Murder And Manifest Destiny On The Mosquito Coast

Pearl Lagoon is a hard place to get to. First, you must secure one of the seats on the small, puddle-jumping prop planes flown by La Costeña, the only airline serving Nicaragua’s notoriously isolated Mosquito Coast. The flight from the country’s capital, Managua, to Bluefields, a motley port town and the area’s major metropolis at about 50,000 people, takes just one hour. That is, when it leaves on time; schedules are the stuff of fantasy here. Its cost is prohibitive for many in this, one of the poorest regions in the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. Often, the only way in or out of the coast is a combination of bus and boat that takes eight or more hours if everything goes smoothly, which it rarely does.

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From Bluefields, at the mouth of the Escondido River, a small fiberglass motorboat called a panga is crammed with passengers and cargo, everything from watermelons to Snow White piñatas. A roaring outboard propels the panga through maze-like channels of mangrove forest, passing fishermen in dugout canoes. In one, you might see an indigenous Miskito man with an oar in one hand, a cell phone in the other. Passing another, the boat might be weighed down with fishing nets, construction materials or, inexplicably, a small herd of raggedy mutts.

For generations, the Mosquito Coast was a refuge. Both indigenous and Afro-Caribbean, it was populated by six distinct ethnic groups who were never colonized by “Spaniards,” as many here still call the Spanish-speaking, Catholic mestizos who make up the majority of the country and with whom they’ve had a contentious relationship for centuries. Despite a recent influx of mestizo settlers, the coast is an autonomous territory, with its own government and culture. Costeños speak a mix of English, Creole, and indigenous dialects, eat curry-laced seafood stews, and listen to country music, a product of years of trade with Texas and Louisiana. The region was famously depicted in Paul Theroux’s novel-turned-movie Mosquito Coast, which starred Harrison Ford as a misanthropic mad inventor seeking to tame the place and civilize its people. American journalist Stephen Kinzer once described it as “a Caribbean island that, by some geological catastrophe, drifted toward Central America and found itself part of a foreign nation.”

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In Pearl Lagoon, there are no banks, no supermarkets, a couple of paved roads, and one skyscraping cell tower. But there are a half dozen churches, and the largest, most incongruous house in town — a place that resembles a McMansion in the Southern California suburbs — is owned by a woman who locals say made her money off the drug trade. The people here are fishermen and subsistence farmers. They go to sea to work on cruise ships and commercial freighters. They live in villages of stilted clapboard, concrete, or cinder block houses on large, undefined lots with ancient mango trees in the yards.

Just off the coast is an archipelago of coconut palm-capped islands known as the Pearl Cays. They’re tiny little things (the largest is 26 acres), and they’re ecologically fragile. With abuse or bad luck, an entire island can disappear in a matter of years. They have been a stopover for explorers and pirates, smugglers and narco-traffickers. But for as long as anyone here can remember, the cays have also been communal — uninhabited, but well-used by the neighboring mainland villages. They were the highway rest stop of the Mosquito Coast’s sea-centric culture, a place where fisherman and travelers could come ashore, escape a storm, stay the night. “We saw the cays as things people use for fishing and coconuts and making coconut oil,” says Wesley Williams, a historian and guesthouse owner in Pearl Lagoon. “We never wanted to think about selling the cays.”

Yet 15 years ago, after the arrival of an enigmatic foreign businessman, that’s what happened. Seven Pearl Cays would end up on the international private island market, and were then purchased by a cast of eccentric, far-flung characters: a British Playboy Bunny and her family, with a reality show crew in tow; a New Age dandy from New Zealand with an identically dressed brood and aspirations for jet-setting fame; a French inventor who dreamed of owning his own sportfishing resort.

They came, and they built. But almost as soon as they arrived, the protests began. The islands were constitutionally protected communal lands, the people of Pearl Lagoon argued. One of the country’s most well-known human rights lawyers, a tenacious U.S.-trained attorney named María Luisa Acosta, took on the case. Weeks later, her husband was found tortured and murdered. Acosta fled the coast, and the people of Pearl Lagoon went quiet. In the years since, the men who Acosta believes ordered the killing remain free, and these specks of Caribbean real estate have been transformed.

The story that people here tell of what is happening to their islands — and to Acosta — is surreal and tragic. Yet it follows a trajectory familiar in the often bleak world of indigenous and minority land conflicts, where developers can operate like the plundering colonial regimes of centuries past. As a report published earlier this year by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs describes it, foreign investors are gobbling up indigenous lands like never before, triggering forced displacement in an “ever-expanding development frontier.”

