San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What to do when your home is robbed

Kimberly Arias dreamed of becoming a chef. At 17, she was a high school graduate and considering studying at a culinary arts school in the United States.

Plans changed the day her home was robbed.

In 2007, Arias and her mother were having a quiet night at their home in Heredia, north of San José. Her mother was downstairs talking on the phone, and Arias was upstairs in her room. Around 9:30 p.m., Arias heard a thud at the front door. She thought the noise was the family dog, a Rottweiler purchased to deter intruders.

Five minutes later, the glass window on the front door shattered. Arias ran downstairs to her mother’s bedroom to alert her that someone was breaking into the house. Her mother locked the bedroom door and together they slipped into the closet. They locked the closet and dialed 911 from a cellphone. No one answered the calls.

Within minutes, five men in masks broke into the bedroom and kicked open the closet. The closet door struck Arias in the face. They ordered the women to the floor and demanded a key to the safe. When her mother said that she did not have a safe, three men put guns to Kimberly’s head and threatened to kill her.

“They were insisting that my mom give them the key to the safe, and she kept telling them that we didn’t have one,” Arias said. “They said, ‘We are going to kill your daughter if you don’t give us the key.’ My mom told them to take all that they wanted from the home and pleaded for them not to kill me.”

The men then used duct tape to bind Arias’ hands and feet. One man stayed in the room with the women while the others ransacked the house. Jewelry, wallets, a computer, a television and telephones were stolen. The men were in and out of the home in 20 minutes.

Police arrived at the house shortly after to investigate, and Arias and her mother reported the crime to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). No arrests were made and their belongings were never recovered.

Four Robberies Per Day

The OIJ’s robbery division is a constant blur of activity. Agents wearing ties and holsters dart between rows of desks with wads of paperwork in hand. Phones ring and walkie-talkies intermittently hiss with static-laced messages. Some agents sit at desks and attend to victims. Most victims wear blank stares as they recount the details of the crimes.

Home invasions are a common occurrence in Costa Rica. In one case last weekend, the home of a former Legislative Assembly president, Francisco Antonio Pacheco, was burglarized in Barrio Dent, east of San José. At 7:30 p.m., three hooded men made off with laptops, money, jewelry and other valuables. Pacheco was not at home at the time of the robbery.

According to OIJ’s robberies and assaults division, 1,103 break-ins and home invasions were reported in the Central Valley from January to September this year, an average of four per day. (OIJ classifies robberies as crimes when victims are not present, and assaults when they are.)

Mario García, head of the robberies and assaults division at OIJ, said that break-ins decreased by 30 percent in September compared to July. García said the decrease showed that prevention was improving.

“We are on pace to finish the year with a much smaller number of assaults and robberies than in previous years,” García told The Tico Times from his downtown office this week. “Our agents are much more present in the streets than previous years and fighting daily to protect the citizens of the country from such deplorable acts.”

Despite the reports of fewer break-ins, García and Joaquín Sánchez, head investigator of home robberies and assaults for the OIJ, acknowledge that the threat of home invasions is a widespread fear among residents. Given the growing concern, two OIJ officials hosted a chat on 96.3 FM Radio Centro last week titled “What to do in the event of a home burglary.” In an interview with The Tico Times, García and Sánchez summarized the information from the radio program.

Prevention, Deadbolts and ‘Guachimanes’

According to the officials, the best way to prevent a home invasion is by taking precautions to safeguard your home and neighborhood.

Sánchez encourages residents to install doorknobs with a cylinder guard that protects the keyhole from being removed with a crowbar or knife. He said a securely sealed doorknob cannot be picked as easily as an unprotected doorknob and often deters intruders from trying to break in. Deadbolt locks provide similar results.

Sánchez also encourages residents to fortify their interior doorframes, as well as install thicker, heavier and even metal doors.

“If one house has a deadbolt lock, a large, heavy door, and a guarded doorknob, while the house next door has none of those things, who do you think is going to be robbed first? The more preventive measures you take, the lesser your chances are of someone breaking into your home,” Sánchez said.

Sánchez said that alarm systems are a good idea, but they should be installed by a reputable company that makes direct 911 calls to the OIJ when alarms are triggered. Alarm systems that alert only the National Police could be ineffective if police are busy with other emergencies, he said.

García said that neighborhood watch programs have proven effective in different areas of the Central Valley. He said that some communities pay an additional monthly wage to private security guards, or “guachimanes,” to monitor neighborhoods. While García conceded that some guachimanes are considered ineffective, he said additional financial incentive or the hiring of a second guard on duty has reduced crime rates in some neighborhoods.

Sánchez’s final piece of prevention advice was to keep an eye out for unusual cars or characters in your neighborhood and to monitor personal habits. He cautioned against putting valuables outside of the home or near windows and doorways. He also said that common habits, such as turning the lights on or off at certain hours or walking the same route to and from the home, should be varied if possible.

“Usually groups of robbers drive around together looking for opportunities to break in a home or steal from someone,” Sánchez said. “When they notice a common behavior pattern or see valuable material goods in a home, certain people and places become targets.”

Are Guns a Good Idea?

According to Sánchez, three possible outcomes are possible when using a firearm during a robbery. The first option is the successful prevention of a robbery, meaning either the intruders flee at the sight of the gun, or shots fired halt the progress of the break-in. The second option is failure, meaning a homeowner draws a gun and is shot by the intruders. The third option is also failure, he said. In many cases, intruders seized firearms from homeowners, carried out the robbery and fled with new weapons.

“A gun may not be the best form of prevention because it could result in the death of yourself or a family member,” García said. “Usually assaults don’t result in deaths, and putting yourself or family in danger is a greater risk than allowing for material goods to be stolen. Materials goods can be replaced, lives cannot.” 

The Aftermath

In the event of a robbery, the OIJ advises victims to try to record observations and collect as many details of the robbers as possible. Physical characteristics such as height, weight, hair color and eye color are vital, though if identities are hidden by masks, things like shoes, hands and tattoos serve as valuable clues. Any opportunity to catch a license plate number or car description is also helpful information in the investigation.

After a home invasion has taken place, the OIJ advises victims not to touch anything and call 911 or 800-8000-OIJ (645). Homes are swept for fingerprints and possible hair and skin evidence, and a report must be filed at an OIJ office.

While García touted reductions in break-in numbers, arresting criminals who orchestrated a break-in is unlikely. According to the OIJ, only an estimated 15-20 percent of intruders are arrested after home burglaries.

As for material goods lost, García advises residents to keep an inventory of receipts and serial numbers of your most valuable products, such as computers, cameras and televisions. He said that possession of receipts or serial numbers of the products stolen help to expedite the recovery process.

Never Quite the Same

Arias is now a college student in San José. She dropped the dream of becoming a chef. The idea of studying in the U.S. and leaving her mother alone at home was no longer an option after the robbery.  Now Arias studies criminology. She hopes that maybe she can use her education to prevent similar horror stories from happening to someone else.

“I’d say the worst part of it was the post-traumatic stress,” she said. “I was unable to be in my home alone for a long time. Even at 9 a.m. I was scared to be alone. For almost a year afterwards I slept in the same room with my mom.”

When asked if she would do anything differently if she had to relive that day again, Arias says no. She wouldn’t use a gun, she wouldn’t fight, she wouldn’t try to resist.

“Everything I lost that day was a material item,” Arias said. “I didn’t lose my life and neither did my mother. All we lost were material goods and, in time, they were all eventually replaced.”

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