MALPAIS, Puntarenas – The surfing towns of Malpaís and Santa Teresa have become akin to the Wild West, a lawless place where criminals go virtually unpunished.
Robberies and assaults by masked men are commonplace after dark on the beaches, in hotel rooms, in homes and on the roads.
The criminals have even raided police offices and stolen firearms from sleeping officers.
“Anarchy reigns here and people know that,” British national Ruth Brezler says. “I just pray every day I’ll be left in peace on the road.”
Frank Cortés, owner of the Hacienda hotel and numerous other area businesses, agrees.
“Nobody feels secure or safe,” he says.
“The security has decreased an incredible amount over the last five years. Because of the insecurity, everybody goes around on the defensive, and almost everyone is armed – with or without permits.”
Brezler says she has been burglarized and sexually assaulted over the last several months.
“We have been robbed five times by a known criminal drug addict, with no help from the police,” says U.S. citizen and former Malpaís resident Kiki Smiley.
Smiley and her husband returned to the United States in January after deciding there were too many problems in the area to risk trying to live there.
On March 2, at 4:30 a.m., a Belgian couple, while sleeping in a cabana in Santa Teresa, awoke to find two masked men on top of them while a third was rummaging through their possessions.
“We had just fallen asleep when all of a sudden I felt I was being strangled,” a police report filed by Christophe Van Holderbeke states. “So I started to struggle even though I was still half asleep, and I heard my girlfriend scream. She said to them to take what they want and go. I tried to struggle but one of them bashed me in the face. I was totally immobilized in the bed, close to suffocating and dying, and as I tried to stop them from killing me, they stabbed me with some kind of knife.”
After stabbing him four times in the head and stomach, the men robbed the Belgians of everything they owned. Police arrested four suspects the same day with the stolen items in their possession. But a judge in Puntarenas released them.
‘There Are No Police’
Police Chief Franklin Núñez, who oversees six officers and two patrol cars in Cóbano, 11 kilometers away via a pitted, unpaved road, says it’s truly a tragedy what is happening in the region, and he sympathizes with the victims.
He estimates 85% of the entire canton’s crime occurs in the Malpaís-Santa Teresa area and says it is hard to understand why the Public Security Ministry doesn’t have a police office there.
“People feel the insecurity intensely and are suffering,” he says. “The robberies and petty theft are out of control.”
Andresse Penate, an Italian who owns the Tropical Pasta cabanas rarely goes out after dark, says the absence of police is what allows criminals to control the area.
“The problem here is there are no police,” he says. “It’s 100% certain if you’re here three weeks with a rental car, it will be broken into.”
Núñez says police and residents alike are demoralized by the lack of prosecution of criminals they refer to authorities and the lack of tools they have to do their jobs.
He estimates only 15% of victims file police reports because they understand the futility of doing so.
“Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, the laws favor the criminal,” the chief says. “We don’t even have access to verify criminal backgrounds and immigration status. The only ones that help us out sometimes with that is Interpol.
“The laws are very bad and I cry out to God they’re going to pass that crime bill,” he says, referring to a measure now before the Legislative Assembly that would appropriate $28.3 million to beef up the nation’s criminal justice system.
Crooks More Brazen
Núñez, who makes roughly $450 a month, says criminals have become increasingly brazen because they know it is unlikely they will ever face jail time. He cites two examples, one in which thieves entered police headquarters while he slept and stole two firearms from him. On another occasion, he took an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence to Puntarenas, the location of the nearest criminal court, but the man was released immediately and beat him back to town.
Swedish landlord Anna Lundstrom, a three-year resident of Santa Teresa, says she’s been burglarized so many times she has lost count. She says getting the police to come to town often involves buying their gas or picking them up.
“More often than not, the cops don’t have gas, supposedly, and we have to go pick them up,” she says.
Núñez admits lack of resources is a problem and says it’s difficult for his six officers with two patrol cars to cover the entire district from Paquera to Malpaís.
Frank Cortés, brother of Mayor Eladio Cortés, says foreigners comprise the majority of victims and are an easy target. “The foreigners leave their cars and things on the beach,” he says.
But the town is too divided, largely because of tension between foreigners and local residents, to work together on combating its crime problems.
“The problem is not just the lack of police. It’s the town’s organization.” Cortés acknowledges the town desperately needs more police presence and also immigration enforcement.
“There are too many undocumented people and tourists who stay past their visas. They don’t work and who knows what they’re doing.We need a permanent police office and checkpoint to control entry into the town.
The country needs to act.”
Lone Ranger Not on the Way
While aware of the deteriorating situation in Malpaís and Santa Teresa, law enforcement authorities have no plan for dealing with it.
Xinia Vásquez, second-in-command of the Tourism Police, said there was no manpower available to send to the region.
The Public Security Ministry, which has been thrown into turmoil by the sudden resignation this week of Minister Fernando Berrocal, also has no plan to establish a police branch in the area.
In February, the Comptroller General’s Office released a scathing report, stating the Public Security Ministry does not put police offices where they are needed – in high-crime areas.
The report states the ministry was required to begin using a “public-security index” in 2002 to help it to decide where to assign police. But officials never followed through and the department responsible for implementing it refused to participate in the Comptroller General’s investigation.
People in the towns have different strategies to deal with the crime wave. Lundstrom and Frank Cortés hired armed guards.
Traumatized by her sexual assault, during which she successfully defended herself from her attacker by elbowing him in the upper abdomen and scaring him off, Brezler’s selfdefense plan includes knives and a crossbow.
Brezler says a group of Israelis are planning to start their own private security firm to take control of the area. She also says a group of four U.S. citizens, longtime residents of the area, exacted their pound of flesh against a group of alleged burglars on the beach and chased them out of town.
The Israelis and U.S. citizens could not be reached for comment.
Kelly Lange, a U.S. citizen and four-year resident of Costa Rica, is trying to organize a neighborhood watch committee, one of the roughly 4,500 that have sprung up in the nation over the last 10 years.
“With all the crime that’s going on, I’m going to put more life in the committee,” she says.
In early May, Lange and Núñez plan to hold workshops that teach individuals and business owners how to defend themselves.
The workshops will include self-defense classes and security countermeasures that businesses can take.
Lange says she had never been assaulted, but her friends have been robbed, stripped, hogtied and pistol-whipped.
“It’s a level of violence that we’ve never seen here before,” she says. “If it happens to me, I’m leaving.”
Nuñez says the community must overcome its divisions to successfully combat its crime problem.
“I’m going to put my hope in the human race that we can become more secure by uniting and organizing,” he says. “If it’s a united town, the criminals won’t be able to operate. But so far, we can’t claim to be a united community.”