San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Private Help for a Public Woe

From the Caribbean to the Pacific, communities with a significant expatriate presence have grappled with crime waves over the last several years.

Suffering a lack of trained police officers, some communities have hired private security officers to patrol public areas, such as beaches and roads.

Their experiences have been a mixed bag. Local police shut down one private patrol, others fell apart for lack of money, while at least one is still operating. But most participants say crime went down while the private officers operated.

In Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean, some local businesses pooled cash to hire guards, armed with guns and batons, to patrol the beaches and roads in 2007. But according to Eddie Ryan, vice president of the local tourism chamber, local police shut down the operation after a mere three months, arresting the officers and humiliating them by stripping them of their uniforms and weapons.

Leading the shutdown was Capt. José Gabino, an officer with the Sixaola Border Police at the time.

The project, which Ryan estimates led to an 80 percent drop in crime in the few months it operated, quickly fell apart.

“We thought we could work with the government to move the system, but they failed us badly,” he said. “People don’t have confidence authorities will act in an adequate way, so people don’t waste their time filing police reports.”

Limón Police Commissioner Luis Hernández said the private police were shut down because they weren’t registered with the Public Security Ministry and didn’t have the proper permits and gun registrations.

But he also acknowledged problems with Gabino, who has since been transferred to the Sarapiquí police station in the Heredia province northwest of the capital.

“I’m the one who had him moved,” Hernández said. “He’s a questionable official. There was negligence in how he handled drug and crime affairs on the border. But who’s going to report that?” After the arrests, Ryan said then-Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal told him the government could not afford to allow private interests to take over police functions because it could lead to anarchy and vigilante justice.

‘Making Police Look Bad’

U.S. citizen and surfer Albert Jiménez, who owns a boat-building business in San José and has been going to Puerto Viejo since 1973, said he has a simple explanation for the private force’s demise: It was making the police look bad.

“(The police) weren’t doing their (expletive) jobs,” he said. “The cops have always been crooked there. This is the kingdom of corruption.”

The police response to the short-lived Puerto Viejo experiment is different from its response to the same phenomenon on the Pacific Coast, where private patrols have been allowed to operate in public areas in Playas Flamingo, Potrero, Manuel Antonio and Hermosa.

In Playa Flamingo in the northwestern  province of Guanacaste, Jamey Harless, a constable from the U.S. state of Alabama became security commissioner for the local Chamber of Commerce. Harless, the commissioner and owner of Billfish Safaries in Flamingo, contracted the private police work out to the Carabineros company in early 2007 after a rash of home invasions from Surfside to Sugar Beach. He said violent crime such as sexual assaults and armed muggings dropped from an average of two a month to zero, but that’s when fundraising became a problem.

“When a problem is readily apparent, people are willing to pony up,” he said. “But when it goes away …”

Soon after the private security force’s dissolution in Flamingo this year, Harless’ home was pillaged by a band of bandits who cut his phone lines, disabled his generators and accosted his caretaker. National Police responded to the wrong house, as the burglars escaped, kidnapped another resident and forced him at gunpoint to drive them to the Nicaraguan border, Harless said.

“If they can get me with all the security measures I have, they can get anybody,” he said. “Costa Rica is a beast. This is an everyday occurrence, and people need to understand this is likely to happen to them if they stay here long enough. That’s the nature of the beast and that’s the cost of living in Costa Rica.”

Lack of Supervision

Others in the community say the Carabineros force started with a bang but petered out because its poorly supervised officers stopped doing their rounds.

Carabineros faced its share of national controversy after Gabrio Cappelli, the company’s Italian owner, was deported in 2007 on charges of fraud relating to a faked bankruptcy, according to the daily La Nación.

“We didn’t have good supervision,” said Renée Blount, the property manager for Seaview Rentals, who was also involved in the project. “The program ended in July, and guess what? Crime is going up again. It’s kind of Wild West out here.”

Harless acknowledged problems with supervision because he was out of the country working in Alabama for at least half the year. But he said he hopes local businesses consider trying a private force again.

“We learned from our mistakes, and they need a full-time liaison there to oversee the private police. It’s very disappointing it’s defunct now because while it operated, we had no violent crime, and property crimes were down 85 percent.”

In nearby Playa Potrero, Czech citizen Claudia Hladik, a board member of the Surfside Homeowners Association, said  they hired a private security firm calledSICO in 2007 to patrol public areas from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. after letting Carabineros go. Potrero appears to be one of the few parts of the country with a currently operating private security force.

“We had Carabineros before, but they didn’t do their rounds like they were supposed to,” she said.

Hladik said she is happy with SICO, but that burglars have adjusted to their hours. “It’s going really well, and people pay their dues,” she said. “But we’ve had (some) daylight home invasions in the last year.”

Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste experimented with private cops, too, hiring Fundación Seguridad Turística and seven officers in March 2006. Organizers said it had a positive effect on crime but went defunct six months later.

“We couldn’t get the required support from the community,” said Canadian Silvia LaFerriere, the former head of the local neighborhood watch and owner of Hotel Villa Del Sueño.

LaFerriere said crime has since started going back up. Her own home was burglarized in May. Real estate and tourism interests should stop hiding the problem and tackle it seriously, she said.

“We’re not acting very openly. We manage (crime matters) with too much secrecy, and maybe we should manage it differently because we are in dire need of serious solutions.”

