Geography Grapevine's Atlas History

Cartographic Conquest

The Central American (almost) war caused by Google Maps.

Navigation is hard. The world is big and there are things and places everywhere. Today, we’re pretty lucky; when I need to go anywhere, I can plug my destination into Google Maps and the quickest route is immediately beamed to my brain. Before Google, I have no idea how people navigated. My parents used to print out longform directions from MapQuest numerated across two or three sheets of paper. That was post-internet (so, after 1800, or whenever the internet was invented), and they still ran the risk of missing an exit and jeopardizing the whole plan. Before that, what did people use? Stick maps and compasses?

My point is: resources like Google Maps are a godsend for navigation. Without them, I’d be eternally confined to walking in circles like a mouse with a brain parasite.

I’ve sung high praise for Google’s navigation app so far, but I have to admit it’s far from perfect, having owned its share of fuck-ups. In 2017, an Arizona woman spent five days trapped in the desert when her car ran out of gas after Google Maps led her down a road that didn’t exist.

A year prior, in 2016, a house owned by Texan Lindsay Diaz was damaged by a passing tornado. Luckily, the damage was limited, and the house was salvageable. Her neighbor wasn’t so lucky; their house was marked for demolition. Unfortunately for Diaz, Google Maps mixed up the addresses, leading the demolition crew to her house instead of her neighbor’s. The site supervisor confirmed some details, like the house number, visible tornado damage, and its position on a corner lot, details both houses had in common. One house was on Calypso Drive, the other on Cousteau. Feeling their location verified strongly enough, the demo team let rip and tore down Diaz’s home.

Speaking on the matter, the company’s owner offered reassuring words. “It’s not a big deal”, Billy said. His company’s motto, according to Newsweek, is “We could wreck the world; Jesus Saves”. These details aren’t really relevant to this piece; I just think Billy sounds like a dick. Similarly, CNNMoney assures the worried among us; Diaz’s neighbor’s house (the correct one, this time) was eventually also torn down. Phew.

So, more than once, Google’s been on the receiving end of bad publicity generated by mistakes in its Maps site. But these cases, and those like them, are small — single individuals impacted by minor errors, insofar as adding to the homeless population and leaving someone stranded long enough to, uh, potentially die, are minor. Compared to Google’s biggest Maps mixup, though, the after effects of each ordeal seem limited. For more, let’s head south of the border, and then south of south of the border, and then south again. Just keep going. I’ll tell you when the exit’s coming up.

Cartographic Conquest

On November 3, 2010, turmoil in Central America: the Nicaraguan Army storms across its southern border into Costa Rica, violently casts down it’s neighbor’s flag, and raises its own in its bloodstained stead. 

…actually, it was a few soldiers firing no shots as they marched into an uninhabited area. Any shed blood would have been more easily attributable to an unfortunate accident, like those hangnails that look easy to deal with, but end up peeling painfully far downward; the soul of deception.

It didn’t matter how they got there. What mattered was that the Nicaraguan Army was on soil claimed by Costa Rica. Land that was, on November 2nd, 2010, unambiguously Costa Rican, now bore the Nicaraguan flag. What beckoned the change? Mutual trade like the time the United States and Canada agreed to shuffle around their land claims to make that slick, straight border, or the time India and Bangladesh committed to swap the tiny scattershot array of bordergore exclaves? Financial acquisition like the Louisiana and Alaska purchases? Or outright violent conquest? Any one of these could make for a great story. Nicaragua’s is better. Their claim? The land is theirs because Google said it was.

A little bit of historical background, if you’re into that sort of thing: A long time ago (after Native American settlement, way after dinosaurs, et al.) Central America found itself (mostly) under the control of the Spanish Empire. Hot on the heels of the independence of Colombia and much colder on the heels regarding American independence, the people of Central America broke free from Spain in 1821 to form the Federal Republic of Central America. About a week later, they were followed by the people of Mexico, who went another direction, founding the First Mexican Empire. Mexico’s chosen emperor’s first course of action was simple enough: conquer Central America. Less than a year out, the Republic voted in favor of annexation and joined Mexico.

Central America’s time in the Mexican Empire was turbulent and marked by a number of internal conflicts. Fortunately for them, the Emperor, Agustin Iturbide, was very bad at being an emperor and resigned less than a year after taking the job. Mexico then forgot to choose a new emperor, and the empire dissolved. 

Fresh on its feet, the newly-reinstated Federal Republic was not fully free of the civil conflict it had come to know during its empire dayz. In 1824, civil war erupted in Nicaragua, and a posse of Costa Rican coffee growers peer pressured a few Nicaraguan towns to join Costa Rica instead, using the ensuing strife as cover. Then they did it again. And again. According to the New York Times, Nicaragua would lose 11,000 square miles to Costa Rican guerrilla real estate by the time the country left the Republic in 1841.

