This year’s arrest, trial and conviction of two Belgian men who own and operated Granada’s first gay hotel and condominium community has apparently prompted some members of the gay community to boycott Nicaragua tourism, according to industry sources.
Supporters of Francis Defrancq and Jan Van den broeck, the incarcerated co-owners of Granada’s erstwhile Hotel Joluva and the nearby condominium development known as Club Alegria (Club Happiness), insist the two men were unfairly targeted for being homosexual and successful. Nicaraguan authorities deny the allegations and say Defrancq and Van den broeck were busted for crimes that were proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court.
But many in the international gay community say they have plenty of reasonable doubts about the raid, arrest and judicial proceedings that followed. The perception of homophobia and xenophobia has led some to boycott Granada altogether, tourism sources say.
“Gay tourism in Granada is dead; before there were lots of gay couples here and now there are none to be seen,” says a foreigner whose Granada business catered to gay tourism, and who asked to remain unidentified for fear of reprisal. “The gay community is outraged by this. This is an international boycott and it’s because of this arrest, which makes no sense.”
The source says she thinks the damage to Nicaragua’s reputation has already been done and it will translate into fewer tourism and investment dollars for this colonial city. “It will take a long time for the gay community to trust Nicaragua again,” the source said. “People are very afraid.”
Another source, who also wished to remain unidentified, said his restaurant business has suffered since the raid on Hotel Joluva. He says he had some 30 gay clients who were regular visitors to Granada, but none have returned since March.
Defrancq and Van den broeck, who are serving five-year sentences for sexual commercial exploitation and child pornography, also support the idea of a tourism boycott. Van den broeck, who is blogging from jail by passing handwritten sheets of paper to friends who visit, says the case against them has “set back gay emancipation by at least 10 years in Nicaragua.”
“Nobody in his sane mind will start a gay-oriented business to support this community,” he blogged.
Their cries of injustice have found international echo. The blog Doin’ Costa Rica, which is aimed at gay travelers, recently posted an entry titled “Our Friends at Joluva are Guilty of Being Gay!”
Another article published in several LGBT newspapers in the U.S. and Europe reports that the Joluva raid prompted a gay exodus of Granada. “Many gay expats living in Nicaragua fled the country in a scene reminiscent of the gay witch-hunts in the United States during the 1950s,” reports author James Sears, a former professor at Penn State and Harvard University. “Institutionalized homophobia remains the norm” in Nicaragua, Sears claims.
The Nicaragua Dispatch’s March 12 article on Joluva also attracted a lot of international attention. It was the most-read article on the website for 2012, and continues to draw dozens of readers every day— nine months after its publication.
Jan and Francis speak
Defrancq and Van den broeck, both 51, maintain their innocence and hope the appellate judge will overturn their sentence for crimes they insist they didn’t commit. The only minors the two Belgians admit to having contact with were the underprivileged children they helped through their charitable endeavors, Van den broeck insists.
The two men are being held in an overcrowded cell in the Procesamiento jail at the Granada Police Station, due to worse overcrowding in other Nicaraguan prisons. Ironically, Van den broeck says, they are in closer contact with minors now that they’re in jail.
“If the police had any concerns with some of the people swimming naked in our private pool (people who were over 18), I would like to know why we were locked up in an overcrowded cell with a boy hardly 16 years old who showered several times a day, naked, in front of four of the five accused in this case!” Van den broeck wrote in a statement to The Nicaragua Dispatch. “He washed his clothes and underwear naked in front of us, and the police had put him in a cell with us! There were several boys of 13 and 14 years of age in other, huge cells. They were all naked together in the morning and evening, and these kids helped wash the bodies of the older men.”
Van den broeck, who managed Hotel Joluva, says he doesn’t think he and his partner were picked on solely because they are gay. But he thinks being gay made them appear like an easy target.
“This is because we have money; it doesn’t matter if you are homosexual, but of course it is easier if you are homosexual,” Van den broeck told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent interview in the prison yard during weekly visiting hours.
Van den broeck says he and Defrancq have never gotten in trouble before the raid on their hotel. And once they were in trouble, they didn’t know how the system worked. Van den broeck says a gay businessman who recently got into similar trouble in Managua bought his way out of problems, while another guy businessman on Ometepe Island got off because “he knew the right people.”
“I guess we didn’t know the right people, or whatever,” Van den broeck says.
While Van den broeck thinks money, not sexual preference, was the initial motive for the raid on his hotel, he says the case became increasingly homophobic as it evolved. In the trial, he says he and Defrancq were accused of turning straight boys into homosexuals, and a coffee table book on the history of homosexuality was presented as evidence of their alleged conversion attempts.