Now, more than a decade later, with the facts of her murdered husband under review by the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, in Washington, D.C., Acosta believes she might accomplish something rare in the world of alleged land murders: She may finally get justice.

Photograph by Freda Moon for BuzzFeed

The Greek

Among celebrities and the ultra-wealthy, the appeal of remote, private islands is obvious; in place of the historic moat and drawbridge, there is a warm sea. But to actually live full-time on even the most amenable private island means being separated, literally and profoundly, from every relationship you value except those you can take with you. It takes a certain kind of person to make the leap from fantasizing about owning one's own island to actually buying, and moving, and living on one. / Via Web Archive

Yet if it weren’t for this fairly primal attraction, a bland website called would not have thrived as an early player in what has become a booming trade in private islands. When it first appeared in 1999, it had what was then a standard, no-frills design, complete with bubble fonts in shades of dull blue and drop shadow. Its tagline advertised “Your own KINGDOM in today's developed world.” But the site’s sparse white pages of plain-text hyperlinks took visitors to images of the Pearl Cays. Even in small, grainy digital photos, they were spectacular.

The property descriptions were clumsy, but the prices, starting at $105,000, hit a sweet spot: just high enough to suggest legitimacy, but still so low as to seem like a tremendous bargain. In total, seven of the eighteen cays were listed. Among their selling points was the potential for a name change (“Stay in History forever... Live on an island named after your preference!!”) and the low cost of living “due to inexpensive labor.”

Courtesy of La Prensa

The man behind the website was a dark-haired entrepreneur named Peter Tsokos. El Griego, as he’d come to be known in Nicaraguan media, arrived on the Mosquito Coast in the 1990s. He was apparently from Greece, and had at some point moved to the United States, where he seems to have spent time in Texas and Florida and gained citizenship. Nicaragua was not the first place Tsokos had purchased property; he had also been south, to Costa Rica and Panama. Beyond those vague contours of a biography, themselves difficult to confirm, little about him was known.

In Bluefields, Tsokos heard about a talented Creole attorney from Pearl Lagoon named Peter Martinez. With his help, Tsokos began making deals with people who had tenuous ties to Pearl Lagoon but who possessed some claim to the islands. One family lived in Miami. Another was on Corn Island. Another was in Bluefields. If you ask five people in Pearl Lagoon, you’re likely to hear five different versions of how Tsokos acquired the Pearl Cays.

At some point, Martinez approached the community’s seven-member council of elders for guidance. A hotel owner in Pearl Lagoon suggested he bribed them. Bill McCoy, a former fisherman who now works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, remembers it this way: “He made a big offer to these people. He said, ‘We’re providing jobs. We’re going to help build and fix schools and churches,’” McCoy recalls, adding, “They all agree because he makes things so pretty.”

Still others say that the offer was a trick, that the titles themselves, some of which were more than a century old, were fabricated, and that Tsokos paid a pittance for them: $36,000 for all seven. Martinez rejects all of this. “It was a private legal sale supported with all legal documents,” he says. He won’t say how much the cays were sold for, though he says it was more than $36,000. “The price he paid is the price the sellers asked for,” Martinez says.

Once the deals were made, the conflict began. “That’s when people start stirring up,” McCoy recalls. “People start saying, ‘We should have never done that.’”

Ricochet TV

The Bunny Girl

Jayne Gaskin is still proud to have been among Tsokos’ first buyers. She now lives in London, where she recently returned after years in Nicaragua, but she remains attached to the Pearl Cays — so attached, in fact, that she had them tattooed on herself. She has less affection, however, for the local people, whom she describes as lazy, ignorant, and untrustworthy. “They drink,” she says, with her characteristic, casual racism, “and you can buy them with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of beer.”

In a recent telephone interview, Gaskin could also be cagey and defensive. At one point, her daughter, an aspiring actress, grabbed the phone and angrily objected to questions about the legal status of the cays. Later, the daughter said that she would “crack down” on people who post “lies” about them on the internet. “We will have to sue people,” she says. “We have incredibly good lawyers in Managua.”

It is understandable that the Gaskins would be trepidatious. While they may have left Nicaragua behind, their financial future remains tied to the Pearl Cays.

British media and the reality show that Gaskin would star in described her as a former Bunny Girl, the scantily clad variety of waitress and hostess, but she was reluctant to discuss her personal life, saying only that when she bought the island in 2000, she was a housewife who had become disillusioned with England and “just wanted to get away from the rat race.” “You just sort of dream of living on a tropical beach — don't you? — when you look out on a cold winter’s day.” / Via Web Archive

She landed on and saw Lime Cay, a 9.5-acre island with typical Caribbean good looks: a patch of verdant green outlined with white sand and surrounded by sea the color of a swimming pool. Photographed from the air, it was the shape of a lopsided heart. “The many tall majestic coconut palms are a true indication of fresh sweet water,” its description read. “This cay can adapt perfectly for a residential estate.” The list price was $299,000.

