Thursday, June 7, 2007

Nifonged in Nicaragua: Outside Magazine Article Available Online

Outside Magazine has now posted the 9,000 word article written by award winning fiction writer Tony D'Souza, whose arrival in Nicaragua coincided with the sensational murder of Doris Ivania Alvarado Jiménez and the equally sensational false prosecution, and subsequent wrongful conviction, of American Eric Volz. While D'Souza traveled to Nicaragua on a promotional tour for another project, he remained in the country for several months to cover the compelling story of injustice for Outside Magazine. Initially, the highly anticipated article was available only in Outside Magazine's print edition.
In an interview with the BBC, D'Souza noted that his extensive research left him with two certainties: 1) Doris Jiménez was brutally murdered; and 2) Eric Volz did not commit the murder. The results of D'Souza's research, which included a two hour interview with Eric Volz, are eloquently presented in "The Boomtown, the Gringo, the Girl, and Her Murder." Outside Magazine provocatively introduces D'Souza's offering as:
When a local beauty turned up dead in Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur, the dream of paradise became a nightmare for one expat American surfer. He got 30 years and, predictably, a media melee ensued. But TONY D'SOUZA was on the scene from day one. This is the story you haven't heard.

Throughout the monster article, D'Souza, whose first novel, Whiteman, earned him critical acclaim and a slew of literary awards, paints a vivid picture of the personalities involved and the atmosphere that contributed to the tragic rush to judgement. D'Souza begins:

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 Sandinista–contra 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.


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.

The first newspaper reports pointed to a robbery gone wrong, that Jiménez had happened upon and recognized the criminals, that they'd killed her because of it. That premise quickly fell apart as the police issued warrants for four men. Two of them, local surfers who ran in the same posse, were picked up soon after the murder: Julio Martín Chamorro López, 30, better known as Rosita, was nabbed after a policeman remembered seeing him wandering near Sol Fashion shirtless, bearing what appeared to be fresh scratches and "acting nervous." Nelson Antonio López Dangla, 24, who goes by the nickname Krusty, was arrested shortly after Chamorro. The third man, 20-year-old Armando Llanes, had been casually dating Jiménez, her friends said. A student at Ave Maria College of the Americas, near Managua, whose family has ties to both Nicaragua and South Florida, Llanes was never taken into custody. He was dropped from suspicion when he produced a statement from his university registrar accounting for his whereabouts during some of the time of the murder.

But what made this case so dramatic was the fourth suspect: Jiménez's ex-boyfriend, a 28-year-old expat from Nashville, Tennessee, named Eric Stanley Volz. Bilingual, with a degree in Latin American studies from the University of California at San Diego, Eric had moved to San Juan del Sur in 2005 and become a Nicaraguan resident. Until his bio was removed from the Century 21 Web site several weeks after the murder, he was listed as associate manager of the company's San Juan office, and had also made a name for himself publishing a glossy new bilingual lifestyle magazine called EP (short for El Puente, or "The Bridge"). Eric and Doris had dated for a little over a year, but by the summer of 2006 they'd split: He moved to Managua to devote himself to EP, while she remained in San Juan to run her business. After her death, Volz canceled a Thanksgiving business trip back to the States to attend her funeral. Police arrested him shortly after the ceremony.

D'Souza takes his readers back to the start of the tabloid campaign to convict Volz in the court of public opinion while detailing with precision the local atmosphere that lent itself to the manipulation of El Nuevo Diario and others.

Local opinion convicted Eric Volz immediately. YOUNG BUSINESSWOMAN VICTIM OF JEALOUS GRINGO, blazed the Diario. US EMBASSY ADVISES ACCUSED GRINGO TO KEEP QUIET. As reported in the paper and as I later read in court documents, what Rosita Chamorro told police in an unsigned statement—one
that he and his lawyer would later insist to me had been coerced through torture—was that Volz, apparently jealous of Jiménez's new relationship with Llanes, had offered Chamorro $5,000 to go with him around noon to Sol Fashion, where the American attacked Jiménez, then raped, sodomized, and killed her. Krusty Dangla, who would become the prosecution's main witness, said Volz came out of the shop at 1:00 p.m. and paid him 50 cordobas (about $2.75) to put two garbage bags full of what felt like clothes in a white car.