Success in Manuel Antonio

In Manuel Antonio last November, the local Chamber of Commerce and businesses experimented with a modest private police force of two officers stationed at strategic points along the road into town. But it fizzled and was dropped in April.

“It didn’t have much impact,” said Lance Byron, the former head of the local chamber of commerce, although he acknowledged crime has dropped about 50 percent over the last six months.

Scott Cutter, the owner of Number 2 Costa Rica Real Estate, managed the operation, which involved the creation of an independent canton neighborhood watch outside of the Public Security Ministry’s neighborhood watch program.

“We had an acute crime problem with organized home assaults (in 2007),” he said. “So we raised some money, built two guard posts, hired some private security and bought 55 communication radios on a private frequency that couldn’t be hacked into by hooligans or taxi drivers. There were people with radios stationed at points along the road who could be activated as checkpoints, and the idea was to provide a visual presence from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.”

Cutter said the initiative fizzled in part because of complacency after crime numbers dropped.

“When there is a crisis, people herd together,” he said. “The hard thing is keeping things going.”

But he said the canton neighborhood watch program has been positive.

“The effect was the entire community gained a group awareness and took a more proactive approach,” he said.

Despite the end of the private security experiment in Manuel Antonio, community  leaders continued to try to make the crime situation better. And they appear to have come upon a winning strategy that has resulted in a 44 percent decrease in crime over the last four months.

Harry Bodaan, owner of La Mansion Inn in Manuel Antonio, said his approach has always been to focus on helping local police and improving their equipment and morale. Bodaan also helps coordinate a sister city program between Quepos and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, heads a Fraternal Order of Police lodge and is the security commissioner for the local Chamber of Commerce.

“I wasn’t much for the private police part, and it kind of fell apart,” he said. “We’ve seen a 44 percent decrease in crime over the last four months, and I believe it’s because of a combination of the private sector working with the municipality to solve problems and getting equipment to the local police through the sister city program to improve their morale.”

Quepos Police Chief Juan Varilla confirmed the gifts – including communication radios, cars, holsters, bulletproof jackets and mattresses – and the drop in crime. He said that, as far as he knows, Quepos is the only region in the country where high-level monthly meetings are held between all law enforcement authorities, including the National Police and the Judicial Investigation Police. Even prosecutors attend, Bodaan said, but they don’t say anything because that would be a violation of their code of impartiality.

“We’re all reading from the same song sheet, and this is what the rest of the country is lacking,” Bodaan said.

Varilla said the Aguirre canton, where Manuel Antonio and Quepos are located, is the only place he’s worked with effective cooperation and monthly meetings between all law enforcement chiefs. He also said the National Police are engaged in an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, purging at least 10 police officers from the Quepos police station recently.

“We’re cleaning the inside and the outside of the house,” he said but acknowledged many corrupt police are just transferred to other police stations, not fired.

Bodaan said the cooperation is good, but the movement started when private individuals and businesses decided it was time to push hard and not wait for the central government to fix their problems.

“The private sector is taking matters into their own hands,” he said. “Every property has private armed security, and we’re not going to wait for (the central government in) San José to come to the rescue.

We decided to stand on our own two legs and support local law enforcement. We’ve told them that if you do your job, private enterprise will take care of you.”

Bodaan said the gifts and support have improved the morale of National Police officers, but they’re still hurting. “It’s hard for them to go out (of their police stations) because people pick fights with them and make fun of them,” he said.

Justice System in Disarray

In the Caribbean, the prosecutor’s office appears to be aware of the problem of impunity for criminals who prey on tourists.

In March 2007, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese signed into effect a pilot project, called “Procedures to Reduce Impunity in Tourist Zones” from Cahuita to Manzanillo. The idea was to cut several layers of red tape at once and to get local prosecutors and judges to take testimony from victimized tourists within short order before they left the area.

Unfortunately, the project appears to have never been implemented by Bribrí prosecutor Israel Cambronero and Judge Eliseo Durán. Dall’Anese declined The Tico Times an interview request.

But his spokeswoman, Marisel Rodríguez, claimed the project was in fact implemented and is still active but that “foreigners don’t want to participate.” But she also acknowledged there are no interpreters available in the region, a requirement to take a foreigner’s statement, and that the process is unwieldy because it can take six to 10 hours just to get the prosecutors and judges together.

Some members of the community blame Cambronero and others blame Durán for the rampant impunity. Ryan blames Durán but also said Cambronero can be impossible to get in touch with when a crime happens.

“The program was aimed at prosecuting in tourist areas, and it was supposed to be that every Saturday and Sunday a judge and prosecutor are available,” Ryan said. “But it hasn’t worked out that way.”

Cambronero declined to discuss the matter with The Tico Times.

Durán, who is under investigation by the Supreme Court’s Judicial Inspections Department for potentially questionable rulings (TT, Aug. 22), has been transferred to the criminal court in the city of Limón. He said the transfer had nothing to do with any disciplinary action against him. Court spokesman Fabian Barrantes said any disciplinary sanctions against judges are kept strictly confidential.

Former national legislator Edwin Patterson, who owns a bar-restaurant in Puerto Viejo, said Durán is partly to blame and that judges need to use more preventive prison. But he said the police and national politicians also share the blame.

“All the government has to do is use the National Police to stop the killing and search them at clubs, as is their legal right to do, and take away their guns, which are all illegal,” he said. “But then again, the police are a part of drug trafficking. We pay taxes for these police, and what do we get? The government should get rid of the National Police and let us create our own police, but oh, no, they don’t want that.”


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