San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Popular Strip Aims to Reduce Bitterness

After Vernon Gayle’s neck was slit on the Calle de la Amargura last October – the second murder there in two months – the censure of the strip of bars in San Pedro de Montes de Oca, east of San José, started immediately.

Many students who once considered the two-block strip to be their playground after classes at the nearby University of Costa Rica (UCR) viewed the two deaths as the last straw in an area that is no stranger to crime and violence.

The tragedies, and resulting drop in business for bars along the Calle de la Amargura (which translates to Street of Bitterness), has inspired local government, police and bar owners to take action. While the Municipality of Montes de Oca has temporarily closed down one popular bar, saying its permit as a restaurant  hardly allows it to let the beer taps flow for its young clientele, other bar owners, for their part, hope to soon install 12 cameras along the strip to catch car thefts, drug deals and other crimes on tape.

In addition, the municipality, in coordination with the police, has announced it will begin a national search for an architect to rejuvenate the historic street.

The 400-meter street serves as an entrance to UCR, running from the main road between San José and Curridabat north to the university, with most bars concentrating on the southern end.

Despite being just one street in one community, it stands as an example of how perception of crime can distort reality when fear comes into play, according to leaders.Making people feel safe again on the Calle will involve more than closing a few bars and adding cameras and extra police – new sidewalks, better lighting, improved trash collection, greater vigilance of bars and, most importantly, changed attitudes are needed, they say.

Over the years, the Calle has earned its name. Trash piles on crumbling sidewalks and the stench of sewage intermingles with the reek of bar rot. Furthermore, according to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), 30% of car break-ins and 40% of assaults in the canton of Montes de Oca, in which the Calle lies, happen along the street. And the two murders last year – Gayle, a 28-year-old doorman, killed when he wouldn’t let a client leave with his drink and two months earlier José Brenes, 19, killed by a stray bullet – were only the latest in a decade of violence.

Randall Picado, police commissioner for the San José region, told The Tico Times that in the second half of last year police stepped up their vigilance on the Calle with increased operatives. From January to November, 141 people were apprehended, most for selling or consuming drugs or crimes against property.

“We know our efforts have been successful because the number of people detained, although we have had constant operatives, have decreased,” Picado said.

A Bitter History

Calle de la Amargura wasn’t always bitter. From the 1970s to 1990, it was a mellow commercial street with a handful of bars and restaurants for students, professors, university employees and area residents, according to Alvaro Solís, who lives nearby and owned the popular Calle bar La Villa from 1985-2000.

In the early 1990s the street started to take a turn for the worse, with the arrival of drug dealers, outsiders and bar owners whose cash flow was their top priority, according to Solís. For some time the street  was called Calle de Soda Cáustica (Street of Caustic Soda), Solís said, explaining that the name came from the bohemians in his bar who criticized the government. As the street started slipping, it was dubbed Calle de Perdición (Street of Perdition). By the mid- 1990s, the street was renamed Calle de la Amargura.

“People would walk down the street and think, ‘this seems like a street of bitterness,’ and the name stuck,” Solís said.

Some say the street is named after the entrance to the former Costa Rican prison on Isla San Lucas. Prisoners walked down the stone street barefoot and in chains, arriving with bloody feet, resulting in the name Calle de la Amargura, explained Sonia Montero, mayor of Montes de Oca.

The street’s problems were exacerbated in 1996 when Costa Rican law was changed to allow municipalities to grant businesses liquor licenses, previously granted on the provincial level.Municipal corruption led to a proliferation of licenses, according to Solís.

“The problem of the Calle, is it is a very small area with an exaggerated concentration of bars,” added commissioner Picado.

Closing Time

Mayor Montero said most of the licenses – granted during previous administrations – are for restaurants that serve liquor, not bars, as they apparently have become.

“In theory there shouldn’t be that much beer sold there,” she said.

The municipality tried for years to suspend the license of one of the largest, most popular and newest bars on the Calle –TerraU, claiming it is using its restaurant license as a bar. Finally, after an extensive legal entanglement and a ruling last month by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), the bar was closed for six months.

During this time, TerraU must make its restaurant its principle activity, or face permanent closure, Montero said. Eight other establishments in the area are being threatened with similar fates if they don’t do the same, including Cacio’s, Mosaikos, Omar Khayyam, Reventados and Búfalo’s.

Closing illegal bars is imperative, Solís agreed, citing a recent study that found a direct relationship among the number of liquor licenses in a canton and the homicide rate.

But while TerraU remains closed, its legal representative Aldo Milano says the legal battle isn’t over.

Beyond the Bars

TerraU owner Rodrigo Fumero blames the municipality for the condition of the Calle.

“The municipality has neglected the Calle for too long. They have created an insecure environment by not addressing lighting issues, by not maintaining the sidewalk and street,” he said.

These infrastructure problems on the Calle and several surrounding streets will be addressed in the coming year, according to Montero. Deficient rain and sewage collection systems will be replaced with financial support from the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM) and the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA).

Above ground, the municipality hopes to revamp the area with new sidewalks, lighting, and possibly pedestrian boulevards.

Municipal officials are seeking bids from architecture firms and by April hope to have selected a project proposal.

The high-resolution cameras, which Fumero hopes will be installed along the Calle within a month, are the result of meetings among bar owners to make the street safer. Fumero explained that the 12 cameras will be monitored by a private security business that will have direct access to the police.

In an effort to change attitudes about the Calle, student volunteers through UCR’s Community Service Program (TCU) started last year offering alternatives to the reggaeton and beer that entertain most Calle visitors.

The students offered daytime concerts and festivals as well as sports competitions, according to program leader Karla Barrantes.

While Barrantes accepts that ping-pong and college bands won’t alone stop crime, she says such activities allow students to reclaim the Calle as part of their community.

Barrantes, like many others, feels that the Calle has gotten something of a bad wrap.Of course there is crime, she says, but the perception is greater than the reality. Changing this is the greatest challenge.

“I don’t think the (crime) rates (in the Calle) are so high, they are normal for Costa Rica for a commercial area of its size,” agreed Picado. “And if we compare them to other countries, or other cities in the world, they are very low.”

A gap exists throughout the country between objective crime statistics and subjective perception of crime in various areas, Picado added.

Mayor Montero hopes that all of the steps being taken will address this.

“You don’t change the attitudes of people from one day to the next. You have to generate policies and address the causes of the insecurity, of the perception,” she said.


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