San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Residents on edge after Coco crime wave

PLAYAS DEL COCO – Two weeks ago a hit-and-run accident occurred just past Playas del Coco’s anchor, near the Mega-Super at the edge of town. According to a witness, a motorist hit a man on a bicycle and drove off. While a police station is a mere half-mile down the road, by the time law enforcement arrived the perpetrator was gone, and any clues that may have led to an arrest were cold.

This type of poor response time comes as no surprise to locals, and cannot be blamed on poor road conditions or laziness. It’s a result of the critically insufficient resources Sardinal District authorities are forced to work with, those officials say.

Visitors to this area in the northwestern Guanacaste province can see how extensive the combined area of Playas del Coco, Ocotal, Hermosa, Panama and the Riu Hotel really is. According to, the district, which shares a patrol car with the city of Sardinal, has an area of 240 square kilometers and a population of 10,050. The number of police officers on duty at any given time is three – one on duty at the station and two to patrol the field in a single vehicle.

The Playas del Coco police station is dilapidated; the kitchen is unsanitary and falling apart, and inside the refrigerator there is little more than wilted celery and a sack of potatoes. There is nothing on the desk but a landline phone. There is no computer, just a filing cabinet.

Policemen are equipped with radios that don’t work, and as a result use their own personal cellphones as the only method of communication in the field, a cost the government does not pay for. In Ocotal, cellphones don’t work at all because there is no signal.

Of the two outdoor holding cells, one is used as a bodega. The other is dirty, with a big yellow heart covered in graffiti painted on a blue background. “So that the detainees don’t get sad,” an officer joked recently.

One police officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Public Security Ministry, said that police presence in the area is strictly preventive. That strategy relies on deterring crime by maintaining a visible police presence. But it does not allow for effective response once a crime has been committed. Only the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) is able to take fingerprints and investigate, but the closest office is an hour away in Guanacaste’s capital, Liberia.

Most robberies here in the past were limited to petty theft, often occurring because victims failed to safeguard belongings. Today, robberies are more frequent and often committed by armed assailants. Just before and during Easter Holy Week, by far Costa Rica’s busiest tourism week, the Playas del Coco post office was burglarized. Multiple houses not rented out in Playa Panama were completely stripped of anything of value. Criminals posing as police raided one man’s house, startling him until he opened the door. Several residents were tied up at a small house party and robbed at gunpoint.

One crime that particularly stands out involved thieves who targeted the Lion’s Club’s annual Food Festival Fundraiser on April 17. Each year local business owners and individuals buy, prepare and donate food to sell at the event. Proceeds go toward this charitable organization, which is well respected for its good work in the community.

“This year, someone thought it was easy money to take,” said Lion’s Club President Berta Romero. According to Romero, the people in charge of safeguarding the money until the banks opened Monday (who wish to remain anonymous out of fear of being harassed) were followed home. “[Thieves] came in with guns, ski masks and gloves, and even bulletproof vests. They threatened them and hit them both, particularly the husband. Everything that was collected from the Lion’s Club [about $1,400] was stolen, along with personal possessions, money and computers,” Romero said.

Once a crime has occurred, investigations by the National Police, who are under the jurisdiction of the Public Security Ministry, are often limited to interviewing victims and witnesses. Playas del Coco Chief of Police Luis Soto said that one of his district’s problems is its lack of public cohesion. “People don’t come forward with information because they don’t want to meddle … they don’t want to become the next victim. We need a little bravery and cooperation from the community,” he said.

In Playas del Coco, even if a crime is committed outside the police station, the officer on duty is forbidden from leaving his post at the risk of losing his job. “It’s very easy to lure police away,” said a second police officer, who also asked that his name be withheld.

One tactic thieves use is to report a fake robbery in Playa Panama, leaving Playas del Coco unguarded for 20 minutes or more. Then, even if a real robbery happens right outside the station, the guard on duty cannot leave unless another officer replaces him. “Sometimes if it’s very close to the station it’s OK to leave, but it’s never a good idea because when there is just one officer you don’t have any backup,” the officer said.

One of the biggest obstacles in allocating sufficient resources to this district is that crimes are so difficult to document. Longtime Playas del Coco resident Sandy Hernández said, “Until recently, as far as the chain of command was concerned, there was nothing happening in Coco. People don’t report crimes because they have to go all the way to Liberia, about an hour away. The only thing you can do here is get in the little handwritten police log. If you want to make a police report, it has to be with the OIJ.”

Two OIJ agents and a secretary from Liberia spent one morning two weeks ago taking reports from Playas del Coco residents that had been recently victimized by crime. Some residents wonder if the beach communities could use their own OIJ office.

Still, some changes have been visible lately. More police from nearby posts have been driving through town in larger vehicles carrying seven officers. Patrols are also more frequent, and officers recently canvassed the area to interview business owners.

Whether or not the recent crimes here are a wave or a trend, Playas del Coco continues to grow as a hub of tourism in the area. And residents say that reducing crime in Guanacaste requires more government funding and better public cooperation. Cops need more personnel, better logistical support and training, they say.

Public security officials acknowledge the problem and say they are confronting it head on. On May 17, top public security officials met privately in Liberia to discuss crime rates in Guanacaste and evaluate policing tactics. According to Public Security Ministry data released this week, home invasions decreased by more than 27 percent in the first quarter of 2011 compared to the same period last year. Auto theft was down 20 percent. The drop, say officials, is a result of ongoing police operations in the province, including two campaigns called “A Safe Guanacaste” and “Safe Beaches.” This week alone, the sweeps netted 10 arrests and the investigation of 366 others at Playas del Coco, according to regional police commissioner Rafael Araya.

“Only through effective patrolling we may provide peace of mind to the citizens,” Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said following Tuesday’s meeting. 

Public security officials plan to hold similar police forums across the country, and their next stop is Puntarenas, Public Ministry spokeswoman Tatiana Vargas said.

Some Playas del Coco residents, however, remain on edge. They say they hope new Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, who on April 25 replaced outgoing minister José María Tijerino (TT, April 29), makes crime fighting a priority.

“[Zamora] says he’s going to double our personnel,” said a police officer. “Que Dios lo escuche” (May God hear him).

Rommel Téllez contributed to this report.

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