GuanaData, a project of The Voice of Guanacaste, investigates the public budgets of six municipalities in the country, including Talamanca. What are you going to read about in this investigation?
- The Municipality of Talamanca had signed an international agreement that would allocate $8,000 to the "Casita de Escucha" (Little Listening Houses) suicide prevention program. The municipality had four years to request the money, but gave priority to requesting other funds to build a multipurpose sports field and to remodel four parks in Bribri.
- In the last decade, the Telire district of Talamanca has had double-- and sometimes triple-- the national suicide rate. In 2018, the national suicide rate reached 8 per 100,000 residents, but Telire's was 25.
Lorna Hernandez was 14 years old the day Hopelessness visited her home. It was a morning in June 2020, the week after her significant other, a man in his 40s, broke off the improper relationship that he had with her for almost a year. When her parents returned from work, they found Lorna's lifeless body.
“Hopelessness” is the term that the Bribri community in Sepecue uses to refer to teenage suicide. Sepecue is a remote area in the district of Telire, up in the Talamanca mountain range, which can only be reached after a half-hour car ride from the center of Talamanca, followed by 20 minutes in boat.
Nestled among miles of dense hills, live 2,000 members of a community that has been mourning for years because cases like Lorna's have been recurring all too often. In fact, in 2014, the Municipal Council of Talamanca declared the situation an emergency due to the alarming number of cases reported. In 2018, the national suicide rate was 8 per 100,000 inhabitants, but Telire's reached 25. In 2019, Telire's rate decreased to 12.2, but was still almost double the national rate of 6.8 for that year. Despite this, the Talamanca Health Area didn’t have a psychology or psychiatry position until January 2020.
To alleviate this pain, in 2017 the Fundamentes Foundation implemented the "Casitas de Hearing" (Little Listening Houses) project with funds from the National Children's Trust (PANI-Patronato Nacional de la Infancia). The project provides children and adolescents with a place to go to do recreational activities, sports and talk to psychologists. It operated that way until December 2019, when it closed due to lack of resources. The “Casita” was the only suicide prevention initiative in the entire Telire district.
The Municipality of Talamanca was well aware of this. The Municipality was part of an agreement with the Central American Integration System (SICA-Sistema de Integración Centroamericana) to finance municipal projects. One of these was to build their own building for the Casita in Sepecue. The municipality could request $8,000, according to the operational plan that it submitted to SICA.
Instead of making this request, the municipality applied for funds for a multipurpose sports field and to remodel four parks in Bribri. The municipality did request a budget for the Casita, but this was done late. They had from July 22, 2016, the date the document was signed, until November 31, 2019 to request the money. When they applied on November 11, 2019, the agreement was about to expire.
When SICA received the project, it was too late. The director of Fundamentes, Carlos Hernandez, explained to GuanaData that they had requested help from the municipality since 2017 to avoid closing the Casita, but in the special agreement of December 12, 2019, which GuanaData has a copy of, the council argued that they had never had the money to save it.
It is impossible to know for sure if the Casita would have prevented “Hopelessness” from taking Lorna's life. What is certain is that, since January 2020, the young people who visited this place lost their refuge.
With no plans to resume the project, teachers in the area fear that Lorna will become the trigger setting of a long chain that takes other young lives. This would be the outbreak of another pandemic in Sepecue.
“There were five of us. Four of us remain."
Sepecue is a labyrinth of trails where silence reigns and the air is hot. The houses of its inhabitants are hidden amongst a forest of cocoa trees. None is closer than 500 meters (a third of a mile) to another house. Nadya Hernandez, Lorna's sister, lives 40 minutes from the former Casita de Escucha. Her house is mounted on wooden posts, according to tradition, and is covered by a thatched roof. Outside is a huge yard filled with commotion from chickens, pigs, and her dog.
Between the sound of the animals and her dad cutting cocoa down from the trees, Nadya breathes slowly.
With determined eyes, she recounts her life after losing Lorna. She wakes up an hour earlier now, studies alone and goes to the river in the afternoon, even though there is less sun. She says that in this way, she misses the routine that she had kept for years with her sister less.
“We try to do everything we did with her differently because she isn’t here now. There were five of us and four of us remain. We’re used to living together and we will always miss her, always.”.
Lorna's case is not isolated. Telire is the district with the second highest suicide rate in the canton of Talamanca, according to data from INEC (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses). In 2017, its rate was 25 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost four times the national rate of 6.4. In 2018, it was also 25 and by 2019, it fell to 12. Even this last figure was double that of the rest of the country.
Casitas de Escucha are a shield against Hopelessness.
They exist in five areas: Sepecue, Puerto Viejo, Cieneguita, Corales, Shiroles and Sixaola. All together, they serve more than 500 young people. In Sepecue, 36 people between the ages of three and 18 used the Casita’s services, including 17-year-old Mildred Sanchez, who was Lorna's schoolmate.
