San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Kidnapping On the Rise in Costa Rica

IT was closing in on 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 31 when a woman and her husband’s chauffeur were dropped on the streets of San Juan de Tibás, a northern district of San José. The calm silence filling the streets of the suburban district in the early morning hours meant that their captors were gone and their ordeal was over. They were the final people to be freed in an abduction that started with the kidnapping of a Costa Rican businessman and his driver that eventually expanded to involve his wife, four other victims, eight days and $130,000.It wasn’t much longer before it happened again. Last week, the daily La Nación reported the Oct. 6 kidnapping of Ceferino Marín, a businessman who was released in San José after two days of captivity without payment of a ransom, despite the kidnappers’initial demand of $200,000.For the responding agents of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), these were two more examples of a serious phenomenon that has become almost synonymous with Latin American crime, and one that is becoming more and more common in Costa Rica: kidnapping for the purposes of extortion.ALTHOUGH the two nations with the highest number of kidnappings in Latin America – Colombia, a country that has recorded 172 abductions in the first half of 2005, and Mexico, with 194 in the same period, according to figures by Mexico’s Citizen Counsel of Public Security – dwarf Costa Rica in occurrences of the crime, the country has seen a significant rise in kidnappings in recent years.According to OIJ statistics, four victims of extortion-motivated kidnapping were reported in Costa Rica in 2003, nine in 2004, and 11 so far in 2005. These figures give Costa Rica a rate of approximately 0.35 kidnapping victims per 100,000 citizens in 2005 if current trends continue, up from a rate of 0.09 just two years ago.The increase also puts Costa Rica startlingly close to Mexico, the Latin American nation with the highest number of kidnappings, which will show a rate of 0.37 victims per 100,000 citizens in 2005 if trends continue, but keeps it a far cry from Colombia with a projected yearly rate of 0.80.The increase in the number of kidnappings is even more apparent when compared to figures from the 1980s and ’90s. According to OIJ data, just 20 ransom-motivated kidnappings occurred in Costa Rica throughout that 20-year span, compared with the 25 total victims since 2003. The 1980-1999 figures do not include the highly publicized 1981 airline and the 1993 Nicaraguan Embassy hostage crises perpetrated by anti-communist Nicaraguan commando groups, nor does it include the 1993 Supreme Court hostage crisis involving a Costa Rican man angry over his right to medical coverage, three events driven by political motives (TT Oct. 30, 1981, March 12, 1993, and April 30, 1993).AUTHORITIES say they are confident and prepared to deal with the trend. “We’ve seen a rise in kidnappings, but this is a rise that we can handle,” OIJ Assistant Director Francisco Segura told The Tico Times. “We’re working hard to solve these cases and send a very clear message to the offenders.”According to Segura, these kidnappers are highly organized, oftentimes very professional and always know their potential targets exceptionally well.“To actually kidnap somebody you need to understand a series of his habits. You need to know if he has money, you need to know the family, and who to demand the money from,” he said.AS in many Latin American nations struggling with the crime of kidnapping, almost half of the victims in Costa Rica have been citizens of foreign countries. Of the 25 abductions that have been registered since the beginning of 2003, one victim was a U.S. citizen and 11 were of Chinese origin. “The small size of the Chinese community in Costa Rica makes this a very serious issue for these people,” Segura said. Exactly 44% of the victims of kidnapping over the past three years have been of Chinese descent, despite the fact that the group constitutes less than one percent of the total population, according to census figures.Investigations revealed that almost all of these cases were the result of the victim holding outstanding gambling debts to clandestine Chinese casinos and other groups, according to Segura.“We’ve already stopped groups involved with Chinese kidnapping, so we’ve lowered that number, but we will need to see more of (those efforts),” he said. The OIJ charged seven people in August of this year as well as four others at the end of 2004 in connection with the extortion-motivated kidnapping of members of the Chinese community.HOWEVER, the case of the six Costa Rican citizens abducted in August and the case of the Costa Rican businessman abducted this month appear to be of the pattern more commonly seen in Mexico and Colombia: the strategic abduction of an upper-class citizen and his or her associates for the purposes of extortion.“The appearance of this case is a little odd, if only because of the total number of victims involved,” said Segura, who said he couldn’t comment on specific details of the ongoing investigation of the August mass kidnapping. “We’re not dealing with a new style of kidnapping in Costa Rica, but we are trying to apprehend those involved to find out more about this group.”Yet the kidnapping industry in Costa Rica may be changing, according to Gerardo Castain, a professor of criminology at Universidad Libre de Costa Rica in San José and a retired OIJ agent who was in charge of kidnapping investigations from 1987 to 2000.“THERE is a lot of arms traffic coming from El Salvador to Colombia,” Castain told The Tico Times. “Many of these guns pass through Costa Rica, which inevitably raises the number of firearms here, increasing the capacity for aggression.” Castain, who also owns his own private security firm that specializes in kidnapping deterrence, said that abject conditions and destabilizing events in neighboring countries could lead to a chain reaction that would raise the kidnapping rate in Costa Rica.According to Castain, the issues of Costa Rica’s neighbors – such as Nicaragua, where oppositional efforts to strip powers from the Executive Branch have created political instability in recent months – could have a serious impact on Costa Rica’s crime rate.“If there is a war or civil unrest in Nicaragua, for instance, there will be a high level of immigration and refugees from that country into Costa Rica,” he said. “Many times these are criminals or delinquents who will bring weapons and change the overall environment of Costa Rica, making it easier to have these kidnappings.“IN Costa Rica, we find a solid system of democracy, a strong civil police force, no guerrilla groups and not much drug production,” Castain added. “(The lack of) these elements are what encourages kidnappings in other countries.”The prevention of a future rise in kidnappings must start with more thorough and improved border patrols by the Costa Rican government, he said. However, that prevention must also come accompanied by a firm stance from both the public and government of Costa Rica against kidnapping, according to Héctor Riveros, Colombia’s former Vice-Minister of the Interior, who visited Costa Rica recently to attend public safety conferences with local law enforcement.“The best way to battle this is for society to refuse to pay (ransoms) and for authorities to increase the severity of the offense (of kidnapping),” said Riveros.“The manner of prevention is in the reaction of the society.” He added that the public must remain calm and make a solid stance against allowing kidnapping to take root as a viable criminal industry. IT is this same mindset that Segura and the OIJ hope to achieve in terms of slowing down the number of kidnappings within Costa Rica.“In the world of crime, there are assailants and violent criminals who would be attracted to these (kidnapping) groups,” Segura said. “If I were one of these people and I saw that this group is making money, it would make me want to join. Our goal is to dismantle and destroy these groups. When people contact us with a kidnapping, the group will be captured 95% of the time.”Demonstrating a high success rate in the detention of kidnappers is the best way to scare away future offenders, according to Segura.The crime of extortion-motivated kidnapping is currently punishable under Costa Rican law with a sentence of 15-20 years in prison. The length of this punishment has not been raised as a result of the recent increased number of kidnappings.“In all reality, the number of these kidnappings compared with other countries is very low,” Segura said. “A remedy to the problem is what we do with our investigations. The real solution is that people are cautious and alert to the situation.”

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