot a man she suspected of poaching on her land in the back with a BB gun—a painful, if not lethal, message.

One day this spring, on a rickety wooden pier where whales, sharks and dolphins sometimes swam past, a crowd of people crammed aboard a small boat for the half-hour trip from Puerto Jiménez, the Osa’s largest town, to Golfito, a scruffy mainland city. Sitting on the craft’s hard plastic seats, Tao Watts, 50, an American and long-time Osa resident, and Peruvian-born Vanessa Jensen, the 32-year-old manager of a jungle spa, spoke in hushed English. Together they were planning how best to approach Tony Vargas, the district attorney in charge of investigating the murder of Blackwell, their friend. The visit was a delicate thing. Four months after her death, Blackwell’s body remained in the morgue. Jensen and Watts wanted Vargas to do a rare thing in Costa Rica: properly investigate a murder.

According to United Nations stats, Costa Rica’s intentional homicide rate stood at 11 per 100,000 in 2009 (Canada’s that year was 1.8 per 100,000). Less than five per cent of homicide charges end in convictions. In many cases, authorities seem almost unwilling to even prosecute. Concerned expats point to the case of Horst Hauser, 68, and Herbert Langmeier, 66, two Austrians living in Costa Rica who vanished in 2009. Evidence suggested they had been murdered and dismembered at Hauser’s home near Puerto Jiménez. Hauser’s bank account had been emptied. According to the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung, police suspected a man found squatting in Hauser’s bloody house and driving his car—the leader of a gang whose members included two ex-policemen. Despite this, officials said they could not act without Hauser and Langmeier’s bodies. When, this year, flooding exposed body parts buried on a local beach—Hauser’s body was identified through dental records—police pursued the suspect, who fled.

Stories like these prompted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office this spring to beef up its travel summary on Costa Rica, warning Britons of a rise in “violent crime against tourists,” including “gang muggings and armed robberies?.?.?.?even in daylight on busy streets,” and noting that eight foreigners have gone missing in the country in the last two years. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has not recently amended the crime section of its advisory. Although embassy officials in San Jose have been of help to Blackwell’s friends and family, they tell them they cannot aid in the investigation without a request from the Costa Rican government. A spokeswoman with the Prime Minister’s Office said she couldn’t “speculate” on whether Stephen Harper would raise the Blackwell case during his visit to Costa Rica this week, but noted officials at the Canadian Embassy there are working closely with local authorities, adding: “We anticipate a comprehensive and transparent investigation by Costa Rican officials, and hope that the case is resolved in a timely manner.”

Blackwell’s friends knew what they were up against. Despite the monitoring of Canadian diplomats, Vargas had never met or returned calls from friends inquiring about the investigation, even when they offered what they believed were valuable tips. Only when Watts and Jensen came armed with a power of attorney granted by Blackwell’s family did Vargas, a youthful and tall man, agree to meet them—briefly: he tossed a folder at the women before stepping back into his office. As they leafed through the sheaf of papers, Watts gasped, fanning herself with her free hand as Jensen wrapped a comforting arm around her. The dossier included autopsy photos. Blackwell’s face, Watts later said, “was black and blue—so swollen and discoloured I didn’t even know it was her.” Jensen cut in: “But you could tell it was her from her hair. She had beautiful hair. But a bullet was in her head.”

The file also included the expediente—an internal police document outlining what federal investigators had uncovered about the murder. Both this document and a report by private detectives hired by Blackwell’s family identify several suspects—though none of the allegations have been tested in court. One suspect is a poacher and former Blackwell employee who wardens discovered on the morning of her murder, according to the private investigators’ report, walking “with a suspicious attitude” from the direction of her farm, a fresh scratch on his face. The poacher later told the PIs that he never argued with Blackwell and had received the scratch while farming beans.

But just days prior to her death, the expediente says, Blackwell found the poacher hunting on her property and threatened to file a denuncia. One of Blackwell’s labourers told the PIs that the poacher once said “he wanted to take Kimberley’s life” and asked him for help—even offering a .357 magnum to do the job. The poacher “did not indicate a motive,” the PIs write, but Blackwell’s labourer supposed it was because of a dispute that arose after the poacher “had been found inside her property hunting animals in danger of extinction.” Briefly held by police for questioning, the poacher insisted he and Blackwell enjoyed a “close friendship,” the PIs write. Upon his release, police sought a warrant to search his property, sources say, and to compare photographs of footprints found near Blackwell’s body with his boots. They never got the chance. A judge in Puerto Jiménez quashed the request.

It was not the only oddity in the case. Another came when, according to sources, Vargas assigned a man some consider a suspect, a neighbouring cash-poor yet land-rich farmer, to guard the crime scene after wardens found Blackwell’s body. The farmer had once owned Blackwell’s property, but had sold it to her and Hoare. Blackwell still owed him $55,000, and she and the farmer had a heated argument days earlier when he demanded she give him $10,000, according to an email obtained by Maclean’s that Blackwell wrote a friend. Blackwell refused, explaining she was holding back further payments until the resolution of a court case regarding the land’s title. Days later, Blackwell gave him $500. With Blackwell now gone, the farmer could regain title to the land under Costa Rica’s liberal squatting laws. Perhaps with that in mind, he has moved himself and a number of his relatives into her home. Although Blackwell’s family in Canada filed a legal order in March seeking their removal, police have yet to act on it.

Speaking to Maclean’s one drizzly day, grimy from working his nearby farm and leaning against Blackwell’s home, the farmer said through a translator that if Blackwell’s family, or Hoare, pays the remaining $55,000 owed him, he will give up the property. Asked about speculation he was involved in her murder, he shook his head in disgust and replied, after a long pause and in a quiet voice, that he and his wife were both distressed by her death.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Blackwell’s murder remains stalled—a circumstance that distresses her family. Blackwell was finally cremated six weeks after her death, in Costa Rica; her family continues to await the arrival of her ashes, which are slated to touch down in Toronto in the coming weeks, carried in the cargo hold of an Air Canada flight.