Tourists in Costa Rica have a new ally who won’t take them across ziplines or serve them Imperial beer, but who will make their vacation here more memorable by helping to prevent unpleasant memories.
The Public Security Ministry graduated its first class of Tourism Police Wednesday. Outfitted with distinctive uniforms and equipped with shiny new bicycles and motorcycles, these 113 men and nine women have been trained on how to tackle a growing crime problem officials worry could threaten tourism, one of Costa Rica’s main sources of revenue.
The first class of Tourism Police was deployed to San José and Alajuela, northwest of the capital, the north-central area surrounding San Carlos, the northwestern Guanacaste province and the Caribbean province of Limón.
The 122 officers will work to protect visitors from theft – by far the main crime affecting them – among other delinquent acts, explained Tourism Police Assistant Director Xinia Vásquez.
According to statistics provided by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), during the first six months of 2006, 2,775 cases of “crimes against property” including pickpocketing, car theft and mugging were reported against foreigners in Costa Rica, 1,278 of which occurred in San José. Most of these victims were from the United States, Canada, Germany, England and France.
Juan Carlos Solorzano, 44, a craft vendor who rotates between San José, the Pacific port city of Puntarenas and the Caribbean port city of Limón, said he’s seen several tourists get robbed. This makes him “very sad” and has him worried about his livelihood.
Criminals often prey on tourists because “they think they can’t defend themselves and that they won’t report the crime because they don’t know Spanish,” Solorzano said. Also, tourists’ carelessness or quickness to trust people can make them easy victims, according to Vásquez.
One of the new Tourism Police’s specialties will be offering “customer service” such as warning tourists about common traps such as leaving their belongings in a rental car. Additionally, these officers have received training in criminal analysis, organized crime bands and falsification of documents, according to a statement from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), which funded equipment and training for the new force.
Many Tourism Police also have some knowledge of English or another foreign language, and they will receive English classes at a language lab sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, Vásquez said.
The idea isn’t that the Tourism Police
appear only after a crime has been committed, explained Carlos Méndez, who, along with his fellow graduating officers, sported his uniform consisting of a white polo shirt, black pants, black boots and a yellow reflective vest reading “Policía Turística” at the graduation ceremony this week.
“We’re there to inform them, give them advice or just help them if they need directions, like guides,” said Méndez, who has been stationed in the central Pacific beach town of Jacó, where residents in the past have taken to the streets to protest crime.
The private sector also pitched in. A group of business owners on the northern Pacific coast called the Association of Concessionaires of the Papagayo Golf Tourism Project (ASOPAPAGAYO) donated plans for the construction of two stations for Tourism Police in Playa Panamá, Guanacaste, and at the Daniel Oduber International Airport in that province’s capital city of Liberia.
Additionally, the Southern Zone Development Board (JUDESUR) donated ¢265 million ($514,563) to build new police stations or improve existing stations in the southern cantons of Osa, Buenos Aires, Golfito, Corredores and Coto Brus.
The Tourism Police is expected to boast 120 more officers next year and grow to 400 officers within four years, expanding to other areas around the Central Valley, Vásquez said.
Plans to create this specialized force have been in the works since 1998. Costa Rica was the only Central American or Caribbean country lacking a Tourism Police force, Vásquez said. Neighboring countries Panama and Nicaragua have seen success with their Tourism Police.
Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides agreed prioritizing the protection of tourists is long overdue. The tourism institute “can’t see tourism only in terms of promotion, marketing, project management and planning.
We’ve wanted to involve ourselves in related areas such as infrastructure, the environment and security,” Benavides said in a statement.