...the people of San Juan had made up their minds: At Big Wave Dave's, the long-haired beauties tending bar began casually rebuffing expat advances with the simple and musical refrain "Gringos son asesinos." Gringos are murderers.

THINGS HAVE BEEN CHANGING quickly in San Juan over the past five years. Sixty major housing developments are either under construction or soon to break ground, from the Costa Rican border, a half-hour south of town, up to and well beyond the fabulous Popoyo reef break, an hour north. More than $400 million in foreign investment has poured in. Land that was next to worthless as recently as 2002 is now flipped with ease; third-acre oceanview lots go for hundreds of thousands. The franchises have followed: The first Subway opened three weeks after I arrived.

An estimated 78 million Americans will retire in the next 20 years, some of them dreaming of deals down south. On the higher end, this could mean a $500,000, 2,500-square-foot house in a gated community overlooking one of these stunning beaches, with its own restaurants, swimming pools, shops, clubhouses, DirecTV, wireless Internet, and full security. The expats need not speak Spanish or even notice much that they are in Nicaragua. All the while, the real estate ads promise, their investments will increase at rates that would make the stock market look silly.

...It's not hard to see why there's an air of expat guilt about what's going on here.

...Nicaragua is a World Bank– and International Monetary Fund–designated "heavily indebted poor country," with little legal ability to control its economic future: Everything is for sale. And once Nicaraguans decide to cash in and sell their houses or farms, they have to look far inland for anything affordable. Many who sold four and five years ago realized less than 5 percent of what the same properties sell for now. A prominent development appraised by the owner at $26 million was built on land bought for $80,000, according to a son of the family who sold it.

Some of these sales are contested. "The foreigners come here knowing the titles are in disarray," one San Juan man told me late one night at L'Mche's Bar, where the local restaurant and hotel staff unwind after work. He was home for the holidays from the job he held, legally, in Texas. "They have the money to win any lawsuit. We can't afford to fight them in court. And do you know how we are treated when we go to the U.S.? We can't even jaywalk without being harassed by the police."

This huge and growing disparity in wealth has begun to reveal itself in ugly ways. Though Eduardo Holmann, San Juan's Sandinista-party mayor, dismissed a Diario report that local fishermen have been shot at when they drop anchor in bays fronting private developments, he admitted that new laws have to be written to protect beach-access rights, which some foreigners have been trying to deny. Petty theft is a persistent annoyance. Crack is a growing problem. One Wednesday night late in January, a block from Big Wave Dave's, a celebrated local hustler and avowed user stabbed a prominent expat twice in the stomach with a pair of barber's scissors, the culmination of a long-running feud. The expat recovered after surgery; the hustler was arrested and released, and a few weeks later he left town.

...The mayor is not anti-development. "If the foreign investors behave with social responsibility," he said, "community relations will turn out OK." But, he cautioned, "what we don't want to see is a San Juan del Sur of America."

D'Souza introduces Eric Volz to his readers with previously unpublished background details while detailing his arrival in Nicaragua and his relationship with Jiménez.

INTO THE FRAY OF THIS FEVERED MARKET came Eric Volz. ... It says a lot about San Juan's unregulated, unlicensed real estate market that it could not only make room for the youthful and inexperienced Volz but also allow him to thrive. By all accounts, he had a knack for closing the deal; he was gathering capital, more than $100,000 of which he'd use to fund EP.

According to friends, Volz is a diversely talented individualist, a traveler and outdoor enthusiast. When he was ten, his family moved from Sacramento to Nashville, where his divorced parents both still live. Volz's father, Jan, is a country-music-tour organizer and founding member of an alternative Christian band called the 77's; his mother, Maggie Anthony, is an interior decorator. He has a younger sister, plus a stepsister from his mother's second marriage. His mother's side of the family is of Mexican descent, and it's from them that Volz became "receptively bilingual," as he put it when I spoke to him in March. "I understood what they said, but I only produced English." Volz took up climbing at a local gym when he was 11, as a way to deal with his parents' divorce. "It really began to mean something about freedom, learning my limits, learning to trust myself," he told me. After high school, he moved to Meyers, California, near South Lake Tahoe. He worked in carpentry, took classes at Lake Tahoe Community College, DJ'd at a local bar, and built a reputation as an exceptional free climber.