“It was a very lovely place. We have lessons from Monday to Friday and it’s very tiring, so the Casita was a time when we could express ourselves. If something happened during the week, I knew I could go to the psychologist and talk to her,” Mildred recalled.
To bring the Casita program to life, the team of psychologists from Fundamentes had to travel once a week from Talamanca to Suretka and from there pay for the boat that would take them to Sepecue. In addition, due to lack of infrastructure, they used the elementary school and high school classrooms for the project. The work was complicated because they didn’t have a place to store materials and the community needed these classrooms for holding classes.
With the closure of the Casita program in Sepecue, Fundamentes maintains a presence in the indigenous territory in Shiroles. "The young people who were referred [to the program] in Sepecue could go to that one, but it’s an hour and 20 minutes away for them," affirmed Geovanny Novoa, the Limon and Talamanca general coordinator for Fundamentes.
The second option is to create a traveling Casita that visits Sepecue on certain days of the month. However, PANI would have to approve this budget and with the pandemic, it could take until 2022, according to the director of Fundamentes, Carlos Hernandez.
Bureaucracy seems to decide the fate of the students who went to the Casita. Meanwhile, Nadya misses her sister on her trips alone to the river.
Why didn't the Casita de Escucha ever get the money from the Municipality?
Suicide is so common in areas like Sepecue that since 2015, the Bribri Indigenous Territory Integral Development Association (Aditibri) has designated a special fund to cover the expenses involved in sending the body to San Jose for the autopsy and then return it to Sepecue. For families like Lorna's, the costs are extremely high and they can’t pay for it.
“Since they are minors, by protocol they have to be sent first to the OIJ morgue in San Jose. Transportation has to be found: a car to take it to town and the boat. All of this is very expensive because we have to get the coffin. [The body] doesn’t leave the morgue without a coffin. We are talking about almost ₡300,000 ($500) minimum,” said Sepecue’s high school principal, Oscar Almengor, who is a member of Aditibri.
For reasons like this, even with the difficulties, the Casita in Sepecue was important. It was the only suicide prevention program in Sepecue.
Since 2017, the municipality has turned in an annual operating plan in which it explains how the funds would be used. The construction of a building for the Casita in Sepecue for $8,000 appears in this plan.
Despite having four years to apply for it, the municipality gave priority to five other projects: renovating the multipurpose field in the Bribri district and improving four community parks.
It wasn’t until November 11, 2019, when the agreement was about to expire, that the municipality asked for the money for the house. SICA denied the disbursement in a response sent on December 19, 2019 due to the last-minute nature of the request.
The document, in the hands of The Voice of Guanacaste, indicates that “considering that the Inclusive Lands project doesn’t have an extension and taking into account the time needed for the process of contracting, executing and liquidating the funds by the municipality, unfortunately it isn’t possible to carry out the rest of the work in Talamanca.”
The $8,000 dollars would have covered preparing the land, 15 sacks of cement, a toilet, a sink, 100 meters of electrical cable and other construction materials for the work, as stated in the operational plan that the municipality sent to SICA.
“The Casitas project was proposed, but SICA didn’t understand that by law, the [indigenous] community can’t sell or rent land to us. We also spoke with the development association, but they never reached an agreement. So the former mayor, Marvin Bran, decided to allocate the funds to other projects,” argued the Municipal Social Promoter for Talamanca, Enrique Joseph Jackson.
Jackson referenced Law N 6172, which since 1977 dictates in article three that "they cannot rent, lease, buy or in any other way acquire lands or properties within these reserves." However, SICA indicated that it denied the disbursement due to lack of time. In addition, there were other options. There is the possibility of making building agreements with the communities, for example the Ministry of Public Education for schools. In fact, the Sepecue high school was where the Casita was taking place, but its director, Oscar Almengor, told The Voice that they didn’t even know that this money existed.
“We don’t take the municipality into account because they aren’t really interested in these issues. There is an inter-institutional commission that has given us very little support... just meetings,” said Almengor.
Geovanny Novoa, the Limon and Talamanca general coordinator for the Casitas de Escucha Program for Fundamentes Foundation, also stated that he didn’t know that they had the possibility of receiving funds.
“The municipality knew that the Sepecue Casita had financial problems. Every month since 2017, we presented a final work report to the council, and in the last one, we made it very clear that the Sepecue Casita was going to close. Transportation costs were very high and it had a lot to do with the fact that we didn't have an assigned space either,” explained Novoa.
The $8,000 would have kept the Casita alive until at least January, before the pandemic and before Lorna's suicide.
Sepecue's Hopelessness Has Woman's Face
Words are not enough to explain the magnitude of Hopelessness.