Van den broeck says the prosecutor also alleged that the fact their website gaynicaragua.net was hosted in Belgium was evidence that they were running some sort of international sex ring. He says officials’ attitude towards homosexuality suggested a real ignorance about the topic.
“These are things that were happening in Europe 60 years ago, and all I kept thinking was: They are very, very far behind here,” Van den broeck says.
He said when he and Defrancq eventually get out of jail, they will most likely leave Nicaragua, despite all the money and time they have invested here.
“I love it here so much, but Francis says its best to go to Costa Rica at least for a while,” Van den broeck says. “We have never had any trouble before with the law—not even a traffic ticket before this. So we have to go low profile.”
In the meantime, Van den broeck says, the gay tourism boycott is fine by him.
“We tried to be very calm and nice, but they don’t want the easy way out,” he says.
‘Justice was done’
Nicaraguan authorities say the police raid and subsequent prosecution of the two Belgians was done by the book to protect Nicaraguan children from sexual predators. The case was not motivated by homophobia or xenophobia, assures Vanessa Cordero, the head prosecutor for the case.
It also wasn’t a property grab either, she says. Indeed, both Hotel Joluva and the property of Club Alegria have since been returned to the two Belgians.
“The evidence speaks for itself,” Prosecutor Cordero told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview. “During the police raid, there were two minors under the age of 18 in Hotel Joluva, and there were others that we knew about from before the raid.”
In total, she says, police identified seven victims, all boys under the age of 18.
She says of the five foreign men who were collared during the raid, only the two owners were found guilty of a crime. “The judge did not find enough evidence against the two Canadians and the North American man, and they were released. That’s proof that this was not motivated by xenophobia, because if it were they all would have been found guilty,” Cordero says.
She adds, “This wasn’t because they are gay, it was because of their conduct—using minors for this type of activity. There were also adults involved in this, but they were allowed to go free because that’s not of interest to us. Our only interest were the boys we identified.”
She said the hotel’s owners were unmistakably promoting sex tourism. On their three Internet sites, which have all been taken offline, police found profiles of male prostitutes with their names, ages and descriptions of their sexual talents, Cordero says. There was also a physical catalogue—or “menu,” as Cordero calls it—containing pictures of more than a dozen young Granadinos.
“They all had similar physical characteristics—dark skinned, straight hair—this is what the foreigners liked,” Cordero said of the catalogue found at the hotel. None of the young men in the catalogue were identified as minors, Cordero says, but it was evidence of sexual exploitation, she insists.
Van den broeck says the catalogue was to identify staff and others who were allowed into the hotel, for security purposes.
Not so, says Cordero.
“They charged money for erotic massages, some of the masseuses were experts in oral sex, and then they had to pay the owners for use of the hotel,” the prosecutor says.
In the eyes of the beholder
Almost 10 months after the raid on Hotel Joluva and Club Alegria, public opinion remains passionately divided over what happened there and why it was closed.
Of the 76 comments on the first article published in The Nicaragua Dispatch last March, many adamantly defend the two Belgian proprietors and insist they maintained a strict door policy to prevent minors from entering the premises. Joluva and Club Alegria, defenders say, were fun and law-abiding establishments that weren’t any more prurient than any of the other hotel or tourism businesses that cater to a heterosexual crowd.
Others say it crossed the line. “Let’s get real, Joluva was a brothel,” posted a reader named Robert. “You know it and I know it. The courts knew it…This is sex tourism at its worst, which is why I stopped going. I went thinking it was a gay hotel and found a den.”
Some members of the local gay community said they were uncomfortable with explicit sexual nature of the business. One Costa Rican man who lives here told The Nicaragua Dispatch he entered the hotel out of curiosity and “was immediately offered a catalogue filled with pictures of skinny boys who were being offered for company.”
“I am not saint, but I have no appetite for that,” the source said on the condition his name was withheld. “It felt exploitative, so I left.”
That sentiment was also echoed by others. A U.S. traveler who posted a review on Trip Advisor back in 2009 wrote, “I entered their lobby and I was greeted by what looked like street boys. There was a very strange vibe of older gentleman and young guys hanging around the place. I am gay, but the group of street guys/boys hanging around was a little too much for me, too seedy. I moved on to the next place.”
But most of the people who visited Joluva liked what they saw. Indeed, the hotel got only negative rating on Trip Advisor, and 45 positive reviews.
For now, however, it appears like the good times are over. Even if the appellate judge eventually overturns the sentence and releases the two Belgians, it is—even by their own admission—unlikely that Hotel Joluva will ever be the same or that Club Alegria will again live up to its name.