San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is Crime against Tourists Rising?

DESPITE Costa Rica’s often-touted reputation asLatin America’s safest and most stable tourist destination,a series of recent crimes against foreign tourists, and thepolice response to those crimes, have some visitors wonderingwhether that reputation is at risk.However, ask the country’s tourism and law-enforcementauthorities whether crime against tourists is on therise, and silence is the likely response.Although some embassies keep track of crimes reportedby citizens of the countries they represent, the CostaRican government does not maintain records that can besorted by nationality – with the exception of records forhomicide – so figures on crimes against foreigners such asrobbery and assault cannot be analyzed.Though some suggest crime is on the rise, RandallPicado, regional police director for San José, says overallcrime rates here have neither increased nor decreased inrecent months.The capital’s assistant city police director, Isidro Calvo, said crime rates have been decreasingbecause of heightened police presence, butadded the incidence of robbery and othercrimes in areas outside of San José may beincreasingRECENTLY, a flurry of letters fromTico Times readers, both tourists and foreignresidents, have described crimesexperienced here and criticized policereaction (see “Letters” section).Ken Saunders, an Australian who haslived in Costa Rica for the past two monthswhile overseeing his Internet company’shelp desk in the western San José suburbof Pavas, said he and his wife were the victimsof four crimes during their time here.Saunders was mugged at gunpoint; armedrobbers broke into his office, threatenedhis staff and stole laptops and femaleemployees’ jewelry and wallets; a pickpocketstole his wife’s passport; and his carwas stolen.Worse, for Saunders, was the policeresponse. While response time was excellent,he said, police asked him “to writedown my name… on what appeared to bewrapping paper,” and then left without takinghis contact information or any otherdetails. When robbers held up his office,the police who responded to the call didnot even get out of their car.ANOTHER disgruntled visitor, TomHillegass from the U.S. state of NewJersey, was shot at while driving his rented4X4 in March near Jacó, on the CentralPacific coast. Hillegass told The TicoTimes he and his family were on their wayto the grocery store from their rented housein the popular tourist town when anothercar cut them off. A passenger stepped outof the car and fired several bullets intoHillegass’ windshield and driver’s sidedoor. Though a bullet ricocheted offHillegass’ leg, the family drove off beforeanyone was seriously hurt.According to Hillegass, the police,while responding within 15-30 minutes,did not investigate the scene of the crimebeyond an inspection of the car, by thenparked at the rental house. Though policetook his information, he has not heard anythingfurther about the investigation, hesaid.JUST this week, Tico Times staffmembers witnessed two assaults in downtownSan José. In one case, suspects shotat two tourists and stole their cameras. Thetourists were not seriously hurt.In the other incident, after severaltourists boarded a taxi at a bus terminal,the driver drove a short distance, pulledout a gun and forced the tourists to leavethe vehicle, then drove away into the nightwith all their belongings.Also this week, a group of eighttourists in La Fortuna, near ArenalVolcano in north-central Costa Rica,reported the theft of their belongings,valued at $5,000, after their hotel roomwas broken into.While some national media reportedthe incident was the fifty-second robberyaffecting tourists in La Fortuna this year,regional police chief Arnoldo Castro toldThe Tico Times the reports are in error.He said that the 52 reports La Fortunapolice have compiled this year includethose filed by foreigners and CostaRicans for any crime, and even to reporta passport loss.PART of the problem facing touristswho are affected by crime is that many foreignersare unaware of the way CostaRican police forces are organized. Variouslaw-enforcement organizations, overseenby at least four different government agencies,are responsible for keeping the peace– with little overlap.Drive your car too fast, and the PublicWorks and Transport Ministry’s TrafficPolice will give you a ticket. Get caughtstealing a car by members of the FuerzaPública, part of the Public SecurityMinistry, or the Municipal Police, part ofeach canton’s government, and they canbring you in. Successfully escape the sceneof the crime, thereby creating the need forinvestigative work, and agents of theJudicial Investigation Police (OIJ) takeover.The distinction between the regularpolice and OIJ agents is often unclear toforeign visitors. Hillegass said the police,when removing a bullet casing from hisrental car in a freezer bag, told him theevidence would be turned over to “theCosta Rican equivalent of the U.S.Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).”However, the officer’s comparison isinaccurate.While the FBI handles only federalcases, or those that cross state lines, OIJagents are responsible for any case thatrequires investigation, spokesman FrankRuíz told The Tico Times.According to Ruíz, Fuerza Públicapolice are actually a “preventive authority,”with a role restricted to patrollingand monitoring to prevent crime, interveningin crimes while they are occurring,and taking urgent crime-sceneactions such as protecting and aiding victims,making an arrest if a criminal iscaught in the act, and gathering evidence.If any additional investigation isrequired, OIJ agents must be called.ANOTHER problem facing not onlytourists who want their cases solved, butalso the Costa Rican justice system, is thedifficulty of convicting a criminal whenthe principal witnesses against him or herhas left the country.Ruíz said that though the OIJ does notkeep statistics on how many convictionsfall through because of an absent witness,whether tourist or national, most cases inwhich a key witness fails to appear, particularlywhen an identification or furthertestimony is needed, do not end in convictions.However, an absent witnessdoes not stop the investigation, nor doesit prevent a conviction in all cases, hesaid.LUIS Roberto Ramírez, advisor to theCosta Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), saidthat while the organization has various initiativesunder way to improve tourist safety,the institute bases its decisions on informaldata such as police perceptions ortourist exit surveys.Surveys from 2001-2004 do not showsignificant changes in tourists’ perceptionof security here, he said. Approximately60% of tourists ranked security as “good,”with 5% categorizing it as “bad” and therest calling it “excellent” or “regular.”In addition, international studies basedon police data have shown Costa Rica hasthe lowest crime rate in the Americas, atsix crimes per 100,000 people, Ramírezsaid, adding that embassy records showmost robberies tourists report stem from“personal carelessness.”Recent efforts to improve tourist securityinclude a cooperative project betweenthe Public Security Ministry and the ICT toprovide new police training, includingEnglish lessons and awareness of potentialproblems in popular tourist areas (TT, Nov.5, 2004).Ramírez characterized Limón, PuertoViejo and Cahuita, on the Caribbeancoast, and Jacó, on the Pacific, as crimehot spots – but reiterated this observationis based on informal evidence, not statistics.What Can Crime Victims Do?Call 911. The operator can connectyou with the proper police or medicalagencies anywhere in the country, andEnglish-speaking operators are available– although at least one tourist recentlyreported difficulties finding one after anassault on his family. Both police andagents of the Judicial Investigation Police(OIJ) have access to the call.If the crime is a robbery, the policeshould help you file a report. However,for insurance purposes, it is crucial thatyou file an additional report, or denuncia,with the OIJ’s Sección de Denuncias –the department that receives policereports. Call the central OIJ office in SanJosé at 295-3000 for the location of theoffice nearest you. Some English speakersare available within the organization,but non-Spanish speakers should bringinterpreters when they file the report toensure they will be understood.Most U.S. insurance companiesrequire an OIJ report. Because regularpolice do not conduct investigations, anOIJ report is necessary to prove you dideverything possible to ensure the casewould be investigated.If you leave the country before thecase is prosecuted, it is possible the personresponsible, if caught, will not beconvicted if you are not physically presentto testify. However, you canincrease the chances of a successfulinvestigation by making sure you leavereliable contact information with OIJagents, and update it if it changes afteryou leave the country.Source: Frank Ruíz, OIJ spokesman

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