San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In Hard Times, Security Business Booms

Standing outside the KFC in La Sabana, Gerald Mora leaned against a pillar next to the entrance, his thumbs hooked inside the arm slots in his dark blue Kevlar vest with two reflective, neon yellow stripes across the front. On his hip rested a semi-automatic handgun, and a radio tucked into its chest pocket loudly cracked the relative silence, though the call wasn’t for him.

To the left of his head, pasted on the window of the KFC, was a sticker for ADT security.

Mora doesn’t work for the National Police Force. He gave up that trade a couple of years ago.

After six years working as an officer, Mora decided to join a security force three times the size of Costa Rica’s National Police: the private security sector.

His time with the National Police was “bad, very bad. There were a lot of very bad experiences,” he said, describing the service they provided as “incomplete.”

Officers are paid a base salary, no matter how much they work, he said. As a private security official with CSE Seguridad, Mora is paid hourly.

“For that reason, there are very few people who want to join the National Police,” he said.

Starting early in the decade, Costa Ricans developed an obsession with private security. Since 2004, the number of private security officials registered with the Security Ministry has risen from 3,000 to over 36,000, according to the most recent numbers available from the ministry.

With approximately 12,000 officers, the size of the National Police force is about onethird that of private security, said Guillermo Garro, deputy director of private security with the Security Ministry. And that smaller force is facing a massive crime wave that has seemingly caught them off guard.

The number of murders by use of firearms doubled over the last decade, according to final numbers from 2008 (TT, 2008 Year in Review), and registered assaults in the first four months of 2009 have already surpassed the number of assaults from all of 2008 by over 9 percent, according to numbers from the Security Ministry.

As crime rises, so does the feeling of insecurity, and many businesses and neighborhoods have responded by contracting private security. There are currently 1,341 private security businesses registered with the Security Ministry, and Garro said that number probably only represents 75 percent of the security companies in Costa Rica. The rest are “ghost private security firms that operate outside the law,” Garro said.

The National Police and the Public Security Ministry have started to crack down on unregistered security agencies, and security agents carrying firearms that aren’t registered.

In a three-day sting in mid-May, agents visited 53 businesses employing private security and found 70 illegal guns in 26 of them.

There were also four toy guns that were being used as look-alikes (TT, May 15).

From the “wachiman,” with a club and reflective vest, who watches over cars for a few coins, to the hired guards with radios who patrol whole sections of cities, responding to complicated alarm systems, private security has become a massive business.

Community watch programs also hire guards to patrol neighborhoods and take note of those who enter.

Opening two years ago, Motorcycles Freedom has a showroom filled with flashy new two-wheeled rides. To protect their inventory, they have installed a security system that has not let them down yet, said sales supervisor Gerardo Ramos.

Two security guards always monitor the grounds, while another passes by every 30 minutes on a route he takes to look over a number of residences – a job similar to that of Mora. They have a closed-circuit television monitor system in every point of entry and in every exhibition room. In addition, there are motion-activated sensors that are turned on when the store is closed.

“It’s very necessary, because the thieves are very aggressive and they’re very well equipped,” Ramos said. “Not just with guns, but their equipment.”

And although the closest police station is only two blocks away the police rarely pass by on the heavily trafficked section of Paseo Colón in la Sabana, Ramos said.

Garro agreed that security has become a necessity in most cases.

“If I’m going to enter the KFC … and there is a security guard standing there, I’m going to feel more secure than if there wasn’t a guard and at whatever moment, thre was a higher risk,” he said.

Standing outside the KFC, alongside Mora as he rested a moment before continuing on his rounds, was Fred Zúñiga, a private security guard working for Seguridad Coinse. After working in private security for 12 years, Zúñiga has seen the industry and the country change.

“Criminality has clearly risen. Everyday someone is killed,” Zúñiga said.

If he needs to act, Zúñiga calls the central office of his security company, who then calls the police, and tries to handle the problem until the police arrive.

There’s a bit of a rivalry between the National Police and the private security forces, Garro said. Sometimes (private security agents) will not want to hand over an apprehended criminal or will take the interrogation into their own hands, as happened to an unfortunate University of Costa Rica professor in a San José mall a couple of years ago.

“The private security arrived and took him to the basement, tore off part of his clothes and held him there for many hours,” Garro said. “Well, practically driving him crazy.”

Zúñiga said he is obliged to help the National Police when they need him. The police force is small, and “we do the same training course as the police,” he said.

“Well, not everything, but the basics.” All private security officers must perform a minimum of a 42-hour training course, if they are to legally work for a private security company, Garro said. The course consists of 10 hours of legal training, 10 hours in human relations and 22 hours in basic police training and handling of firearms.

“If (companies) want to train them more than that, they can, but that’s the base,” he said.

Personal robberies have also been up in recent years, and the sale of residential and small business security systems has risen with the statistics. Private security provider ADT Security works with 40,000 clients in Costa Rica (TT, July 25, 2008). ADT subcontracts the response to their systems to

CSE, the company for which Mora works.

CSE has 20 clients like ADT.

The amped-up security also means lower rates to purchase robbery insurance, said Eduardo Castro, who deals with property insurance for the National Insurance Institute (INS). The less dangerous the location and the more security measures, the cheaper and easier it is to insure property, Castro said.

“Yes, sales (of the property insurance) have risen, because, as you know, with the recent insecurity,” he said. There’s always a correlation between crime statistics and the purchase of insurance.

However, for most private security guards, life insurance is not provided. The insurance is pricey because of the danger involved, said Silvia Pardo, who deals with life insurance policies for the INS. And, since it’s not required that security companies provide life insurance, “the majority don’t have it,” Pardo said.


Rising Crime

Crime                                     All of                  Jan-April

2008                   2009

Assault                                                 409                               448

Theft                                                     414                               337

House Robberies                                14                                 17

Vehicle Robberies                               69                                 65


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