Two young police officers were killed in a shootout Tuesday while attempting to intervene in the robbery of passengers on a city bus in west San José. The brutality of the midday gun battle, which took place in front of a high school, shocked the country and plunged the Public Security Ministry into mourning.
“We are all suffering, from the highest command down to the police officers,” San José Police Director Rigoberto Rodríguez told The Tico Times yesterday.
According to authorities, a man identified as Rolando Antonio Ortega, a Nicaraguan with Costa Rican residency, was allegedly attempting to steal a laptop computer from a passenger on an eastbound bus in front of the PavasHigh School in Pavas, a western district of San José.
Officers Cristian Zamora and Johny Hidalgo, both 24, responded to an alert, intercepted the bus and ordered Ortega off the vehicle. As Ortega exited, he began shooting, hitting Hidalgo twice in the abdomen and Zamora once in the stomach. According to witnesses, Ortega then approached Hidalgo, who laid injured, face down on the ground, and shot him three more times in the back point blank. Zamora, despite his injuries, attempted to give chase, and was met by another officer in a vehicle. A short pursuit ended in front of the NationalPsychiatric Hospital in Pavas, where the officials and Ortega exchanged more gunfire, during which Zamora was shot twice more in the stomach.
Zamora was taken to the San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José, where he died later that afternoon. Hidalgo died that morning, shortly after arriving at the same hospital.
Officers injured Ortega in the shootout, and eventually arrested him. Ortega, who has no prior record in Costa Rica, was taken to a public clinic in Pavas with a fractured pelvis and femur. He has since been ordered to six months in preventive detention, according to a statement from the Judicial Branch. Officials are investigating whether others were involved.
“Today is a day of indignation because these two young men were brutally massacred in an inhuman and cruel manner, for no reason,” Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal told Channel 7 TV News Tuesday.
“This should make all Costa Ricans reflect on the need for police to have more resources, and to generate a national consensus to confront criminality and citizen insecurity.”
Neither of the two officers was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time of the shooting, which some colleagues said could have saved their lives, the daily La Nación reported.
“We do not have bulletproof vests for everyone, and this is precisely one of the needs that must be filled in the short term.
Those police risked their lives for the safety of all Costa Ricans, and they deserve to be better equipped,” Berrocal told the daily. The minister added that he would request that part of a recent $2 million donation to the ministry to buy vehicles be diverted to purchase bulletproof vests.
Hidalgo was laid to rest Wednesday in Puriscal, a mountain town west of San José, and Zamora was buried yesterday morning in the coffee town of Grecia,west of San José.
Both were also honored in a tearful ceremony Wednesday at the Public Security Ministry, attended by family, friends, officials and Berrocal.
That same day, President Oscar Arias’ Cabinet members issued a statement following their weekly meeting with the President lamenting the deaths. The Cabinet also requested Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado speak with the families of the two officers “to find out what their needs are and give them all the help that can be given,” the statement said. According to police chief Rodríguez, both officers’ families have “limited resources” and live in “humble conditions.”
Police are looking into Ortega’s background, Rodríguez added. According to La Nación,Victoria Alba, Ortega’s sister who lives in Alajuela, north of San José, said her brother fought with the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua during the late 1970s and later worked as a police officer in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. In Costa Rica, he had recently worked as a security guard, she said.
Police Killed in Action This Year:
Cristian Zamora, 24
August 22,-Shot to death in Pavas, a western San José suburb, attempting to intervene in a robbery on a city bus.
Johny Hidalgo, 24
August 22- Shot to death in Pavas, a western San José suburb, attempting to intervene in a robbery on a city bus.
Mario González, 47
July 9- Shot to death as he approached three suspicious vehicles on the Limón-Sixaola highway on the southern Caribbean coast.
Margio Chow, 24
April 28- Shot to death as he attempted to intervene in a robbery on his day off, on the highway to Limón in the Caribbean canton of Matina.
Roy Sarmiento, 32
April 27- Shot once in the head April 21 as he attempted to intercept an alleged band of thieves in San José. Sarmiento remained in a coma for six days before succumbing to the injury.
Mario Molina, 27
January 25- Fell into a river and drowned as he and three other officers pursued three people suspected of robbing a gas truck, near La Bomba, in the Caribbean province of Limón. His body was recovered on the Caribbean shore two days later, 10 kilometers from where he fell.
Source: Public Security Ministry