Gaskin sold her Hampshire house and most of her belongings. With her partner of seven years Phil Broadhead (he adopted her last name at some point) and her three children, who were between 8 and 13, they moved to the Mosquito Coast. A producer for the reality show No Going Back, about Brits who make a big move abroad, heard about the Gaskins. Jayne made a great character — gaudy and brash, with the look of an aging porn star — and her island, which she promptly renamed Jaynique, was as telegenic as they come (it would later be used as the location for Spain's Survivor-esque reality show, Supervivientes).

The show, which was initially a single, stand-alone “documentary” in No Going Back’s first season, stood apart from other episodes of the show, where the drama was most often derived from the petty challenges of, say, a gut renovation on a French Chateau. The Gaskin storyline, in contrast, was so shocking that it warranted a follow-up four months later. Though the family appeared on British Channel 4 only twice (in January 2002 and then again in April), they were still being discussed in online forums years later, with viewers posting questions about what had become of the family.

In the opening moments, Jayne, Phil, and the kids stood on the rugged bluffs of the English coast near their longtime home in Hampshire, looking expectantly out to sea. Jayne was bundled in a white fur coat, her bottle-blonde hair (later dyed red) falling from beneath a massive white fur hat. She looked like a snow cone. An ominous voice-over foreshadowed the story to come: “Their dreams turn into a nightmare and 12 months later, their lives are shattered.”


In one early scene in Nicaragua, the family went shopping for a panga, and Jayne insisted it be painted hot pink. In another scene, the family was at a gun shop, where one of the boys playfully pointed an enormous firearm at his 8-year-old sister. Jayne, looking on, wore a skintight silver bodice overflowing with cleavage. When the family finally arrived at their new home, there were long days of clearing, cleaning, and building. During their off hours, the kids raced hermit crabs, Jayne walked the beach topless, and Phil worried about their dwindling budget. Life on Jaynique had its challenges, but the family was, in their way, making it work.

Then, Jayne began sleeping with a local man that she and Phil hired to help with construction. When the man, Teodoro, began sleeping with the cook, Jayne banished him from the island. But the drama wasn’t confined to Jayne’s love life: Tension was building over the Gaskins' presence in the Pearl Cays as community leaders began questioning the legality of their ownership of Jaynique.

At one point in No Going Back, the camera crew followed the family into a tense meeting at the small concrete office of Pearl Lagoon’s mayor, where they tried to convince him that their arrival would help relieve the coast’s desperate poverty. “This is hope,” Phil said. “This is the future. This is like Belize 25 years ago. They had nothing and then, everything.”

The mayor wasn’t moved. “The properties of the people — the indigenous people — cannot be loaned, cannot be given,” he said sternly. The cays, he told them on camera, are a kind of sacred entitlement that must be passed down from generation to generation. “We will not give up our fight,” he said.

The battle intensified. McCoy, the Wildlife Conservation Society worker, had been hired to monitor hawksbill nests on the islands, and while working one day, he was arrested and jailed for trespassing. “I had to sign something that said I would never go back to the cays,” he recalls. A petition circulated complaining about the cutting of mangroves and vegetation that protected the island from erosion. Soon, a demonstration was organized, and a fleet of pangas ferried protesters from Pearl Lagoon to the Gaskins' doorstep. Then-President Arnoldo Alemán even got involved, and he, too, came to the island with an entourage and television news cameras in tow, promising to help the locals reclaim their lost cays.

Through all of it, the Gaskins were defiant. Phil accused the protesters of being “racist” against whites, while Jayne promised nothing short of armed resistance. “I’m not just going to walk away,” she said to the No Going Back camera. “I want the island. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. That’s what it would be. All-out war.”

The bluster backfired. Late one night, the family was kidnapped by four armed men, placed on a motorboat, and told they were being held for $1 million ransom. The kidnappers wore masks, but the family recognized the voice of their leader: Teodoro, Jayne’s former lover. Phil fought back, dousing one of the men with gasoline from the panga’s outboard motor. The boat was set ablaze, and the Gaskins waded deep into the mangroves, where they hid overnight. The family survived, but Phil developed a life-threatening respiratory infection. “The only way I can escape this island is in my dreams,” he told the reality show crew afterward.

María Luisa Acosta

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