Years out, Nicaragua was still pissed, because Costa Rica had 11,000 square miles of land that used to be theirs. They wanted it back, which really peeved Costa Rica, because they really liked the land that they had stolen. Eventually, tensions came to a head, and they decided to sign an agreement determining which country owned what land. They met, drafted a document, and then left without ratifying it. Then they tried again. And again. And then they tried again. They tried six times, but each time one side forgot to sign the agreement. Then, in 1858, the two countries finally met, pens firmly in hand, and signed a treaty outlining the borders as we know them today. The agreement remained unquestioned until 1888, when someone questioned it. 

“I have an answer,” a voice boomed from the heavens. “The treaty is valid. Do not question the treaty.” The voice belonged to Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, who was speaking from the north and not from heaven, because he wasn’t dead yet (now he is).

The issue of the border between the two countries would not be properly dredged again until 120 years later, when Google stepped in. At some point prior to November 3rd, 2010, the Google Maps team placed the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border further south than it should have been, according to the judgment of famed Central America expert Grover Cleveland. Observing this change in affairs, the Nicaraguan military did the righteous thing and invaded a sovereign country. When asked by Costa Rica to stop invading the country, Nicaragua simply shrugged and told their neighbors to “Google it”.

The Costa Rican government responded by opening their high-priority diplomatic channels with (inactive since the search engine wars of 1912) and asked the tech giant to fix their shit. Shortly thereafter, Google fixed their shit. The New York Times uses the word “relented”, which makes it sound like they were being real awful about it.

Taking note of Google’s change of affairs, Nicaragua responded by gracefully bowing their heads and leaving their newly-claimed (and newly-lost) territory. Lmao, just kidding, they put fifty soldiers there. Costa Rica, in turn, sent seventy police officers, because the army was… busy? They also sent word to the Organization of American States, which formally condemned the Nicaraguan incursion and requested that the two states meet to hash out their beef.

Nicaragua gave a big thumbs down, playing the “haters gonna hate” card, which was pretty new and popular in 2010. The country’s president, Daniel Ortega, got on the mic and let everyone know that he would not remove the country’s troops from the region, that the Organization of American States ruined everything by getting involved, and that he was taking his ball and going home maintaining military presence on Costa Rican soil. He also accused his neighbors of being influenced to condemn him by drug cartels.

The situation seemed pretty cut-and-dry, but from what I can tell, the conflict seems to have maintained a certain degree of stasis through most of the decade. The International Court of Justice in the Hague published three rulings, one in 2015, and two in 2018. In total, the court charged Nicaragua over $378,000 for the episode.

This whole story reads as an embarrassing, easily-avoidable mistake, but there’s a tiny bit more under the covers. In the 1800s, the topic that finally brought Nicaragua to the negotiating table was the prospect of establishing a transcontinental canal through Nicaraguan territory. Nearly 60 years later, that transcontinental canal would open, having been built much further south in Panama. Fast forward another ninety or so years, Nicaragua is in talks again to establish a secondary canal. The project, set to be funded largely by Chinese organizations, was particularly active in the early 2010s, when New York Times writer Robert Mackey suggests the nation’s government ordered soldiers to begin a dredging project on the San Juan river, whose southern bank was Costa Rican territory until Google said it wasn’t.

By 2018, the Nicaragua Canal project was considered to have been mostly discontinued. That’s also about the time the most recent judicial rulings regarding the Nicaraguan invasion were made. A lot of the readily-available articles on this topic facetiously remark that the border data was displayed correctly on Bing Maps or Open Street Maps or Ask Jeeves’ Earth Pictures, but that probably doesn’t really matter. Those services have had their own problems (except Ask Jeeves — they’re gonna live forever). Apple’s Tim Cook famously asked users to download competitor apps after Apple Maps suffered a botched debut. The Nicaraguan government wasn’t really hyped at the prospect of a few extra square miles, at least not as hyped as they were at the prospect of opening a new, sexier water route between the Pacific and Atlantic – the canal wars that could have been.

So what’s the moral here. Don’t trust Google Maps? Maybe, but better advice may be “be extra careful when you’re travelling the desert” or “when your job is destroying houses, do your homework to make sure you’re destroying the right houses”. More accurately, the moral might be “know technology’s limits”. Google Maps isn’t approved as a land surveying tool; it wasn’t designed to act as the twelfth man on a corner-cutting demolition team. It’s also not an arbiter of international jurisdiction. If the city says your property line ends at the oak tree, but Google Maps says it goes all the way to your neighbor’s toilet, consider stopping short of cutting Jim’s sewer line.

Like always, I think part of the moral is “look for the bullshit”. It’s easy to blame Google for messing up the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. To some degree, it’s definitely fair — they fucked up. But the lion’s share of the blame here has to go to the aggressor. In fairness, we have to ask, if Google had instead mistakenly given Nicaragua some of the Pacific Garbage Patch, would their response have been as swift? Would Ortega’s forces have marched as eagerly to claim fifty acres of Wal Mart grocery bags and Happy Meal toys? Or did it so happen that opportunity finally rose where they’d been waiting for it? You make use of what you have; Russia staged a referendum to take Crimea in 2014. Ortega logged onto Google Maps.

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