The murder has rattled this busy Pacific coast tourist town, and exposed an undercurrent of social tension between locals and foreigners one that may have been complicated by last November's reelection to the presidency of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, Washington's erstwhile cold war nemesis. Like an offshore riptide that goes unnoticed from the town's beaches, the tension is hard to detect from a distance. Still, residents say, it's out there. And it can be dangerous. Just ask Volz, who narrowly avoided being lynched by an angry mob of Nicaraguans after being charged with murder last month.
"Send out the gringo, we'll kill him!" yelled a voice in the crowd of more than 200 locals gathered outside the courthouse for the Dec. 7 preliminary hearing into the murder. There was no similar clamor for the head of Volz's Nicaraguan co-accused. When Volz was led out of the courthouse, the mob descended upon him and the police fled the scene, forcing Volz and a security agent from the U.S. embassy in Managua to run for their lives into a nearby gymnasium to wait for help.
San Juan del Sur's Sandinista Mayor, Eduardo Holmann, says the event led to a heated phone exchange with U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli. "He told me you don't have lynch mobs in a civilized country, and I told him, 'Yeah, didn't you use to lynch blacks in the United States?' "
Some Americans living in the town are concerned that the mob was a manifestation of festering resentment toward the wealthy expatriates who have, over a few short years, developed San Juan del Sur from a small fishing village into an international tourist destination. Did Mayor Holmann agree? "No," he said. “You look like a gringo and no one gives you a hard time here."
He's right on both counts. Over the last 10 years I have lived in Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, North Carolina and Wellesley, and I feel the safest in Nicaragua. Actually, Wellesley first, then Nicaragua. But the point is, I've always felt safe here. Most Nicaraguans have embraced tourism and foreign investment as the new economic motor for the country. My experience is that people here are mostly friendly, open and quick to befriend Americans.
Still, in a country where 80% of the population is on the have-not side of the divide, it would be naïve to assume that everyone feels included in an economic model based on competition for North American tourism and investment dollars. Many locals feel that they can't compete and that foreigners are given preferential treatment, and some express anger at rich foreigners buying up their land, fencing off their beaches and romancing their women.
Volz, ironically, had tried to address some of these issues in the pages of his magazine. But when he was moved from jail to house arrest last Thursday, many townsfolk said it was just more of the same. "If he were a Nica, they won't have let him out," one local woman complained. But Anthony says the facts clearly show her son was in Managua, two hours away, at the time of the murder; and she is looking forward to having her boy freed and returning home to Nashville next week. "I think he will stay at home for a while, and sleep and eat a lot," she says.
That might be a good idea for the man whose own puente has been burnt in Nicaragua. "He's got no reason to come back to San Juan del Sur," said Maria, a 26-year-old local resident. "If he does, they'll kill him."