Until the 1970s, the word “suicide” did not exist in the Bribri language, explained Damian Herrera, professor and researcher at the University of Costa Rica’s School of Psychology. The term that the community found to describe what was happening was duwé shkál, in Bribri, which in Spanish means “sickness from outside.”
Dr. Neil Rojas, an indigenous Bribri from Salitre and the only one from the community to graduate from medical school, explained to The Voice that they commonly use another word: "Hopelessness." The residents of Sepecue describe feeling it as a torment, similar to plunging into a bottomless river.
“We have entered a new world that we haven’t known about and that hasn’t wanted to know about us. The opportunity levels are very low, and not having those opportunities, I become hopeless. I'm watching my generation advance and go to college while I'm staying here. Add to this the socioeconomic situation, drug use and domestic violence,” Rojas described how someone might develop such despair.
It's not just Sepecue. It's indigenous communities around the world. In 2012, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) studied three communities: the Awajún (Peru), the Embera (Colombia) and the Guaraní (Brazil). In all of them, the teen suicide rate exceeded the national one.
These conditions keep suicide from being taboo in Sepecue and made it just an open wound.
Gina Hernandez, Lorna's mother, told The Voice that when Hopelessness violates a young person, the rest of the community visits the affected family to heal collectively. But due to the COVID-19 virus, no one visited them. Losing Lorna in the middle of a pandemic is also more painful because the memory of her daughter stays trapped in the house where she has to quarantine.
“She always told me that her dream was to become someone in life. She wanted to be a math teacher. She was very young and ended up falling in love with a man who was so much older. When that happened, it was the worst and something we never expected. If we had known, we would have avoided it,” Gina related.
Bribri's police delegation ranks fourth in the country in reporting sexual violations against minors, according to Judiciary police annual reports. Also, the highest number of suicide cases in young people are women between the ages of 10 and 24.
“All the suicides that have occurred have been just minors. Most are family. We have had four in a row and all women. What is needed is trust. There are many cases here of abuse and one is used to it. I'm afraid to tell because I don't know if they’re going to scold me or if they’re going to believe me. Many times they say that the person is the one that provokes it,” Mildred Sanchez, 17, a student at Sepecue High School who was Lorna's classmate, shared with The Voice.
Also, according to the most recent Social Development Index from the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy (Mideplan), the Huetar Caribe Region is the one with the fewest development opportunities in the entire country.
In the Index, if a district scores 44.7, it is considered "very low." Telire scored 16.16, the lowest among the country's districts. This means that if a person lives in a community like Sepecue, access to health, education, work and electoral participation is extremely difficult.
Finally, another challenge for indigenous communities is their vulnerability to drug trafficking. The head of the Prevention Projects Unit of the Costa Rican Drugs Institute (ICD), Carolina Garro Ureña, explained that these organizations take advantage of poverty to hire cheap labor and use the hard-to-reach lands to plant and sell drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
“So violence is combined with drug addiction. This is why projects like the Casitas de Escucha need to be an ongoing work. The Casita is a protective factor. They become rooted in the communities and see it as a social player that impacts school graduation rates or the decrease in adolescent pregnancy,” she observed.
How to Pay Off a Historical Debt?
The Casita remains closed in Sepecue and will remain so until at least 2022, if PANI approves a budget for the traveling project. The delay in the Municipality of Talamanca turning in documents is the result of a long historical chain of violence against indigenous communities, which have been forgotten by the State.
The Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) created a position for clinical psychology in January 2020. Before, the Talamanca health area could only refer people to the Tony Facio Hospital to be seen for emotional problems. This new position means that residents of Talamanca can receive care closer to home.
Since January 2020, 375 people have received care, according to CCSS statistics.
“But we can’t be a pilot plan,” Dr. Neil Rojas added. “We need comprehensive professionals. I have to talk about suicide and heart disease, but also about my culture and my mother tongue. That is why the Casitas de Escucha were important. With two or three young people who attend, there are two or three lives saved,” he said.
However, the new psychologist, Marielos Hernandez, recognizes that there are still challenges. For example, the trip from Sepecue to the clinic in the center of the canton costs about ₡10,000 (about $17).
“Being closer has been a success. The indigenous population is not averse to psychological care and when it is explained to them, there is no more resistance. There is a lot of consent and when they use a different vocabulary, we have an indigenous community assistant translator. We have even been able to begin to care for elderly people,” Hernandez explained.
Nadya is sure that what the young people in her community need is what was imperative for her sister: help.
“A psychologist is needed because many of the young people from 12 to 15 years old think that any problem, something that isn’t really so serious, they take it like a suicide. That’s why we need a psychologist to support us at those ages and to keep going. So that they don't think they have to be in that situation,” she proposed.
Nadya knows that the process of healing the wound that Hopelessness left in her home and her community can take years, but it is possible. She says she’d like to study, graduate as a teacher and help young people so that no other sister has to experience what she is going through.