While many of his Tahoe friends remained in the mountains, Volz chose a different path, ultimately pursuing Latin American studies at UCSD. "I reached a point where I was ready to be a little more responsible socially," he says. "I realized that hanging out in the mountains and staying in shape was great, but I wasn't really doing much."
Volz's climbing friends would be among the first to come to his defense after his arrest. "He had a view you don't see as much in mountain towns," Chris McNamara, a Tahoe climber who made bouldering films with Volz, wrote me in an e-mail. "He was concerned with global issues and was looking for the opportunity to address them. He thought Nicaragua was the place to do this. And that's the incredibly tragic irony of this case. Eric was working to get beyond those divisive cultural and political relations. Everything that he now seems to be in the middle of."

In 2004, Volz joined his father for a ten-day trip to Iraq, photographing country singer Chely Wright's tour as she entertained the troops. He met Iraqis, interviewed soldiers, and flew in Blackhawks. He soon finished his degree. In early 2005, having visited San Juan off and on for six years, he decided to move to Nicaragua. In the waterfront Rocamar Restaurant, where he often ate, Doris Jiménez was a waitress. Volz's résumé was already filled with travels; she was a local girl of very modest upbringing. "Her dream, from when she was 15 years old," says her aunt María Elena Alvarado, "was to have a shop."

Jiménez studied business administration at the UPOLI University in nearby Rivas, taking computer and English classes. While Volz, as one friend puts it, "had the world by a string," Jiménez, according to everyone, was the prettiest girl in town.

Just one year later, Jiménez would be running Sol Fashion, while Volz focused on the launch of EP. The magazine, as he wrote in his first publisher's letter, would be devoted to everything from "the explosion of surf culture" to local anxiety over the "oncoming waves of foreigners, construction, and the almighty dollar." Professional, bilingual, and printed on expensive paper, the premiere edition appeared in July 2006, boasting a 20,000-copy run, a viable presence in five countries, and a look to rival Vogue. That first issue includes a nine-page "fashion-documentary" called "Maria's Journey," following Nicaraguan model Maria Mercedes in various states of dress and undress in Victoria's Secret, Prada, and Benetton—beginning as she wakes with a yawn and a long tumble of black hair in what is clearly a campesino shack and ending with her posed outside a modern office building, a powerful CEO. "Where you come from," the text reads, "does not determine where you can go." Doris Jiménez appears on page 59, standing in the countryside in a traditional skirt, the wind in her hair. The words beside her read, "We are rising in the ranks of power, breaking new ground. —Women of Central America."

When they first started El Puente and money was tight, Volz shared a house with [Jan] Thompson and his local girlfriend, Arelis Castro López, now his wife. Volz and Jiménez began dating; Jiménez moved in, too. The arrangement lasted several months, and both Thompson and his wife say they didn't see anything that would make them think Volz is a murderer. Thompson knew Jiménez three years longer than he knew Volz; he says what everyone says—that she was nice.

Though sentiment in San Juan is unanimously positive concerning Doris Jiménez, opinion about Volz is mixed. People close to her family invariably say that his foreign ways led her into behaviors considered shameful here. Her mother, Mercedes Alvarado, who sold her San Juan home in 2006 and moved inland to Rivas with Doris's two younger sisters, says she took exception to what she describes as Volz's lack of communication with the family, to her daughter's willingness to leap out of bed "when he would call in the middle of the night."

Jiménez's grandmother Jacinta Lanzas told the Diario, "With these people you have to be very careful, because you don't know anything about them, nothing of their past, and in this case I always sensed something bad. I never felt good about this guy." Volz, for his part, says Jiménez was never close to her mother.

Volz's business associates insist he is "a great guy," that he couldn't possibly have done this. A few other expats, people who had unsuccessful real estate dealings with him at Century 21, readily vilify him in open anger. Many others simply say that he seemed aloof. "A lot of the expats in San Juan," Volz explained, "quite frankly, I don't connect with them. So I could see how they could see me being an arrogant person. I wasn't your normal expat. I worked pretty much all the time."

Volz and Jiménez's split, both he and Thompson insisted, was amicable. "I had a lot of love for her," said Volz, who says that he ended things around June 2006. "It wasn't like I moved to San Juan del Sur and was just, Oh my God, a Latina—sexy. I knew I wasn't going to be in Nicaragua forever, and I was always very up front and honest with Doris about that."

"Doris was Miss San Juan a couple years ago," Thompson said. "Eric wasn't even her first American boyfriend. Eric is innocent. The town didn't know him; that's why they were so quick to condemn him."

