Google Maps Nearly Ignited War Between Nicaragua & Costa Rica In 2010

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Google, it seems, should stick to playing RISK when it comes to defining the borders that separate dominions of countries - especially when the involved countries already have a history of border disputes. However, Google has Google Maps, as you know, and one of the main things that makes maps so useful is the demarcation of borders (otherwise, what's the point?).

Fact: the eastern-most border separated by Costa Rica and Nicaragua has been a place of dispute for nearly two hundred years. Given the delicacy of the border situation, you'd think someone making a map might exercise utmost precision in accurately defining the border between the two countries. What kind of history-deficient cartographer would carelessly treat the delineation of borders on a disputed area of land, even at the risk of stoking the embers beneath a simmering argument between two countries' borders?

Enter Google Maps.

In 2010, while in the midst of an underwater excavation of the Rio San Juan, a Nicaraguan official was accused of trespassing into Costa Rican territory. The official denied any unlawful border-crossing and, to exculpate himself, cited Google Maps. Unfortunately, for both the official and Google Maps, Google maps got it wrong.

The New York Times' Frank Jacobs details how, with nearly 200 years anchored on the border dispute between the two countries, one official's citation of Google Maps as the definitive demarcation of Nicaragua's dominion nearly incited an international incident.

The digital atlas had indeed placed the eastern end of the border between the countries to the south of the generally accepted line, providing Nicaragua with a territorial gain of a few square miles. Costa Rica protested, to both Nicaragua and Google Maps. The latter relented: acceding to the demand of Carlos Roversi, Costa Rica’s deputy foreign minister, it adjusted the online border. But the former persisted, maintaining 50 soldiers on the Isla Portillos, along the southern bank of the San Juan’s main channel. The Costa Ricans retaliated by dispatching about 70 police officers into the area.

Refer to the embedded map below to see the disputed area between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The land in question is the inlet that pokes northward along the river. As you'll see, the border imitates the wind of the river but does not exactly follow the river.

View Larger Map

Costa Rica petitioned Google to correct the map so as to more accurately reflect the legally recognized border between the two countries. Google, instead, reclined back and folded its arms, saying that it only represents the maps as best as it can but leaves users to "come to their own geopolitical conclusions" regarding the maps. As of today, the dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is unresolved while both countries continue to maintain some kind of military presence in the region.

As Jacobs astutely surmised, while Google Maps might be the go-to source for maps, "popularity does not bestow authority." And a note to all ye travelers of the world: when talking with people, it might be best to not use Google Maps as your basis of knowledge concerning where one country ends and another begins. If Google got this wrong, who knows what else in their map world is in error.

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