San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crime and punishment in the colonial era

What happened to bad people in the good old days?

They were shot by firing squad, hanged, burned at the stake so their souls would perish and they couldn’t rest in peace, sent to row ships, flogged in public, were paraded through the streets chained by the neck for public humiliation, sent to coastal areas like Moín or Puntarenas to die of malaria or yellow fever, were banished from the country or were sent to the “interior.”

Crimes included murder, theft and treason but also heresy, crimes against nature and even sexual incontinence, in Mexico. In the colonial era, all over New Spain, punishments were severe. The condemned had no rights, and punishments, including executions, were swiftly carried out. In some cases, the guilty person was apprehended and executed by hanging or firing squad the same day. The highest crimes were murder and treason, both of which merited death by firing squad or public hanging.

Murders there were. Even in a population of under 1 million, there were crimes of passion. In 1861, Manuel Angulo killed José Navarra over the affections of Chica Pancha and was executed within a month. The same year, Antonio Valverde and his lover, Simona León, were both sentenced to death for the murder of León’s husband. While Valverde was executed immediately, León’s sentence was delayed because of pregnancy; two years later, her public execution drew a crowd of 500. 

In 1868, several executions by firing squad took place, conveniently, in the cemetery of San José. Women in billowing skirts were executed. Seven women are listed among the executed, including the luckless León. Uprisings and revolutions accounted for many executions, and 20 filibusteros of William Walker’s mercenary army met the firing squad, including North Americans and Europeans.

A brief civil war broke out between San José and Alajuela-Heredia in 1835. Among the losers, 10 were sentenced to death and 10 were expelled from the country for 10 years while others were expelled for less time, with “all possessions confiscated by the government.” Even the country’s leaders were not spared harsh punishments; President Juan Rafael Mora and Gen. José María Cañas were both sentenced to death by firing squad for “sedition.” They were later reinstated among the honored with schools and roads named after them, as was Pablo Presbere, the indigenous leader who revolted against colonial Spain and was tortured and executed in 1710.

In the 1840s, at least three lepers were executed by firing squad for escaping from the leprosy hospital. They claimed they wanted to take a cure bathing in the ocean. At the time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and a public risk, and flight was a punishable crime.

The death penalty was abolished in 1877 by strongman President Tomás Guardia, but the idea had hatched long before; President José María Castro Madriz commuted all death sentences during his two terms (1847-49, 1866-68).

A more common punishment in the colonial and postcolonial era was banishment. In larger countries like Colombia (Nueva Granada), this was quite uncomfortable because the interior of the country was largely uninhabited. In Costa Rica, prisoners were sent to presidiums in Puntarenas or Limón and left to their fate, which included malaria and yellow fever. 

Political prisoners were forced to leave the country for a number of years or permanently, or they were sent to the interior, supposedly to suffer. This wasn’t always bad because the exiles were usually well educated and believers in progress. 

In Costa Rica, San Ramón became a place for exiles. It was almost a wilderness with a small but hearty population of farmers and miners. From the 1840s on came men like Julio Volio, Máximo Acosta, Rafael Iglesias and others banished from the arenas of power. The City of Poets began as the City of Subversives but gave impetus to education and culture. San Ramón had a college and a library before it became a city and is still considered a center for cultural activity and political action.n

Sources for this article include historian Paul Brenes and Carmen Lila Gómez’s book, “La Pena de Muerte en Costa Rica Durante El Siglo XI.”

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