"Have you heard the expression 'Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande'?" he asked." 'Little town, big hell.' There is a lot of jealousy here. Who knows what's really going on?"

In frightening detail, D'Souza retells the nightmare of the frenzied mobs that menaced Volz following his arraignment.

TWO DAYS BEFORE VOLZ'S DECEMBER 7 arraignment in Rivas, a car with loudspeakers circled through San Juan exhorting people to "bring justice to the gringo!" A huge crowd jeered as he was escorted into the courthouse; during the hearing, a woman outside could be heard shouting, "Come out, gringo, we are going to murder you!" Expecting the worst, Volz and the U.S. Embassy regional security officer, Michael Poehlitz, exchanged clothes while Volz's father, Jan, who'd flown in from the States, looked on.

As Volz left the arraignment, the mob saw through the ruse and rushed him. "A couple punches flew out of the side," Volz told me. "I don't know if I dodged them or if they just missed me. I felt a rock fly by my head." He ducked into a nearby gymnasium and hid in an office. With the mob surrounding the building, Poehlitz ran in behind him, making calls on his cell while Volz frantically stripped off one of the handcuffs and kicked through a wall into a room where they would be more secure. An hour later, police retrieved them.

"It was utter chaos," Jan Volz told me this spring. "Eric had said to me, 'Dad, do not come over here; there are guys with clubs.' I was not going to leave my son. They were taunting and jeering." As Jan left with two legal advisers, he recalled, "people were pounding on our car, hitting it with clubs. I'm convinced that if they had caught any one of us, they would have killed us."

D'Souza proceeds to put to rest one of the most damning misrepresentations put forth by El Nuevo Diario. Repeatedly, and as recently as two months ago, the Managua tabloid insisted that attorneys for Volz had offered the victim's mother, Mercedes Alvarado, a million dollar payoff to drop the charges against Eric. From D'Souza we learn that the settlement offer was admittedly made by the attorney for Danglas, the state's star "witness" against Volz and the man originally charged with the murder who the Nicaraguan Court of Appeals is, according to recently published Nicaraguan news reports, looking at as a suspect again.

Sometime in the second half of December, Volz's defense team called a meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Managua to give San Juan mayor Holmann Volz's account of his whereabouts on the day of the murder, hoping he could intervene with local reporters. What quickly transpired, however, was anything but positive. Holmann expanded the invitation to include Krusty Dangla's lawyer, Cesar Baltodano, and commissioner Yamil Gutiérrez, of the Rivas police. Agreeing to try to arrange a tête-à-tête between Jiménez's mother and Volz's defense lawyers, Baltodano invited Mercedes Alvarado to lunch at the Gran Diamante restaurant, near Rivas on Lake Nicaragua. According to Alvarado and her lawyer, Erick Cabezas, who was also present, Baltodano told the woman, "Your daughter is dead. She's not coming back. How much could she have earned in her life? Fifty dollars a day? Over 40 years?"

Cabezas alleges that Baltodano told Alvarado that if she would make a public written statement attesting to Volz's innocence, a cash settlement of $1,000,000 would be placed in her bank account, to which Cabezas, as her lawyer, would be entitled to 20 percent. While Baltodano denies offering a settlement, he admits the subject came up. "You know," he told me, "this sort of thing exists everywhere in the world. I said to her that her daughter would never live again, maybe we could do something." Volz's family, his defense team, and Holmann all emphatically deny having suggested a settlement.

Nevertheless, Alvarado went to the press. "I don't need a million dollars," she would cry in every subsequent radio and print interview. "I need my daughter!" Local sentiment turned darker. "He's rich! His powerful family is trying to buy him out!" became a local mantra.

The Volz family seemed totally confused. "I'm a guy who makes a salary," Jan Volz said. "I'm broke now. Doris's life was worth a lot more than a million dollars. I'm deeply sorry that she's gone. I want justice, too. If Eric was guilty, I'd tell him, 'You'll pay in here because you made a choice.' Had I a million dollars, I wouldn't have given it to her. Eric is innocent—I'm not trying to buy his innocence."

Having taken you through the first half of D'Souza's article, I'll direct you to the original article itself for the balance. If time allows, I hope you'll visit Outside Magazine to read the brilliant article by in full.

Click here to read "The Boomtown, the Gringo, the Girl, and Her Murder."


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