San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tamarindo Police Fight Crime Wave

TAMARINDO – Since the firsttourists discovered this jungle beach townon the northern Pacific coast, crime andthieves slunk behind them – more as thetown has grown. But before they becamefixtures, the community fought back.As the town stretches into its new size– some from surrounding villages alreadycall it a city – it is building new defensesfor its unpaved streets and legions of surf andsand-seekers.The last four months have seen thepolice force triple from two to six (it’s asmall town) and other important changesthat have helped reduce crime here.THE changes seem to revolve aroundthe influence of the Pro MejorasAssociation, a group of citizens fromTamarindo and surrounding beaches, andthe new police force they helped install.“We noticed a problem in Tamarindowith petty theft, breaking into houses andcars, and horses on the beach,” said FreddySegura, secretary of the association.“There was a lot of petty theft and breakins,but nobody reported them, so therewere no accurate numbers.“We started knocking on the doors ofgovernment officials, starting in SantaCruz (the seat of the canton), then in SanJosé. We asked the government for sixpolice officers and got the right guy,(police chief) Benedicto Matarrita.”THE association encourages people toreport crimes and puts one of their own incharge of interpreting between non-Spanish-speaking crime victims and areapolice officers.Before the new police force came, 22crimes were reported every week, accordingto Segura, – 10-12 every day, accordingto police chief Matarrita. Now there areone or two per week, depending on whomyou talk to.“The efforts (to reduce crime) havebeen small because of the lack ofresources, but the will (of the police) hasbeen magnificent,” said Alvin Obando,chief of the Judicial Investigation Police(OIJ) office in Santa Cruz. “It’s difficult ina place like Tamarindo with so many problems– such as organized crime, drugaddiction, property violations and childprostitution.”In spite of the lack of resources –which, Obando said, includes police officers– he has noted a substantial drop incrime here in the last few months.MATARRITA keeps a box of foreigndrivers’ licences, ID cards and passports in adesk drawer in the police station. He and theother officers found them during forays intothe woods that encroach on the edges oftown. They were tossed there from billfoldsand purses of robbery victims, he said.“When we came four months ago,there were too many robberies,” he said.“We did a special job and lowered thenumber that occurred.”In their first stabs at crime and generalpublic risk, the new police force, inconjunction with the correspondingauthorities such as health officials andthe Municipality of Santa Cruz, outlawedhorses on the beach, which can cause diseaseand trample people, Segura said, androunded up unlicensed street vendors –nearly all of them.“Many people complained about thehorses. It was a great success for us (to getthem off the beach),” Matarrita said. “Wegot rid of the street vendors – those who didn’thave permission. Some were good artisans,others may have been selling drugs.”To continue selling their wares, thevendors now must seek permission fromthe municipality.THE police set up checkpointsthroughout the town and checked the ID’sof people who were not business owners inthe community and who did not look likethey were here on vacation.Matarrita worked closely with the OIJin Santa Cruz and ran background checkson some of those they stopped. Theylocked up those who had arrest warrantsfrom other cities.“We know things are getting better.We have had some successes, and crimehas decreased,” Matarrita said. “It’s beentough. Just like new tourists come, newthieves come. We can do it together withthe people who live here, we just needeveryone’s help.”The police chief is not the only one tosay so.“Things are better now,” said WillyWilloughby, owner of the Shark Bite Deli.“Things had gotten out of hand. Peoplewere driving their cars by, taking peoples’bags and driving away, which is just ballsy.”Since a new police chief and staffcame, Willoughby said, crime is not sorampant, but it is still a problem the communityneeds to work on.

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