Crime in Costa Rica – is it as bad as the Ticos would have you believe?

Just before a female friend and I set off on a trip to Puerto Viejo (de Limón) for the first time, we mentioned our plans to a bunch of Tico friends.

“Have you been before?” They started.
“If not, you shouldn’t go alone. Wait until one of us can go with you – it’s dangerous if you don’t know your way around.”
“There’s a lot of crime there. And drugs. Two gringas like you will almost certainly get robbed.”
“Don’t leave the hostel at night, in the dark it’s worse.”

This went on for a while until I became thoroughly irritated and even more determined than ever to go to Puerto Viejo. And when we arrived, we were surprised. It seemed like a laid-back rasta town, with quite a large proportion of hippy gringos living there. Most of the locals looked to be pot-smoking surfers, and everyone was thoroughly pleasant to us.

My point is that a prevailing sense of fear has crept into the Ticos’ everyday life over the past five years or so. I don’t deny that there is certainly crime in Puerto Viejo, and have heard this from Gringo sources as well. They speak of people being knocked off their bikes, their bags robbed at machete-point, and of drug-runners threatening the lives of would-be whistle-blowers. But really, if you go to Puerto Viejo and take the proper precautions – such as not carrying a massive purse and avoiding dark lanes at night – you should be fine.

If a Tico tells you a place is dangerous, it is probably worth getting a second opinion from a traveler who has been there before. Costa Rica is no more dangerous than most other Central American countries – in fact I would say it is less so, especially outside the capital. The paranoia seems to largely come from the fact that ten years ago, crime was almost unknown, and in the last five years it has suddenly become a fact of every-day life. My Spanish teacher tells me that in the ten years before 2002, she only had one student come in and tell her that they had been mugged. Now, she says, it’s more like two a month. Her three children have had their cell-phones robbed five times between them, and the news media has run several stories in the six months I have been here about people who were shot dead because they wouldn’t give up their cell-phone. If someone tries to rob you, as in any country, give them what they are asking for.

I’m told that if you call the police and ask them to come out to a crime, they ask you if you’ve got enough money to pay for their petrol

Ticos will have you believe that crime is burgeoning because of the sudden inflation of immigration into the country by Nicaraguans and Colombians. Ticos tell every tourist that the person who robbed them was almost certainly not Tico. Ticos have more dignity than that, they add. It may also be something to do with the ineffectiveness of the police. I’ve never had the occasion to try, but I’m told that if you call and ask for someone to come out to a crime, the police often ask if you have enough money to pay for their petrol. They’re pretty badly underfunded and underpaid.

Recently, a new security minister called Jeanina del Vecchio was elected and angered a goodly number of people because she said that after taking the post, she realised that the crime situation was not as bad as she had previously thought. This was a sharp turn around from the man she replaced, Fernando Berrocal, who was forced to step down after he alleged that the rise in crime is partly due to the fact that the Colombian rebel forces (FARC) have infiltrated Costa Rica and have strong ties with important government members. Although originally saying he had a list of names, none was ever produced (it’s unclear whether the government pressured him to keep it quiet, or whether he really was being over-confident about his facts), and he resigned from the ministry rather than take a lower-ranking position.

Ticos who support Berrocal’s view are plentiful. Recently a $480,000 stash was found in a safe in the back room of an old Tico couples’ house. The dollars had been there so long that they were starting to crumble in the humidity – about 11 years. The money was only found because of a tip-off from the Colombian government which had in turn gotten the information from guerrillas. A Colombian rebel called Rodrigo Granda put it there, and the couple, who live in Heredia, agreed to look after it as a favour. They say that they thought it contained documents, and didn’t know the identity of the man who asked them to hold it for him, calling him only Ricardo. They are even said to have signed a document agreeing to keep the safe – which had Granda’s name printed on it. They say they failed to read the paper properly before signing it. This argument doesn’t really convince many people, and some take the entire situation as extra proof that FARC has its hooks well anchored in Costa Rica’s social fabric.

But a regular backpacker will probably not come across many FARC-related incidents, and a normal level of wits-about-you that any seasoned traveler should have will stand you in good stead.

Tips:

  • Never put your bag on the upper shelf in a bus, even if you think it is perfectly within eyeshot and you would notice if someone took it. We don’t know how they do it, but robbers will still manage to get it. Always take your bag with you at rest stops if you leave the bus.
  • The San José Coca Cola terminal and its environs are possibly one of the most notorious places in the country. I got out of a bus and walked down the street to look for a taxi the other day and a policeman stopped me. He told me that if I carried on the way I was going I was running more than a fifty percent chance of being robbed. Go there by taxi, get the bus, don’t hang around.
  • Don’t wander around with your laptop. If you have to, put it in a rucksack with a lot of other stuff in it so it doesn’t look so obviously like a laptop. Even taxi drivers have been known to rob people of their laptops. Preferably don’t wander around with your ipod in your ears either
  • Don’t ever walk around in San José’s “green” spaces at night. By that I mean Parque España, Parque Nacional, and anywhere else that has trees and looks dark. All sorts hang out in there, from regular druggies to knife-toting flashers.
  • As always, look like you know where you’re going, because a lost person is always easier to target. If you do get lost go into the nearest shop and ask for help. And don’t weigh 400 pounds. My boss got his camera stolen right off his face as he was taking a photo because he looks like a fat gringo who can’t give chase
  • I’ve heard various dodgy stories about hire cars. The scam is this – you’ve just arrived at the airport, you hire a car, drive it away and a few miles down the road it breaks down. A few minutes later, as you are ringing the police, another car pulls up and robs everything you own out of the boot. I don’t have a clue which car rental companies this may have happened with, but only rent from those which are reputable.
  • Obviously, don’t go to the bank and exchange hundreds of dollars. A French guy did this at a bank that I walk past every day. He then left the bank, walked a few steps down the street, and a guy on a motorbike drove up, shot him five times in the leg then stole his bag. Strange how he knew so precisely who to target when only the bank-staff could have told the robbers ….
  • My housemate got robbed the other day in Curridabat. He was walking down the road and was about to pass a car with its door open. A man was leaning into the car, ostensibly chatting with the other two men inside it. As my housemate walked past, the man turned and pushed him against the wall, then the other men in the car jumped out and emptied his pocket and took his bag, while shoving a revolver in his face. If you see a similar scenario, with a man leaning into a car, give it a wide berth.
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