San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Iron Gates, Locks Fail to Deter Thieves

As soon as I realized what had happened, my stomach dropped, as I’m sure has happened to many in my situation before. I came home to gates swinging open, doors broken and disarray – I’d been robbed.

My downstairs neighbors and I figured out that sometime between 3 and 6 p.m., thieves had broken into our apartments off a quiet cul-de-sac of the northern suburb of Tibás. Gone were my Ipod and laptop; gone were their two computers, DVD player, TV and some cash.

As we counted our losses and waited for the police, my stomach dropped again, not out of sadness over my stolen goods but out of the realization that I’d become another victim of a crime wave that’s more powerful than all the forces trying to detain it.

Like many homes here, mine is protected by an iron fence, an iron gate covering the door and a deadbolt on the door itself. My neighbors and I pay a guard to watch over a two-block radius between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Also, as part of the Community Security program that’s announced with street signs around the neighborhood, I have what looks like a doorbell and is actually a piercing alarm adhered to the wall of my bedroom for emergencies.

None of these safeguards were any match for the thieves, who arrived before the guard came on duty and stealthily broke a total of seven locks to enter my apartment, the one downstairs and the empty house next door.

Some kind of sophisticated tool left a perfect circle where the keyholes used to be.The wooden door appeared to have been kicked right in.

The neighbors said they didn’t hear a thing. Three police officers showed up on motorcycles and crept into the apartment with guns in the air to make sure no one was inside. They asked me questions about what had been stolen but never wrote anything down. This is the job of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), not theirs, and I would have to go to the OIJ office in downtown San José to file a report, they explained.

One officer advised me to wait a couple of weeks and try some pawn shops, where many stolen goods are exchanged for cash.

Meanwhile, neighbors started to come over to see what all the commotion was about. Immediately, the scene became a storytelling session. Everyone had either been robbed or had a tale of a friend or family member’s misfortune.

Then the topic changed to how to fortify one’s home. One neighbor said the heavy iron lock on my door wasn’t the kind that can’t be smashed with a hammer. Another recommended that we put razor wire above the gate and get a big, mean dog. Another swore no one is safe with iron gates anymore – the only way to deter thieves is with solid cement walls around the entire perimeter of your house.

That way thieves aren’t “tempted.” One neighbor put it well,“We have to live locked up so they can be free,” she said, commenting on the fact that few criminals are ever brought to justice (see separate story). I’m much more saddened by this talk and by the fact that good, honest people cannot feel safe in their homes than I am over the loss of my belongings.

The truth is, all the bars, wires, alarms, guards and dogs in the world are no match for a powerful crime network that will always find ways to get around them.

Some people laughed when I told them I planned to file a report with the OIJ, but I chose to do so anyway, partly out of a faint hope that my goods would appear somewhere but also because I believe in documentation.

Then I took the police officer’s advice and went, along with two co-workers, to some of the pawn shops in western San José flanking out from the most notorious one, La Cueva.

Armed with the serial number of my laptop (I didn’t have one for the Ipod) and the vow from the OIJ investigator who’d been assigned to my case that he’d do his best to seize my possessions should I find them, I held on to the small hope that vindication was still possible.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As we made our way through a dark market of stalls, I realized that almost everything I was looking at was stolen – rows and rows of cell phones, Ipods, car radios, palm pilots, DVD players, cameras, TVs and other electronics. Scratches and other small imperfections proved they weren’t new, and few boxes were in sight. We were met with “Qué busca?” from eager vendors around every corner.

Next door to the market is a long counter that’s the “Sales” area, where electronics and jewelry are turned in for cash – no questions asked, it seems.

“How are these places allowed to stay open?” I wondered, remembering that my OIJ investigator had said police periodically go undercover to pawn shops and reclaim as many stolen goods as possible. This didn’t seem to be hurting business.

As I scanned rows of Ipods for mine, I wondered who their owners were – tourists on vacation, commuters on their way to work or people like me who just left them sitting around their homes? I knew every one of them had a story behind it.

Disheartened and disgusted, I headed out to catch a taxi. My co-worker told me it was good that we left. A couple of vendors had approached him to let him know they’d realized we were looking for stolen goods.

As we drove away, I remembered my neighbor’s words. “We have to live locked up so they can be free.”We have to lose our possessions so they can thrive. We have to be afraid so they can rob shamelessly.

And we had better get out of their territory. We are up against a powerful force, and apparently we aren’t about to stop it.


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