San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Insecurity rampant in rural communities throughout Costa Rica

DRAKE BAY – Leaders of two small communities in southwestern Osa Peninsula share the same growing concern: they both feel that the local police presence is vastly inadequate.

Given the chance to sit and discuss community issues with U.S. Ambassador Anne S. Andrew last week, many residents of the small towns that dot the peninsula echoed the same concerns over public security. Community members, police officers, park rangers and fishermen all said they feel unequipped to deal with the region’s growing security problems.        

“It is known that Drake Bay is a ‘no man’s land,’” said Nichole Dupont, manager at La Paloma Lodge and who has lived in Drake Bay for 19 years. “There are two police officers for 1,100 people and the phone at the police station doesn’t work. Whenever something happens here, the police are usually the last to find out. They arrive long after the event has taken place.”

A small community situated on a crescent bay on the Pacific, Drake Bay lies on the northern ridge of the Osa peninsula in the Southern Zone. With such a small population in an isolated spot, Drake has always been on the tail end of government assistance. The only road in town, which dead-ends into a dark sand beach and a row of palm trees, was built six years ago. Electricity arrived 10 years ago.

Given the history of government neglect, residents of the town say they need the assistance of the current administration of President Laura Chinchilla and Public Security Minister José Maria Tijerino now more then ever. In addition to the lack of police in the community, residents also say that increased drug trafficking is taking its toll on the community. The region lies in the middle of a major drug trafficking route from South America to North America.

Anne S. Andrew 2

Osa Outreach: Anne S. Andrew, U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, shares a laugh with a student from Drake Bay Elementary School, in the Southern Zone’s Osa Peninsula. Andrew visited the region last week to meet with community leaders, environmental groups and area schools about concerns and plans for the region. Courtesy of U.S. Embassy.

Given an opportunity to share concerns over security with the U.S. government’s top official in Costa Rica, Fernando Guerrero, president of the association of tour operators in Marino Ballena National Park, Ramón Loaiza, a fisherman with the Association of Artisan and Small-Scale Fisherman (Fenopea), and local fishermen Jovino Vargas and Eliver Duran, all expressed worries about increased drug trafficking within the first minute of their responses.  

When asked to give examples of the drug trade that have been observed in Drake Bay and surrounding communities, Duran was the first to speak up.

“Narco-trafficking has gotten people killed in this area,” he said as he leaned over a table, crinkling his brow. “You always sort of have an idea who is involved but you don’t really say anything about it, and there’s nothing that can be done. There is no vigilance here by the government. People in tourism have tried to help with some of the issues, and so have non-for-profit organizations and volunteers. But the government, they don’t seem interested in helping us out at all.”

Duran also said that fishermen in the area often come across packages of drugs floating in the ocean and nearby channels. Sometimes the drug traffickers’ abandoned cargo washes ashore.

Duran worries that it won’t be long before those drugs start showing up at local schools and other areas where young people hang out.

“There is only one street in Drake,” Duran said. “If drugs become more present and spread, particularly among the kids, it could become a much more serious problem.”

The biggest town in the Osa Peninsula is Puerto Jiménez. Its main street, which divides downtown, is lined with small restaurants, barbershops,  quaint hotels, “pulperías” and a cramped nook with  slot  machines that acts as the town casino. A lone gas station sits on the corner where the main road intersects with the long, rocky road that runs along the southern tip of the peninsula.

Puerto Jiménez is the Osa’s primary port of access to the Pacific and Golfo Dulce, a highly regarded national fishing spot. In addition to sportfishing tourists, the town also often serves as a home base for tourists visiting the lush beauty of Corcovado National Park.

Ambassador Andrew also met with Puerto Jiménez residents last week. Many were concerned about better education, wildlife conservation and efforts to curb deforestation. Like Drake Bay’s residents, they were also worried about security.

“We have 47 officers that are expected to cover 760 kilometers from Rincón [in the northeast corner of the peninsula] to Carate [on the west side of the peninsula],” said Luis Carlos Alvarado, Puerto Jimenez district police chief. “We only have two cars, one jeep and one truck and are expected to cover the entire area. The truck is in bad shape and can’t make the trip to areas with difficult terrain. If we are called to attend to a situation far from Puerto Jiménez, we don’t have any possible way to get there on time.”

Alvarado said that robberies and theft in the area were on the rise, though, like the police in Drake and other rural areas of the country, they feel powerless. When asked if he has asked the Security Ministry for more resources, Alvarado laughed.

“Of course we have,” he said. “Several times. We are always told we will receive more assistance, more vehicles, and more personnel. The help never arrives.”

Resources Going Elsewhere

On March 30, President Chinchilla and Security Minister Tijerino traveled to the border town of Los Chiles in northern Costa Rica to inaugurate the nation’s first border police unit. The unit included 153 police that were distributed in groups of 40 to four locations at the national borders with Nicaragua and Panama.

According to the Security Ministry, the police trained for six weeks to prepare to their deployment along the national borders. The government invested more than $1 million in training and equipment, which included a boat for 20 people, radios, 18 4×4 vehicles, fixed line telephones and cellphones, fax machines, computers and uniforms. The border police’s assignment is to thwart drugs and arms trafficking along international borders.

“We are doing this to provide a greater dose of national dignity for the country,” Chinchilla said at the border police inauguration in March. “To do so, we have created a specialized, professional and civil police force that will serve as an example of the dignity that we are capable of providing in protecting our territory and defending the nation.”

“It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to send 40 officers to a small border town when there are only two in the entire town of Drake,” said Vargas, the Drake Bay fisherman. “It seems like it was more of strategy to create news with the whole Nicaragua situation than to actually serve a purpose. There are so many other communities in the country that could use more police.” 

Same Story, Different Pueblo

Far away from Drake Bay and Puerto Jiménez is Barra del Colorado, a Caribbean coastal town tucked in Costa Rica’s northeastern-most corner in the province of Limón. The two regions are as far apart as any two places in the country. Yet the problems are strikingly similar. Barra del Colorado has three police officers, two park rangers and a handful of Coast Guard personnel whose job is to serve and protect 3,000 people spread across 92,000 hectares.

Barra del Colorado residents also say they frequently find packages of drugs floating at sea or washed ashore. Referred to locally as “blocks of cheese,” or “white fish,” drugs filter into the community and with limited resources, police are powerless to stop it from happening.

Residents say they too have asked for additional police, but they never arrive.

Last September, Rodolfo Coto, a 20-year veteran of the Costa Rican Coast, summarized the increasing problems caused by the dearth of national security resources: “It’s the same everywhere. What you see here is what you see in Limón, in Quepos, in Guanacaste, in Puntarenas, everywhere. Twenty years ago, it was only illegal fisherman. Now drugs are the main concern. We do all that we can, but really, what can we do? We have a limited number of staff, and drugs are coming in from all directions.”

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