San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arenal Report

One of the most common reasons people say they like Costa Rica so much is the friendliness of the people, especially their willingness to assist complete strangers, often going out of their way to provide help. Visitors and residents remember these kindnesses, which leave a positive and lasting impression of Costa Rica as a great place to vacation and to enjoy retirement.

Two female residents of Nuevo Arenal recently traveled two hours to the town of Coco Beach to do a bit of shopping. Returning to their car from one of the shops, they discovered that their keys would not open any of the car doors no matter what they tried. Notified of the situation by phone, the husband of one of the women called the police station in Nuevo Arenal to get the phone number of the police station in Coco Beach. Not being fluent in Spanish, he then had a Tico friend call the Coco Beach police to request help for the stranded ladies, figuring that the police might be able to use a special tool to open a car door or, at least provide the name of a local locksmith who could solve the problem. The response from the Coco Beach police officer who answered the phone was stunningly direct. He said, “We have better things to do than help people unlock their cars.” End of conversation.

While they tried to figure out what to do, a gentleman leaving the store stopped to ask if there was a problem and offered to help them. He identified himself as John Worton, owner of the Coco Palms resort and restaurant in Coco Beach. Apprised of the situation, Mr. Worton called a locksmith whom he knew and asked him to come to the rescue. A few minutes later a young man, Marvin Castillo, arrived on a bicycle with his locksmith tools, opened the car door locks, and the ladies soon were on their way home. The willingness of John Worton to offer to help two complete strangers was greatly appreciated. He represents the attitude that makes pura vida very real in Costa Rica.

An interesting and disturbing sidenote: The shopkeeper to whom the two women explained their plan to contact the Coco Beach police department for help predicted the response, stating, “They will not help you.” When asked why not, the shopkeeper said, “ I don’t really know, they just won’t.”

It’s difficult to imagine that crime is so rampant in Coco Beach that the police, “…have better things to do …” than to assist people who request their help. Whether he knows it or not, according to the Penal Code of Costa Rica Investigationes Juridicas 2002, the police officer who handled the phone call requesting help committed a punishable crime himself. By law, public civil servants, including all levels of the police, commit a crime specifically titled, “Denial of Assistance” which, by definition occurs when, “…the Police Authority denies, fails to provide, or slows down the process of assistance solicited by a citizen.”

Note that the word “assistance” is not specifically defined. The key issue in this law is that the assistance is requested (“solicited”) by a citizen. The law does define the word “citizen” to include citizens of Costa Rica and foreigners passing through or residing permanently. In this particular case, the Coco Beach police officer on the phone was guilty of all three crimes spelled out in the Denial of Assistance Law.

The shopkeeper’s comments suggest that this may be an ongoing problem with the Coco Beach police department. However, that is speculation. It may require an investigation by the appropriate authority of the Public Ministry to determine the actual prevalence. The Nuevo Arenal police officer who received the request for the phone number of the Coco Beach police department called later to ask if everything had worked out O.K.

-William & Jean Priest

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